The Camino: A pilgrim’s grisly sojourn

Demons, holy wars, sex, blood and gore, torture and fire, sacred bones, con artists — there’s nothing like a good walk on the wild side to highlight the fevers so closely tied to religion.

And there’s no better place to find all of these charming elements of faith than the Camino de Santiago, the famed pilgrim foot-slog across the north of Spain.

In fact, it’s fair to say it’s no place for the squeamish, physically or mentally. Just ask Ballarat author Kate Simons.

Simons has gathered a startling catalogue of forgotten tales of the Camino – curious, bizarre, terrifying — in forensic style in her new book Medieval Wanders and Wonders.

Her account starts out with a grisly story of sex, self-mutilation, demonic intercession and zombie-like resurrection. A sorely-tempted ascetic, Gerald, and his manhood part ways in the nastiest of ways.

But he’s only one of innumerable pilgrims who have made their way to Santiago to venerate the holy relics of the apostle Saint James, or Santiago as the Spaniards know him.

Simons delivers an incisive, arresting catalogue of everything from the machinations of popes, bishops, kings, knights and nobles to inquisitions, reliquaries, rituals, ascetics, art and architecture.

It’s a brutal story and a rollicking ride for what, by rights, is an academic discourse. Simons proves time and again that history, especially religious history, is every bit as shocking as any modern-day front-page screamer.

And then some. Like ISIS on steroids.

Dr Kate Simons, a research fellow at Federation University, trekked the Camino under the blazing Spanish sun, not knowing she would fall under the spell of its treasure trove of religious history, fervour, persecution, manipulation and well, horror stories.

Her Medieval Wanders and Wonders details in glorious fashion life and death, Heaven and Hell, crusades, warfare, monasticism, witchcraft, medicine, fear – the whole gamut of medieval thought and practice underpinning the pilgrim mind, body and soul.

Medieval minds weren’t exactly the greatest intellectual sponges about and Simons is quick to highlight the charlatans so willing to exploit religion, and pilgrims, for their base ends.

Simons pokes, prods, even parodies, the medieval mind with a healthy dose of cynicism in a critical — at times withering and at all times entertaining — scrutiny of the Camino.

A riveting, historical tour de force, Medieval Wanders and Wonders shines fresh light on the Camino de Santiago that will enthral travellers, lovers of intrigue, history and real-life thrillers.

Medieval Wanders and Wonders

By Kate Simons

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