Vendôme to Château-Renault, Part 1

Stage 26a of Walking Out of the World. After a dull morning start, leaving Vendôme in drizzle with a wind behind us from the north, and with not much scenery nor other interesting thoughts to pass the time, we are reduced to considering the place of the gourd in the divine economy. An introduction to basic Compostela pilgrim symbolism and a gentle few steps into an exploration of semiology, a branch of linguistics that can help us understand courgettes. Then, only halfway to Chateau-Renault, disaster strikes!

(Previous post: Day 25 Cloyes-sur-le-Loir to vendome.)

The holy gourd, Compostela shell and Jesus Prayer rope.

The original function of a gourd for a pilgrim to Compostela was entirely mundane, it served as a water bottle. That’s all. Much as an Olympic triathlete today carries a plastic bottle filled with isotonic high-energy drink with optional caffeine-free, gluten free, added vitamin D or glucose refinements. A mediaeval pilgrim simply carried water in his gourd. Eventually, the gourd became part of the semiology of pilgrimage. Yes ‘semiology’, sorry about that, but another term to get to grips with. Among the new social sciences of the 19th century came linguistics, developed by a Frenchman (it would be) called Ferdinand de Saussure, lecturer in Gothic and Old High German at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, who was the father of semiology (Fr. semiologie; sometimes called semiotics in USA, following Italian usage, semiotica.)

Already you’re asking how this explains vegetables. Bear with me. Pilgrimage is not always easy. This virtual Way of Saint James involves various strands, and if you don’t like it, go and read Paolo Coelho, the New Age weirdo guru, or some randy German comedian’s Camino bestseller; but they’ll teach you nothing about gourds.

Since Worcester, we have now learned what a bourdon is, and even Year 9 in Reading are now familiar with it (Sp. bordón, and in town hall and mairie parlance: leave the big stick outside.) Other semiological attributes of a pilgrim are a gourd (Fr. calebasse, Sp. calabaza, Sainsbury’s courgette); a scallop shell (Fr. coquille, Sp. concha, Galician concha de vieira); a hat – shaped like a fisherman’s sou’wester – (Fr. chapeau, Sp. sombreo, Gal. sombreiro); a cape (Fr. cape, Sp./Gal. capa); and a satchel (Eng. scrip; Fr. besace ; Sp. alforja: Gal. zurróno). These were all things worn or carried by pilgrims down the ages, so the sign that you are a pilgrim can be one or all of these objects or attributes. “Oh look, there’s a man being ejected from the mairie and falling down the steps into la rue. He has a bourdon, a calebasse, coquille and sacoche but the town hall citoyens in beige jerseys have not studied semiologie, so they simply think he is a tramp with a big stick.”

Pla de Petracos, Alicante: praying figures. Macro-schematic art (Neolithic).

Man is a very weird animal. He paints cave paintings of bulls and deer in Altamira and Lascaux, Macro-schematic art in Alicante, and antedeluvian dancers on exposed rocks in Africa. Then, thousands of years later, he creates archaeological departments in universities to discover the semiological meaning of the daubings of red, ochre and soot discovered on the cave walls by some lost shepherd looking for his confused dog (or vice versa).

If you see a person with a gourd on a stick, the semiology reads like this:
The gourd was a water bottle carried by mediaeval pilgrims, so now a person carrying a gourd signals that he is doing what mediaeval pilgrims did: walk to Compostela. The gourd is no longer a simple drinking vessel, and it is also more than a mere symbol: it has become a sign of compostelicity. In other words, the gourd carrying pilgrim represents fullness of the tradition. His gourd inspires and encourages others and is a reminder of the mysteries that people long to recapture.

These things take a bit of explaining in a secular culture. So when Year 9 kids after school, sitting on a fence by a council estate in Lewes, see a pilgrim walking by with a gourd on a bourdon and enquire, with all their youthful curiosity, “What’s that stupid bollocks on your big stick?” you must see it as an opportunity to engage with tomorrow’s generation and explain the pilgrim symbols to the youth, who may one day be proud to carry them forward and discover the Catholic faith. Though not perhaps in Lewes, where the local tradition has long been to burn an effigy of the Pope on Guy Fawkes night. Maybe start in somewhere less pyrotechnically challenging, like Tunbridge Wells.

So the gourd (calebasse or calabaza) started off as a glorified courgette, hollowed out and dried to become a drinking vessel, and then a symbol of the Way of Saint James. When exploring some dark musty corner of a rarely visited village church on the plain of Beauce, you see a picture or a poorly crafted statue of a saint with a wooden staff upon which is tied a gourd, you may be sure it is a pilgrim saint. It may be Saint-Jacques de Compostelle – going by his vegetable attributes – but if he also has a dog, then we are barking up the wrong saint. That would mean he is Saint-Roche (Sp. San Roque, It. San Rocco) and that requires another layer of meaning revolving around a different pilgrim story, and an important dog signifier. The term “semiology” appears as early as 1893/94 in de Saussure’s notes. Later Charles Sanders Peirce refined Sausure’s work and in the latter part of the 20th century Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco (remember him, of The Name of the Rose?) applied semiology – or semiotics – to an understanding of modern culture and its signs. Sadly, Roland Barthes, having amazed a whole generation of students with his command of signs, was run over and killed in Paris in 1980 by a laundry van ignoring a road sign.

Famously, Peirce said: “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign.” This is a very simple statement but one with profound consequences. So let us replay the earlier encounter with our eager young enquirers sitting on a fence in Lewes:

“What’s that stupid bollocks on your big stick?”
“This, my young friends, is the holy gourd of Santiago.”
“Yeah, right…”

If the cultural or religious signs can no longer be interpreted by the people, they no longer function as meaningful signs. A courgette on a stick butters no parsnips.

In case anyone should not know you are a pilgrim, it is important to carry multiple signs to establish and reinforce the semiological clarity of your pilgrimicity: various shells, crucifixes, prayer ropes, a yellow Camino arrow, and of course the bourdon itself. One German pilgrim said to me in a Benedictine convent pilgrim dormitory in Carrion de los Condes, “By the time you get to Compostela your bourdon will have more decorations than a Christmas tree.” But the most important sign – which becomes a symbol when recognised – is the gourd.

“¡Caramba!” said Colonel Pablo Pedalo, my Guardia Ángel as he arrived at the crash scene in the village of Nourray with blue lights flashing.

“Crickey!” said the Translator Angel.

“This look serious,” said Pedalo.

“I know,” I said. It was the first real accident I’d had since setting out from Worcester. “Thank God I’ve now got a proper guardian angel who can step in and take control of the situation.”

“We need some badnages and glue.”

“Badnages?” I asked.

“Yes,” he insisted, “badnages, glue and some good wine.”

Colonel Pedalo sent the TranslatorÁngel to the village shop and then sat down to consider the damage. We were seated on a bench next to the church in Nourray. Église Notre-Dame.

“I think we can putting you back on the Camino so you can walking to the Château-Renault,” said Pedalo, “but we have to performing some side road surgery here.”

I winced in anticipation.

“And there is a yellow warning storm coming!” he said.

“Just what you need from guardian angels, isn’t it?” I said. “More bad news.”

(Continued: Vendôme to Château-Renault, Part 2.)

3 thoughts on “Vendôme to Château-Renault, Part 1

  1. Phew. Geology. I never expected geology. Especially on top of all that metallurgical glass blowing stuff at Rouen. Maybe in a previous existence, Our Pilgrim was a relojero. A fat one at that. I mean, what happened to all that praying and getting wet at the side road that Pilgrims are supposed to be good at?

    Now, we’ve seismology to get to grips with. Let’s see. The gourd hits the ground and causes a tectonic plate to collapse? But of course. Now I see. That’s why they failed to get the spires the same height at Chartres. Each time they reached the belfry bit, a peasant at the Christmas market dropped a gourd. ‘¡Claro que sí!’, exclama Pedalo. Que viva la calabaza.


  2. Well done, Buhorojo (spoiler alert) you’re on the way to predicting the nature of the roadside disaster, and Part 2 will follow shortly.

    And Jabba, Peirce would definitely be placed in between Saussure and Eco as an enabler of semiotics. In academic circles it would be true to say Barthes was more of a populariser of semiology than a serious inventor of it, but the blog needed to skate across the surface here, as it is more about the calabacicity than the linguistics. Do say I made up the bit about the laundry van missing a road sign and running over semiologist Roland Barthes. Do not say, “Give me a sign Lord.”

    French tips: calebasse was corrected earlier, I’ll add besace now, thanks.


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