Saturday, 22 November 2014

"Omphalos" - A Preview of the Fifth Story - "The Path of Stars"

The fifth story in my forthcoming novel, "The Path of Stars" is set in the 12th Century, and follows a knight, Raoul de Paisnel, and his steward, Guillaume Bisson (both characters are fictional), on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrimage in the high middle ages was very different from the tours offered by Venetian galley-owners four centuries later: most people travelled on foot, and faced serious dangers (robbers, bandits, injury, disease) along the way, but they also believed that the experience could save them from eternity in Hell.

Like many of his fellow pilgrims, Raoul has a dark secret in his past, a sin that needs to be expiated, of which Guillaume has no knowledge, since Raoul has shared it only with his confessor, Master Wascius. The confessor is a historical character (the Anglo-Norman poet, Wace, who was also a canon of the Abbey of Saint-Etienne at Caen). In this story, he guides pilgrims along the pilgrimage route from Mont-Saint-Michel to Compostela.

The primary source for anyone writing about the pilgrimage to Compostela is the Codex Calixtinus, a compilation which claims to have been put together by Pope Calixtus II, but which most scholars believe was actually the creation of a French cleric, Aimeric Picaud. It includes a book of liturgies and sermons; records of various supposed miracles; an account of the miraculous translation of St James's body from the Holy Land to Galicia; and music associated with the pilgrimage. Elements of all of these feature in the story.

A page from the Codex Calixtinus. This is the version held by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (image is in the Public Domain).

The Codex Calixtinus also includes a "Travellers' Guide," which does read very much like a modern tourist guide, but can hardly have functioned as such: only four copies now exist and, whilst there were undoubtedly more copies in the 12th Century, such manuscripts were expensive, and would not have been carried around on the road. I think, therefore, that clerics must have acted as I have Master Wascius acting: he will have studied a copy held by his abbey, or by that of Mont-Saint-Michel, committing much of it to memory, and perhaps also taking notes, and then guiding people on the road itself.

The monastery of Roncesvalles, an important stopping-off point on the pilgrimage route. Photo: Liesel (licensed under GNU).

"Jacobi propicio,
Veniam speremus,
Et quos ex obsequio
Meriti debemus.
E ultreja! E sus eja!

He, Raoul de Paisnel, does not even know what the last exclamations mean, or whether they are in the language of the Galicians or of the Basque people. He chants them anyway, along with many others, as the throng marches into the town of Compostela, cheered by the local people who have come out from their shops and houses to greet the pilgrims. His confessor, Master Wascius of Caen, marches on his right-hand side, bearing Raoul's staff as well as his own, so that Raoul can balance on his shoulder the heavy block of limestone he has carried from the quarry. His worn fingers stretch around it like the ridges of a scallop-shell. To his left marches his steward, Guillaume Bisson, his constant companion on the road from Mont-Saint-Michel."

Charlemagne and his knights on the road to Compostella, from the Codex Calixtinus (image is in the Public Domain). Stories about Charlemagne and his knights, Olivier and Roland, were told along the pilgrimage route, especially at Roncesvalles, the site of an important battle.

In contrast to the first four stories, I have not attempted to capture the linguistic register of the period. The characters would be communicating in a mixture of Norman French and Latin, which would be impossible to render into meaningful English. I have opted, instead, for a close third-person, present tense narration in modern English.

A further visual preview is available on Pinterest

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.



  1. This was an interesting post, Mark. My husband and I go to Galicia frequently, and one of my goals on my bucket list is to walk at least a part of the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. I'm always wanting to know more about the pilgrimage and Compostela itself. I've bookmarked this post. When does your book come out?

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth! My book comes out on December 5th. There is also Lucy Pick's novel, "Pilgrimage," which is already out. It's set a few decades earlier than my story, and one of my characters is actually descended from one of hers!