Brief History of the Camino de Santiago
The Way of St James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times.
Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem in AD44 on the orders of King Herod Agrippa. The body of the first apostle to be martyred was carried in a stone boat to the coast of Galicia. He was then buried in Compostela where he lay forgotten for many centuries.
According to legend a star led a shepherd, Pelayo, from Galicia to the grave in 813. The Bishop of nearby Iria Flavia confirmed the discovery.
King of Asturias and León Alfonsso II ordered that the cathedral be built in honour of Saint James on the site of his grave.
The revival of the story of Saint James came at the start of the reconquista of Christianity in Spain. During this period it is said that Saint James appeared on horseback and helped fight against the Moors.
His most famous appearance happened at the battle of Clavijo in 844 where he single handedly slaughtered thousands of Moors. This is where the images of Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor Slayer, on horse back originate. Soon after, Saint James became the patron saint of Spain and Santiago de Compostela quickly became the third largest pilgrimage destination next to Rome and Jerusalem.
The Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones, particularly the Camino Francés. During the Middle Ages, the route was very popular. However, the Black Plague, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th- century Europe resulted in its decline.
By 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.
Pre-Christian History of the Camino
Pagan symbols have been claimed to exist along the route. Some pilgrims are more attracted to the pagan legends popularly attributed to the walk, than to the Christian history.
One legend is that walking the route was a pagan fertility ritual, this however is based on the explanation of scallop shell being a symbol of the pilgrimage. An alternative interpretation is that the scallop, which resembles the setting sun, was the focus of pre-Christian Celtic rituals of the area.
There are also claims that the pre-Christian origin of the Way of St. James was a Celtic death journey, westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the End of the World (Finisterra) on the “Coast of Death” (Costa da Morte) and the “Sea of Darkness” (that is, the Abyss of Death, the Mare Tenebrosum, Latin for the Atlantic Ocean, itself named after the Dying Civilization of Atlantis).
The Camino 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 started making the journey.
The earliest records of pilgrims that arrived from England belong to the period between 1092 and 1105. However, by the early 12th century the pilgrimage had become a highly organized affair. One of the great proponents of the pilgrimage in the 12th century was Calixtus II who started the Compostelan Holy Years. 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 Santigo de Compostela.
In 1189 Santigo de Compostela was declared a Holy City by Pope Alexander II. He then declared that any pilgrim completing the Camino during Holy Year would not have to endure purgatory in the afterlife and those who completed the pilgrimage during any other year would only have to do half the normal time.
It was the norm during this time for criminals to be sentenced to walk the Camino as punishment. Although many convicts, if they had the money, would pay someone else to complete it for them.
Due to the huge numbers who made their way to Santiago, lots of towns and cities began to appear along the way. Churches and a series of hospitals and hospices were built to provide for the daily needs of pilgrims on their way to, and from, Compostela. 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.
Pilgrims would walk the Way of St. James in order to arrive at the great cathedral 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. As a result you are no longer permitted to touch the pillar.
The Modern Day Camino
The popularity of the Camino faded until a revival began in the 1960s thanks to the efforts of people like O’Cebreiro’s parish priest, Don Elias Valiña Sampedro, who wrote a guide on the Camino and traveled around Europe giving lectures on the subject.
Today thousands of Christian pilgrims and other travelers set out each year from their front doorstep, or from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most make the journey on foot, some travel on bicycle, and a few hardened traveler go on horseback or by donkey.
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. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It acts as a retreat for many modern “pilgrims”.
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 but the most popular route is the French Way, Camino Francés. The most common starting points are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport 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.
The Via de la Plata, The Silver Way, is another popular route, and is 1000km long. It is much less frequented than the French Way or even the Northern Way but in recent years it has gained popularity amongst pilgrims from around the world. The Via de La Plata starts in Seville from where it goes north to Zamora via Cáceres and Salamanca. After Zamora there are two options. The first route heads west and reaches Santiago via Ourense. The other route continues north to Astorga from where pilgrims can continue west along the Camino Francés to Santiago.
Another popular route is the Camino Portugués, Portuguese Way, which begins at Porto in north-west Portugal. Pilgrims travel north crossing the Lima and Minho rivers before entering Spain and then on to Padron before arriving at Santiago. It is the second most important way, after the french one. 227 km long. A popular start point for a 108 km walk to Santiago is at Valença, Portugal, by the spanish border, through Tui, Galicia.
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