Connaître saint Jacques - Comprendre Compostelle
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How the «chemin de Saint-Jacques» in Haute-Loire came into being

Jean Chaize, June 2003

Jean Chaize, one of the path-workers involved in the beginnings of the «Saint-Jacques», has allowed us to publish the article below which goes back to a communication he made to the Société Académique in Le Puy. This foundation article relates how the GR 65 was born.


In view of the importance which the Chemin de Saint-Jacques has acquired in Haute-Loire and the effect this has had, it seems a good time to recount today, in a few words, the history of the redevelopment of the ancient pilgrim route, known as and identified by the initials G.R. 65. Recent history, you will tell me, compared with the subjects usually dealt with at the Société Académique, but it may in future inspire a certain interest in our compatriots.
In 1970, the département's delegate at the Sentiers de Grande Randonnée was approached about the idea of creating a new route reviving the old track formerly followed by pilgrims who assembled at Le Puy, on their way to Santiago de Compostela, the codename for which would be the G.R. 65. Having little sympathy with the historical and semi-religious connotations of this, he declined pursuing this suggestion himself. Happily, the secretary of the département's delegation in the Sentiers de Grande Randonnée, inspired by the idea of reviving this historic route, took on the idea and was put in charge of its realisation. Rapidly, a small nucleus of similar enthusiasts was formed. Composed partly of walkers, a wide range of different people, civil and religious, joined in, seduced by the exceptional theme proposed, and ready to undertake the necessary research and practical steps needed to realise the project.

The evidence of history

The first thing to do was to assemble an inventory of the traces left behind by those distant pilgrims. A rapid scanning of the known documents revealed large gaps and much that was not very precise. In addition, it proved hard to disentangle the many possible routes from those associated with the pilgrimage to Le Puy's own shrine of Our Lady. If the literature relating to the great adventure of pilgrims to St James revealed the immense need felt by thousands of human beings to undertake this voyage, it did not furnish the expected evidence. Thus, the Pilgrim's Guide, a key document because of its age, was found to be largely silent on the route followed by the via Podiensis. On the other hand, in his work 'Les pèlerins du Moyen-Age' [Medieval Pilgrims], Raymond Oursel noted several sections of route judged to have been frequented by a number of people en route to Galicia. Carefully noted, these echos, combined with those places whose name incorporated the name or memory of St James, enabled the meetings held at the home of the secretary of Sentiers de G.R. to create an outline of the future and current itinerary.
Specifically, the first thing noted with certainty was the ancestral route running from Le Puy to the village of La Roche. Then, the dedication of the church at Bains to St Faith of Conques seemed to confirm a close link with the pilgrimage, a link which seems corroborated a little further on by the small and ancient chapel at Montbonnet, dedicated to St Roch. On the other side of the hills of the Velay, lacking in any trace and seemingly devoid of any concrete witness of the past, Saint-Privat d'Allier imposed itself in view of its geographical situation. Not much further on, Rochegude with its chapel of Saint-Jacques provided another knot in the thread, before Monistrol and its scallop-emblazoned cross, just before the crossing of the Allier, provided further credible evidence of the existence of the old path. Finally, two further places marked by devotion to the apostle James punctuated the route, and gave direction to the research. First, Saugues with its ancient chapel of Saint-Jacques (now destroyed) and its hôpital equally placed under the protection of the apostle. Then, on the col de la Margeride, now known under the name of Saint-Roch, where, many centuries ago, a chapel and refuge for the use of pilgrims en route for Conques and distant Galicia, besides other places, were built …

The search for a route

It was around this structure that the new route was to be built. But, in modern times, the links between these various points are not immediately obvious. An exploration on the ground was therefore needed and lasted nearly 18 months. After much discussion it was decided to use and respect the following criteria for this:
1.- Define and maintain a coherent route, using those public highways which provide safe walking, eliminating stretches on tarmac roads as much as possible.
2.- Collect from the locals on the spot all information on ancient paths linking villages, then, in addition, see if pilgrimage and pilgrims had left any traces in local collective memory.
3.- Finally, make explicit the project of renovation and recreation of this particular G.R. by placing it in the continuity of the ancient pilgrim way, the memory of which would be explicitly underlined.
Complementing this, it would be made clear that this path would be delineated by red and white waymarks, with the sole purpose of guiding walkers, and not to be confused with any marks linked with changes in land boundaries and enclosures, always unpopular with local populations. Seen in this way, the investigation on the ground would facilitate contacts with the rural population, and presage the cordial, even convivial, nature of future walkers, who were not to be compared with beggars or gangs of ruffians. In order to facilitate and resolve the many possible problems, whether already identified or not, Sunday outings were planned. With the aim of reinforcing the small core of volunteers, articles each week in the press invited friends or other interested people to join the initial group.
Thus, for nearly two years, between three and six cars crisscrossed the roads from Le Puy to the Margeride, the drivers letting off the occupants at each departure point, then, by means of long detours, proceeding to the end of the section proposed for exploration, thereby removing the need for the volunteers to retrace their steps and walk the same route twice. If the reconnaissance of the route in some sections was facilitated by being self-evident, unchanged since time immemorial, in others on the other hand, in all those places where a busy modern road had obliterated the ancient route, many side paths had to be explored in order to decide on an equally direct route, suitable for safe walking, and respecting as far as possible the general direction which had normally been followed by the old pilgrim path. This involved a considerable amount of toing and froing and much discussion, before it was possible to opt for the best solution or that judged to be such. Of course there was nothing to say that these enforced diversions, invariably consisting of stony paths linking villages, had not themselves in former times been used by pilgrims who, in practice, had nothing to help them advance in the right direction but «word of mouth».


After this period of pure reconnaissance, as laborious as can be imagined, once the route had been determined on the map, it was time for the waymarking proper, the necessary tools for which - brushes, knives, paint - were provided by the Federation des Sentiers. This last phase saw the group return to the terrain. But the previous comings and goings of 10 to 20 people, the numerous cordial contacts with the local population, had not been in vain; the locals, seeing the same people return as waymarkers, greeted them with: «ah, here are the Saint-Jacques back again». The imprint of the pilgrimage thus became a reality over the whole of the new itinerary, and the neo-pilgrims could pass without fear of being rebuffed or looked at askance.


But the adventure was still not finished, as two very important elements were still missing, one being that of having gîtes capable of sheltering walkers at the end of each day. After study, three sites were identified between Le Puy and the border with Lozère, but putting them into effect exceeded the competence and means of the small group of volunteers. It was necessary to convince the relevant local authorities to involve and interest themselves in this need for walkers to find, each evening, after a day's march, a roof, a shelter to pass the night and recover from the day's exertions. Saint-Privat d'Allier was the ideal spot for the first of these nocturnal pauses. The Mayor and General Councillor, who had previously made fun of the team and its ambition, declaring it utopian to hope to see walkers setting off on an adventure along these isolated paths in the middle of nowhere, nevertheless agreed to set aside a place of welcome in a communal building, theoretically empty in summer because intended for the shelter of those single people whose homes were too remote for them to be able to live there in winter. Then, at the other end of the département, at the domaine du Sauvage, thanks to the kindness of its caretaker, it was agreed that one of the many unused buildings could, without much problem, receive walkers before they set off across the largely deserted landscapes of the Margeride. In between these two, Saugues, despite its commercial nature, posed a problem, for it was not immediately able to provide a suitable resting-place. Happily, chance filled the need. Hearing that, at the national level, a hundred tents suitable for accommodating 15 to 20 people were being offered for use by organisations providing welcome for travellers, the group was, thanks to the speedy action of the Mayor and General Councillor of Saugues, able to obtain delivery of the last available tent. Shipped to Langeac, transported to Saugues, and set up for the summer, it served for several years before more suitable arrangements were made.

The first topo-guide

If the G.R. 65, Sentier de Saint-Jacques, seemed therefore to be operational, at least in Haute-Loire, there was still one other element missing, an indispensable one moreover, namely a topo-guide describing the route. Quickly and carefully put together, including for the first time in a description diverse elements, particularities, curiosities, legends, echos of local history, etc. Once completed, this document was kindly printed by the Chamber of Commerce in Le Puy, and duly provided with appropriate maps. Thus, at the end of 1972, the circle was complete, pilgrims or walkers could undertake the journey, especially when Lozère and Aveyron quickly followed our lead, enabling the National Federation to edit, based on our model, an official topo-guide covering the whole stretch from Le Puy to Conques. When one knows the result of this initiative and its current success, bringing each year nearly 10,000 people to Le Puy, and culminating in 1998, at the time of the inclusion of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques in the World Heritage List, in the specific inclusion of the cathedral and hôtel-Dieu of Le Puy.
But, to finish this short account, it is not inappropriate to stress that the realisation of this itinerary, exceptional in its influence, cost not a single centime of public finance, from town or département, for it was the work exclusively of volunteers who did not hesitate, over the course of two years, to devote many a Sunday to the task, travelling many thousands of kilometres in their personal cars, in the most complete anonymity.
Of these too, one should take note.


This pioneer's account is extremely valuable in giving us a view of the birth of this path. It leads us to make the following comments.


The documentation was meagre, limited to the Pilgrim's Guide. Lacking documents mentioning the route to Compostela for which evidence was being sought, what was left was toponyms, sculptures or traces, such as shells, which it was tempting to view as waymarks showing the route to Galicia.
Of the four routes proposed, that of Le Puy was the most seductive, because the most rural, and so the Comité National des Sentiers de Grande Randonnée decided to start with that. Although little known for its religious sympathies, this Committee was thus one of the initiators of the revival of the pilgrimage to Compostela. (Like the wind on the plateaus of the Aubrac or of Castile, the Spirit blows where it will!)
The times were favourable. In the years immediately following 1968, the «new walkers», often intellectuals in revolt against the consumer society and the Church, were at the same time seekers of pure air and theme walks. Jean Chaize recalls that the book of Raymond Oursel, «Les pèlerins du Moyen Age», published in 1963, helped them a lot. The first map of the routes from Le Puy to Conques featured there : archivist, paleographer and with a second home in the Aubrac, the author was particularly interested in this region that he knew and loved. But on the ground the remembrance of those pilgrim-walkers was well and truly lost. The rural population of the Haute-Loire considered them «beggars and gangs of ruffians» and no local authority was betting on any interest in retracing these paths.
The article shows how fragile the «historical authenticity» of the route was for these pioneers. It allows us to measure how this authenticity has grown in pilgrim imagination until it has become an unquestioned truth, if not religious Tradition… Unintentionally, it reveals all the credulity of a fringe of modern society whose need for the marvellous is no less great than that so readily ascribed to the people of the Middle Ages.
In his work, Raymond Oursel did indeed show that the medieval roads were taken by millions of pilgrims. He sees them flocking to Le Puy, to Vézelay, to Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, to Tours … and stresses that not all were pilgrims of «Monseigneur saint Jacques de Galice» … But, in 1970, the magic of Compostela, encouraged by the vagueness of the Pilgrim's Guide, was starting to make itself felt. These sanctuaries, points of convergence, were transformed into assembly points. Where he had seen uncertainties, his successors did not hesitate to find proof. His hesitations were swept away, as were those of the pioneers who were recreating the routes. Attempts to push these distortions of the truth back into their proper shape are frowned on and at risk of being seen as heresy, especially now that the Church has somewhat belatedly recognised the interest in the revival of the pilgrimage. This makes it all the more urgent to render homage to the pioneers, to thank them for their doubts and their modesty. It is too quickly forgotten that it is to them that we owe all the dreams generated by the current path and not to some supposed medieval phantoms straight out of the XIXth century.


Those who have not read them will find below two pages taken from Raymond Oursel's book. In 1963, he had no inkling of the political dimension of the last Book of the Codex Calixtinus, which became the Pilgrim's Guide, but he brings a lucid eye to the way in which the roads of the time are redrawn.


… Moreover, a wide variety of routes were available for the pilgrim from France, Germany or Italy to reach the crossing of the Pyrenees. Apart from the list of «holy relics», adaptable to many a detour, the silence of the Guide is total on this point, and its intention seems less to define fixed axes than to spread over the surface of the Frankish kingdom, through a vision both intensely poetic and as if foreshortened, the sacred fan that will sweep it clean.
The heads of the routes or, more precisely, the shrines which were supposed to drain the pious caravans into each of the routes, were well chosen. But, to repeat, nothing would be more wrong than to consider these places, as well, by the way, as all the pilgrimage churches listed in the Guide or even situated off the road axes to Compostela, as simple transit centres or lodging-places. Every one of them is, in fact, at one and the same time a powerful and attractive pole, and like the node of an often very extensive regional network, something for which there is much evidence locally. On them converged the threads of roads and tracks, vast stars of which they are the luminous centre, and it was at them that, very often, the pilgrimage ended, less costly perhaps but in many cases as rich with spiritual benefits as the long journey to Spain.
Saint-Martin at Tours, the Madeleine at Vézelay, Notre-Dame du Puy and Saint-Gilles, these four major pilgrimages are all spread around the limits of the kingdom of France, such as it had been determined at the treaty of Verdun in 843. It's noticeable that the distance between them as the crow flies is more or less equal, to such an extent that the branches of the fan are themselves pretty much equidistant. The image of these networks is powerful, radiating from the north, the east and the south, and combining into one at the voice of the Apostle, image of the Church which, from the four winds, gathers its own (Ezekiel 37: 9), or again of that immense lightning which, starting in the east, illuminates the vault of heaven as far as the west, sign of the Son of Man descended to earth once more to judge the quick and the dead (Matthew 24: 27). The words of the visionary editor are so clear that he does not hesitate to recommend to pilgrims to Saint-Gilles or Saint-Martin that, after having completed their devotions at the tombs of these confessors, they retrace their steps and visit the shrines at ArIes and Orléans, which most had already passed in their journey! Along each route, the only defining marks that the Guide gives are, as we have said, those of the «holy relics» whose veneration he recommends, often separated by many leagues. It's left to each pilgrim to fill in the gaps by organising the stages and detours that his fervour or his imagination suggest to him! These uncertainties, the large gaps we have noted, the lack of any indication of topography or route, even on the route in Poitou and Aquitaine that the author knew and had followed in person, have left historians perplexed. With considerable trouble and ingenuity the network of jacobean routes has been superimposed on the map of France; the model of the genre remaining the admirable, and powerfully evocative, map painted in 1937 at the Musée des Monuments Français. Based in essence on the information in the Guide it has the sole drawback of not distinguishing unambiguously those few stages that this tool enables us to identify from those others which erudition feels obliged to reconstitute along the route or nearby. The result is a dense network, in great detail certainly, and harmonious, well provided with stopping-off points of every kind, sanctuaries represented by reliquaries, or hostels represented by little doorways; however, the continuous lines linking this abundance of sacred or famous places and claiming to represent the intermediate sections risk in more than one case appearing more than a little gratuitous and arbitrary.

Pèlerins du Moyen Age, Paris, Fayard, 1st edn 1963 (1978 edn, pp 168-9)

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