The medieval Christian world had three major pilgrimage sites: Jerusalem in the East, Rome in the South, and Santiago de Compostela in the West. After the loss of Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela became the most popular of the three.
There are many ancient Pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostella. The Camino trail has been an important Christian pilgrimage route for over 1000 years and was considered to be one of the three pilgrimage routes on which all sins could be forgiven. There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela, starting from a variety of points, from as far away as Germany to as close as 100km from Santiago. Traditionally the route starts when you leave home, but today, the most popular route is the Camino Frances.
The Camino Frances or French way starts on the other side of the Pyrenees in St Jean Pied de Port in France. This route is 798km long and passes along the top of north- western Spain passing through large cities and ancient villages and hamlets with a wide variety of scenery along the route.
The route was highly travelled during the Middle Ages. Kings and queens, knights and saints from many different nations made the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago. Hospitals and hospices were built along the routes and enjoyed royal patronage. The Way of St James and the city of Santiago became the most internationally visited part of Europe
The first written record of pilgrimage to Santiago also belongs to this period when Bishop Gotescalco journeyed here in 950 and in 1072 Alfonso VI abolished tolls for all pilgrims travelling up into Galicia through Val Carce.
By the 11th century large numbers of pilgrims from abroad were making the pilgrimage to Santiago. By the 12th century the route was widely travelled and highly organised, due in part to the fact that the Jerusalem Pilgrimage was no longer possible with the Crusades.
One of the 12th century’s great exponents of the camino was Pope Calixtus II, who instigated the privileges of the Compostelan Holy Years. During Pope Calixtus II time, Aymeric Picaud, a French priest from Parthenay-le-Vieux near Poitou travelled the pilgrim road. In 5 volumes, he recorded his experiences in considerable detail. The books became known as the Codex Calixtinus in honour of the incumbent Pope. Book 5 is known as the Book of St. James Liber Sancti Jacobi and is essentially the first travel guide to the camino dividing it into 13 stages commencing at Saint-Michel by St. Jean Pied de Port, the start of Camino Franças today.
A combination of the relative accessibility of the route and the miracles associated with the relics of the Saint beneath the magnificent cathedral were certainly contributing factors in its popularity. The Camino de Santiago was now firmly established and from this period we see the gentler image of St. James the Pilgrim Santiago Peregrino portrayed all along the route with staff, bible, wide brim hat to keep off the sun and scallop shell concha.
During Spain’s ‘Golden Age’ when Isabel la Católica was on the throne, saw the reconquista and the collapse of Islam and Moorish rule in Iberia. She was a great advocate of pilgrimage and had built he famous pilgrim hostel in Santiago - now a Parador.
In the centuries that followed with the Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Moors the celebration of the triumph of Christianity gave it added significance. The wealth of Spain increased greatly with the discovery of the new world and the treasure that poured back into Spain can be seen reflected in the grandiose Cathedrals along it’s length.
But the combined forces of the Protestant reformation, Black Death and political unrest in 16th century Europe all contributed to its steady decline, which increased as the 19th century arrived.
By the early 19th Century with the advent of the industrial revolution and a more materialistic orientation, there was a dramatic fall off in the numbers going on pilgrimage and from this time we see the decline of pilgrim villages along the routes to Santiago until the 1980’s.
By the early 1980’s only a few pilgrims could be seen completing the route into Santiago. In the mid- 80’s it was declared the first European cultural route and later on gained UNESCO world heritage status. Since then the numbers of people completing the journey has increased every year and in the holy year of St James (2010) 250,000 completed the pilgrimage.
Over the years various orders such as the Hospitallers of St. John influenced the development of many of the towns and cities along today’s route, such as Pamplona, Burgos, León, Santiago, and not forgetting the many villages and hamlets that maintained pilgrim hospitals to house and protect the pilgrims travelling the route (s) that snaked their way across Spain to Santiago.
The Spanish have been welcoming pilgrims for a 1000 years and today the pilgrimage contributes to the economy of this rural area of Spain Those who walk the Camino are very welcomed and respected
How did the mortal remains of Saint James come to rest in the cathedral of Santiago?
While there may be no historical evidence to support the contention that St. James preached in Galicia, there is some anecdotal testimony to that effect. It appears that some years after Christ’s crucifixion, St. James sailed to Galicia (probably Padrón) and commenced his ministry amongst the pagan population. Capes Finisterre and San Vicente had to be rounded in order to enter the Mediterranean and thence Palestine.
St. James’s mission met with only limited success and he returned to Jerusalem, where Herod, in 42 A.D., summarily beheaded him. Following his martyrdom, St. James’ disciples brought his body back to Padrón to be buried in Libredon, later to be renamed Santiago de Compostela. Overtime these remarkable events, disappeared from collective memory until around 813AD. Whilst St. Isodore of Seville wrote about St. James’s mission in Spain in the 7th century, it was not until the early part of the 9th century that a shepherd named Pelayo was drawn to a field by a bright light’ or star.
Thus, we have the field “campos”, the stars, “stella” , and Saint James “Santiago”, which gives us Santiago de Compostela. (Other accounts suggest the name comes from the Latin for burial componere, as there is evidence of a Roman cemetery on this spot built over earlier Celtic remains).
Either way, the Bishop of Iria Flavia (Padrón) Theodomirus seized the moment and ‘confirmed’ the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle and so the story of St. James was resurrected in perfect timing to spearhead the re-conquest (Reconquista) of Spain for Christianity. During several crucial battles, St. James appeared at critical moments in order to turn the tide of battle in favour of Christianity.
Thus we have the image of St. James the Moor-slayer Santiago Matamoros, depicted as the knight in shining armour astride a white charger decapitating Moors with his sword. On the strength of these successes, St. James became the patron saint of Spain, a position that he enjoys to this day.