Skip to content

Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 10: Gender-Bending Sainte-Eugenia at the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vezelay


Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 10: Gender-Bending Sainte-Eugenia at the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vezelay

These blog posts are taken directly from my notebooks. They contain much of the material that went into the final version of the surprise bestseller Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.



Part adventure story, part cultural history my book explores the phenomenon of pilgrimage along the centuries-old Way of Saint James in France—not in Spain. Starting in Paris then training to Northern Burgundy we trekked 750 miles south, an eccentric route taking 72 days on Roman roads and pilgrimage paths—a 1,100-year-old network of trails leading to the sanctuary of Saint James the Greater. It is best known as El Camino de Santiago de Compostela—“The Way” for short. The book includes 32 pages of evocative color photographs by Alison Harris. She has generously provided the images that appear with these posts.

What follows is unexpurgated, unedited material—the uncut version.

Listen to a short medley of sounds from our trek: a babbling brook, a braying mule, ducks and geese, church bells and barking dogs, wind, our own tinkle bells to warn hunters of our presence, and a Spanish pilgrim in Roncesvalles pronouncing the name of that isolated place, the famous medieval abbey where our trek ended: Pilgrimage sound medley

The paperback of Paris to the Pyrenees comes out in April 2014…

The Relics of Mary Magdalene? Photo copyright Alison Harris all rights reserved


Sainte Eugenia wanted desperately to join a men-only monastery explained the guide at the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay. So Eugenia she became a cross-dresser, infiltrated the establishment as a he-monk, rose to the rank of abbot and, in a twist that struck me as eerily contemporary, fell victim to what we’d call sexual harassment. Not by a fellow monk, mind you, but by a woman from outside the monastic community.


Eugenia rebuffed the lusty lady who, spurned, denounced Eugenia-the-abbot as a molester of women. Dragged before the authorities, Eugenia denied the deed but was condemned. Only in extremis, when her words had failed to convince them, did she strip off her cloak to reveal her true, female gender. “She saved the honor of God,” the guide said, puzzlingly, before leading the group to another carved capital.


Nowadays Eugenia’s gender would not constitute a defense, of course, because same-sex harassment is just as unacceptable as heterosexual harassment. Were Eugenia a college professor, for instance, she would no doubt lose tenure, possibly go to jail and become the subject for a play by David Mamet.

Don't mess with Martin…

Fascinated, I followed the guide and group to a capital that tells the story of Saint Martin, scourge of paganism. The saint orders Celtic druids to fell their sacred tree. If they do so, says Martin, he will stand in its path and, if his powers fail him, be crushed. The heathens gleefully comply—anything to rid themselves of meddlesome Martin. But the tree not only fails to fall upon him. Obeying Martin’s—God’s—command, the sacred tree spins in the opposite direction and threatens to kill the pagans, who flee for their lives and are converted to Christianity on the spot. Martin’s message varied from “your gods don’t exist” to “my God is bigger than yours.”

Next on the tour came the story of Lazarus and the rich man. “They’re pigging out,” said the guide, pointing to the table of portly patricians shown on the carved capital. “Lazarus is starving and they won’t give him a crumb…” But the starveling Lazarus has the last laugh, for he is resuscitated by angels. The plutocrat instead dies with a soul so filthy that demons refuse to touch it. They thrust tongs down the cadaver’s throat to remove the foul soul. In Hell, the charitable Abraham is forbidden by God from giving even a drop of water to the tight-fisted rich man’s burning soul.


In case any in the tour group failed to get the message, the guide made it plain: “Be generous to the church and to your fellow man and woman.” She led her flock to the door, turned up her palm discretely and said farewell. Saint Lazarus’ tale clearly had thaumaturgic power, for each and every member in the group, and even hangers-on like me, ponied up with a euro or two.


Vezelay Vespers  (682x1024) (236x360)

Vespers at Vezelay's Basilica of Mary Magdalene. Photo copyright Alison Harris

Alison and I waited for the crowds to thin before climbing down a short flight of steps into the crypt of Sainte Marie-Madeleine. In the dank gloom I stumbled on the rough floor, carved about 1,200 years ago from living rock. Columns support mildew-stained vaults of more recent vintage—circa 1165. Behind bars in a large niche corresponding to the main altar on the floor above, stands a reliquary, an ornate Gothic arc of gilded silver borne aloft by angels and holy men.


Photo copyright Alison Harris

The niche was designed to hold the saint’s entire tomb but after the Vatican de-authenticated Vézelay’s treasure, the tomb vanished. The relics, however, remained. Some of them are in the crypt’s reliquary, or so we are told.


I sat on a bench and closed my eyes, trying to feel the presence of Mary, trying to bestir spirituality. I sensed little beyond the presence of other curious humans, some with flashing cameras, others clutching guidebooks or The Da Vinci Code. What they might find hidden here I could not imagine. Nothing about the crypt seemed secret, hidden, worthy of a conspiracy but then who could have imagined Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail hidden under the Louvre’s inverted pyramid? I felt like a spy in the house of love. Try as I might to awaken the God gene in me, all I could sense was profound skepticism and the stench of mildew, which made me think of Saint Anthony’s capital on the façade and the smell of pilgrims’ feet.


Reportedly another portion of Mary Magdalene’s de-authenticated bones repose in a hollow column in the church’s right transept. As we left the crypt heading for the cloisters we stopped to look at this second reliquary. Crowned by a gaudy modern sculpture of the saint, the column appeared to have been vandalized. A pocket-sized niche in it stood empty, the wire grate over the niche bent back. Had a miniature effigy, presumably of Mary Magdalene, been lifted by a souvenir hunter? There was no one of authority in the church to ask and, frankly, though trophy hunting strikes me as reprehensible, I was not going to weep over the loss of a modern statuette.

Saint Bernard in a moment of quiet

The chancel and ambulatory were closed in preparation for the Easter Eve extravaganza scheduled for 10 p.m. But in the left transept on a lectern a short text and photo reminded visitors that 860 years had passed since Saint Bernard’s militant Crusader sermon. On the 800th anniversary of that sermon, in 1946, the aftermath of World War Two, a commemorative ceremony held in Vézelay had called for a Peace Crusade. Fourteen tall, wooden crosses were built for the occasion and borne by delegations from the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and nine regions of France. Certain Nazi prisoners held in nearby POW camps heard of the Peace Crusade and asked to join. So a fifteenth cross was fitted together, and the POWs marched alongside 30,000 faithful through the streets of Vézelay and into the countryside, symbolically carrying the crosses home. Presumably they were loaded on trucks for transport, but that was a minor detail. It was a touching chapter of postwar history, largely forgotten. I couldn’t help wondering where the crosses were today.


We had hoped to meet the abbot of Vézelay and speak to him about modern pilgrims. But he and his siblings, members of the Brothers and Sisters of Jerusalem (les Frères et Soeurs de Jérusalem), were understandably busy with Easter preparations. A sign in the cloister explained that the order was founded on November 1, 1975 and has operated the basilica since 1993. They also run another celebrated UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage site, the Mont Saint Michel, on the border of Normandy and Brittany, as well as the church of Saint Gervais in Paris just a few blocks from where we live.


The Brothers and Sisters of Jerusalem appear to be an active order. Anyone in need of spiritual guidance or professional training could sign up with them for a pilgrimage or retreat, and take violin or zither lessons, and Bible reading—Lectio divina. As we studied the leaflets and notices on a cork board, a soulful, middle-aged woman appeared with one of the Brothers, or perhaps a Sister, of Jerusalem. If he was man he was a delicately handsome one. There was something about the urgency of the pair’s whispered talk and body language that recalled to me the legend of Sainte Eugenia. I was about to say so but stifled my irreverence.


“Powerful chemistry there,” Alison said, unprompted.


“What an imagination,” I said, feigning moral superiority.


Please come back and read part 11 about Vézelay’s ramparts, and the exquisite Franciscan church of La Cordelle


photo copyright Alison Harris


Watch a video about us walking the pilgrimage route in Paris

Please come back, future blog posts on the trek coming up soon…

Images by Alison Harris copyright all rights reserved. Note some images are from other sources.


Listen to an interview about Paris to the Pyrenees with Jacki Lyden on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday


Listen to David being interviewed by NPR Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley about the pilgrimage revival



Snippets of reviews/praise:


Evocative and moving… Downie’s quest is unconventional in tone and spirit as well as route. A lively wordsmith, Downie brings a deep and impassioned knowledge of French history, culture, and language to this pilgrimage. He also brings something more, a longing that he himself can’t pin down at the beginning… they encounter a memorable succession of taciturn, deep-rooted local farmers and gregarious, transplanted-from-Paris innkeepers. They also encounter the multi-layered, interweaving pathways of French history, commerce, religion, and spirituality—and manage to tuck in a few sumptuous celebrations of French food and wine, too. The result is an extraordinary account that illuminates France past and present and casts a light on something even greater: the truth that, however we choose to label our journey, we are all pilgrims on a common quest, to answer why we wander life’s question-paved path.” (Don George – National Geographic Traveler)


“In the tradition of Patrick Leigh Fermor, David Downie takes off on foot. Such a rigorous, slow journey—the polar opposite of airport-to-airport travel—gives him the gift of time, and the chance to absorb, taste, and experience the places he sees. Downie’s adroit, learned, and ambitious book re-invigorates my sense of travel, taking me back to the happy knowledge that the world is still large, and history unfathomably deep.” (Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun)

“Profound. A witty and intelligent spin on the spiritual-journey motif.” (Kirkus Reviews)


Order the hardback of Paris to the Pyrenees:


Order the e-book of Paris to the Pyrenees:


Order the audio book of Paris to the Pyrenees:


Order the paperback of Paris to the Pyrenees, it comes out in April 2014!

Share Button
Published inAlison Harris photographyBasilica of Mary MagdaleneBurgundyEl Camino de SantiagoFranceParisParis to the PyreneesParis to the Pyrenees blogpostParis to the Pyrenees blogpostsParis to the Pyrenees video: Paris PreludePilgrimage audioPilgrimage from VezelaySaint James and scallop shellsThe Way of Saint JamesVezelay