Le Pèlerinage de Mai in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer: Building a tradition

The 24th May of each year, the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, located in the French département of Bouches-du-Rhônebecame the destination of one of the most famous European pilgrimages, and the very centre of the Gypsy1Gypsy is a general term referred to “a member of a race of people originally from northern India who typically used to travel from place to place, and now live especially in Europe and North Africa” (Cambridge dictionary), while Romani and Roms indicate Slovak gypsies, and Tziganes/Gitans indicate Hungarian gypsies. However, in France, the term Tsiganes is often used as a general term. In this article, Gypsy and Boumian (local for Bohémiens) are used as synonymous.-Mediterranean culture. During that day, the statue of Sainte Sara, patroness of gypsies, is carried by a crowd of Boumianscoming from all over Europe, from the Church of Notre Dame de la Mer to the sea.

The procession of St. Sara is part of a far older pilgrimage: The Saintes Maries pilgrimage. In fact, the village due its name to the veneration of two saints: Mary of Clapos (Marie Jacobé) and Mary Salomé (Marie Salomé), whose relics were found in 1448 during excavations ordered by King René. The two saints, together with Mary Magdalene, are said to have arrived to the village by sea, to escape the persecutions they faced in Palestine.

Since the finding of the relics, three fêtes dedicated to the holy women took place in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, one in December, one in October, and the main fête on the 25th of May. Despite the presence of gypsies during this pilgrimage was attested since the half XIX century (Bordigoni, M., 2002: 492), the first procession of SaintSara took place only in 1935. Moreover, the origin of its statue in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is unknown, and even the history of this saint has some obscure aspects.

The aim of this article is to briefly analyze the participation and visibility of the Gypsy community to Sainte Maries’ pilgrimage, as well as the origins and growth of SaintSara procession.

The Boumians in Camargue: a discussed visibility

In order to analyze the presence of Gipsy communities in this village of Provence, let’s first have a glance to XIX century île de CamargueIn his memories, the Mémoire sur la Camargue, edited in 1825, the baron de Rivière described Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as the Kingdom of misery and fevera place where the inhabitants eat «grenouilles vertes et flamants roses»frogs and flamingos (cited in Bordigoni, M., 2002: 49). Besides, the village was difficult to reach: Located in an area of salt marshes, the roads were impassable several months a year. A significant change only occurred in 1892, with the realization of the railway that connected Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to Arles.

Saintes Maries de la Mer
Saintes Maries de la Mer

The construction of the railway that simplified the access to the village provoked a significant increase in the number of tourists and pilgrims arriving in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Tourists were attracted by the magnificent beach and the local fauna, and pilgrims came to experience the procession of Saintes Maries. Still, no mention to the presence of Boumians during this pilgrimages. Therefore, as suggested by Bordigoni in his article (Bordigoni, M., 2002: 492), we will tackle this problem by asking «when did gypsies become visible?” instead of “when did they first participated to the pilgrimage?».

Upon their arrival in Europe, Gypsies have long been associated with the performance of pilgrimages. Local infrastructures, rights and safe-passage documents, and protection and benefits granted to pilgrims were easily integrated in their nomadic tradition. This partially explain the difficulties we face when we try to isolate Bohemian from the other pilgrims.

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In 1988, the historian Gerard Gangneux did some important archives researches in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Basing on XVII and XVIII centuries documents, he could affirm that there was no mention to Sara the Egyptian or to any gypsy procession2“Toute notre documentation dans ces deux siecles ne fait jamais mention de Sarah l’Egyptienne, ni a fortiori d’une quelconque procession gitane”(Gangneux, G., 1988: 26). Despite we can trace back the presence of Gypsies communities in the region to 1438, when they are first attested in the nearby roman town of Arles (Wiley, E., 2005: 136), the older known written reference to the presence of Bohemiens in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer only dates 1885, in an article by J.-B. Laurens, in the French journal L’illustration (Bordigoni, M., 2002: 492).


It is worth mention than during the first quarter of XIX century, more than 10% of the local population was listed as “nomad”Besides, the right to glean, le droit de glanage, was allowed by local laws and usages. Therefore, it was not uncommon to see near the fields tents and other precarious shelters, where locals and nomads (Bohémiens or not) could easily mix up (Villeneuve, M., 1924, tome IV: 715-764).

It is generally accepted that gypsies’ participation to Saintes Maries’ procession dates back to the beginning of XIX century. However, at that time, there was no political nor cultural interest in identifying Boumianamong the other pilgrims. In fact, the members of the gypsy communities participating to May’s festival did not differ from the other lower-class pilgrims: They slept in tents or inside the church, and they were mainly from the nearby region of Languedoc (Tissier,J-L.,1989: 18-19).

As we will see in the next section, the visibility of bouminas in Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, as well as the veneration of Sainte Sara, are both very recent, and depends on one main event: the arrival in Camargue of the marquis de Baroncelli-Javon, in 1895 (Bordigoni, M., 2002: 491).

A recent tradition for an ancient saint

The figure of SaintSara first appeared in 1521, in a text by the bailiff Vincent Philippon. In this text, Sara is described as a local saint, who attended to the needs of the christian camarguaise community. For the following four centuries, no other official document mention SaintSara. It is therefore unclear how les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer became the center of its devotion and how SaintSara was transformed from a local figure to the patroness of gypsies.

Sainte Sara’s statue in Saintes Maries de la Mer

Two opposite traditions describe the origins of Sainte Sara. Despite the fact that her figure do not appear in Gospels, the catholic tradition presents Sainte Sara as a Palestinian peasant, the handmaid of Marie Salomé and Marie Jacobé. Sara is said to have arrived in Camargue with the two saints, however, in contrast with Marie Jacobé and Marie Salomé, she never undergone the canonization process. On the other hand, the marquis Folco de Baroncelli-Javon depicted Sara as a camarguise, in continuity with Vincent Philippon’s narrative. In his representation, Sara was no more a servant, but the daughter of a gipsy king, and the first European christian. Baroncelli was the first to mention a relation between the saint and the boumain community. Thus far, we can nor prove that his narrative was based on a former oral tradition, but we can neither affirm that it was a complete novelty.

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The second step towards the creation of Sainte Sara pilgrimage was the celebration on 24thmay 1904 of a Mass à Sainte Sara (despite the fact that she was not, as mentioned, a “proper” catholic saint). The mediation of Folco de Baroncelli between the local gypsy community and the catholic Church was central to the creation of Sainte Sara procession. For the first time in 1935 the statue of Sara was carried to the sea, despite the ambiguous position of the Church. In fact, no member of the catholic clergy was allowed to participate.

The bishop of Arles officially recognized Sainte Sara pilgrimage in 1941, but only in 1958 the National Gypsies Chaplaincy took part to the procession. Baroncelli’s narrative prevailed: Sara‘s statue was crowned to affirm her rang of princess and first European christian.

Sainte Sara procession

Despite the recent creation of this pilgrimage, Sainte Sara procession undergone a fast process of historicization. Nowadays, May’s pilgrimage is mainly known worldwide as the “Gypsy pilgrimage”, at the expense of the local aspects of the tradition and of its living ancestor: Marie Jacobé and Mary Salomé procession. We assisted to a “top to bottom” process, in which the interests and the social position of a single person, le baron de Baroncelli-Javon, played a major role. In fact, his intervention was far more effective than the long attested participation of Gypsies to Saintes-Maries pilgrimages, and it finally led to the informal recognition of Sara’s holiness by the Catholic Church.

A tradition that is described (and appears) as ancient and immutable, has instead a precise date of birth.


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