Svatojakubská cestaJakobswegWay of St. James

History and present of the Way of St. James

History of St James’s Way

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 has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times. It was considered one of three pilgrimages on which all sins could be forgiven; the others are the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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. Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great. During the middle ages, the route was highly travelled. However, the Black Plague, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th– century Europe resulted in its decline. Until the 1980s, only a few pilgrims arrived in Santiago annually. However, since then, the route has attracted a growing number of modern–day pilgrims from around the globe. The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987; it was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993.

Pre–Christian history of the route

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.[citation needed] The site of Santiago de Compostela itself may have been a Roman shrine.

To this day, many pilgrims continue from Santiago de Compostela to the Atlantic coast of Galicia, to finish their journeys at Spain’s westernmost point Cape Finisterre (Galician: Fisterra). Although Cape Finisterre is not the westernmost point of mainland Europe (Cabo da Roca in Portugal is further west) the fact that the Romans called it Finisterrae (literally the end of the world, or Land’s End in Latin) indicates that they viewed it as such.

The route during the Medieval period

The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 8th century, in the time of the Kingdom of Asturias. 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 earliest recorded pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees visited the shrine in the middle of the 10th century, but it seems that it was not until a century later that large numbers of pilgrims from abroad were regularly journeying there. The earliest records of pilgrims arriving from England arrived date from the period between 1092 and 1105. However, by the early 12th century the pilgrimage had become a highly organized affair. The official guide in those times was the Codex Calixtinus. Published around 1140, the 5th book of the Codex is still considered the definitive source for many modern guidebooks. Four pilgrimage routes listed in the Codex originate in France and converge at Puente la Reina. From there, a well–defined route crosses northern Spain, linking Burgos, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún, León, Astorga, and Compostela.

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 route to Santiago de Compostela was possible because of the protection and freedom provided by the Kingdom of France, where the majority of pilgrims originated. Enterprising French people (including Gascons and other peoples not under the French crown) settled in towns along the pilgrimage routes, where their names appear in the archives. The pilgrims were tended by people like Domingo de la Calzada who was later recognized as a saint himself.

Pilgrims would walk the Way of St. James, often for months, in order to arrive at the great church in the main square of Compostela to pay homage to St. James. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway of the church that a groove has been worn in the stone.

Oddly, the popular Spanish name for the astronomical Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago. The Milky Way was said to be formed from the dust raised by travelling pilgrims in a common medieval legend.[1]. Compostela itself means „field of stars“.

The modern–day pilgrimage

Today tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims and other travellers set out each year from their front doorstep, or 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 (for example, the British author and humorist Tim Moore). In addition to people undertaking a religious pilgrimage, there are many travellers and hikers who walk the route for non–religious reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land.

Routes to Santiago

Pilgrims on the Way of St. James walk for weeks or months to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela. They can follow many routes (any path to Santiago is a pilgrim’s path) but the most popular route is the French Way or Camino Francés. The most common starting points on the Camino Francés are Saint–Jean–Pied–de–Port on the French side of the Pyrenees or Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. However, many pilgrims begin further afield, in one of the four French towns which are common and traditional starting points: Le Puy, Vézelay, Arles and Tours. Cluny, site of the celebrated medieval abbey, was another important rallying point for pilgrims, and, in 2002, it was integrated into the official European pilgrimage route linking Vézelay and Le Puy. Some pilgrims start from even further away, though their routes will often pass through one of the four French towns mentioned. Some Europeans begin their pilgrimage from the very doorstep of their homes just as their medieval counterparts did hundreds of years ago.

The pilgrimage as tourism

The Galician government seeks to make the Way into a popular tourist destination. When there is a Holy Compostellan Year (whenever July 25 falls on a Sunday) the Galician government’s Xacobeo tourism campaign is unleashed once more.