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In general, neither the church nor the literature of the time encouraged women to take to the road, for fear of outbursts of immoral behavior.
Around 1175, the bishop of Rennes, Etienne de Fougères, in his book of manners, writes of how a married woman can easily meet her lover: she announces she is sick, has a pilgrimage prescribed as the cure, and obtains her husband’s permission to set out. The twenty-two miracles of Saint James recounted in the Codex Calixtinus present only three women: two mothers of teenagers and one old woman, all old enough to discourage suitors. Meanwhile a hagiography dating from around 1180, contains the story of a young girl from Toulouse who was possessed by a demon. The demon was driven out after an exorcism in the presence of Saint James’s relics at Oviedo. The story ends: “Then she left for Santiago, Saint Mary of Rocamadour, and Saint Thomas of Canterbury, then on to Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher.”
Medieval literature did nothing to prompt women to go on pilgrimage, as it detailed the dangers awaiting honest women. Floire et Blancheflor, written around the year 1150, is the story of a young, widowed and pregnant noble woman who had made a vow to go to Compostela. Even though she is traveling with her father, she is captured by Saracens. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the daughter of Count of Pontieu, on pilgrimage with her husband to pray for a child at Santiago, is raped in Galicia and ends up in a harem. In the fourteenth century the Dit des Annelés tells the story of the pilgrimage of a young married knight whose wife is seduced along the way by a bachelor knight. Only the Book of Ponthus (son of the King of Galicia) and the beautiful Sydoine (daughter of the king of Brittany) concludes with a happy grand finale on pilgrimage, but the story hardly counts since the couple is, in fact, returning home.
In the 16th century a monk from Limoges writes of the death of a young female pilgrim whose husband continued on without her. On the way home the husband comes upon his wife’s tomb and dies on the spot. The wife, according to the story, shifts aside in the coffin to make room for her husband. A German play from the 18th century, The Pilgrimage to Compostela, tells the story of a young girl who flees to Galicia to escape love, accompanied by an old hermit. The tone of this work is much lighter, if just as moral as the stories cited above.
In fact, there are few women to be found on the major pilgrimage routes (barely ten percent of the total number of pilgrims, if one were to advance a tentative count). There is record of a man, accompanied by two women, passing through Toulouse in the year 1272. They were “needle merchants” who called themselves “pilgrims wanting to go to Santiago,” but it is impossible to know if these three are honest businessfolk, or heretics.
The presence of women on the Compostellan paths is sometimes suggested by pilgrim confraternity regulations. The confraternity at Bagnères-de-Bigorre in 1325, and that at Mans in 1490, admitted “sisters who go on the holy voyage.” The Parisian confraternity anticipates the possibility that pregnant women might accomplish the pilgrimage, in which case her child will also become a confraternity member. In fact, pregnancy does not seem to scare women away from pilgrimage. In 1384 one pregnant woman accompanies her husband, a minstrel, and walks from England to Navarra. On the other hand, Englishwoman Margerie Kempe seems to have gone on pilgrimage to escape motherhood. Having given birth to fourteen children, of whom only one survived, she became depressed, convinced her husband to take a vow of chastity, and left for Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago.
Women traveling alone are exceptions. There is record of a chambermaid at the hospital of Saint-Jacques-aux-pèlerins in Paris who, at the age of eighty, set off alone on the path, only to stop at Oviedo, exhausted. Other women are accompanied by their husbands. The wife of Jehan Dynant leaves from Paris also, but on horseback and with her husband.
In the fifteenth century a strange foursome leaves from La Rochelle: two men, one of whom is a butcher, and the wives of two bourgeois townsmen. In the same century, another woman leaves from La Rochelle, Marie d’Anjou, mother of Louis XI. Officially she goes to assure that the will of the kings of France, to keep the candles in the chapel of the kings of France lit, is being carried out. Did she have another goal as well? A diplomatic one? The poor woman, leaving in the November, must have caught a chill since she died close to Parthnay, on her way home. Three years later, in 1466, the aunt of the king, Marguerite de Savoie, Countess of Wurtenberg, sets out for Compostela. She travels in state. Louis XI meets her and provides her with letters of recommendation for all of the cities she will stay in during her journey.
During the Wars of Religion, a priest in Provins sees “women and men” passing through his town on their way to Compostela. In 1592 in Chalon-sur-Saône, the confraternity counts fifty members (all former pilgrims), of which eleven are women, and in 1598, ninety-one members, of which fourteen are women.
Historical records as well as fiction show that women were not numerous on the paths. The majority of those who could not set out must have dreamed of the trip, and the adventure of walking to Compostela.
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