Book Review: Medieval Wanders and Wonders

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Medieval Wanders and Wonders: Understanding Northern Spain and the Camino de Santiago

by Kate Simons
Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd., 2017
296 pages
on Goodreads

Reviewed by Jerald Stroebele | Anchorage, AK

Medieval Wonders and Wanders, with book cover and background.

I was reading Sinning Across Spain by Ailsa Piper when I found another book written by a hardy Australian woman pilgrim. Kate Simons walked the Camino Francés in 2010 and returned to Spain two years later with her husband. This time they followed the Camino using public transportation so she could spend more time visiting the castles, cathedrals, churches, and cemeteries along the way. Simons is a research fellow and teacher at Federation University Australia. Her research skills are obvious as you read this book. She was raised in the Anglican Church. She writes a little about medieval life and a lot about Christian life in Europe and Catholic life in Spain in medieval times, explaining the intense draw of pilgrimage. 

This is not a typical Camino memoir with tales of blisters on feet, bed bugs in albergues, and marathon kilometer days. It is a serious discussion that weaves a tale of history relating the medieval past to present places on the Camino Francés. If you are like me and look up and around in cathedrals and churches when in Spain, this book will explain a lot. The chapter on cathedrals reveals that medieval artists followed rigid structure taught by their masters. This sometimes gory and frightful art showing suffering in Hell was well understood and expected by religious medievals. Here are excellent descriptions of cathedral origins, designs, construction, and very ordered use. Similar attention is given to monasteries and cemeteries, and death and dying in medieval times. Simons explains “the ardent medieval desire to access the divine and immortality.”

The last chapter addresses the medieval obsession with the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus,  and has detailed discussions of sexuality in medieval Spain. The final discussion is about Santa Semana, Holy Week in Spain.

If you really want to know what the Camino de Santiago was like in medieval times, read this book. This is a great reference work, well told and compelling reading. If you bought this book only for its bibliography and cited works, you would be getting a bargain.

This review was featured in our Winter 2024 issue of La Concha. The theme was “The Artist’s Way”, and you can find the full issue in our archive here.

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