Faculty Focus

Studies in the Art of Pilgrimage: A Trip Along the Camino de
Santiago de Compostela in Spain

       A conversation with Dr. David Hall, NEH Associate Professor of Religion & Philosophy
       and Dr. Lee Jefferson, Assistant Professor of Religion

 March 8, 2012
       View slideshow of their CentreTerm course in Spain.

Lee Jefferson & David Hall  Lee Jefferson and David Hall outside a restaurant in Sarria
Q: What inspired you to teach a course on pilgrimage as a team?

Lee Jefferson: David and I both shared an interest in the pilgrimage route to Santiago, although we did not know the other harbored such an interest until two years ago. I had just reviewed for the journal Church History a book called Being a Pilgrim that surveyed all the church art and architecture on the Camino. I brought it to David and mentioned how wonderful it would be to create a CentreTerm course that took place on the Camino. Lo and behold, David had been working on such an idea for several years. So it all came together at that moment and we started planning. Other liberal arts colleges (and larger schools) have programs that walk the Camino and absorb the culture surrounding pilgrimage, but most take place in May or during the summer. Traveling in January offered a unique, and less crowded, time to walk the Camino, fostering greater personal reflection in performing the pilgrimage. Secondly, David and I were both inspired to teach such a course because students would be active in accomplishing a rare feat. By walking around 90 miles in the footsteps of other pilgrims who traveled over 1,000 years ago, students would gain a deeper sense of worth on such a trip. So it was not a sightseeing trip, but one that demanded active engagement.

David Hall: I’ve wanted to do this course for five or six years. I always conceived it as a team-taught course and had begun planning with several members of the Spanish faculty. Unfortunately, my co-conspirators either left for other places or experienced life changes that prohibited a trip abroad before we could get the planning off the ground. One afternoon Lee came to my office and indicated that he was interested in planning a course to walk a portion of the Camino. I showed him the work I’d already done, and we were off to the races. With the course now done, I’m particularly grateful to have taught it with Lee, whose art history background really made the course what it was.

Q: Please describe the scope of this art history component.

LJ: I was most interested in exposing the students to reliquary churches and cathedrals that were on the road—exemplary churches that epitomize Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture. And I wanted to have the opportunity for students to appreciate the fierce devotion the creation of these churches epitomized.

Q: Why was the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain the natural choice?

LJ: The Camino has become much more popular for tourists in the past decade, and it was even the topic of the 2010 Martin Sheen film The Way. I think it has become popular for the same reasons we wanted to go on the trip: the experience offers the traveler a sense of accomplishment, a period of spiritual connection and reflection, and it allows the traveler to absorb the culture of Northern Spain. This last piece is not unimportant, because Northern Spain is incredibly interesting and unique. We began in Basque country, at Bilbao, and traveled the rest of the way through Galicia. Both regions are fiercely independent and have their own dialect. Students were able to sample different aspects of Spanish cuisine and take in the countryside as we walked through villages on our way to Santiago.

DH: The Camino de Santiago is one of three principle pilgrimage routes in Christendom, the other two being Jerusalem and Rome. The road to Santiago is particularly interesting because of its unique and complicated history. Reasons for its establishment extend beyond the religious to include geopolitical and religiopolitical motives. The legends of the miracles of St. James that arose to justify the establishment of the pilgrimage are astounding and have become integral to our teaching of the course. Spain, especially Northern Spain, would not be what it is were it not for the pilgrimage. It offers a rich historical tapestry and an ideal background for introducing students to the role of pilgrimage in religions, the religious history of Christianity, the history of art (Spain has some of the most important museums and cathedrals in Europe), and the diversity of culture and topography. The food is delicious, too!

Q: Where did you stay along the journey, and how many miles did you walk on an average day?

DH: We stayed mostly in small country inns while we were on the road. Our trip started in Bilbao, where we stayed two nights. Next, we bussed to Leon and stayed one night, and then we bussed to O Cebreiro. It was there that we started the pilgrimage. We walked between 11 and 18 miles per day, though most days were in the 13- to 14-mile range. Our walking itinerary took us through Triacastela, Sarria, Portomarin, Palas de Rei, Arzua, and O Pino. We spent two nights in Santiago de Compostela, then took the train to Madrid and spent two nights before heading back to the States.

Q: Did you have many Spanish speakers on the trip? Was there a language requirement? For those who did speak Spanish, could they make sense of the different dialects?

DH: We had very few Spanish speakers on the trip; it was not a requirement, as neither Lee nor I are accomplished Spanish speakers. Those who did speak Spanish seemed able to communicate across dialects, except in the Basque region, since Basque is entirely unrelated to Spanish. The rest of us muddled through with smiles and gestures.

LJ: We had one fairly fluent Spanish speaker who was completely flummoxed when communicating with the locals. The reason was, as David mentioned, Basque is linguistically unique, and Galician is fairly unique as well. The locals would just stare at him, and we were back to smiles and gestures. But this was important, too, since it exhibited the diversity of Spain to the students.

Q: Were there particular churches and reliquary elements that were especially memorable for the students?

LJ: Indeed. Santiago Cathedral houses the relics of St. James. They are below the altar and each pilgrim traditionally visits them upon completion of the Camino. There were also notable relics along the way. One in particular was a Benedictine monastery at Samos. We were fortunate to visit the entire complex on a feast day. The monastery has several relics of note, but most prominent is the femur (leg bone) of St. Benedict himself. This is about 1,400 years old, and the monks were so proud of it, they even said it has been “DNA-verified.” It was pretty impressive, and for the students to see a big leg bone behind glass exhibited the importance of relics on the Camino.

Q: Could you talk a bit more, Lee, about the “fierce devotion” you hoped students would appreciate?

LJ: Similar to witnessing the relics along the way, students realized the impact walking the Camino continues to have by seeing fellow pilgrims from different countries. In Santiago, some of the group met a couple from Japan who had just completed the pilgrimage. The continued relevance of the pilgrimage, combined with the deep ingrained history of the practice and the material culture it generated, all allowed students to witness the devotional nature of this practice.

Q: Could you elaborate, David, on the complicated geopolitical and religiopolitical motives in the establishment of the Camino de Santiago?

DH: The Camino de Santiago was established in the ninth century when much of Spain was under the control of Islamic conquerors. The section of Spain that remained free of Moorish conquest was the northern part, Galicia in particular, where we did all of our walking. While most of the pilgrims performed the pilgrimage for purely religious reasons, the influx of Christians into the region brought orders of Christian knights, like the Order of St. James and the Knights Templars, into Northern Spain for purposes of protection. Coincidently, this helped keep Northern Spain out of Moorish hands; so the arrangement was good for the Church on two counts, religious and political. There are also all sorts of humorous stories about animosity between Franks and Basques in Southern France and Northern Spain, but this would take us far afield of the Camino.

Q: Can you describe one such story?

DH: The Song of Roland, a heroic poem based on a 778 battle during the reign of Charlemagne, is typical. The story is ostensibly a recounting of a battle between the Franks and Moors in the Pyrenees where Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, is slain. But the Basques claim they were the ones who killed Roland out of revenge for various improprieties perpetrated by the Franks on the local Basque women. The documentary evidence for either account is dicey.

Q: Once back home for the journey, what did you hear from students about their most memorable experiences, educational or otherwise?

DH: We did hear more than a few times that 90 miles is a really long distance! But I think they got a real sense of the cohesiveness and camaraderie that develops between pilgrims on the road, too. I also hope they realized that Jefferson and Hall aren’t quite as mean as everyone says; tough graders, yes, but not completely unpleasant to be around.

Interviewed by Michael P. Strysick, Director of Communications

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail michael.strysick@centre.edu with your feedback.

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