Conques, Theme Park of the Middle Ages

One of the most famous stops of the Chemin du Puy, the Way of Saint James from Le Puy to Saint Jean Pied de Port, is in Conques. For many pilgrims, this is a high point of the trip. Our experience was not quite the same. Here’s an excerpt from the book-in-progress:

We made a steep, almost stair-step-like descent into the historic village of Conques before noon. I’d been looking forward to this, an important stop for both the original pilgrims and the modern travelers.

The town is tiny, just a few hundred people who live along narrow cobbled streets that cling to a steep hillside, hidden from the rest of the world deep in a valley. There are no motorized vehicles in Conques, as the terraced streets are too steep and narrow to support them. The power lines are buried underground, and every effort is made to retain the original medieval architecture.

At the center of the town is the Abbey of St Foy, which has welcomed pilgrims since the ninth century. The cathedral is massive, capable of hosting hundreds if not thousands of visitors. It was built not for the local residents, but for the pilgrims, who started flowing to the remote valley to pay their respects to the relics of the virgin saint Foy on on their way to Compostella.

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The Abbey of Saint Foy, Conques

The superstitions that surround the early Christian church fascinate me, and Conques’ story is particularly twisted. Saint Foy (Faith in English), a virgin who was brutally tortured and killed for her integrity, was not from Conques, nor did she die in Conques. Instead, her remains were unashamedly stolen by the men of God.

Seriously. This stuff only happens in the Middle Ages.

The story goes like this: when the pilgrimage to Compostella took off, a path was established beginning in Le Puy, a site already recognized for its own holy history. Pilgrims would weave through the country, visiting other holy site along the way, building up as many grace points and indulgences as possible to protect them on the journey.

Foy was one of the most revered and popular French saints of the time. Her remains were protected and displayed in a monastery in Agen, a nearby town which flourished with the influx of pilgrims—and their donations and their business.

Conques wanted a piece of that. And so they sent one of their monks to go undercover at the Agen monastery. The man worked there, gaining trust and presumably building relationships, for TEN YEARS, at which time he was put in charge of the relics.

Which he immediately stole and carried back to Conques.

The Conques monks never denied what they’d done…doing so would have brought the credibility of their relic into question. Instead, they set up a security system to protect what they’d stolen and then let it be known that Saint Foy had moved to a new valley. Pilgrims, without any record of a fuss, changed their path from Agen to Conques, and continued to seek the good favor and blessing of the stolen saint.

Perhaps as penance, perhaps as another way to add to their coffers, the abbey of Saint Foy provides pilgrims with a beautiful gite right beside the cathedral, in a building that once housed the monks themselves. It wasn’t open this early in the day, so Eric and I stashed our heavy bags in the courtyard and set out to explore.

On the surface, Conques was magical and absolutely charming. But after ten days of walking through charming and magical villages, it also felt a little like “Disney Does the Middle Ages.” Every shop was selling to the tourists, from cheesy, cheap “pilgrim” walking sticks to scallop shell jewelry. The deeper I explored the narrow streets and thatched roof buildings, the more I suspected that no one really lived there.

(This suspicion was borne out a few weeks later, when we met a man who used to work for the monks. He said that the summer population was about two hundred, all shopkeepers and artisans who come for the tourists. But in the winter, when the gite was closed and the tourists went home, there were just seventeen people living in the village — the monks and the people who worked for them.)

I had felt far more at home in Saint Come-d’Olt, I decided, because people really called it home. Its cathedral may have been smaller and shabbier, but there were posters by the door with ways that members could volunteer. People did their regular shopping there, and took their kids to school there. It was just as old as this (give or take a hundred years), but it continued to exist.

At three, we clustered with a few dozen other pilgrims in the gite courtyard, trying to stay out of the rain, trying to navigate the system for where to store shoes and hiking poles, and how to get our backpacks into the giant plastic bags coated with insecticide that would supposedly kill any bedbugs we might have carried in. The whole thing was cheerfully inefficient, but eventually a volunteer took our money, stamped our credencials, and led us up a circular staircase, worn with deep grooves work into the stone steps.

How many larcenous monks had passed here?

The dorm was bigger than any we’d seen so far, with sixteen people settling into eight bunk beds. We saw the two stern women from Saint Chelys, but the black-eyed woman didn’t look so stern anymore. In fact, she was crying, quietly, in her bunk. Her feet were wrapped in bandages, and she looked utterly miserable.

I offered her a small smile that I hoped was empathetic—I’ve done some crying in a bunk, too, I understand—and just tried to stay out of everyone’s way.

Tired of the theme park attitude outside, Eric and I escaped to a small reading room upstairs with a couple of smuggled-in bottles of monastery-brewed beer and caught up on our journaling. The light was soft and grey, the towers of the stone cathedral loomed just outside our windows, and the floors creaked with a thousand years of history under our feet.

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If the descent into Conques was steep and treacherous, the climb back out of the valley the next morning was just as bad. The rain of the past few days had made the path muddy, and I chose my way, looking back over the valley at the lovely, artificial town. I’d been dreading this climb the whole previous day, staring at the wall of green that surrounded us not as an object of natural beauty, but as an obstacle that I would have to overcome.

And like most things that I dread and anticipate and fret about, it turned out to not be so bad.

 

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