History of Pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Pilgrimage

There is a history of religious pilgrimages through Europe to Santiago de Compostela in Spain starting in the 900s to the reported burial place of St. James, one of the inner circle of Christ's apostles, and the first to be martyred in the year 44 A.D.

Relics of the saints were believed to possess great power, and those of the Apostles were especially venerated. Peter and Paul were known to be buried in Rome, and John at Ephesus so circa 800, James was the most senior member of the intercessionary hierarchy whose relics remained undiscovered.

He was already believed to have been the evangelist of Spain, and what is believed to be his tomb was discovered there in 814. That discovery was to set off centuries of pilgrimages to this spot.

Pilgrims made their way to Santiago along four traditional routes named in the 12th century Pilgrim's Guide as the assembly points for pilgrims coming from all over Europe: Tours (Paris), Vézelay, Arles, and (of most interest to us) Le-Puy-en-Velay - where the SSJs were founded. In fact, the first foreign pilgrim to make the 900 mile trip to Santiago de Compostela of whom there is any record was Gotescalc, bishop of Le Puy, in 947.

The four routes merged to become the so-called Camino Francés that passed across Castile, through Burgos and León to Santiago de Compostela. Along the way, shrines were constructed, at which the pilgrims would worship before proceeding, and monasteries and pilgrim hospices were built along the way to minister to their needs.

Few pilgrims to Santiago are recorded in the 10th century, and many more in the 11th, but it was in the early 12th century that Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage.

St. James' remains are said to be beneath the altar in the crypt of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The following is excerpted from an address given by Laurie Dennett, former Chairman of the Confraternity of Saint James, at a Gathering of Pilgrims in Toronto in May 2005. It tells about the history of pilgrimages through Spain and France.

St. James the Apostle

In the late 4th century, an exegetical tradition had developed which assumed that each apostle had died and was buried in the land where he had preached. Centuries later, the Apostle James’ death was included in the Codex Calixtinus, and by the late 6th century, the story was circulating as part of the Breviary of the Apostles, which was the first to claim that James had preached in Hispania.

The Breviarum became widely known in ecclesiastical circles during the 7th and 8th centuries.Through it, the idea that James had preached and was buried in the west of Spain was disseminated throughout Europe. A Commentary on the Apocalypse by the great defender of the visigothic church, Beatus of Liébana, written in about 785, contained a list of the provinces of the world each with its corresponding apostle, in which Hispania was allocated to James the Great. A poem that addresses St James is still used every time the botafumeiro is swung in the cathedral in Santiago: “Oh most worthy and most holy apostle, shining golden chieftain of Spain, be our protector and patron on earth, warding off all ill, be our celestial health…”.

By the late 8th century, a literary tradition had developed which held that the burial place of St James lay in Spain, and the tomb was purportedly discovery in about 814. The story is well-known: how, in a secluded wood near the Galician coast a tomb was found, in cloudy circumstances that later gave rise to the legend of a monk being guided to the spot by a star (the parallel with the Nativity being fairly obvious).

The find, a marble sarcophagus containing human remains, was at once acclaimed by the local bishop, Teodomir, as that of the apostle James the Great. Informed by the bishop of the discovery, king Alfonso II and his court set out in haste from Oviedo, and the king had a simple wooden church built at the site, thereby legitimising the claim. His belief in it seems to have been genuine, in that he soon endowed the little church with all the land in a 3 mile radius around it, and on his deathbed left 500 coins of the purest gold to the shrine. His son Alfonso III replaced the small church with a larger and finer one, and granted permission for the founding nearby of the monasteries of San Pelayo de Antealtares and San Martín Pinario.

The ramifications of the discovery, and of the royal recognition of it, are hard to overestimate. Alfonso II’s journey - some claim him as the first “pilgrim to Santiago” - was the catalyst for local pilgrimage, which, like ripples extending outward from a stone tossed into a pond, soon carried the news throughout and beyond the Asturian kingdom, drawing pilgrims from the Basque provinces and Navarra. The possession of apostolic relics - the only such treasure anywhere west of Rome, and moreover, the relics of the very apostle so long associated with Hispania - fortified the Asturian kingdom’s already strong Christian identity.

Early Pilgrims
Although pilgrimage to the tomb was initially local, the singular importance of the shrine was quickly communicated to the court of Louis the Pious at Aachen and those of the dukes and counts of the Frankish territories. From them it percolated into the noble houses, the cathedral schools and the monasteries. The first foreign pilgrim of whom there is any record was Gotescalc, bishop of Le Puy, in 947, reflecting the close connection that existed between Christian Spain and regions of France.

During this early period pilgrims, whether from the free territories of Spain or from across the Pyrennes, made their way to Galicia by way of the Roman road along the Cantabrian coast, or from port to port in small boats along the coast itself.

Dynastic links with the ruling houses across the Pyrenees meant that there was a steady interchange of ideas, doctrinal trends and appointments over the whole region.

In the 11th century, the reign of King Alfonso VI reign marked a highly important phase in the development of the pilgrimage. He invited the establishment a chain of religious houses along the Roman thoroughfares that crossed the reconquered territories. He also brought French ecclesiastics to be their founding superiors. These houses were intended to consolidate territorial gains and the Christian presence along the frontier, but they were also intended to care for pilgrims, and their very existence was meant to encourage - one might even say, make possible - the long journey to the shrine of St James in Galicia.

Local initiative was not long in following these examples. Bridge-building and road improvements were undertaken by, among others, the great Santo Domingo de la Calzada; confraternities were formed and hospitals founded at strategic points. New towns came into being and older ones expanded with the increase in the number of pilgrims and the influx of Frankish pilgrim-settlers.

Growth in the 11th century
During the 11th century, then, the pilgrimage to Santiago gradually acquired its international dimension. Thanks to court chroniclers and what we might call the monastic “grapevine”, it was becoming better known in the lands beyond Spain. In addition, the increasing difficulty of travel to the Holy Land made pilgrimage to the shrine of St James a worthy alternative. In consequence, at a profound level, the growing fame of the apostolic relics in Galicia was shifting what I will call the conceptual geography of Christian Europe, giving it a new pole in the west, a new focus for popular devotion, that balanced the Byzantine east with its spiritual centre at Jerusalem.

For a time Santiago de Compostela even seemed to rival the pretensions of Rome. Following the Moorish raid of 1000 A.D.that had left it and Alfonso III’s church in ruins, the town was rebuilt, with work on the cathedral we know today beginning under Alfonso VI in 1078. Then, in the year 1100, the great Diego Gelmírez became bishop of Compostela, initiating a 40-year period during which he was the energetic promotor of his see, the city and the pilgrimage. He was made archbishop and papal legate in 1120, and lavished funds on the cathedral, creating a magnificent setting for the relics of St James.

The Codex Calixtinus
From Gelmirez’s time as archbishop of Compostela dates the compilation of the five books relating to St James and the pilgrimage known together as the Liber Sancti Jacobi, or Codex Calixtinus. The fifth book, the Pilgrims’ Guide, is often cited as the first “guidebook” in the modern sense, and its author as a monk in Poitou. The work describes the four routes across Gascony, Burgundy and Provence that fed into the Camino Francés, and the unified way westwards. The author describes the terrain and rivers that pilgrims encountered, and supplies a vivid, and frequently prejudiced, foreigner’s view of the inhabitants.

The medieval faith in the efficacy of relics, and the passion for their veneration, is reflected in the Pilgrims’ Guide. The longest chapter is devoted to the relics and miracles of the saints whose shrines were linked by the routes through France, like pearls on a string.

Pilgrims could express their devotion, then, at many points during the journey, not only at its destination in far-off Galicia. The prospect of visiting these intermediate shrines kept pilgrims’ motivation high, in the course of many weeks or even months of arduous travel. Whatever their reason for “taking the road” - devotion, the hope of a cure, as penance, or in the fulfilment of a vow - periodic proximity to the relics of the saints sustain their resolve.

The hazards of pilgrimage - brigands, accidents, sickness, wild animals - and the uncertainties of travel in unknown regions being what they were, it was natural that pilgrims tended to travel in numbers. Quite apart from resettlement, the pilgrim roads thus became an important factor in the economic development of the areas through which they passed.

Royal and church encouragement of the pilgrimage on both sides of the Pyrenees came to include privileges, exemptions from tax or toll, legal provisions designed to protect pilgrims (and sometimes to protect the resident populations from them) and laws to regulate the commercial activities that arose to cater to their needs.

Given that by the end of the 12th century, pilgrim numbers had increased to the point where the monastery of Roncesvalles was reportedly feeding some 100,000 pilgrims a year, it is surely not exaggerating to speak of the pilgrimage as a phenomenon that was having a profound impact on the society that had produced it.

That impact was not only practical, but cultural, in the exchange and interplay, import and export, of ideas, techniques, skills and modes of artistic expression. With the pilgrims to Santiago, and often as pilgrims themselves, there came French stonemasons, German artisans, Tuscan merchants, Flemish noblemen, English and Burgundian crusaders…. The more educated among them brought, as part of their intellectual baggage, Provencal lyric poetry, Slav legends, Carolingian and Scholastic philosophy, new building techniques, and endless music.

Holy Years
The pilgrimage flourished through the whole medieval period, although actual numbers are hard to determine and must have been subject to the vicissitudes of numerous wars. Mentions of Compostellan Holy Years begin to appear in documents of the late 14th and the 15th centuries, and make it evident that numbers peaked in such years.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, however, dealt the pilgrimage to Santiago, and the impulse to pilgrimage in general, an all but mortal blow in much of the area north of the Alps and in the British Isles. Pilgrims continued to make their way to Santiago from Spain and from Catholic areas beyond the Pyrenees, at least until one shattering event derailed the pilgrimage for everyone: the raid on the city of La Coruña by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norrys in May 1589.

La Coruña lies a bare 40 miles from Santiago, and it was feared that Drake desired to capture the relics of St James. In the face of what they believed would be the imminent sack of the city, the Archbishop and two of his most trusted servants opened the tomb, removed the relics, and reburied them where the English would be unable to find them. Unfortunately they hid them so well that the relics remained effectively “lost” for the next 300 years.

It must have taken some time for the fact of the empty shrine to become known, but once it was known, the arduous pilgrim journey, especially from outside Spain, would have lost much of its inspirational force, although it never entirely died out.

It was not until 1879, when repairs were taking place in the cathedral, that its renowned historian made an educated guess about the reburial, and it was subsequently born out by excavation. Following the comparison of the skull with a jawbone given some centuries before to the cathedral at Pistoia in Italy, the relics were authenticated by Pope Leo XIII in 1884, and replaced under the high altar, where they are today.

The 20th century
Interest in the shrine at Compostela, outside Spain at least, was notably slow to reawaken. Not until the Holy Year 1948, a decade after the end of the Civil War and three years after the end of World War II, was the pilgrimage and the Year itself widely publicised outside Spain. Special postage stamps were issued and major art exhibitions mounted. Most notably, the year saw the publication of Vazquez de Parga, Lacarra and Uria Riu’s monumental 3 volume study of the pilgrimage, which drew on sources from all the countries and language areas that had once been represented in the crowds that thronged the medieval Camino Francés.

The first significant response came, not surprisingly, from France - the custodian of the four major routes that feed into the Way in Spain. In 1950 a small group of historians connected with the National Archives in Paris formed the Societe des Amis du Chemin de Saint Jacques. Largely academic in orientation, this group pioneered the formal study of the pilgrimage and produced modern versions of essential texts.

Two of the historians filmed their pilgrimage to Santiago in 1949 for the French Ministry of Culture. The sight of the Camino and its monuments sparked more interest among French television viewers of the 1950s, and a number of French pilgrims walked to Santiago as a result. Then in the Holy Year 1965 a Spanish counterpart to the French Amis was formed in Estella, a town with strong historic links to the pilgrimage.

The Amigos of Estella were interested both in scholarly investigation and in making the pilgrim journey to Santiago once again possible in practical terms. There were, of course, no waymarks, no handy guidebooks, no refugios apart from the monastery cell or the kindly offered hayloft. The pilgrim of 1965 would have encountered a world in which the memory of the pilgrimage was very much alive but its physical vestiges little respected, in which the same farmer who offered him food and shelter would have thought nothing of planting a crop over the historic thoroughfare.

The Amigos performed a notable service when in 1969 they published the guidebook and maps compiled by one of their members, and a Galician priest produced in 1971 a simple handbook called Caminos a Compostela, small enough to fit into a pocket and containing only the information useful to a pilgrim on foot. These had the effect of increasing the number of pilgrims from Spain and other countries. THe priest also waymarked the entire length of the Camino Frances with yellow arrows, and built up a network of contacts along the Camino and also persuaded municipal authorities that reclaiming the route, preserving its ancient buildings, and providing shelter for pilgrims were tasks they should properly assume. As a priest D Elias could emphasize the Christian obligation inherent in the figure of the pilgrim, while making understood the value of a heritage hitherto taken for granted.

Timeline of the Pilgrimage Site
• ca 813 - supposed tomb of St James discovered in Spain; from this time, increasing numbers of pilgrims journey to Santiago; original church built
• 899 - new cathedral consecrated; bishopric transferred from Padron to Santiago
• 950 - first recorded pilgrimage by Godescalc, bishop of Le Puy
• 997 - cathedral sacked by Al-Mansur
• 1075 - 2nd cathedral begun
• 1080 - Roman rite generally adopted instead of Mozarabic; St James Day moved from December 30 to July 25 (i.e. winter to summer)
• 1100 - Diego Gelmirez made bishop of Santiago; promotes links with Cluny; work starts on 3rd cathedral
• 1122 - Holy Years instigated; plenary indulgence for all pilgrims to Santiago in these years
• 1124 - Santiago made archbishopric
• mid 12th century - Codex Calixtinus produced; pilgrimage by now well established
• 1154 - French king Louis VII makes pilgrimage
• 1175 - Order of Knights of Santiago founded
• 1181 - Papal Bull Regis Eterni confirms Santiago's status as major pilgrimage site
• 1188 - Pórtico de la Gloria completed
• 1211 - 3rd (current) cathedral consecrated
• 1213 - supposed pilgrimage of Francis of Assisi
• from 14th century, pilgrimage declines: Black Death, wars, schism …


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