History of ‘The Way of Saint James’ (Jacob’s Trail)
Pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – The Way of Saint James
‘The Way of Saint James’, Jacob’s Trail or El Camino de Santiago, in Spanish is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lies. For more than 1,000 years the Camino has existed as a Christian pilgrimage. It was considered one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken throughout the medieval period. It was believed that only these pilgrimages – to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela could results in a plenary indulgence, which frees a person from the penance due for sins.
Christian legend has it that when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, the Iberian Peninsula fell to James. He spent a number of years preaching there before returning to Jerusalem, where in the year 44 AD he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. Popular belief says that his followers took his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, in northern Spain. The local Queen, Lupa provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padron to the site of a marble tomb. Saint James was believed to have been buried with two of his disciples. His body lay forgotten until the 9th Century when Pelagius a hermit living that part of Galicia has a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to what proved to be an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of Santiago and two of his followers and who in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared Santiago to be the patron saint of Spain. A small village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. News of the discovery spread like wildfire and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles. This was all greatly encouraged by the powerful Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities, who were anxious to promote Santiago as a pilgrimage destination, as well as by the monks of the Abbey of Cluny in France who were anxious to support the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors on the Peninsula. And thus began the millennium-long relationship between the holy and the commercial.
There is historical support for various aspects of the story and, on the other hand, there are complications and contradictions.
During the Middle Ages Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached its peak and started a major cultural aspect of that period of European history. By the 12th century, the Camino had become a rather organised affair and what is widely regarded as the world’s first travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus from around 1140, provided the would-be pilgrim with the rudiments of what he or she would need to know while en route. Book V, the famous “Liber Peregrinationis” (“Guide of the Medieval Pilgrim”) would have provided practical information, while Book II, the “Book of Miracles”, would have provided encouragement while underway. In addition, a massive infrastructure developed to support pilgrimage and, not coincidentally, to gain commercially from it. Bridges were constructed across rivers to draw pilgrims to certain cities and they prospered. Pilgrim hospices were chartered by religious orders, kings and queens and they gained favour in heaven. All manner of commercial businesses were established to both take advantage of and to support pilgrims.
Why the scallop shell?
There are many myths surrounding the use of the scallop shell image as the symbol of Saint James and the Camino, and the details change depending on who is telling the story.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, James went to the Iberian Peninsula to preach. Eventually he returned to Judea and was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. After his death, his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to the Northwestern province of Galicia. A wedding was taking place along the shore as James’ ship approached. The bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing this mysterious ship approaching, the horse spooked, and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse then emerged from the waves with horse and rider both covered with cockleshells. Another version substitutes a knight for the bridegroom, but whichever, Santiago had performed his first miracle. On the other hand the symbol may have come into being simply because pilgrims while in Santiago de Compostela had ready access to a plethora of sea shells, Santiago being relatively close to the Atlantic coast, and enough pilgrims returned home with them as souvenirs that the sea shell eventually became the symbol of the pilgrimage. But whichever story you buy into it is fact that to this day, the scallop shell, typically found on the shores in Galicia, remains the symbol of Saint James and of the Camino.
Many aspects of today’s Camino are fundamentally the same as they were for the medieval peregrino: the Camino is a long walk or bike ride. While underway, the peregrino needs support for food, lodging and direction. An infrastructure of hospices arose in the Middle Ages and this infrastructure still exists – and in fact, it is growing rapidly. There are still a few peregrino facilities run by religious orders, but much more common today are albergues or refugios. These are essentially operated like and look like youth hostels typically with bunk beds in dormitories and communal shower and toilet facilities. Some provide breakfast and/or dinner, some have cooking facilities available while some do not, some have a set price while some are donation, some are operated by municipalities or associations while some are private businesses. Aside from the few albergues that provide meals, meals can be found basically in the same sort of places that a tourist would use – restaurants, bars and the like.
The medieval peregrino was undertaking the arduous journey that was the Camino for serious religious reasons. Today, travelers’ reasons for walking or cycling the trail span a range of reasons from the religious through spiritual to historical and cultural to sport. Where the medieval peregrino was seeking forgiveness for sins or for the Saint’s assistance in some matter, most modern peregrinos will be looking to earn the compostela or certificate of completion of the Camino from the cathedral in Santiago. To accomplish this the modern peregrino carries a pilgrim’s passport which is stamped in the various cities and villages passed through. This record serves as proof that the route has indeed been walked or bicycled. Probably the most obvious difference between the medieval and the modern peregrino is that pilgrimage for the former began on his or her doorstep, wherever that might have been, and upon reaching Santiago, the pilgrimage was half over. Today’s modern peregrino can elect to start the pilgrimage in any arbitrary location with the single restriction that to obtain the compostela, the last, westernmost 100 km for walkers or 200 km for cyclists must be documented.
Join Global Cycling Adventures
Global Cycling Adventures offer a 13-Day road cycling tour ‘Jacobs Trail Cycling Tour’ from San Sebastian in northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in northerwestern Spain. The trip is ideal for serious and recreational cyclists, is fully supported and offers numerous highlights. Cycling is through rolling hills on asphalted roads. The Jacobs Trail Cycling Tour is fully supported. There are departures in May and September each year with custom options available for groups. For further information, visit.