Historical Background

A Brief History of the Pilgrimage to Santiago

Historical Context

It is important to understand what was happening in the Iberian Peninsula at the time the tomb of the Apostle James the Elder was discovered. In the 8th Century, the Moors from North Africa dominated the entire peninsula. At one time they had advanced so far north that only the kingdom of Asturias and parts of the Basque country did not fall to them. The apex of their thrust northward was reached in the battle of Covadonga in 718 when a Moorish force was defeated by Christians. This was not long, in historical terms, before Pelayo's discovery in 813. Many consider the Reconquest of Spain, which ended in 1492, to have begun with the battle of Covadonga. Thus, the discovery of the sepulcher of Saint James, and the ensuing miracles was fortuitous for the conflict to come.

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

It is said that people started making pilgrimages to Santiago shortly after the discovery of St. James’ sepulcher. The number grew over the years.

War, plague and famine had an effect on motivation for the trip and the difficulty of making it. For example, from 981 to 1002, the Almanzor, the Moorish Vizier, conducted periodic campaigns into the north, raiding and razing León, Santiago and other cities on the route to Santiago, forcing the Christians back into the mountains. In 997 he destroyed the city of Santiago and had the bells of the Cathedral carried on the shoulders of captured Christians to Córdoba where they remained until 1236. However, after his death in 1007, there was great political disruption in the Moorish territories and there were no further intrusions so far north. This allowed the kings of León, Castilla and Navarra to build works and encourage the movement of pilgrims to Santiago along what is now known as the French Route. They also encouraged the immigration of people into the towns that grew along the route.

There was increased interest in all religious matters with the approaching end of the First Millennium, which many feared would be the end of the world. This contributed to the number of people making the trip to Santiago. The first Holy Year of Compostela was established by Pope Calixto in 1119. It was revitalized in 1179 with the issuance of a Papal Bull by Pope Alejandro III. This was the start of the golden age of pilgrimage to Santiago. In the 11th and 12th centuries, millions of people from all over Europe made pilgrimages to Santiago. It has been estimated that in the 12th century 10 percent of the population of Europe was involved in making or in some way supporting the pilgrimage to Santiago. In the 12th Century there were so many pilgrims traveling to Santiago that a Moorish emissary traveling to Santiago complained of the delays on the road.

During medieval times, the medical knowledge that had been accumulated during the Greek and Roman civilizations was lost. The early Christians believed that illness was a manifestation of a spiritual problem, and could only be cured through prayer and spiritual cleansing. They also believed that miraculous cures could be wrought from the “relics” of saints. Thus one motivation of many people making a pilgrimage was to obtain a cure for themselves or some loved one or to fulfill a promise made in a prayer for a cure. On the road to Santiago, one will see or read of many hospitals set up for pilgrims. These were needed not so much because the road was so hard—although it was—but because so many people making the pilgrimage were ill when they started. As one of the original apostles, Saint James was perceived as a very powerful saint. This impression was reinforced by the reports of miracles associated with him.

Because of fear of an English attack, the apostle’s remains were hidden in 1588, knowledge of their location was lost and it was not until 1879 that they were rediscovered. During that period, interest in the pilgrimage had waned. While there was activity to increase interest in the pilgrimage after the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 39), it was not until the late 70's that the modern resurgence began. In 1985 UNESCO declared the Camino de Santiago as a World Heritage.

Santiago as a Symbol in Spanish History

A famous battle in Spanish history was the battle of Clavijo in 844. It represented a turn in the conflict between the Spanish kingdoms and the Moors. Legend has it that the Christains in the battle saw St. James riding with them, slaying Moors on every side. Thus Santiago Matamoros (Moor Slayer) became the patron Saint of Spain and his day, 25 July, is celebrated as the Spanish National Day. The photo below is of the frieze on a church in Barcelona depicting Santiago Matamoros.


The Medieval Pilgrim

My interest in the medieval pilgrim was the reason for undertaking the pilgrimage and I tried to gain insight into the medieval pilgrimage as I walked. It was difficult because I was traveling with modern equipment, using a bank card to obtain cash, calling home regularly and didn’t face the same world at all.

The paths the earliest pilgrims followed were indeed very difficult but as the numbers increased, the paths became roads and there were many towns. Indeed, in medieval times there were many facilities to provide services solely to pilgrims and more places to stay than today. When I walked for 12 kilometers on an old Roman road, other pilgrims were the only traffic. During medieval times, that would have been the main road for commerce, and there would have been many others traveling in both directions. Many places which are now fertile fields were once forests that provided shade from the sun and a break to the wind. There is no doubt that the way was hard; the existence of hospitals for pilgrims, several in many towns, is evidence for that. But disease was part of life, arising from unsanitary conditions and poor diet. In addition, often the hope for a cure to a chronic medical condition was the reason people undertook the pilgrimage.

One historical pilgrim’s account referred to rivers that were so poisonous that a horse drinking from one would die. Such conditions no doubt arose because of the use of the streets and rivers as dumping places for household sewage and business garbage and offal. These conditions are not encountered by modern pilgrims.

The Impact of The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

Recent History



Breakdown of Current Travelers

Every year, the January issue of Compostela, published by the Archicofrada Universal del Apóstol Santiago, provides the statistics for the previous year and compares certain figures for earlier years. Much of this information is now available via the Statistics page of their web site. The following are some of the more interesting statistics for 2010 (A Jubilee Year).

Approximately 272,703 people completed the journey, an increase by more than a factor of 10 from the 25,000 in 1997. In the most recent non-Jubilee Year, 2009, 145,878 pilgrims received their Compostela. This is almost a factor of 5 increase from 1997.

44.4% were women. This percentage has steadily increased since 1985.

The largest number (58%) were in the 30-60 age range, however 12.5%, 34,080, were older than 60.

Over 69% were from Spain. 3,312 were from the United States. The number of Americans has steadily increased.

The peak months were July and August when over 60% completed the pilgrimage. However, people arrived in Santiago all year, with 38 in January and 49 in February. Below is a chart showing the arrivals by month during 1998.

Almost 69.4% used the French Route. The next most popular route was the Portuguese Route, followed by the Camino de Norte and Via de la Plata.

87% made the trip on foot and 12.2% by bicycle. There were 1,232 people who made the journey by horse and 37 pilgrims used a wheelchair.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2016 Richard W. Tripp, Jr.