Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Medieval Pilgrim: Seafood Version

Scallop shells on the medieval hôtel de Cluny, Paris. They look innocent enough.

          One cold February morning when we were living in France, in a town that coincidentally is on one of the major pilgrimage routes of Europe, I was on my way to buy bread when I saw an honest-to-god pilgrim of the old line* striding down the sidewalk. How did I know he was a pilgrim? The staff was a bit of a hint. As was the pack. He wasn't wearing a cloak, but the brown habit with (I am not making this up) a knotted rope belt, as any student of pilgrimage knows, is an acceptable stand-in for the cloak. The sandals (no socks on that freezing morning) were another hint. But the dead giveaway was the fact that he was wearing a scallop shell on a string around his neck.

          The scallop shell is the emblem of Saint James, whose shrine at Santiago de Compostela is a major pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims on the Way of Saint James have been wearing the scallop shell as a badge of their status since the ninth century, and using it at stops along the way as a food bowl or water cup, as the circumstances called for. So, the emblem of the saint and the pilgrim is both stylish and useful. But why is the scallop shell associated with the saint?

          Apparently his love for the denizens of the ocean was so great that after he died, he miraculously became chum to feed the scallops off the Iberian peninsula.

          This is, I admit, one of the more obscure saintly miracles, but there you go. Here is the full story, as I understand it: James was in Judea when he died, and his body was loaded onto a ship and sent to Santiago to be buried. Off the coast, a big storm blew up and somehow Saint James's body was lost over the side.

          When the hapless sailors arrived in port sans a saint, you can imagine the aftermath—men who were simply trying to keep their ship rightside-up in heavy weather and who were therefore not paying very much attention to the cargo at that juncture were hauled before stern grumpy Religiously Important Persons and yelled at. I imagine the stern grumpy RIPs shouting, "How could you lose a saint, you imbecile!" while the poor sailor in question was thinking "Wait a minute, he hasn't even been beatified yet. And besides, if he was really a saint, he could have ginned up a small miracle and stuck to the ship."

          Anyway, after all the yelling and recriminations had finally subsided, Saint James's body washed up on the shore, covered in scallops. I am going to skirt nervously the image of cannibal scallops snacking on the softer bits of the dead saint because it is averred that his body, scallop-encrusted though it was, was still whole when the sea gave it back. I will simply note that in my more vivid nightmares, the scallops behave very much like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

          This is frankly what keeps me from donning my pack and taking up my staff and seeking adventure and enlightenment along the Way of Saint James. The thought of having one of those scallop shells—possibly a direct descendant of one that snacked on Saint James—as my closest travel companion gives me the collywobbles.

*And by "old line" I mean "medieval."

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