The Origin of the Way of St. James

The Way of St. James or St. James’ Way, often known by its Spanish name, El Camino de Santiago, is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great, are buried.

The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, together with those to Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned; other major pilgrimage routes include the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

However, prior to its existence as a Christian pilgrimage, the route is believed to have had significance for the ancient pagan peoples of the Iberian peninsula also, among them the Celts, and later the pre-Christian Romans who conquered Spain.The site of Santiago de Compostela itself may have been a Roman shrine.

The story of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is intertwined with the history of Christianity. After Jesus’ resurrection, St. James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. According to tradition, he also traveled to Spain to spread the Good News, then returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred. Following his death, his followers are said to have taken his body to the coast, where a ship was miraculously waiting for them. The difficult times during the early years of Christianity and the fact that most of the northern part of the peninsula was sparsely populated would have meant that the exact location of the burial site would have fallen into oblivion
Around the year 815, a Spanish hermit named Pelayo had a vision in which he saw a bright light shining over a spot in a forest. The matter was investigated and a Roman-era tomb containing St. James’ body was found. The bishop of a nearby town, Theodomir, had a church built on the site of the tomb. Around this shrine, the city of Santiago de Compostela grew (while its origins are not certain, Compostela may come from the Latin campus stellae, “field of stars”).

The pilgrimage drew the devout from across Europe for several reasons. In the year 1122 Pope Calixtus II granted the city various privileges, including an indulgence for those who journeyed here on pilgrimage, with special consideration given to those who made the pilgrimage in a year when the Feast of St. James (July 25) fell on a Sunday. The Church employed a system of rituals to atone for temporal punishment due to sins are known as penance. According to this system, pilgrimages were a suitable form of expiation for some temporal punishment, and they could be used as acts of penance for those who were guilty of certain crimes.

There is still a tradition in Flanders of pardoning and releasing one prisoner every year under the condition that, accompanied by a guard, the prisoner walks to Santiago wearing a heavy backpack
Spanish bishop Diego Gelmirez was a strong advocate for the city as well, starting a large-scale building program that included the construction of its immense Romanesque cathedral, as well as facilities for the many pilgrims who made their way to Santiago. The kings of the neighboring lands of Aragon, Navarre, and Castile contributed to the route’s popularity by building bridges, hospitals, and other pilgrim services, often entrusting the work to the monks of the French order of Cluny.

The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to, and from, Compostela were met by a series of hospitals and hospices. These had royal protection and were a lucrative source of revenue. A new genre of ecclesiastical architecture, Romanesque, with its massive archways, was designed to cope with huge devout crowds. There was also the now- familiar paraphernalia of tourism, such as the selling of badges and souvenirs. Since the Christian symbol for James, the Greater was the scallop shell, many pilgrims would wear this as a sign to anyone on the road that they were a pilgrim. This gave them privileges to sleep in churches and ask for free meals but also warded off thieves who did not dare attack devoted pilgrims.

The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey. This practice was gradually extended to other pilgrimages.

The shrine began attracting pilgrims, who steadily increased in number until by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a half-million pilgrims a year were making their way to Santiago.

The fame of the tomb of St James, protector of Christendom against the menace of Islam, quickly spread across western Europe and it became a place of pilgrimage, comparable with Jerusalem and Rome.

Santiago became the attractive goal of a pilgrimage that would, over the centuries, lead pilgrims from all walks of life and via the most diverse itineraries, to the tomb of the only apostle of Jesus, along with Saint Peter in Rome, who is buried on European soil.

There is not a single route; the Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. However, a few of the routes are considered main ones. The Way of St. James was difficult, but for many pilgrims, it offered a much easier trip than the journey to Jerusalem or Rome. Monuments, churches, monasteries, towns, and cities grew up along the network of roads leading to Santiago, and the city itself benefited greatly from the spiritual, economic and cultural growth stimulated by the millions of pilgrims. The Way of St. James became the first great thoroughfare of Christian Europe, a meeting place for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and nations.

The most traveled became the French Road, which passes over the Pyrenees Mountains before entering Galicia
The French Way, Camino Francés, and Routes of Northern Spain are the ones that are listed in the World Heritage List by UNESCO. The former was the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe.

Today, hundreds of thousands (over 200,000 in 2014 and 300.000 in 2017) of Christian pilgrims and many others set out each year from their front doorsteps or from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. In addition to those undertaking a religious pilgrimage, many are hikers who walk the route for other reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat for many modern “pilgrims”.

2 Comments on “The Origin of the Way of St. James”

  1. very difficult to explain why we did the camino as everyone had different pursuits. what I can say is that it is one of the most beautiful things I have done in my life and we have continued doing it. this year we will make the portugese way. buen camino

    1. So true Luis, we all have different pursuits and the Camino has the right path waiting for us, the right path to finding ourselves, and an experience we can never forget. Wonderful, we are so looking forward to seeing you, you will enjoy this personalized Portuguese Camino so much! Buen Camino.

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