How Santiago de Compostela became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for Christianity? A history of the way of St. James.

The hermit Pelayo must have been amazed when a light phenomenon led him to a tomb at the beginning of the 9th century. Was it a star or even an angel? Unsure what the divine light was all about, Bishop Theodemir was summoned from nearby Iria Flavia to investigate. After three days of fasting and a vision, the man of God found the remains of St. James. Since the 11th century, this is how the story of the tomb discovery has been told.

Heavenly apparitions, Lent, visions: the narrative has striking similarity to other European relic discoveries of the time. This is more about clever storytelling than about historical truth.

But what led to the proclamation of the existence of an apostle’s tomb on the outermost edge of Europe in the 9th century? Especially since, according to the Acts of the Apostles, James was beheaded in Jerusalem in the year 44 AD. (See also my text on ABC).

The origin of the Way of St. James had political reasons

The reason for the miraculous discovery of the bones of one of Jesus› most trusted disciples lies in the political and religious situation on the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the first millennium.

In 711, the Muslim Moors dared to leap from North Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar and quickly took over much of what is now Spain.

Only the northern kingdoms were able to withstand the onslaught and remained independent. One of these was the Kingdom of Asturias, which was poised to become a regional superpower by conquering Galicia. And what could highlight this claim better than the bones of an apostle – especially since in the Christian West only Rome with St. Peter’s tomb had a similar clout.

In addition, the Christians of the peninsula lost their most important religious and spiritual center when Toledo was taken over by the Moors. They needed a replacement. It would also boost the morale of the Christian armies that prepared to drive out the Moors in the centuries to come.

When some inner-Christian quarrels arose (the remaining Christians in Toledo clung to a heretical doctrine for a while), people in Asturias saw the time as ripe to strengthen their own power: Santiago as the burial place of James the Elder was a done deal.

Shortly after the tomb was found, around 824 AD (dates vary), the first pilgrimage church was built, which had to be expanded in 899 due to the large crowds.

Santiago only became a pilgrimage destination with a lot of «advertising»

Nevertheless, Santiago initially remained mainly a regional pilgrimage destination. That only changed in the 11th and 12th centuries when people in Santiago banged the drum for the new pilgrimage destination. Stories of healings and other miracles at the tomb of the apostle made the rounds. The collection of writings Liber Sancti Jacobi, also called Codex Calixtinus, also contributed to this. In the five-volume book, not only is the legend of the convict of James reported, but above all the miracles attributed to him. In addition, the Liber Sancti Jacobi contained the first pilgrim guide to the Way of St. James. Even if the descriptions of good and bad inns and hostels, rivers and dangerous sections of the path give an impression of the pilgrimage of the time, this section could hardly be used as a practical travel guide.

Rather, the authors were concerned with propaganda, in order to make the distance to Santiago de Compostela, far away, appear shorter. This also includes the statement that you only need 13 daily stages for the Camino Frances – at around 800 kilometers that would correspond to a daily distance of around 60 kilometers. An impossible undertaking even with a horse, on which mainly nobles and rich pilgrims traveled.

In the meantime, pilgrims were flocking to Santiago from large parts of Europe.

And yet the diocese of Santiago de Compostela still lacked the last “knight’s accolade”: Santiago was only a bishopric and not an archbishopric. What was to be done? The Compostelian bishop Diego Gelmirez started lobbying par excellence. With skillful arguments (an apostle’s burial place requires the privileges of an archdiocese) and above all with a few chests full of gold (Santiago was now very rich thanks to the pilgrims), the Galicians convinced Pope Calixtus II to grant the church the status of an archdiocese in 1120.

From the 12th century, Santiago developed into a European phenomenon

Now the Santiago pilgrimage, sometimes with several hundred thousand pilgrims a year, developed into a pan-European phenomenon. This had huge effects on the regions along the main routes: monasteries and hospices were built to accommodate pilgrims, churches were expanded for the crowds and bridges were built (one of the most famous examples is the bridge in Puenta la Reina). Many of these structures are still intact today.

The high point of the pilgrimage peaked in the 16th century. The Reformation and humanism contributed to a more critical assessment of pilgrimages and the cult of relics (reformer Luther even claimed that only the bones of a horse lay in Santiago). Pilgrim numbers dwindled. 

By the 19th century, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela came to an almost complete standstill.

And it was only in the 1980s, with the publication of books by prominent figures such as Shirley MacLaine and Paulo Coelho, that the Way of St. James regained its popularity and has now become a new global phenomenon.

Write A Comment