A Brief History of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

My pilgrimage curriculum vitae
I have always enjoyed walking - especially repetitive long-distance walking, and became interested in the Camino de Santiago about 12 years ago. I read some articles on the Camino, there was a documentary on television that excited me, and I met several pilgrims who had recently returned from Santiago de Compostela, Spain who spoke about their experiences.

My wife and I became members of the Confraternity of St James and attended an open day and listened and learned from knowledgeable speakers and mingled with experienced and budding pilgrims. We decided to become pilgrims and pored over maps of France and Spain and chose Le Puy-en-Velay, France as our starting point. We negotiated some extended leave, purchased our back-packing kits and guidebooks, and made our way to Le Puy-en-Velay. We attended Holy Mass in the cathedral, and the kindly bishop sent us on our way with his blessing and gifts. That was a memorable moment.

Pilgrimage 2000 The cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay, France to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to finish at the Faro de Finisterre. The route GR65 (Grande Randonee) passed through Conques, Figeac, Cahors and Moissac before reaching St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and in Spain through Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria before it reached the “City of the Apostle”.

Pilgrimage 2002 Winchester cathedral, Hampshire, England to Le Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France. The route passed through Portsmouth and by ferry to Cherbourg, Barfleur, the Normandy coast, to Saint-Mere-Egise, and Genets on the north shore of the bay that was crossed with a guide to the iconic Le Mont Saint-Michel.

  • In the Middle Ages Barfleur was one of the chief ports of embarkation for England.
  • 1066 - A large medallion fixed to a rock in the harbour marks the Norman departure from Barfleur before the Battle of Hastings.
  • 1120 - The White Ship, carrying Prince William, the only legitimate son of Henry I of England, went down outside the harbour.
  • 1194 - Richard I of England departed from Barfleur on return to England following his captivity by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor.
  • 6 June 1944 - Normandy Landings
Pilgrimage 2005 Saint Cuthbert's Way from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland.

Pilgrimage 2007 Camino Portugués from the cathedral of Porto, Portugal to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrimage 2008/2012/2013 From my home in north London to Jerusalem. I followed the via Francigena, via Appia, via Egnatia, and the The five-island-hopping route: Samos, Patmos, Kos, Rhodes, Cyprus.

Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury (989-994) went to Rome in 989 to receive the 'pallium' (investiture mantle) from the hands of the Pope, as was customary for that period. Sigeric on his way home recorded the journey that later became known as the Via Francigena. The manuscript is kept in the British Library, and was rediscovered in the 1980s by Italian researchers. The Archbishop's description of the route proved accurate although the 10th century names differed in many instances from their modern names.
Pilgrimage 2010
Cami de Llevant runs from the cathedral of Valencia via Albacete, Toledo, Avila, Toro, Zamora, Ourense to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to finish at the Faro de Finisterre, once again.

1. The mystery of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the way of St James)
A history of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (City of the Apostle) could ask how the Galician cult of St James transformed into an international one attracting thousands of pilgrims from distant parts of the world. However, the answer was not immediately apparent in the sources I consulted. An answer may be found in the approach by the holy, political, and commercial adopted by the Galician authorities, as in earlier times. These authorities recognise the value of pilgrims to the economy of that autonomous community.

The answer may be found in modern day pilgrim behaviour. For example, what is the passion that drives pilgrims to Santiago? Many return time and time again despite the hardships, deprivations, illnesses, costs that many can ill afford, and often increase the distances of their journeys. On their arrival at the cathedral, pilgrims embrace the statue of St James, and lavish him with hugs, kisses, caresses. Under the main altar of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, inside a silver urn, is the Tomb of St James. It is allegedly where his mortal remains, together with those of his disciples St Athanasius and St Theodore, rest in peace, and where modern day people sit and pray.

2. Santiago
James and his brother John were the sons of Zebedee, and they were two of Jesus' Apostles. Their mother Salome was related to the Virgin Mary. This James was one of two and possibly three apostles named James, and his Hebrew name was Ya'aqov. The apostles names would have been in the Hebrew-Aramaic language of that time.
Mark 1:19-20 19 When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. 20 And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him. Matthew 4:21-22 21 Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. And He called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.
The account of St James in Galicia reads like a fable. Soon after Jesus' crucifixion, St James sailed to Galicia and commenced his ministry amongst the people of the Celtic and Iberian Peninsula tribes. (Of course, there is no evidence to support any of this.) He later returned to the Holy Land, and was captured and beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in 44AD. After his martyrdom, St James' body was taken to the coast and placed in a glass boat which guided by angels carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, in north-western Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided a team of oxen to draw the body from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb that she provided. According to legend, St James was buried there with two of his disciples. And there they lay, forgotten until the 9th century.

Early that century, Pelagius, a hermit lived in that part of Galicia, and had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to an ancient tomb that contained three bodies. He reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of St James and his two followers, and in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared St James to be the patron saint of Spain, or of what would eventually be Spain.

A village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. (Or possibly the Roman word for cemetery, "componere": to bury, is the source.) In any event, news of the discovery spread and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles were attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles. Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities actively promoted Santiago as a pilgrimage destination, as did the monks of the Abbey of Cluny in France who supported the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors on the Peninsula.

There is some historical support for aspects of the story and, on the other hand, there are complications and contradictions. The 1884 Bull of Pope Leo XIII Omnipotens Deus accepted the authenticity of the relics at Compostela, whereas the Vatican remains uncommitted, while continuing to promote the more general benefits of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It is impossible to know whose bones were actually found, and precisely when and how. (But the same can be said about other relics, and perhaps it does not matter.)

The earliest records of visits to the shrine of St James date from the 8th century. This became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage; and the custom of those who carried back with them from Galicia scallop shells as proof of their journey gradually extended to other forms of pilgrimage; for example, the palm of Jericho symbol was the most well recognised pilgrim badge travellers brought back from their journey to Jerusalem. Across France and Spain the pilgrimage routes led from shrine to shrine, just as a caravan route leads from oasis to oasis.
My first day began from the Cathedral of Valencia, and I quickly and surprisingly discovered that the route, in fact, led from church to church, just as a caravan route leads from oasis to oasis. That feature of the route was not pointed out to me by the meeting of the Asociación Amigos Camino de Santigo Comunidad Valenciana (and should have been), and that morning was my introduction to the guidebook and collection of maps having purchased them the previous evening. The churches and their spires on that early first stage were well within my line of sight as I went along and they helped with navigating around all kinds of construction obstacles blocking my progress. I'm certain that the task would have been more difficult without church spires as navigation aids. Churches and their spires remained an important navigation feature and aid throughout this rather tough pilgrimage.

Church spires, of course, were not always within my immediate line of sight as usually they were spaced far apart but they always were a most welcoming sight indicating that the day's destination was almost within reach. However, there were times, when I was weary, when the church appeared unreachable, and appeared to resist me reaching it. Of course, churches were the marker for the location of the Plaza Major: bars, municipal offices, police, accommodation, information, and such like. Churches proved a useful reference (if the name was known or that of the place) to quote when asking for information or requesting confirmation for being on track. That was equally important as a psychological boost particularly when doubt was starting to creep in. Praise for the builders of Spain’s churches!
According to Spanish legend, St James appeared as a ferocious sword wielding warrior on horseback to help Christian armies in battles against their Muslim foes during the Reconquista. St James is said to have appeared to Christian troops fighting a Moorish army at the Battle of Clavijo in 844, the crusaders rallying to the cry of "Santiago y cierra Espana" - "St James, we will reconquer Spain". His presence was not limited to only the Reconquista. In the Americas St James was also called upon by the Spaniards in their conquest of native peoples.

3. The Middle Ages
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached its peak during the Middle Ages and constituted a major cultural aspect of that period of history in Europe. By the 12th and 13th centuries, half a million pilgrims made their way to and across northern Spain and back each year. It is likely that many were directed to undertake these journeys as a form of penance by their priests, acting as God's intermediary.

Thus began the millennium-long relationship between the holy, political, and commercial. An infrastructure developed to support pilgrims and, not coincidentally, to gain profit from them. Roads and bridges were built to draw pilgrims to certain cities and they prospered. Pilgrim hospitals and hospices were chartered by religious orders, and kings and queens. All manner of businesses were established to support pilgrims. The Knights Templar patrolled the Camino, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing and worship, as well as a banking system that became one source of their fabled wealth. Cultures mixed, languages merged and history was affected by these developments. After its peak, the phenomenon of pilgrimage to Santiago tapered off, and politics, disease, religious, and technological advances were among the likely causes for the decline in pilgrim numbers.

At the end of the 16th century Spain engaged in wars with both England and France and these affairs effectively cut off access to Spain from elsewhere in Europe. In the 17th century Louis XIV of France forbade his subjects from going to Santiago de Compostela in order to stop trade with Spain.

The Black Death was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350, and is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population. It took some 150 years for Europe's population to recover.

Technological advances
The invention of the printing press and the translation of the bible into vernacular languages variously upset and usurped the power of the clergy to instruct or order people to embark on pilgrimages.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was probably the first European to use movable type printing, and in 1454/5 brought out copies of a beautifully executed folio Bible (Biblia Sacra), with 42 lines on each page. The Bible sold for 30 florins each, which was roughly three years' wages for an average clerk. Nonetheless, it was significantly cheaper than a handwritten Bible that could take a single scribe over a year to prepare. After printing the text portions, each book was hand illustrated in the same elegant way as manuscript Bibles from the same period written by scribes.

The Bible has been translated into many languages from the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. However, during the Middle Ages, translation, particularly of the Old Testament was discouraged. The churches of the Protestant Reformation translated the Greek of the Textus Receptus to produce vernacular Bibles, such as the German Luther Bible, the Polish Brest Bible and the English King James Bible.

The Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther around 1520, would have had an effect, being deeply critical as he was of the practice of indulgences, a concept thoroughly intertwined with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment of sin could be purchased with money, and confronted indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel with his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. His refusal to retract all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 resulted in his excommunication by the pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the emperor.

Luther taught that salvation is not from good works, but a free gift of God, received only by grace through faith in Jesus as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority of the pope of the Roman Catholic Church by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge and opposed sacerdotalism (a belief that priests can act as mediators between human beings and God) by considering all baptised Christians to be a holy priesthood.

His translation of the Bible into the language of the people (instead of Latin) made it more accessible, causing a tremendous impact on the church and on German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the translation into English of the King James Bible. His hymns influenced the development of singing in churches. His marriage to Katharina von Bora set a model for the practice of clerical marriage, allowing Protestant priests to marry.

4. The practice of indulgences
You don't hear about indulgences any more. I certainly never heard anyone speak about indulgences, and it wasn't until I began researching this paper that I recalled my high school studies of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and the practice of selling indulgences. The Catholic Church had technically banned the practice of selling indulgences as long ago as 1567. However, in 1960, Pope John XXIII had quietly reintroduced it. Never mind that Martin Luther fired up the Reformation because of them. During the course of my visits to the cathedral I observed that the confessionals were under utilised suggesting that few people request indulgences, that maybe coincidental with my visits. The plenary indulgence is granted to those who:
  • visit the tomb of St James during a Holy Year and during ordinary years on Easter Sunday; 21 April (the anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral); and on St James' three feast days (23 May - the Apparition; 25 July - his martyrdom; and 30 December - the translation of the relics);
  • confess their sins;
  • attend Mass;
  • pray for the intentions of the Holy Father; and
  • undertake some charitable work (this can include a charitable donation). The indulgence may be gained on behalf of the dead.
A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptised and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant.
5. Pre-Christian history
For the people of the Celtic and Iberian Peninsula tribes – and indeed up until the late Middle-Ages – the Costa da Morte was the last redoubt of explored land, the westernmost part of continental Europe, the final stretch of an itinerary traced in the sky by the Milky Way, a mythical and symbolic place whose most extreme point was pervaded by the impressive mass of cabo Fisterra (Cape Finisterre). It was a place rich in pagan rites and rituals, and an awe-inspiring site for the Romans (2nd century BC) who were struck with wonder when they saw the mighty sun vanish into the sea. The Romans called it Finisterrae (literally the end of the world in Latin) indicates that they viewed it as a place of significance. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in north-west Spain over which, in parts, the modern Camino Francés continues to wend its way.

There are those modern-day pilgrims attracted more to the pagan legends associated with the Camino as a spiritual experience rather than the Christian. For example, it is not difficult to view the setting sun as a symbol of death and that the scallop shell (the symbol of St James) resembles the setting sun, and was the focus of Celtic rituals (what ever they were). Thus the Camino may have been a Celtic death journey, westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the End of the World (Finisterra) on the "Coast of Death" (Costa de Morta). So that the tale of St James rescuing a "knight covered in scallops" maybe a reference to him healing, or resurrecting, a dying (setting sun) knight. (This is purely conjecture on my part.)

6. The modern-day pilgrimage
The route known as the Camino de Santiago is not a single route. There are any number of routes to reach Santiago de Compostela. Today thousands of pilgrims each year set out from their homes, or from popular starting points across Europe. The most popular route is the Camino Francés on which most pilgrims start from either Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees or from Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. It is a route that writer James A. Michener calls “the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world.” He did it three times and mentions passing “through landscapes of exquisite beauty.”

The decline in church attendance coincides with a marked increase in pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. Over a period of 25 years pilgrims numbers have increased from 690 in 1985 to 200,000 in 2010 (estimate). Modern-day pilgrims walk for days, weeks or months to reach the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. A few travel on horseback; and many by bicycle. In addition to people on a religious pilgrimage there are those who walk for non-religious reasons such as for enjoyment, travel, sport or the challenge of walking in a foreign land. The Camino brings back the critical elements we have lost as we have moved further and further away from more primitive conditions and are as follows: engaging activity (reducing excessive mental rumination); physical exercise; sunlight exposure (Vitamin D supplementation); social support (avoiding isolation); proper sleep.

The modern Camino fundamentally remains the same as it was for medieval pilgrims. It is a repetitive long distance walk, and at the end of the day, to maintain a healthy body and mind, pilgrims require a comfortable bed, a shower, a toilet, nice nutritious food and thirst quenching drinks, facilities to wash their clothes. The infrastructure is growing and are operated by religious orders, but more commonly by municipalities or associations while others are private businesses. Typical are albergues with bunk beds in dormitories and communal shower and toilet facilities. Of course, pilgrims have access to other types of accommodation.

The modern pilgrim carries a credential which is stamped daily and serves as proof that the route has indeed been walked or cycled. When registering at an albergue, their credential verifies that they are genuine pilgrims. In addition, upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, at the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos, pilgrims present the credential to confirm having walked the prescribed distance as walkers or cyclists (the last, westernmost 100-km for walkers or 200-km for cyclists), whereupon they are issued a certificate that certifies their pilgrimage.

7. What is it that binds pilgrims together on the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago is a community of spirit among pilgrims, a peace brought by the simplicity of that life, and a common goal, that binds us together. The Camino, with its winding roads and footpaths, offers respite from the business of modern existence. It provides an opportunity to reappraise our direction, and helps us shift to a more evolved state.

The Camino allows time away from the familiar and habitual so that new insights can be revealed. A wider perspective opens up, where we begin to realise who we are and what we came here to do. Each day is lived in the simplicity of the Way where we travel at a more natural pace. This allows time to witness the rising sun, the landscape that surrounds us with its array of fauna and flora. We proceed towards the welcome that awaits us at the day’s end where the hospitalero (a term from which we get the word hospitality) of the next albergue greets us.

Mindful walking is a form of meditation that reminds us of the divinity within ourselves and all life. The passing landscape of Spain reminds us of that spirituality that connects us, irrespective of our differing religions and philosophies. We find ourselves in the company of like-minded community of nomadic people. The Camino de Santiago transcends our differences to unite us in an eclectic bond of openness and shared values.

Many pilgrims’ stories contain a hint of let-down or anticlimactic feelings at the end of the journey. It’s hard to return home without being a changed person. You return to your “regular life”, and struggle to re-integrate into your previous daily routine. Some manage to after a short while, whilst others make radical and drastic life changes. The Camino de Santiago redefines ourselves by pushing our limits, challenging our beliefs, and learning about ourselves.