History of the Camino

History of the Camino

The Camino de Santiago (‘Way of St James’) began as a Christian pilgrimage (journey undertaken for spiritual benefit) and today is popular with a remarkable swath of people, from curious tourists, to devout Christians, to people in search of something that they just can’t put their fingers on.  It offers something for almost everyone, and many find they get more than they expected.  When people say Camino, they are normally referring to the most popular route to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, which is more accurately known as the Camino Francés (‘French Way’), as there are many other recognised Camino routes, all leading to the same destination.  The majority of peregrinos (‘pilgrims’ in the broadest possible sense) follow the Camino Francés, an east-west route from the French Pyrenees across northern Spain, passing through the major cities of Pamplona, Burgos and León.  Here you’ll find a little information on the history of the cult[1] of Santiago/St James that led to the development of the Camino and its evolution from the earliest period to the present day.

  1. Who was Santiago/St James?
  2. St James/Santiago and Spain
  3. Development of the pilgrimage to Compostela
  4. Peak and decline in the late medieval and early modern periods
  5. The modern Camino
  6. The twenty-first century and beyond

1. Who was Santiago/St James?

Santiago/St James, Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

According to the New Testament, even within the twelve apostles there was an inner group to whom Jesus was particularly attached.  They were present at key moments and privy to insights and events from which others were excluded (e.g. the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden), and one of these was James the Great, brother of the apostle John.  He’s known as ‘the Great’ to distinguish him from other apostles and disciples named James, of whom there may have been two or three more.  He also had a bit of a temper, and Jesus nicknamed him and his brother John ‘sons of thunder’, possibly for suggesting that Jesus rain down fire on a bunch of Samaritan villages that didn’t show them hospitality![2]  James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred, when he was executed by Herod Agrippa (king of Judea and Samaria), before 44AD.[3]  He is also traditionally considered the author of an epistle (or letter) included in the New Testament, but its authorship is quite uncertain.

2. St James/Santiago and Spain

Later legends claim that after the Resurrection James travelled to the Iberian Peninsula — then part of the Roman empire just like Palestine — to preach the Gospel, but returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred.  Ultimately unprovable, but certainly by the early centuries AD traditions existed that one of the Twelve had preached in lands by the western ocean, and a letter of Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258AD) to Christians in Roman Hispania (the Iberian peninsula) indicates there were probably Christians in modern Galicia by the middle of the third century.[4]  It was there that the name by which he is commonly known, Santiago, came into being, deriving from how Sanctus Iacobus (Latin for ‘St Jacob/James’) would have been rendered in the Latin spoken in this region during the late Roman period (from which is derived modern Galician).  From Sanctus Iacobus it became Sanctu Iacobu, and finally Santiago.  But if James/Santiago was martyred in Judea, why is he venerated in Compostela?

According to legend, his followers Theodore and Athanasius (statues of whom you’ll find flanking him in some of the facades of the cathedral) took his body to the seashore, in the hope of bringing it back to Hispania for burial.  At the shore they found a boat without a crew but mysteriously ready to sail, and no sooner were they on-board than it departed of its own accord.  Galloping behind was one of the apostle’s own disciples who failed to make it to the shore on time and who rode into the sea in his desperation to reach the ship before it disappeared below the horizon.  The rest of Santiago’s followers were immediately overcome by tiredness and fell into a seven-day slumber while the boat sped across and out of the Mediterranean by itself, up the coast of modern Portugal, until finally it reached the mountainous region of Galicia in northwest Spain and docked at Padrón on the River Sar, twenty kilometres from Compostela (itself about forty kilometres from the coast).  Scarcely had they berthed than St James’s tardy follower emerged from the water — horse and all — covered in scallops!  And so the story goes that is why the scallop shell is his emblem.  After many adventures with wild bulls, dragons, demon worshipers and pagan queens, his disciples finally buried him at the divinely approved site of Compostela.[5]

3. Development of the pilgrimage to Compostela

During the Reconquista, Compostela became one of Europe’s premier pilgrim destinations and even by the middle of the tenth century it was already drawing pilgrims from as far afield as northern France.  Unfortunately, like any tourist destination it occasionally attracted undesirable attention too, namely Viking raiders from the sea in 968AD and Muslim attackers from the south in 997AD.[6]  Pilgrims also had plenty to fear from local bandits, toll collectors and fellow pilgrims, and the journey was infinitely more difficult in an age when casual violence was much more common and basic knowledge of foreign lands in short supply.

Over time the location of his grave was forgotten, and Roman Hispania became a Christian kingdom ruled by the Visigoths (a Germanic people), and subsequently a Muslim one.  Berbers from North Africa took control of most of the Iberian peninsula in 711AD, sweeping away almost all of the Christian kingdom, with only a rump in the northwest holding out.[7]  It must have seemed to the Christians that they were doomed, but although they had forgotten the Apostle, he had not forgotten them.  The following century his tomb was revealed in a dream to a man who saw a field of stars — campus stellarum (hence the name Compostela) — and the discovery was confirmed by Bishop Theodemir of Iria (d. 847AD),[8] and authenticated with miracles, much to the delight of the Christian kings, who adopted Santiago as their patron (a kind of lobbyist/advocate who represents his clients at the heavenly court and occasionally pops down to give a little hands-on help too).  Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries the Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia conquered most of the Muslim territories (the Reconquista) and eventually evolved into the two modern states of Spain and Portugal.

Iberian Peninsula c.1210AD (Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0)

The attraction that outweighed all of the dangers of travel to Compostela was the potential spiritual and possibly worldly gains to be had from visiting the apostle’s tomb and praying in the presence of his corpse. For early in its history Christianity had developed the idea that the bodies of its holy dead — or mere fragments of them — could perform mighty deeds on earth, even after their souls had departed.  Christians made a decisive break with their Judaic and Classical roots and developed a strong affinity for their deceased spiritual heroes, fetishizing their remains in the process.  The saint’s soul resided in heaven but his/her body remained on earth, and yet somehow death never tore the two fully apart.  The saint’s tomb became a place where the awesome power of heaven was concentrated on earth, where the sick were healed, prayers were answered, and salvation was offered.  Compostela, in boasting to be the only place apart from Jerusalem or Rome to contain the complete body of an apostle, became the third holiest site in Christendom.

4. Peak and decline in the late medieval and early modern periods

The pilgrimage to the apostle’s shrine at Compostela, now known as the Camino de Santiago (‘Way of St James’) reached its height in the late middle ages.  The first guidebook appeared in the twelfth century, and provides the structure for my own historical fiction Two Medieval Irishmen on the Camino.  Souvenirs like scallop shells, badges and pins were produced in large numbers and ships captains made a living carrying people from the ports of northern Europe to the coast of Galicia (particularly A Coruña).  Pilgrimage is open to all and the famous journeyed as well as ordinary folk, with St Francis of Assisi and Queen Isabela of Castile both Camino goers, although admittedly travelling in very different styles.[9]  Along the way towns and villages blossomed to cater for the influx of these medieval ‘tourists’.

The Reformation hit the Camino hard, as veneration of the saints became viewed as idolatrous in many Protestant traditions, and the promotion of saints’ cults became a cause of concern for Catholics too, and not beyond lampooning by great Catholic intellectuals like Erasmus.  The remains of Santiago were hidden within the cathedral during the 1580s, for fear of raids by the English pirate Sir Francis Drake (d. 1596), and in many respects the hiding of the relics foreshadowed the subsequent occlusion of his cult in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

5. The modern Camino

In 1879 Cardinal Miguel Payá announced the rediscovery of Santiago’s remains within the cathedral and this set in chain the revival of his cult and the development of the modern Camino.  Internationally, Catholicism entered a period of revival and expansion during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and saw the growth of international pilgrimage sites, many of which were associated with modern Marian apparitions (e.g. Lourdes (1858), Knock (1879) and Fatima (1917)).  But as Sasha Pack has argued, the cult and pilgrimage of Santiago differs in that it harks back to earlier traditions, combined with a search for an ‘authentic past’.

Of course, an authentic past can still be open to abuse, and Francoist Spain sought to use the cult of Santiago to support the legitimacy of the right-wing dictatorship.  But just as Franco failed to perpetuate his vision for Spain, so too the Camino was stronger than his aims.  In the late twentieth century, powers within the Spanish church and government bureaucracy recast the Camino as a force for ecumenicism and a means of integrating Spain into the wider and evolving European family.  In the 1970s and 80s, Don Elias Valiña Sampedroto, a priest buried at one of the oldest churches on the Camino, Santa María la Real at O’Cebreiro (Galicia), was instrumental in popularising the medieval route known as the Camino Francés (‘French Way’), and to him we owe the ubiquitous yellow arrows that now point the way to Compostela.  International recognition followed Spain’s entry into the EEC (now EU), when in 1987 the Camino became the first ‘Cultural Route of the Council of Europe’ and in 1993 UNESCO inscribed four Camino routes on the World Heritage List.[10]

6. The twenty-first century and beyond

The authenticity of the relics was paramount for medieval pilgrims and they would not have travelled in such numbers to Compostela unless they were convinced that the body of the apostle Santiago was indeed present.  However, for modern pilgrims the legitimacy of the relics has been superseded (and indeed replaced) by the authenticity of the route.[11]  Few (if any) of today’s peregrinos believe that the apostle’s bones rest in the cathedral; instead many feel their spiritual benefit springs from their connection with pilgrims of times past and knowing that they are travelling the same roads, climbing the same hills and passing age-old landmarks.  If the journey has become more important than the destination, then perhaps that is as it should be. What is certain from the evolution of the Camino — even within the last century — is that its history is far from over and each peregrino has a part to play in its ever-unfolding story.


[1] The word ‘cult’ has negative connotations nowadays, but in a religious context it simply means all those things that are associated with devotion to a particular saint (e.g. churches, hymns, legends, prayers, relics, etc.).  It means ‘something that has been developed’, as witnessed in English words of Latin derivation such as ‘cultivate’ and ‘agriculture’. [return to text]

[2] Mark 3:17; Luke 9:51–6. [return to text]

[3] Acts 12:1–2. [return to text]

[4] Robert Ernest Wallis (trans.), The Epistles of Cyprian (#67), available at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Fathers/Volume_V/Cyprian/The_Epistles_of_Cyprian/Part_67#cite_ref-4 (accessed 19 April 2020). [return to text]

[5] The story might sound quirky and imaginative to modern ears, but as one of the great masters of the study of saints’ cults notes ‘there is no theme more hackneyed in popular hagiography than the miraculous arrival of the image or the body of a saint in a derelict vessel’: Hippolyte Delehaye (trans. Donald Attwater), The legends of the saints (4th edition 1955; reprinted Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1998), 23.  The story is retold in Richard Marsh, Spanish and Basque legends (Legendary Books, Dublin, 2010), 39–41 and 201. [return to text]

[6] Richard Fletcher, ‘The early middle ages, 700–1250’, in Spain: a history, e. Raymond Carr (Oxford University Press, 2001), 63–89: 76. [return to text]

[7] The origins of the Christian kingdoms of the north — despite their claims to be the heirs of the Visigoths — remain obscure: Fletcher, ‘The early middle ages, 700–1250’, 66–9.  For a very readable summary of this period see Tom Holland, Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of Christendom (Abacus, London, 2009), 225–34. [return to text]

[8] Robert Bartlett, Why can the dead do such great things? Saints and worshipers from the martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton University Press, 2013), 429.  Alternative etymologies for the name Compostela also exist. [return to text]

[9] Isabella and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon are famous for being the first monarchs of a unified Spain and for sponsoring Christopher Columbus’s voyages.  They also established a magnificent hospital for pilgrims adjacent to the Cathedral in Compostela, which is now luxury hotel in the state-run Parador chain. [return to text]

[10] Council of Europe, ‘Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim Routes’, https://www.coe.int/en/web/cultural-routes/the-santiago-de-compostela-pilgrim-routes (accessed 19 April 2020).  UNESCO, ‘Routes of Santiago de Compostela: Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain’, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/868 (accessed 19 April 2020). [return to text]

[11] Sasha D. Pack, ‘Revival of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: the politics of religious, national, and European patrimony, 1879–1988’, The Journal of Modern History 82:2 (2010), 335–67: 338.  This is a fascinating article and certainly well worth reading if you have access to it. [return to text]

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