Now we have gotten over the initial shock of the endeavour, let’s dive into a little history of the Camino de Santiago and Saint James in particular. Although most people have heard of the pilgrimage to Santiago, not everyone is aware of where all these roads are actually leading to and why people have travelled them since the Middle Ages.
The myriad of routes that compromise the Camino de Santiago all lead to one particular place: the shrine of Saint James the Great. Although not much is known about James as a historical figure, the Bible describes that he died in Jerusalem as a martyr in 44CE. From the fifth century onwards, tales were published adding to James’ character, depicting him as the first missionary in Spain. Other stories narrate how his body made its way back there, how it was buried and forgotten.
The miraculous rediscovery of his tomb in 813 and the chapel that was build to mark it reignites the interest in and support of this cult site. The construction of a larger church at the end of the ninth century, ordered by Alfons III, furthers the growth of the city of Santiago and incites pilgrims to visit James’ shrine. From the eleventh century onward, pilgrims from all over Europe, travel to Santiago de Compostela to venerate St. James.
Although pilgrims walked the Camino the Santiago for religious reasons, these pilgrim routes were also places where people came together, interacted and exchanged things, whether that means goods, culture, art, ideas or knowledge. In the Middle Ages, the Way of James’ thus allowed for cultural and intellectual dialogue between Europe and Iberia, being one of the reasons why UNESCO declared the Spanish routes of the camino as world heritage in 1987.
In the past years the Camino de Santiago has become ever more popular and those who perform it are not only motivated by religious reasons. Some like the physical challenge, others admire the artistic expressions one can find along the routes and some simply do it because they have always wanted to. I would love to hear about all of these reasons, because I find it fascinating that even though the reasons to conquer the camino are as manifold as the routes themselves, people still partake in a Christian pilgrimage. I wonder, what is it about the camino?
Naturally, this quick introduction to the story behind the camino does not even come close to the rich history of this pilgrimage, as well as the academic research that has been performed on it. Future posts might shine some more light on these topics, for now though, we will continue with some other camino matters.
To write this blog post, I have used the following sources:
- Lokin, Daniëlle, en Kees van Schooten (ed). (2011). Pelgrims; onderweg naar Santiago.
- Murray, Michael. (2015). “The Cultural Heritage of Pilgrim Itineraries: the Camino de Santiago.”