History of the Camino
You are about to enter more than a thousand years of history and tradition associated with the Camino de Santiago. The Camino will become a multifaceted experience for you as you in turn become one with the daily flow of the life of the peregrino. ¡Buen Camino!
The Camino in History
El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James,” is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lie. The Camino has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years, and there is evidence of a pre-Christian route as well. Throughout the medieval period it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken. Indeed, it was only these pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela—which could result in a plenary indulgence, which frees a person from the penance due for sins.
Christian legend has it that when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, the Iberian peninsula fell to James. Seventh and eighth century documents suggest that he spent a number of years preaching there before returning to Jerusalem, where in the year 44 AD he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. After his martyrdom, popular belief relates that his followers carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, in northern Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb which she had also provided. Saint James was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there the body lay, forgotten until the 9th century.
Early in that century, Pelagius, a hermit living in that part of Galicia, had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to what proved to be an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He immediately reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of Santiago and two of his followers and who in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared Santiago to be the patron saint of Spain, or of what would eventually be Spain. That would come later. A small 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 like wildfire and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles. This was all greatly encouraged by the powerful Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities, who were anxious to promote Santiago as a pilgrimage destination, as well as by the monks of the Abbey of Cluny in France who were anxious to support the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors on the Peninsula. And thus began the millennium-long relationship between the holy and the commercial.
All of that having been said, there is historical support for various aspects of the story and, on the other hand, there are complications and contradictions. For further reading, we would suggest the Catholic Encyclopedia or the Library of Iberian Resources Online.
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached its peak during the Middle Ages and it is safe to say that it constituted a major cultural aspect of that period of history in Europe. By the 12th century, the Camino had become a rather organized affair and what is widely regarded as the world's first travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus from around 1140, provided the would-be pilgrim with the rudiments of what he or she would need to know while en route. Book V, the famous "Liber Peregrinationis" ("Guide of the Medieval Pilgrim") would have provided practical information, while Book II, the "Book of Miracles", would surely have provided encouragement while underway. In addition, a massive infrastructure developed to support pilgrimage and, not coincidentally, to gain commercially from it. Bridges were constructed across rivers to draw pilgrims to certain cities and they prospered. Pilgrim hospices were chartered by religious orders, kings and queens and they gained favor in heaven. All manner of commercial businesses were established to both take advantage of and to support pilgrims. Cultures mixed, languages merged and history was affected.
After its peak during the Middle Ages, the phenomenon of pilgrimage to Santiago tapered off and several possible causes or contributing factors have been cited. 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. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther around 1520, certainly 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. Two centuries later, the Age of Enlightenment certainly did not encourage its rejuvenation. But throughout all of this, the pilgrimage to Santiago never quite died out. One small piece of evidence to its continuation comes from the journals of John Adams who, while making a land crossing from the Galician coast to Paris in December 1779, wrote that he "…always regretted that We could not find time to make a Pilgrimage to Saint Iago de Compostella."
Why the Scallop Shell
As with many myths, the details change depending on who is telling the story.
To repeat part of the story above, after Jesus' crucifixion, James went to the Iberian Peninsula to preach. Eventually he returned to Judea and was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. After his death, his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to the Northwestern province of Galicia. (We'll use the more mythological version of the story.) A wedding was taking place along the shore as James’ ship approached. The bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing this mysterious ship approaching, the horse spooked, and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse then emerged from the waves with horse and rider both covered with cockleshells. Another version substitutes a knight for the bridegroom, but whichever, Santiago had performed his first miracle. On the other hand the symbol may have come into being simply because pilgrims while in Santiago de Compostela had ready access to a plethora of sea shells, Santiago being relatively close to the Atlantic coast, and enough pilgrims returned home with them as souvenirs that the sea shell eventually became the symbol of the pilgrimage. But whichever story you buy into it is fact that to this day, the scallop shell, typically found on the shores in Galicia, remains the symbol of Saint James and of the Camino.
The Modern Camino
So we now have some idea of the background of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and of what it was like for the medieval pilgrim. But what is the Camino for the modern pilgrim?
Other pages of this site and a multitude of other sites will provide the practical information that peregrinos (pilgrims) to-be will want to know. You are particularly directed to our various pages under Resources, as well as our pages Request a Credential, FAQs and Practicalities. But we will here provide here a brief sketch of the modern Camino.
Some aspects of the modern Camino are fundamentally the same as they were for the medieval peregrino: as a practical affair, the Camino is a long walk. While underway, the peregrino needs support for food, lodging and direction. As was mentioned above, an infrastructure of hospices arose in the Middle Ages and this infrastructure still exists - and in fact, it is growing rapidly. There are still a few peregrino facilities run by religious orders, but much more common today are albergues or refugios. These are essentially operated like and look like youth hostels typically with bunk beds in dormitories and communal shower and toilet facilities. Some provide breakfast and/or dinner, some have cooking facilities available while some do not, some have a set price while some are donation, some are operated by municipalities or associations while some are private businesses. Aside from the few albergues that provide meals, meals can be found basically in the same sort of places that a tourist would use - restaurants, bars and the like.
The medieval peregrino surely almost always was undertaking the arduous journey that was the Camino for serious religious reasons. The modern peregrinos' reasons for walking surely span the range from the religious through spiritual to historical and cultural to sport. Where the medieval peregrino was seeking forgiveness for sins or for the Saint's assistance in some matter, most modern peregrinos will, for whatever reason, be looking to earn the compostela or certificate of completion of the Camino from the cathedral in Santiago. To accomplish this the modern peregrino carries a pilgrim's credential or passport which is stamped in the various cities and villages passed through. This record serves as proof that the route has indeed been walked or bicycled. This credential can be obtained on the Camino in a variety of places as well as from American Pilgrims. NOTE: This pilgrim's passport is not to be confused with a traveler's passport issued by a government for international travel!
Probably the most obvious and serious difference between the medieval and the modern peregrino is that pilgrimage for the former began on his or her doorstep, wherever that might have been, and upon reaching Santiago, the pilgrimage was half over. Yes, today some few walk from home and some few walk in reverse, but this is unusual. Related to this is that the modern peregrino can elect to start the pilgrimage in any arbitrary location with the single restriction that to obtain the compostela, the last, westernmost 100 km for walkers or 200 km for cyclists must be documented. More information about the credential can be found on the Request a Credential page.
So that will serve as an introduction to the Camino for the modern peregrino. More detailed information is to be found on other pages of our site. Look us over! And ¡Buen Camino!