Lusignan to Melle

Days 39 & 40 of Walking Out of the World have been combined: this stage of the route is across open country and vineyards ending at Melle, and there will be some description of the Romanesque churches of that place in my next post. Combining two days also allows Rubí donkey to have her Tuesday blogue spot which she will write tomorrow.

(Previous post: Day 38 Ligugé Abbey to Lusignan.)

The walk from Lusignan to Jassay was only fifteen kilometres – probably my shortest day’s walk so far, discounting the donkey-walking days which were shorter – but I had to stop in Jassay because I was expected there. A group of British residents from the local Anglican church had invited me to stop for the night and give a talk about the Way of Saint James to Compostela. So it was an opportunity for a late start from Lusignan and a chance to see more of the church and the medieval town before heading into open country again.

I include a PDF file of the five pages from Lusignan to Melle in the GR655 guide – including both the maps and the descriptifs for this section – and I shall not say anything much about the route in addition to that.

The Via Turonensis here goes through open countryside and vineyards and is a very pleasant walk but there is no further route information to add than provided by the guide.

The talk I gave to the group in Jassay was in two parts: about walking from Worcester to here, and then I explained about the different route that Robert Sutton – the Worcester Pilgrim – would have taken in 1423. So, today on the virtual pilgrimage, I shall catch up with his journey. This draws again upon Katherine Lack’s book The Cockleshell Pilgrim, which imagines the journey that he would have taken and explains the things he would have seen and situations he might have encountered on his walk.

I tried to make contact again with Katherine when I began this virtual pilgrimage project, as I wanted to explain the approach I was taking and share my thoughts about reading her account again, several years later. Sadly, I could not get a reply in this unusual year of 2020 – maybe her contact details have changed – so I shall have to make my comments here first, rather than share them with her which I would have preferred.

As a reader asked about the bourdon I am carrying in this pilgrimage, I shall point out that this is a continuous narrative, so start at the beginning! (New readers can find Day 1 of the pilgrimage here: Worcester to Tewkesbury.) Why I set out from Worcester and not London, as intended, was to carry a replica of the Worcester Pilgrim’s bourdon and I set off from his grave in front of the altar in Worcester cathedral. The replica was made by Katherine Lack’s husband Paul, an Anglican priest. The photograph on the left was taken in their garden when I collected the bourdon on the day before I set off.

The Worcester Pilgrim’s route is still to the west of the Via Turonensis at this point. As I reach this village of Jassay near Saint-Sauvant, he was at the city of Niort to the west on a parallel route. Some people in the group I spoke to in Jassay were interested to know why I did not follow exactly the route taken by Robert Sutton. There was a very simple reason: all my planning for the walk from London had been done, including places to stay in France, when suddenly I had this last-minute offer of taking the replica Worcester Pilgrim’s bourdon, so I simply set off from Worcester instead, before rejoining my original planned route from London.

He had been travelling alone for seven weeks – about a week longer than me at this stage – and Katherine gives us one of her rare moments of characterisation of him. Her book is much more about late mediaeval France and all of the detail of military and ecclesiastical power-play, and sadly Robert Sutton largely appears – page after page – as a series of pins in the map! We are told where he is and what is going on in the 15th century France around him, but we don’t see much of the man himself. The actual experience of doing a marathon walk from Worcester to Compostela is not here. Mostly it is barely imagined and we have little idea who this man is, but the following passage is one I can identify with. I read this passage to the Anglican group who welcomed me to their village of Jassay. Robert Sutton is in Niort just fifty kilometres to the west (map) and this is how Katherine Lack describes his circumstances:

For a man used to the the crowded intimacy of a medieval city and the constant human exchanges of a large household, it was a formidable achievement. The aching loneliness, the friendless tedium, must often have tested him sorely. Telling his beads, counting his paces to the next stream, letting his mind trail off dangerously towards indifference, somehow he had to complete each day. He had little choice in the matter. Once he had undertaken to set off from Worcester alone, once that was incorporated in the pattern of his pilgrimage (to go overland, alone, on foot), it was just not safe to take up with strangers casually met along the way. Everywhere, but especially in France, the roads were channels of fraud and deception. A pedlar might be simply trying to sell ribbons and laces, but how could one be sure?

Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim (2003)

So, I took the phrase from the passage about ‘telling his beads’ and explained how this would have been a rosary in his case – probably a ten bead rosary – and I then explained about the use of the Orthodox woollen prayer rope and the history of the Jesus Prayer. The good Anglicans of Jassay thought they had booked an evening of talking about the Way of Saint James, but they had a spirituality exercise instead. In the end we had a good discussion about different methods of prayer, and how there will be considerable differences in approach according to personality and individual circumstances. In the end, for them the Camino de Santiago was something that happened to run through the village, but it was not going to run through their lives. An evening talk that turned to a mini-mission was far more appropriate, and nobody with experience of delivering parish missions would miss an opportunity like that!

Next morning I continued towards Melle – with a rucsack kindly stuffed with good old English sandwiches from my kind hosts. I thought about Robert Sutton again. I had not given him a great deal of thought lately, considering I had set off from his grave and was walking with the replica of his bourdon. I was now only a couple of days walk from joining his route now at Saint-Jean-d’Angely where the Via Turonensis is joined by the tributary pilgrim route from Cherbourg. Robert Sutton would have passed through Coutances in Normandy whose bishop five hundred years later received me into the Catholic Church. My mind went back to the conversation with the ‘priest’ who turned out to have been a garage owner in Lusignan.

I had not yet picked up those thoughts about vocation and worked them through. Was it because I did not dare? Yes, that was it exactly. I hadn’t thought about it yesterday and I was not going to think about it today either. Christian thought has a wonderful way of dealing with things you would rather not think about. Let’s just hold that up in prayer, eh? Some would call it an avoidance strategy. They would be mistaken. I unwound the woollen Jesus Prayer rope from the replica of Robert Sutton’s bourdon and I began to recite rhythmically as I walked, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner…”

Chemin des Pélerins