Grace Williams

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Location: New Zealand
Work: Philosophy, Architecture

on pilgrimage: the French Way of St James

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By: Grace Williams
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This morning I watched an interesting documentary on the pilgrims of the French Way of St James, at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. The pilgrimage, for those that have not heard of it before, is intended to be a journey from one's home (and, being the French Way, it is implied that the pilgrim resides in, or at least begins their journey, along one of the designated routes in France) to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia, Spain), where it is said the remains of St James are buried. The film was created by Yasuhiro Omori, an ethnographic filmmaker and professor emeritus at the museum. In 2007 the museum presented a special exhibition, named Sanctuary and Pilgrimage, of which I think this was a piece, though I have not seen this claim confirmed anywhere. I think the film is worth mentioning here because it raises some interesting questions regarding anthropological documentation and the nature of pilgrimages over time.

The film revolves around Michael Lavedrine, who (at the beginning of the film) is preparing to go on his fourth pilgrimage along the route, in September of 2001. The nature of the pilgrimage, for him, is spiritual: numerous times, when he is interviewed on camera, he speaks of the sense of reaffirmation in his belief that he has felt previously at the end of the journey and the spiritual elation that comes over him upon completion. Lavedrine prepares to leave from Angers (in France), and arrives in Galicia after 48 days of journeying. The trip takes him across rural countryside and in and out of small French and Spanish towns, viewing many smaller-scale churches along the way.

It might seem like an odd or somewhat irrelevant point to make, that the journey for Lavedrine is a pilgrimage in the spiritual sense of the word, but the film emphasizes the point that many of the people encountered along the way did not seem to be of the Christian faith. Many of the people encountered along the way, when interviewed, spoke of various reasons for participating, and it was noticeable how many of them were not religiously inclined: for some, it was a cheap form of tourism, in which an opportunity was presented to see parts of countries which they had a strong interest in; for others, the challenge of the physical exertion required for such a journey was appealing; some felt that the journey was an opportunity to think on weightier topics for an extended amount of time, in an environment free of distractions. As well, the variety of people from different parts of the world was overwhelming: in one French town, a Kiwi couple were found cycling the route together; in another, a married couple from Osaka, enjoying the lack of everyday technology along the way which they were used to facing in the city; in Spain, a strictly devout Roman-Catholic Irish man, with rosary beads handy, completing the pilgrim's tour of the churches along the route. The film and its numerous encounters thus calls into question the nature of the concept of pilgrimage as we see it and participate in it today: with so many different participants of so many different backgrounds, many of which are non-religious, does the spiritual 'quality' or 'effect' of the pilgrimage reduce? Despite being a route which pilgrims have traditionally taken, can the term 'pilgrimage' be used to describe the journey of a non-spiritual journeyer? Given the technologies available to us today (nylon waterproof jackets, hiking boots with traction, light camping packs), is the value of the journey really the same, or are we taking away from the richness of the experience by embracing them? Judging from the experience as we view it in Lavedrine, we might perhaps want to say that the journey can be called a pilgrimage, if undertaken with the right intentions, despite the changes in each execution of the journey over time.

Another point of interest for me was the documentation of the support network which functions along the route to aid pilgrims in their journey. Hostels and houses are set up along the way as venues with cheap accommodation for pilgrims, which can be used with a credencial, which is basically a passport of sorts in which the pilgrim collects stamps from each official house he or she stays at. At the end of the journey, the credencial is used as evidence of the journey which the pilgrim has taken, and he or she is presented with a certificate to verify the completion of the journey. The venues pilgrims stayed in were often small and intimate: one woman, the hostess of a pilgrim house, was interviewed on camera and she spoke of the pleasure with which she received the pilgrims, how humbly they asked for accommodation, and how pleasing it was for her to encounter previous pilgrims after their journey had been completed. Churches often had fountains with clean drinking water for pilgrims (one even had a fountain of wine) and townspeople often gave fruit to passing pilgrims. The film drew attention to the fact of awareness of the tourism which being situated along the Way could bring to a town, but also painted a picture in which the pilgrims were aided and not exploited by townspeople on their journey, which one might like to assume would not be the case with all pilgrimage ways across the world.

When watching a film like this, one's mind inevitably wonders about the efforts which the filmmakers must go to so that the effect of their presence might be minimized, both on film and as the situation occurs. This is, I think, a question which might be raised for much of the body of anthropological field work (both as it is practiced as well as its results): how can the presence of the anthropologist and his or her tools be so minimized that we can say it has no bearing or influence on the material produced? Lavedrine was upbeat for most of the time he was on screen: how much of his actions and attitude can we attribute to natural actions, and how much can we attribute to camera awareness? How does the effect (if there is perceived an effect) of the anthropologist's presence on the material affect our judgement of the quality of the object presented as a cultural artifact? These are all questions which I think are relevant from a researcher's perspective, which the film raises. If anyone would like to discuss these questions or the film with me, please do send a message to me via the Research Cooperative.


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