The Camino de Santiago, or in English the Way of St. James, is a network of walking routes all leading to the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northern Spain. In the past, most people made the journey for religious reasons as Santiago de Compostela is the final resting place of St. James the Great, who remains are buried in its Cathedral. Today however the vast majority make the journey for health and social reasons, hiking, cycling or even riding the route on horseback.
Legend has it that the remains of St. James the Apostle were carried by boat from Jerusalem, where he was executed, to northern Spain where his remains were found in a field under a bright star. Today Santiago de Compostela, translates to ‘St. James in the field of the star’. There are literally dozens of routes than can be taken but traditionally, the journey begins at the pilgrim’s home and finishes in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Throughout its history however the vast majority of pilgrims coming from Europe passed through France, as a result, the most commonly walked route is today known as the French Way
The scallop shell, often found on the shores of Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Nearly every pilgrim will carry one either tied to their packs or to themselves or walking sticks. Although there are several myths that link the scallop shell to the arrival of St. James body in Spain, the more likely explanation is one of symbolism and convenience. The top of the shell is covered in in ridges, all beginning at different points on the semi-circular edge. They all finish however at the same point on the straight edge. Thus, symbolising the pilgrim’s journey, beginning in various places around the world, but all ending in the same one, Santiago de Compostela. The shell also served several practical purposes, it was the right size to gather water to drink or could be used as a bowl or even a spoon. Throughout the Middle Ages the shell was quite often worn after the journey as a proof of completion of a pilgrimage undertaken. Through this the shell became the symbol of the pilgrims and Camino itself.
The first recorded pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela date from the 9th century and began in Asturias Spain. From the 11th century pilgrims began arriving over the Pyrenees from France and England and by the following century the pilgrimage had become highly organised.
The daily needs of the pilgrims were met by a series of hospitals which in turn contributed to the development of the Camino itself. Today, many Spanish towns still bearing the names such as Hospital de Órbigo in the province of Castilla y León.
The pilgrimages also ushered in a new genre of architecture, Romanesque, which saw churches designed with massive doorways to cater for the huge crowd of the devout. These churches, some dating back to the 9th century, can still be seen at various places along the Camino.
Why did they do it?
The church employed a series of rituals, known as penance, which were punishments to atone for sins they believe they committed. Pilgrimages were considered a suitable form of penance for those who were found guilty of crimes or for atonement of sins. Even today, it is still a tradition in the Flanders region of Belgium of pardoning and releasing a prisoner every year under the condition that, accompanied by a guard, the prison walks to Santiago de Compostela wearing a heavy backpack.
The 15th century saw religious wars begin to decimate Europe, this along with the arrival of the plague saw the amount of pilgrim drop drastically. The drop in numbers continued until the 20th century when the Spanish government under General Franco began to promote Spain’s catholic history in an attempt to re-unify the country. Since then the numbers have slowly increased with today more than 350,000 people walking the Camino each year to visit the Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of St. James the Great.