Halfway through my solo pilgrimage from Le Puy-en-Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I stared down at the tomb of the Cid, a war hero best remembered as the subject of a twelfth-century epic poem celebrating the expulsion of the Muslims from the region. His remains were enshrined at the heart of the Burgos Cathedral. Not far off, a statue of St. James the Greater, the apostle of Jesus, trampled Moors under his horse while pointing a sword at their heads.
I had decided against the conventional study-abroad semester to devote three months to a pilgrimage, hoping to find my way to gentleness in a world of violence. But what I learned about the history of the Camino, with all its memorials of the “reconquest” of Spain by Christianity, did not seem to point to gentleness. Bishops in the eleventh century marketed the pilgrimage route partially as a celebration of the expulsion of the Moors from northern Spain and southern France. The figures of the Cid and St. James as Matamoros—“Moor-slayer”—came to stand at the center of that vision, as evidenced in passages of the oldest pilgrim guide to the Camino, the twelfth-century Codex Calixtinus. In Latin America, early conquistadores also invoked St. James as the Mataindios—Indian-slayer. No simple apostle of a crucified Jesus, James was to them a conqueror, a man who would not so much convert the natives as vanquish their unbelief.
As the Obama administration sent war planes to combat ISIS and fellow pilgrims confessed their distrust of dark-bearded men, I stared into the face of St. James the Matamoros, seeing in the rising tide of modern religious conflict a connection to twelve centuries of mythologized conquest. The residue of a holy war still seemed to pervade the route. How, I wondered, had I come to think that I would find solace on a route marked by swords?