History of El Camino de Santiago

El Camino de Santiago came to being due to the belief that the apostle Saint James was buried in the land of Galicia, in the northwest of Spain.

Saint James spent some years preaching the Gospels in the Iberian Peninsula, and in fact he is the patron saint of Spain. After his return to Jerusalem he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in the year 44 AD, thus becoming one of the first Christian martyrs. Probably at this point, history gives way to legend. Following the saint’s dead, it was said that St. James’ disciples put his body in a stone boat that, lead by angels, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea, went through the Pillars of Hercules in the Strait of Gibraltar to finally arrive at the coast of Galicia, where a massive rock closed around his relics. These were later removed to Compostela.

The name of Compostela comes from the Latin Campus stellae which means field of stars and at the same time has a link to the other name of the Camino de Santiago which is the Milky Way. The reason for this is because when walking el Camino de Santiago at night you can see our galaxy the Milky Way directly over you. In other words, you are walking from East to West in the same direction as the Milky Way. Again, while walking in the daylight, the pilgrims also follow another star, the Sun, as it crosses from east to west. It is therefore difficult to say whether el Camino took its name from the galaxy or vice versa.

Hence, it wasn’t necessary to invent el Camino de Santiago as a material thing, as a road infrastructure since old routes already crossed by many groups and civilizations could be used. Since preroman times, these routes already communicated the river Ebro’s valley and the Mediterranean Sea through the Meseta Norte (northern high planes) with Iberia’s northwest and Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the Romans had important routes that were the core for the new network of Caminos de Santiago.

The first pilgrimages date back to the 9th and 10th centuries. However, the conditions for the development of a pilgrimage way weren’t good at that time. Firstly, because of the insecurity of the roads and secondly because the majority of Iberia was under the rule of Cordoba’s caliph. Iberia was at that time Muslim and the Christians, relegated to the mountains in the north, were in constant battle and struggle for their survival.

The strengthening of El Camino de Santiago took place in the 11th century. In a way, this fact had to do with the general European expansion during this century. The peace was recovered in the roads and the number of people who travelled along these roads for many different motivations increased sharply.

El Camino de Santiago had many protectors both in the Spanish territory and in other European kingdoms. Sancho III “el Mayor”, king of Navarra, became one of its first supporters once he understood the advantages of having a flow of pilgrims coming from the rest of Europe through his kingdom. In Castilla-Leon, the king Alfonso VI was also a big supporter of El Camino de Santiago. Besides, el Camino de Santiago was favoured by the Pope and above all by the Clunian monks, its most important supporters and developers in the second half of the 11th century. Both of them were immersed in an innovative reform, known as “Gregorian Reforms”, which focused on the unification of all Christian territories under the rule of the bishops of Rome. It was clear to them that El Camino de Santiago facilitated the approach and intercommunication of the different Christian communities in Europe.

However, the encouragement of kings and popes wasn’t enough. It was necessary to provide a good infrastructure for El Camino de Santiago. Soon, new hospitals and refuges or “albergues” were built and, at the same time, new bridges were built and old roads and paths renovated. In this way, during the 11th and 12th centuries the foundations for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela were set.

In 1139 the first guide for El Camino de Santiago was written. It was included in the 5th book of the famous “Codice Calixtino”, sometime attributed to the pontiff Calixto II, but today it is known that its real author was the presbyter Aymeric Picaud.

In those days, apart from the obvious religious interests of many pilgrims there was also an economic motivation for some others, since El Camino de Santiago was a very good place for making business. And furthermore, there was also a multitude of mischievous rogues, scoundrels, homeless or simple thieves who immersed themselves in “el camino frances” to try “to fish in troubled waters” (according to the Spanish saying).

Little by little, the pilgrims started wearing their characteristic medieval clothing: wide leather hat, short leather cape… but above all, the pilgrim’s essential items were: a leather bag, and a very big and high walking stick with a hollow pumpkin attached to the top of it. This hollow pumpkin was very useful to carry water, or preferably, wine to realise the saying: “With bread and wine El Camino is walked” (which actually rhymes if said in Spanish). Usually, an scallop shell, which was to later become the symbol of El Camino de Santiago, was attached to the bag. And the big stick was not only for support in the walk but also as a defensive arm.

Pilgrims were very well protected and attended along the way. El Camino de Santiago had many religious houses and refuges to assist the pilgrims and where it was put in practice the Christian ideal of hospitality. In those centres, pilgrims were assisted for free, both in the material and spiritual aspects. Firstly their feet were washed, after that they were provided with a hot meal and accommodation for the night; and finally the pilgrim was given food for the journey on the following day. If they died in any of these refuge centres, the pilgrims would receive Christian sepulture. However, sometimes they had to use the local inns and taverns where not only did they have to pay but also they were often deceived.

On the other hand, pilgrims had a whole jurisdiction in order to protect them: they were free from tolls in roads and border crossings, they had the right of free circulation, and even the guarantee of their wills to be fulfilled in case they died. That was just the beginning of what is known today as international rights.

At the beginning of the 12th century, Santiago de Compostela obtained the grade of Archdiocese. In 1211 the monumental church-cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was consecrated with the assistance to the ceremony of the king of Leon Alfonso IX.

Between the centuries 11th and 13th there were many illustrious pilgrims such as the Countess Matilde, widow of Emperor Henry V of Germany, Luis VII of France and Saint Francis of Assisi.

(To be continued….)

The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela