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."