The Pilgrimage Then and Now

It was the greatest pilgrimage of its age.  Dee Nolan explains the history of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and its modern re-birth.

Why did this pilgrimage start?

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has its foundations in the cult of St James (Santiago in Spanish), which saw medieval Christians set out from their homes all over Europe to walk to the saint’s shrine in north-west Spain, believing it would secure for them eternal salvation. In English, it is often referred to as The Way of Saint James and, in France it is Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. Most commonly, it’s called, simply, the camino after the Camino Francés – The Way of the French.  This is the best-known of the myriad of Santiago pilgrim paths crisscrossing Europe like a road map. The Camino Francés traverses the north of Spain for 800 kilometres, from the Pyrenean mountains on the country’s eastern border to Santiago de Compostela in its furthermost north-west corner.

The first recorded Santiago pilgrim was the bishop from Le-Puy-en-Velay, a small city in central France, in 950.  News spread fast of the discovery of the saint’s relics and so began the influx of walkers for God, pilgrims from all over Europe but especially from France.  Oft-quoted estimates of  half a million pilgrims annually seem high, but had there been even half that number, it’s possible that most Europeans in the Middle Ages would have known of someone who had made the journey.  The heyday of the pilgrimage was the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Who was St James?

St James was one of Christ’s apostles, known as James the Greater.  No one seems to dispute that he was beheaded in Jerusalem by the order of Herod in about 44 AD.  The faithful believed that he had earlier been an evangelist in Spain and that his disciples brought his body (including his head) to northern Spain by boat.  Providence delivered the precious cargo to a place in the region of Galicia now called Padrón where the remains were buried at a holy site.

Medieval Christians worshipped the relics of saints and martyrs, believing that visiting their shrines and even touching their remains would bring them closer to God.  In this cult of relics, there was a hierarchy starting with Christ, then the Virgin Mary, then the apostles and lastly the saints.  As an apostle, St James’ relics were highly revered.

Why did people in the middle ages go on Pilgrimages?

Pilgrimages were held to be the principal way to ensure spiritual salvation so they were very popular.  Fear of eternal damnation in hell was a powerful motivator. While most pilgrims were wealthier people, pilgrims came from all levels of society. Most pilgrims were men.  If he was a serf, in a religious order, married or a minor, he had to seek permission from his superiors, spouse or parents.  Eventually pilgrims were granted special judicial status, which protected them from arbitrary arrest, exempted them from certain taxes and tolls and secured the belongings they left behind.

Some people went on a pilgrimage to a saint’s shrine to seek a cure for illness, or offer thanksgiving.  Officially sanctioned were proxy pilgrims, people who undertook the journey for someone else, and posthumous pilgrimages, in which a dying person willed his vow of pilgrimage to his heir or left money for a pilgrimage to be made to ensure his place in heaven. Later, professional pilgrims made an appearance, paid by wealthy, stay-at-home vicarious pilgrims.  The pilgrimage could be given as a punishment to those found guilty of ecclesiastical or civil crimes.  And then there were pilgrims, just like now, who were simply curious to see new places and experience different cultures or who were simply out for adventure.

Changes in religious doctrine in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries challenged the cult of relics and the sanctity of pilgrimage. The Age of Enlightenment saw them further debunked and by the nineteenth century, the numbers turning up on important holy days at St James’s shrine in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela were in single figures.

Why is it popular again?

The process of finding the original Santiago pilgrim paths gathered pace in Spain and France in the last half of the twentieth century, attracting small numbers of dedicated historians and hikers.  There were very few religious pilgrims  – less than 100 each year.  Then, in 1993, Santiago de Compostela promoted a special Feast Day of St James on 25 July, never anticipating the reaction.  Tens of thousands of people flooded onto the re-traced pilgrim path in north-west Spain  – and have been coming in greater and greater numbers ever since.

The popularity of the reincarnated pilgrimage is an extraordinary word-of-mouth phenomenon.  Pilgrims return home with their stories of walking through
some of Europe’s most beautiful countryside; of the extraordinary Romanesque monasteries and churches built for the first pilgrims and still standing; of the special sense of belonging to a large community of pilgrims, past and present; of having precious time to think and reflect.   In turn, others are inspired to set off. Meanwhile, more and more of the early paths are being re-traced throughout Europe and the choice of Santiago pilgrim paths grows.  A map of the early paths (highlight for map) reveals the huge distances travelled by the pious first pilgrims.

For most pilgrims, the Santiago pilgrimage is no longer the overtly religious act it once was.  While there are still those who undertake it for religious reasons, its appeal for the modern traveler is many and varied: history, adventure, a rare opportunity to get away from it all in a fast-paced world.  Every pilgrim has their own story.  Spirituality?  Many people say they didn’t set out seeking spirituality but that somehow it found them.  Equally, some may feel disappointed at their experience but few feel unmoved.

In the beginning, I had misgivings about the word “pilgrim”.  It seemed an anachronism in an increasingly secular Western world.  But it becomes a pleasing thing to be  – an inclusive term that embraces everyone on the paths.  An old word takes on a new meaning because now, in the context of the pilgrimage, it is not laden with dogma.

Why is the scallop shell the symbol of the pilgrimage?

The scallop shell has been associated with the Santiago pilgrimage since the twelfth century.  There are many reasons offered, from legend to practicality. A miracle attributed to St James has him saving a rider on his horse from drowning in the sea near Santiago de Compostela.  They both emerge, alive, covered in scallop shells – the Galician coast in this part of Spain in renowned for its shellfish, including scallops.  What better proof to take home of finishing a pilgrimage than a scallop shell? Medieval pilgrims reaching Santiago de Compostela were entitled to buy their shell from an authorized seller in front of the cathedral. The pilgrim might fix the shell to the brim of his hat, just as it appears on the statues of St James the pilgrim, or to his pouch.  Today’s pilgrim often starts out with a scallop shell, fixing it to their backpack.

What is a compostela?

A compostela is the official certificate of pilgrimage completion granted by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  The mandatory distances for receiving one are arbitary: the last 100 kilometres of the path to St James’s  shrine for walkers, 200 kilometres for cyclists.  To qualify, a pilgrim obtains a pilgrim’s passport in advance, directly from their cathedral or from a St James association.  These passports are stamped along the way at hostels, churches and cafes, and are then presented in the Pilgrims’ Office on arrival in Santiago de Compostela.  For more information, you can listen to my interview with an official from the Pilgrims’ Office.

In addition, the Pilgrims’ Office now offers a Certificate of Distance, recording the route which the pilgrim had walked, the starting point, the number of kilometers and the date of arrivalin Santiago.  The Cost is 3 Euro.

Australian pilgrims can apply for a pilgrim passport from:
Australian Friends of the Camino at