Sunday, 21 December 2008

Solstice: In Which the Past is Brandished

Today was a lot of things. It was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year up here in the northern hemisphere. It was the peak of an ongoing meteor shower, spectacular to see in the inky black Promised Land at night. And when the sun came up it was bright, lovely and warm.

And it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Sahagún, a skirmish of the now-much-forgotten Peninsular War that saw the British take on Napoleon´s troops and kick some French booty before sailing home and leaving Spain to its fate.

When you saunter past the peaceful little hermitage church of the Virgin de la Puente on your way into Sahagún, you don´t think of swords and cavalry charges and blood and guts, but today we saw a sort-of, scaled-down, not-exactly-precise re-enactment of the fight, out on the wide meadow so familiar to Santiago pilgrims.

It was fun, seeing the horses run and prance and frustrate their riders, who obviously wanted them to do close-order drill when the horses really wanted to run and prance and maybe eat grass. They´re local horses, a uniformed man told me, rented-out for this sort of thing all over the country. They´re "bomb-proof," he said. And some of them were small. Too small for the great big men riding on them, I thought.

The men, about 10 British "Hussars" and four French "Dragoons", wore flashy period costumes (the hats were especially dramatic) and rode on historically-correct saddles. They brandished swords (is anything else ever "brandished," I ask?) and shouted commands and had a wonderful time running their horses up and down the field at one another, prancing and shouting and brandishing like mad. These were real Frenchman, and real Englishmen, but not real soldiers. They´d traveled all the way here at their own expense to do this strange thing in this isolated place. Unlike the soldiers 200 years ago who really did fight a battle there, nobody got hurt. An appreciative crowd of after-church locals turned out and watched the fun, and applauded politely at the end of each charge.

There is something weird about historic re-enactments and enactors. I´ve met a good number of them on both sides of the Atlantic, re-living romantic bits of old wars in ways that are much more hygienic and less smelly this time around. It gives the kiddies some idea of what the past might have looked like. And it stimulates economies: A golden dragoon helmet, with its long black mane trailing down the rider´s back, costs upward of 400 Euros. I am not sure why I feel odd about the concept. Dressing up exactly like someone dressed 200 years ago and traveling across countries to thunder across a field on a rented horse is harmless enough. It keeps these guys off the streets.

Still, a good time was had by all, except maybe the horses. The whole battery rode back into town when the show was over, and met the mayor in the Plaza Mayor, and ate cookies. We went to the Bar Deportivo and had gin & tonics and toasted the British victory. The bar guys found the historical enactment mystifying, too. No one remembers Sahagún being occupied by British troops, or overrun by Frenchmen -- except maybe Modesto, our local historian. Not long ago I found him poking around inside one of the bodegas, back in Moratinos. He showed me a secret hidey-hole, cleverly dug into the wall behind the door leading to the outside.

"Anyone inside has to shut that door to see the little cave. And if you shut that door it blocks out the daylight, so you can´t see anything at all. That´s where they hid their stuff, back when the French were here," he told me.

Napoleon. Before I moved here I never even knew he´d sent an army into Spain. His men broke the noses off the statues on the noble tombs in hundreds of churches. They blew up the castle in Cea, and the one in Burgos, too. Their brutality inspired Goya to create his horrifying "Disasters of War" series of prints. To Napoleon´s soldiers, the Camino was just a convenient walkway across the top of Spain. To the locals, none of these foreigners was any damn good -- they sacked the towns wherever they went, burned the crops, stole the wine and probably messed the women around.

I wonder if those soldiers long ago had any idea about pilgrims using that road. By 1808, the pilgrimage to Santiago was a forgotten relic of the medieval past.

Which makes me wonder: Who´s to say this latest sensation for the Camino de Santiago isn´t a sort of historical re-enactment? Pilgs are forever discussing how tough it must´ve been for medieval pilgrims, and there are even a few hardcore bearded guys who walk the Way every year dressed in long robes and capes, drinking from gourds and carrying all their gear in canvas sacks instead of backpacks. They brandish walking sticks made from real trees. They sleep outdoors, seek out Masses, visit shrines, or go without bathing, just to get that "original pilgrim" vibe. They pose for newspaper photographers and TV cameras with a faraway, troubled look in their bloodshot eyes.

Paddy calls these characters "assholes." I think I´ll just call them "re-enactors."


Mart - your sis said...

you answered your own question about "brandishing". You said swords and walking sticks. You're so clever. Glad you enjoyed your bit of history relived.

PL said...

They pose for newspaper photographers and TV cameras with a faraway, troubled look in their bloodshot eyes.

Paddy calls these characters "assholes." I think I´ll just call them "re-enactors."

I like Paddy's definition better. He seems to be quite the irascible bloke; we'd probably get along famously.

- Nev

Anonymous said...

I hope I get to meet you guys in person some day. Certain phrases resonate.

Deborah said...

I'm happy you're feeling better! I hope someday we can meet. I really enjoy your blog and information on the Camino.

El Hombre Malo said...

...the now-much-forgotten Peninsular War

The Independence War is anything but forgotten, specially this year. You might have missed the many tv programs, two films and the ton of books published on the subject just this year (in opposition to the half a ton of the previous years), but for many spaniards that war layed the foundations of the modern state of Spain.

You can't understand Spain or the spanish society without the war of independence and its aftermath. Even the Civil War is a direct consequence of the changes that conflict brought.

Please read about the Liberal Constitution of Cadiz (La Pepa) or enjoy the reenactions of the popular uprising against the french in the city of Mostoles, near Madrid. said...

... I stand corrected. Someday I´ll have to get a television.

Timecheck said...

I just ran across an online version of Richard Ford's Handbook for travelers in Spain, first published in 1845. The second volume has the story of the chickens of Santo Domingo on page 860, so perhaps the pilgrims were not totally forgotten. The first volume is on southern Spain and its description of the theatre on page 101 or of bullfighting on page 92 will give you an Englishman's view of these Spanish traditions.