Connaître saint Jacques - Comprendre Compostelle
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The town of Le Puy, and the birth of « Saint-Jacques »

Light on the history of the relations between Le Puy and Compostela, proposed by Denise Péricard-Méa and Louis Mollaret

  In Le Puy, rue des Farges, a modern representation of St James

Today the town of Le Puy occupies a unique place in the practice of pilgrimage on foot. It passes as the obligatory departure point for Compostela. You only have to listen to some reflections and questions, for example these : «I am leaving from Le Puy, is it not possible to leave from somewhere else» or «I would like to leave from my home, is this possible ?» or «I don't want to leave from Le Puy, don't ask me why».
This state of affairs came about through a cooperation between Compostela and Le Puy based on history, put in place in 1951, for reasons which, currently, are still hypothetical. Then, May 1968 doubtless played a role in increasing enthusiasm for walking. The majesty of the landscapes of the Aubrac and the low population density contributed to the success of a footpath reinvented at the start of the 1970s on a decidedly fragile historical base.

In the XIXth century, Le Puy rediscovered several memories of its historical links with the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Ever since the High Middle Ages, Le Puy has been a town famous for its shrine of the Black Madonna, where crowds gathered. Evidence for this is still provided by the "rue des pèlerins, running from the hôtel des pèlerins to Notre-Dame" (Jean Chervalier, Dictionnaire historique des rues du Puy).

As elsewhere, the XIXth century in Le Puy was a century of intense activity in the field of historical research, due to the creation of the Ecole des Chartes founded for the education of archivists and paleographers. In the newly opened Archives Départementales, students could read and classify the innumerable documents confiscated at the time of the Revolution. From these documents arose a jacobean past for the town which everyone had forgotten. It was from these written memories that promoters started what was to become « le Saint-Jacques » - something one would rejoice over if they had not deformed it into a caricature.

• In 1866, one of these brilliant archivists, Léopold Delisle, conservator at the National Library in Paris, rediscovered, in an authentic manuscript of the Xth century the mention of the voyage to Compostela of the bishop of Le Puy, Godescalc, in 951.

It must be stressed that this pilgrimage of Godescalc had been forgotten about for a thousand years and was only exhumed from the archives in the XIXth century, and what's more was only known to a small circle of local specialists in Le Puy. This mention stated nothing more than what the monk Gomez had written, in particular, nothing on the route that the bishop had taken in the winter of 951, nothing further on his « numerous retinue »...

• 1869 saw the publication of the memoires of Etienne de Médicis, a citizen of Le Puy who devoted more than fifty years of his life, between 1500 and 1558, to editing the history of his town (Le livre de Podio ou Chroniques d’Etienne de Médicis (1475-1565), éd. Augustin Chassaing, Le Puy, 1869, 2 vol.). This publication, which also remained little known, added three more pieces of information relating to the pilgrimage :

- In 1476, a certain Pierre Pafayac « somewhat lacking in understanding » went to Compostela.

- Amongst the sixteen gates of the town, of which many are under the protection of a saint, one

«is called la porte Sainct-Jacme as this is the gate by which one leaves the town of Le Puy to go on pilgrimage to the glorious apostle monseigneur Sainct Jacques le Majeur at Compostela or Galicia»

Let us recall that, in the XVIth century, pilgrimages to Compostela attracted more and more Catholics seeking comfort in a Spain which, alone, had not been touched by Protestantism.

- Médicis also mentions, among the «holy relics of the church of Nostre-Dame du Puy ... part of a finger of St James the Less»

• Still in the XIXth century, the stocktakers of the archives learnt that, in 1253, the town possessed several hospitals dedicated, they too, to various saints : St John, St Giles, St Nicholas ... and St James (Arch. dép. Haute-Loire, H sup. Hôtel-Dieu du Puy 1 B 11). This last was situated at the entrance of the rue Saint-Jacques which still exists today. Despite the urban expansion which had occurred in the meantime, in the XVIIIth century one could make out, as in many other towns in the Middle Ages, a quartier Saint-Jacques, set around the gate, along a rue Saint-Jacques (a part of which seems to have later become the rue du faubourg Saint-Jacques, now rue des Capucins).

The border with the neighbouring parishes of Espaly and Val was marked by a tree of Sainct-Jacme in the shade of which sheltered a cross. In the XIVth century, a very popular and jolly patronal festival was held in this street, every 25 July (Arch. dép. Haute-Loire, 1 B 395), with a charitable confraternity which, every Ascension Day, distributed alms in all the houses of the street. It seems that the hospital of Saint-Jacques was run by the inhabitants of the quartier, in the person of "bayles" (Boudon-Lashermes, Albert, La vie d’autrefois au Puy-en-Velay, Saint-Etienne, 1912).
Cross on the rue des Capucins, corner of rue Alphonse-Terrasson

• Finally, in 1882, the first Latin edition of the Pilgrim's Guide demonstrated to this same small circle of specialists that in the XIIth century one of the « four historic routes » to Compostela left from Le Puy, passing via Conques and Moissac.
• Despite such rich seams, when, in 1884, Pope Leo XIII authenticated the relics of St James at Compostela and recommended that all bishops announce this event so that it « be known everywhere and that all Christians undertake pious pilgrimages to this Holy Tomb, as our ancestors were accustomed to do », the Semaine Religieuse of the diocese of Le Puy, unlike several other dioceses which published the full letter of the pope, only mentioned the event in a few brief lines :

«In Spain, in the most glorious, most venerated sanctuary, he (Leo XIII) replaced in a position of honour the relics of the Apostle St James the Great and granted the Great Jubilee indulgence»

Until the middle of the XXth century, Le Puy took no notice of Compostela

Despite its rediscovered memory of Compostela, Le Puy made little attempt to develop the road that led to Compostela, until the arrival, on February 6 1940, of a new bishop nominated by Pope Pius XII, abbé Joseph-Marie Martin (1891-1978). He was at this time director of diocesan works and vicar-general of the diocese of Bordeaux. He was enthroned on April 20.

A shell and some stars in his episcopal coat of arms demonstrate his attachment to Compostela and announce « le Saint-Jacques » : the 4th quarter contains stars to recall «the Milky Way or chemin de Saint-Jacques which unite Le Puy with Compostela and marked the route for pilgrims» In fact, when he was chaplain to the students of Bordeaux, he had already organised (in 1938 or 1939 ?) a pilgrimage on foot to Compostela.

A pilgrimage which had had a feeble audience, as only three students were present, something he regretted in the following terms :

«Dare I say that after having announced urbi et orbi the organising of the pilgrimage and sent out my invitations, I experienced some disappointment in finding only three students at the start ?»

Osmin Ricau, who relates this setback in Aspects Gascons des chemins de Saint-Jacques, adds this commentary :

« he had some reason to believe in the sincerity, in the strength of the religious convictions of the students. These young people were leisured, for the most part rich and able to allow themselves a journey on foot, at any rate for the least cost possible. The idea had been received with the greatest enthusiasm ; it had been well publicised by posters, circulars, personal letters, conversations,... And yet, only three students turned up at the rendez-vous !»

The war years did not allow Mgr. Martin to develop this pilgrimage as he would no doubt have wished, but, through a new pilgrimage to Compostela in 1942, he certainly contributed to a tightening of the links and to the emergence of the « Le Puy route ». An example: in 1949 the author of the book Le Puy, ville sainte, ville d'art, was already getting the myth going with the assertion that St Roch in person left Le Puy to go to Compostela. In 1951, some French intellectuals under the direction of Elie Lambert set up in Compostela an exhibition commemorating the millennial of the pilgrimage of Godescalc, an exhibition later shown in Burgos and Madrid. Who was behind these manifestations ? with whose support ? and with what objectives other than a celebration of an anniversary ? These questions open the way to research in contemporary documents and with those participants who are still alive. Le Puy obviously played a role; it would be good to study the part played respectively by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities and to complete it with contributions from other actors, French and Spanish.

A slow contemporary birth

In 1951, on the occasion of this celebration at Compostela of the millennial of the voyage of Godescalc, the Semaine Religieuse of the diocese of Le Puy reproduced an article from the abbé Chanal which had appeared in the bulletin of the Archiconfrérie de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This text recalled the Spanish origins of Godescalc (never before heard of) and the links (very real, these) which existed between Le Puy and Spain, in particular the «rich presents» of the kings of Aragon and Castille to the Black Madonna and the Spanish shrines where the cult of the Virgin makes reference to Notre-Dame du Puy. The abbé asserts : 

«pilgrims gathered in front of one of the oldest churches in Le Puy, that of Saint-Pierre-le-Monastier»

But he gives not the slightest proof of this and provides no evidence. He clears himself of this lapse by regretting that «the limited length of the article does not permit entering into more detail» ; a pity ... the historical sources for this information have yet to be found.

By contrast, in 1962, Le Puy commemorated the millenary of the consecration, by the same bishop Godescalc, of the chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe (another incontrovertible historical event). The archbishop of Compostela Mgr. Quiroga y Palacios participated as a pilgrim and presided over the ceremony. He was welcomed to Le Puy by Mgr Dolzome, bishop of Le Puy, accompanied, amongst other personalities, by Charles Pichon, president of the France-Spain Committee which had organised a large pilgrimage to Compostela in 1938.

The Semaine Religieuse devotes several pages to these festivities. Two routes were opened, both departing from Le Puy. On his inward journey, on the «variant» (all routes not mentioned in the Pilgrim's Guide are called thus) via Saint-Flour and Aurillac, Mgr. Quiroga celebrated mass at Saint-Jacques-des-Blats and blessed a stele placed at the side of the main road «in memory of the passage of numerous pilgrims». On the way back, he stopped at Conques and Moissac. In August 1962, before young people of fourteen nations, the bishop of Le Puy, Mgr Dolzome, evoked «the Black Madonna who is also Our Lady of the Road and especially that of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle».

Perhaps due to the success of these events, a decision of the Municipal Council on 18 February 1966 gave the name "rue de Compostelle" to the road which continued the rue Saint-jacques and the rue des Capucins.

The birth of the "Saint-Jacques"

the first topo-guide of the  first chemin de Compostelle

This section was written following a telephone conversation with Jean Chaize, editor of the special edition of the magazine le Fil n° 15, 1992, concentrating on St James, with whom we have researched the historical sources, the basis of his editorship. In fact, the only written document placing Le Puy on a route to Compostela is a Book of the Codex Calixtinus, translated into French in 1938 by Jeanne Vielliard under the name of Pilgrim's Guide.
We learned on this occasion that Jean Chaize had been the kingpin of the team which traced the route in Haute-Loire which became the GR65. He told us that, faced with "a nebulous history" and "in the absence of reliable sources", he based his actions on what had "passed into common use" at the time of his researches made in the beginning of 1970, at the request of the CNSGR (Comité National des Sentiers de Grande Randonnée, the predecessor of the FFRP) with the aim of tracing a pilgrimage path in Haute-Loire beginning from Le Puy.

At the time, the concern of these pioneers was to trace an attractive route linking “jacobean references” (shells or the words 'Saint-Jacques'). This second requirement unfortunately led to the discarding of an old trade route attested by the texts, the via vocatala marchadeyro also called the via mercatoria, the old line of which it would have been possible to retrace in the mountains.
Jean Chaize concluded, p. 50-51 :

The oldest routes are virtually devoid of references to the pilgrimage. … When, in 1972, with the aim of reviving this epic by building an authentic walker's route, the team had to choose, we took account above all of those elements … which offered the best possibilities for lodgings … But we also had to reject authentic sections which would have subjected walkers to heavy traffic…”

Following our discussions, Jean Chaize was kind enough as to give us the text of a communication that he made to the Société Académique of Le Puy : "Les coulisses de l'implantation en Haute-Loire du chemin de Saint-Jacques"

Before this initiative of the CNSGR, virtually nobody thought of the development of pilgrimage on foot ; the only thought was of pilgrimages by coach or by car. But after May 1968, with its ideas of returning to basics, to the virtues of the countryside and of walking, everything accelerated, if one can speak thus of the enthusiasm for slowness ... The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre published in 1972 the first instalment Le Puy-Aubrac of the «sentier de Saint-Jacques», a bucolic path par excellence, free of the large towns that were to be avoided at all costs. All the literature of the 1950s was repeated in the guides and newspapers. Everyone was caught up in the game and added their stone to the edifice : the ferme du Sauvage, possession of the Hôtel-Dieu in Le Puy, became «a place of welcome for pilgrims», before becoming a gîte d'étape and welcoming pilgrims again ... A very authoritative voice even affirmed that the hôtel-Dieu in Le Puy was founded for pilgrims to Compostela, according to a text of the XVth century, which, on being checked with the director of the Archives départementales, proved to be a fake. Recently, a professional in the pilgrim tourism industry even announced that he was in the process of authenticating and waymarking the exact route followed by Godescalc.

every morning, after the Pilgrim Mass, a blessing is given to those who are taking the road, gathered at the foot of this statue, acquired in 1990 by the cathedral of Le Puy

In 1974 a guestbook was opened for pilgrims at the Cathedral. But nevertheless, when in 1978, a priest of the diocese undertook a pilgrimage to Compostela, he did so to the surprise of his colleagues. And, as far as we know, the Semaine Religieuse of the diocese is mute on the subject of Compostela throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By the start of 1990, pilgrims were becoming more and more numerous, and the rector of the cathedral, père Comte, realised that there was no image of St James in his church. He launched a subscription and acquired the XVth-century statue in front of which pilgrims of today gather, believing it to have been there since it was created (a good example of lying through omission !).

These last years, the bishop of Le Puy, in full agreement with the town's Office of Tourism, has encouraged the renewal of the pilgrimage and developed the welcoming of pilgrims, in particular by a daily Mass. The bishops of THE route see in these last the faithful of the future for the Church and now busy themselves with making the Le Puy route a privileged route for Catholic pilgrimage. Does the Episcopate have a unique position ? Other bishops seem to prefer that these «pilgrims» being pursued should make their own decisions undisturbed, without incitements that they fear will sometimes repel rather than attract; they are equally concerned with all those who do not leave from Le Puy.


In half a century, Le Puy has become a major departure point for Compostela.

Has history been flouted ?
• Not as far as the fact of Godescalc's journey to Compostela is concerned; Yes when, omitting to take account of the date at which this fact became known, Godescalc is supposed to have caused crowds to have followed his example throughout the Middle Ages.
• No as to the reality of the pilgrimage to Compostela and to the fact that Le Puy was mentioned as a shrine on the road to Compostela ; Yes when the town is presented, without evidence, as a gathering place for pilgrims taking this road.
• No when one quotes the hospitals open in Le Puy for the reception of pilgrims ; Yes when one pretends that these pilgrims were pilgrims to St James in Galicia, forgetting the multitudes who thronged to Le Puy to venerate Notre-Dame.

• No as far as the hospital at Aubrac is concerned, indeed a reality since 1120 ; Yes when one tries to pass off as true, accounts of its foundation dating from the XVth century. As if legendary stories were not equally favourable to the dream as real history.
• Of course the roads of the Middle Ages do not resemble those of today, but does this mean the difficulties of the current GR (paths difficult if not impassable at certain times, and increasing the distances significantly, barriers to be overcome, cattle to be faced, large distances between villages) have to be presented as inherent to pilgrimage, because «it was like that in the Middle Ages» ?

In the end, all the better. Thanks to these distortions of history, the town of Le Puy has again become a shrine-town all year round, whereas the Black Madonna only attracted pilgrims on certain days. What's more, the mountain villages have seen life reestablished thanks to these pilgrim-walkers. One has to recognise the effectiveness of this move and salute the success of this promotion which is due as much to the majesty of the landscapes of the Aubrac.
Many towns envy this success of Le Puy; over the years competition has become fierce, everyone fighting so that « Le chemin » crosses their region, their town, their village, bringing a honeypot comparable to that generated by this famous « chemin du Puy ». Everyone has their eyes turned towards this town which over half a century has been able to generate its own fame - a secular fame.
At the other end of the route, Galicia too rejoices at seeing the pilgrim become a celebrated tourist product, a substitute for the sun from which the Costa Brava benefits, bringing riches which it never hoped to see, but which it has nevertheless succeeded in capturing thanks to well-thought-out investments. Prior to Le Puy, it was able to profit from other, more dramatic circumstances and use the pilgrimage to its advantage.


Was it necessary to create a travesty of history to promote the chemin du Puy ? Were the majesty of the landscapes of the Aubrac and the revelations of the proto-gospel linking St James with Notre-Dame not enough?

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