Dr. Robin Vose in front of the Metropolitan Archcathedral Basilica of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Photo from Dr. Robin Vose

History professor to catalogue the Camino’s way

  • March 14, 2024

Pope Benedict XVI once said the network of pilgrims’ ways known as the Camino de Santiago is “a way sown with so many demonstrations of fervour, repentance, hospitality, art and culture which speak to us eloquently of the spiritual roots of the Old Continent.”

In English, these routes are known as the Way of St. James because all passages lead to the shrine of the Apostle James in the Metropolitan Archcathedral Basilica of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. But, as the cliché goes, the journey is the destination as the experience one could have on their pilgrimage is often shaped by the people in their company, world events and the unique life problems they meditate upon as they walk.

Dr. Robin Vose, a history professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., has embarked upon many Way of St. James adventures over the past decade. He once cycled with his parents and some cousins for 1,000 kilometres along the southern Camino de la Plata route — the longest of the pilgrimage routes. The academic has also guided three Camino de Santiago expeditions on behalf of National Geographic.

The directed tour that sticks out in Vose’s memory is the first one he undertook following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was really quite powerful,” said Vose. “For most of us, it was our first time out of lockdown. You have to put yourself back in the mentality of how traumatized we all were at the end of 2021 and the (beginning of) 2022. There was a lot of trepidation on that first trip. People were still masked. We lost several people along the way as they got COVID and had to leave the group.

“The walk already by itself is powerful spiritually and physically, but everyone here was wrestling with and contemplating their mortality since we had all been through COVID and some lost people during the pandemic. A lot of people were also working through relationship breakups and the loss of children. I was not just a tour guide on this trip. I was a father, confessor and mystic guide, which is not exactly my calling. But everyone was. It was a team effort as we all supported each other.”

Vose’s journeys and deep historical knowledge about the Camino de Santiago position him well to write a book about this subject. And he will commit fully to the writing later this year as St. Thomas University has granted him a course release award during the 2024-25 academic year.

He intends to write a “popular” history about the historical and religious origins of the routes that truly took shape in the 12th century and detail their later political, cultural and economic facets. The historian intends to fill in some knowledge gaps, as he confessed he “was quite shocked by how poor the previous scholarship is” for the Camino de Santiago.

“There are a lot of personal narratives of people writing about their trips, which can be very powerful and interesting, and there are travel logs and guides about how to do it, and there are a few piecemeal histories,” said Vose. “I have not yet found any comprehensive history that has really put together the whole story and then gone beyond the history to think about mysticism and the pilgrimage experience. The historians talk about history, and the spiritual people talk about spirituality, but there is very little overlap.”

Vose said Catholics and Christians, particularly, would appreciate the “legacy of devotion” along the way, the erected shrines and cathedrals considered artistic and cultural masterpieces and the reported miracles associated with saints.

“But then you go somewhere incredibly humble, like a little pilgrim’s hut or shrine, or a totally abandoned medieval hut for hermits, and for some people, that is much more powerful than the massive cathedrals,” said Vose.

On tour, Vose said he does “not shy away” from the problematic historical aspects, such as how the routes were used during the Middle Ages to fundraise for the Crusades. He also delves into the mysticism of three women who “go on the pilgrimage without actually leaving,” most notably St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), who died along the route in Alba de Tormes. She wrote books called The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, which “showed she was on a pilgrimage internally.”

Vose plans to finish this book by 2026. There comes a point in his writing process that requires total immersion and escape from the regular pattern of his life. He envisions travelling back to Spain to draw inspiration from the Camino de Santiago while he completes his work.

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