Codex Calixtinus

Pilgrims on horses in front of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Codex Calixtinus (Liber Sancti Jacobi) is a marvellous and precious illuminated medieval manuscript dedicated to spreading the cult of Saint James the Apostle. We don’t know the exact date of its coming into existence, although it must have been before 1173 when a copy, today in Barcelona’s collection, was made. The 12th-century manuscript consists of five books. The first, a liturgical one contains church services, prayers, sermons and songs dedicated to Saint James. It is a unique source of knowledge about medieval polyphony music for the modern musicologist. The second book describes twenty-two miracles attributed to the Apostle’s intercession. The third book is dedicated to the history of moving his body from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela. The next one known as “Chronicles of Turpin” (known also as “Pseudo-Turpin”) can be called a medieval bestseller as there are almost 200 remaining copies of the manuscript, that prove its popularity. The book describes the story of Charlemagne and Roland and through their fights and battles takes the reader to the towns and places along the Camino Frances. The book, although the work of an unknown writer, is attributed to Turpin, a bishop of Reims, to give it a certain authority, just as the whole Codex is attributed to Pope Callixtus II, who surely approved or even encouraged the writing of the Liber Sancti Jacobi but obviously is not an author of the manuscript. Because “Chronicles of Turpin” were removed from the Codex manuscript in the 17th century and incorporated back only centuries later, the last book is sometimes referred to as ‘the fourth book’ while in fact it is the fifth book of the Codex and turns out to be a very interesting and extremely subjective guidebook for a pilgrim going to Santiago de Compostela.

A 12th-century guidebook for the pilgrim to Saint James of Compostela

The fifth book of Codex Calixtinus is the first known European guidebook. It describes in detail the route, places of interest, individual regions that the pilgrim travels through as well as the people who live there. The author even placed a glossary to help eager pilgrims communicate with the locals. The authorship of the book is unknown but there are at least three Aymerics, named as possible authors, although the main suspect is Aymeric Picaud, a priest from Parthenay, Poitou.

It is a good guidebook meaning that the author even went to the places he describes. His detailed account of the journey is very personal and powerful. He covers all aspects of the pilgrimage to Santiago – spiritual and practical. He writes with passion, which almost 900 years later still makes a huge impression on the reader. His affection for good art, the lives of saints and the idea of the Camino are extraordinary. While writing about his favourite saints he doesn’t hesitate to cast aspersions on the monasteries that claim to possess relics which, in his opinion, they don’t. His notes about art are full of deep admiration.

Accursed be their boatman! (…) Their boat is small, made from a single tree-trunk, ill suited to carry horses; and so when you get into the boat you must take care not to fall into the water.

The description of the route is rather detailed, he covers all practical aspects of pilgrimage, good places to stay overnight, good and poisonous rivers – crucial information for those traveling on horseback- he writes about individual regions and their inhabitants; he even notes handy words for communication with locals. His account of the trip is far from being politically correct, however, because nothing you see is ever as good as in Poitou. In fact, the rest of the world looks bleak compared to Poitou; the nightmare starts essentially when you cross the Pyrenees. According to Aymeric, the Spanish are barbarians and villains, a thesis that he proves by examples. His outlook on the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula was probably partially formed by some negative experiences along the way, but mostly results from the deep and indisputable belief that nothing is as good as back home. So even when impressed for instance by the Galicians, after all the praise he quickly lists their shortcomings.

Unlike Aymeric, I love the world on that side of the Pyrenees, but I found his passionate report so amazing that I decided to incorporate his text into this guidebook to signify how the places you travel through looked in the eyes of a traveler 900 years ago. Personally, I find it intriguing hat the general idea of pilgrimage hasn’t changed since the 12th century. Pilgrimage is a result of great physical, mental and spiritual effort so much so that the pilgrim, regardless of his social status, gains a privileged position and should be taken care of. Aymeric places emphasis on responsibility to help, especially those who are poor and the sick. On the way, he experienced good and bad, was delighted by the art and beauty of the world and deeply saddened and angry when his horse was treacherously killed. What I find most interesting is that our own experience of the Way 900 years later may be quite close to his.