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Revisionist history on the Camino: whitewashed versions prevail

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A simple stone church along the Camino route in Spain

Since I grew up in a family full of secrets, I’ve always remained sensitive to what stories are hidden and not told. When it comes to official histories of families, societies, nations, and religions, collective denial seems to overcome any need to say what really happened. Why are we so afraid of the truth?

The reality of revisionist history was evident to me while walking the Camino in France and Spain. On the entire 800-kilometre route, not once did I come across any mention of the Spanish Inquisition on signs, in churches, museums, etc.

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The official seal of the Spanish Inquisition’s Tribunal of the Holy Office

Perhaps, with my meagre Spanish, I missed something in translation. Yet, although I was not on The Way as a historian or researcher, it still seemed to me that the Camino emphasized the Christian cross of its roots far more than the sword. (Both symbols appeared side by side on the official seal of the Inquisition’s Tribunal of the Holy Office, although the cross, in the centre, predominated.)

 As a quick historical recap, Spain’s monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition in 1478 to maintain Catholic control and supremacy in their kingdoms. They passed decrees ordering Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave; however, any who chose to convert and stayed were still considered suspect.


Under the Inquisition’s forceful power, people were burned at the stake for any number of “sins”: being a Protestant, a “blasphemer,” for mocking church images, eating meat on forbidden days, or reading a banned book. Neighbours spied on neighbours. The Inquisition, which was not abolished until 1834, led to widespread pogroms, imprisonments, torture to extract false confessions, trials, executions, and burning at the stake of so-called heretics.

 It is estimated that just between 1480 and 1530, about 2,000 people were executed in Spain, mostly those of Jewish origin who had converted to Catholicism. Not surprisingly, while walking the Camino, I met few pilgrims of Jewish descent.

I’ve already mentioned in this blog the lack of information along the Camino about the burning of witches. (See “Witches on The Way: Remember the Camino’s tarnished halo.”)

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Hmmm . . . to be a pilgrim or a knight?

Similarly, along the The Way, even the Crusades (cruzada) seemed to get a glossy, whitewashed treatment. I saw paintings, memorials, and glorified depictions of knights, portrayed as gallant heroes doing the Church’s sanctified work. (The Crusades were military campaigns in Europe during the Middle Ages launched to ensure the domination of Christianity. “Knights of Christ” (milites Christi) led expeditions, fought battles, and saw themselves as leading an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)

Armed pilgrimage—not like today’s tens of thousands of peaceful El Camino pilgrims. Kill, maim, and destroy in the name of Christ anyone who does not match a narrow description of a good Christian. Yet this aspect of the knights’ activities seemed missing in the Camino content that I saw. Just as those in today’s war zones use the term “collateral damage” for civilian deaths, the knights’ actions seemed antiseptically removed from their slaughter of others. I saw no estimates of related fatalities.

In reference to more recent times, I was both shocked and strangely glad to see a one-line mention of historical truth while staying at the beautiful five-star Parador San Marcos Hotel in Léon. At the museum attached to the hotel, I viewed the sarcophagi of religious and unknown people dating back to about 1300 AD. The museum church had the usual gold décor and gilt sculpture of Christ, rooms dedicated to Mary and the baby Jesus, prayer areas and so on.

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The five-star Parador in San Marcos Square in Leon

However, one sign, in English, provided a single sentence that alluded to Spain’s regressive past: Francisco Franco had used the Parador, a former twelfth-century monastery, as a concentration camp (the Catholic church had supported his fascist dictatorship, by the way).

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A Parador interior

I knew that the Parador was originally founded to provide lodging for pilgrims, like me, travelling to Santiago; even now, this magnificent stone hotel offers much-reduced rates to Camino pilgrims. But I was stunned that this castle-like Renaissance building, whose lush comfort, stately air, and numerous artifacts had given me so much welcome and comfort, was associated with such grisly history. What tortures and other atrocities had occurred within its walls, where I had blissfully soaked my blisters in bubble bath?

 It wasn’t clear whether Franco had used the Parador for prisoners during his entire reign from 1939 to 1975. Nonetheless, I was grateful that someone, most likely against the wishes of many others, had had the courage to include this unseemly truth amidst the otherwise pious language of Spanish history.

March 13, 2014 at 8:32 am
  • March 17, 2014 at 11:56 amHeather Conn

    There are at least nine Camino pilgrimage routes in Europe, but the one that I took, Camino Frances, is the most popular. It leaves from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France. That’s probably the one that Rick Steves featured. Thanks for your comments. They’re much appreciated.

  • March 17, 2014 at 11:40 amMiriam Mattila

    Sounds like your trip was amazing! Good for you. I was watching “Rick Steves in Europe” on TV and his program was about a Spiritual Journey from [damn, I forget] to Santiago. Was that the same walk you took? I was fascinated by it. What a committed choice. I truly admire you for all the amazing things that you do. Go for it, girl. . . while you can.

  • March 13, 2014 at 11:06 amJan DeGrass

    Interesting comment on historical records, Heather. Who writes history? Certainly not those who were murdered during the inquisition.
    I’m interested in why people go on pilgrimages, as you have done. It seems to have helped you grow on many levels.

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