The history of the pilgrimage

Today one of the three largest Christian pilgrimage centers in the world, the roads to Compostela were also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. From the discovery of the tomb of Saint James to the first pilgrims, discover the history of pilgrimage on the roads to Santiago de Compostela.

The historical context of the discovery

After the Muslim invasion of 711, Northern Spain was controlled by a governor named Munuza. This governor demanded that the former Visigoth lords who had withdrawn to the mountains pay taxes (« jarai » and « yizia ») so that they could remain in his territories. The lords of Asturias, led by the nobleman Pelayo, revolted and refused to pay the taxes imposed. Munuza asked for reinforcements from Cordoba, who arrived and confronted the Christian insurgents. A great battle took place in the year 722 in Covadonga, in the Picos de Europa; the victory of the Christian lords was total (although it was glorified by later legends including even the participation of the Virgin…). This triumph is considered the beginning of the « Reconquista ». The Muslims would no longer attack this territory, which became the small independent kingdom of Asturias that would seek to continue its expansion during the following centuries.
In this initial period of the Reconquista, one of the most important kings of the Asturian kingdom was Alfonso II, called « The Chaste ». His reign lasted almost half a century between 791 and 842 and he consolidated the resistance to the power of Al-Andalus. He established his capital in Oviedo where he built numerous churches and palaces. It was during his reign that the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle James the Greater took place.

The discovery

The discovery of the tomb of Saint James, like many episodes of the life and death of the apostle, belong more to the realm of legend and tradition than to that of history.
Around the year 813, a hermit named Pelay or Paio, tells Bishop Theodomire of Iria Flavia (now Padrón), that he was guided during the night by a star to an uninhabited mountain where he saw mysterious lights and could hear the singing of angels. Some parishioners of the nearby church of Solovio also testify to having seen these lights.
Theodomire, believing in a possible miracle, decided to accompany Pelay to see these extraordinary phenomena with his own eyes. After three days of fasting, they go to the place… And there, they find a mausoleum with inside a decapitated body holding the head under its arm. The bishop recognized the body as that of James and considered this identification a divine revelation. Two other bodies found at the site are identified as those of Athanasius and Theodore, disciples of the apostle, the same ones who had taken his body to Galicia after his death.

Theodomire communicated the miraculous discovery to his king Alfonso, who in turn visited the place and ordered the construction of a church around this « compositum » (cemetery) « supra corpus apostoli » (over the body of the apostle), and granted donations and privileges to this temple. This first chapel -whose foundations were found during excavations- will become in time the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The current name of the site, Compostela, is debated: for some it is « San Jacob de Compositum »; for others it comes from « campus stellae », field of the star, in reference to the mysterious lights that guided the discoverers.
Theodomire moved the episcopal see to this place and was buried there himself (his tombstone was found by archaeologists).
The emperor Charlemagne was also aware of the facts and was soon so linked by rumor to this site that certain French epic legends attributed the discovery directly to him! This gives an idea of the importance of this event at the time.
Archaeological excavations have revealed the presence of an ancient necropolis in a castrum (possibly of Celtic origin, then Roman) and used throughout history -until this discovery- by different human groups and religions.
On the remains found on the site, today under the cathedral of Santiago, no serious anthropological studies have ever been carried out; it is impossible to know who he might actually be. From a scientific and historical point of view, it is highly unlikely (if not impossible) that it is the body of James the Greater. Even within the present-day church, the last two popes have stopped using the words « tomb » and « relics » (in reference to this burial) and have preferred to use expressions such as « memorial of St. James », and to say that the cathedral of Compostela « is linked to the memory of St. James ».

Relics in the Middle Ages, the driving force behind pilgrimages

The cult of relics has been the source of great and small pilgrimages since the early days of Christianity. The bodies of the saints – whole or in pieces -, the clothes, the blood, the instruments of martyrdom, everything that has been in contact with them… is the object of veneration and carries miraculous properties for the salvation of the soul and often the body. The faithful travel from far away to be as close as possible to these material objects that put them in direct contact with the divinity and that protect them against evil, the devil, sin or condemnation. The first basilicas, after the persecutions, were built on the crypts where martyrs were buried; for the consecration of a church a relic is placed in the altar… The prestigious cathedrals and monasteries have large collections of relics; this attracts the faithful; the visits and the reputation increase; the donations also… Some roads that connect the abbeys between them become more or less important pilgrimage roads that allow the visit of relics. There is even trafficking in relics…
This context allows us to understand that the discovery of the relics of James, a direct disciple of Jesus and, according to legends and traditions, the one who evangelized Spain, deeply moved and dazzled the Christianity of the Middle Ages West.

A theory about older origins

The Way of St. James, oriented in Spain from East to West and following the Milky Way, is also called The Way of the Stars. Not far from the supposed tomb of the apostle are the tortured and jagged coasts of Cape Finisterre, the Finis Terrae, the End of the Earth… Where, according to tradition, the boat carrying the remains of James to Galicia docked: a place considered by some as the ultimate goal of the Route. In fact, in the Middle Ages it was already a place much visited by pilgrims who continued the route from Santiago. The chapel of Santa María das Areas, which dates from the end of the 12th century, is testimony to this; in front of it was located the hospice for pilgrims, founded by the parish priest Alonso García in 1469.
Cape Finisterre has been considered a magical place since the dawn of time, and it later attracted the attention of Greco-Roman geographers and historians. According to tradition, the Romans found on the site an altar dedicated to the sun (Ara Solis), erected by the ancient peoples inhabiting the place before them.
Was Cape Finisterre a place of pilgrimage where pre-Christian peoples already went? It is more than possible. Could Christianity have appropriated this ancient place of worship and pilgrimage to adapt it to its doctrine? Would the Way of Compostela be the Christian version of an ancient pilgrimage route on the Way of the Stars? The doubt is allowed…

Saint James against Islam

The great prestige conferred by the presence of the relics of Saint James, will help the kings of Asturias to consolidate their position against Al-Andalus and to make their struggle known in Europe. King Alfonso II and his descendants made the apostle the symbol of their fight against Islam. In the year 859, King Ordoño of Asturias, claims to have won the Battle of Clavijo against the Muslims because James, the « Santiago Matamoros », appeared at his side during the fight. This miraculous intervention made Santiago the patron saint of the Reconquest and of Spain. The image of this Santiago warrior, on his horse, sword in hand, will spread throughout the Route.
It cannot be denied that the discovery of the relics occurred at a very opportune moment for the recent Christian kingdoms seeking to develop and expand their territories. It will allow them to move from the mountains where they were confined, to the fertile plains. And this is surely not a coincidence…
The fame of the new holy place grows quickly and King Alfonso III enlarges the Cathedral in 899. It was destroyed in 997 by the invasions of the Muslim leader of Cordoba, Al-Mansur, « The Victorious », who -in spite of everything and we don’t know why- respected the relics. Legend has it that Christian prisoners were forced to transport the bells from the cathedral to Cordoba. Two and a half centuries later, when King Ferdinand III reconquered the city, they were brought back to Santiago on the backs of Muslim prisoners.
The Cathedral of Santiago was rebuilt around the year 1000 by the bishop Pedro de Mezonzo and enlarged in several phases between the XI and XII centuries.

The pilgrimages

Godescalc, bishop of Puy en Velay, made a great pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James in 950. He is considered as the first documented pilgrim, initiating one of the most important European routes: the one from Puy to Santiago. Compostela takes its place among the great focal points of Christianity.
During the 11th century, pilgrimages intensified thanks to the religious orders and also to the nobles and kings who brought money for the construction of hospices, these important places of welcome for pilgrims where they could find all the services, both material and spiritual. These hospices were often built in strategic locations to channel the flow of pilgrims according to political and economic interests. For example, the Aragonese king Sancho Ramirez had the hospice of Santa Cristina (« Unum Tribus Mundi », « one of the three most important in the world ») built in the 11th century at the Somport Pass to facilitate the passage of pilgrims through Jaca -the kingdom’s new capital- and to make this city an important commercial and spiritual center. In the same way, the Roncesvalles hospice guides pilgrims directly to the city of Pamplona, capital of Navarre. Bridges (very important elements on the way to Compostela), chapels, churches… are also built along the way…
With Rome and Jerusalem, Compostela became one of the three largest centers of Christian pilgrimage in the world. It is even going to quickly place itself at the top of these destinations. The year 1033 is the millennium of the death of Christ, and Jerusalem will know a very important flow of pilgrims. However, this momentum was slowed down by the invasions of Islam in the Holy Land, which made this pilgrimage difficult and dangerous. Even the crusades did not succeed in opening up access to pilgrims again. They therefore fell back on other less remote and risky destinations … like Compostela!

In 1120, Pope Calixtus II, proclaimed that in the Holy Years or Jacquaries (those when the day of Saint James, July 25, falls on a Sunday) pilgrims would obtain a plenary indulgence. This indulgence erases all sins and allows the faithful to enter paradise directly at the end of their life. Pope Alexander III confirmed this privilege in Compostela in 1197… If we take into account that the Jacobean year happens about once every 6 years in Santiago while the jubilee years in Rome (also giving plenary indulgence) happen only every 25 years… We can understand the success of pilgrimages in Galicia!
Around the year 1140, a French cleric, Aymeric Picaud, wrote what is considered the first tourist guide, the « Liber Sancti Jacobi », for pilgrims going to Compostela. It is a meticulous description of the Way, of the towns and villages crossed as well as of the character of its inhabitants (with a rather unfavorable opinion on the inhabitants of Spain). It describes the dangers, the distances between villages, monuments and spiritual centers, hospices, good and bad rivers, etc. It also includes a detailed description of the city of Santiago de Compostela, its monuments and relics… The itinerary is divided into 13 stages, each of them divided into several days, with a distance to cover of about 35 Km per day on foot or double that on horseback. This book was later attributed to Pope Calixtus II by the monks of Cluny; for this reason it is also known as « Codex Calixtinus ».
This is the golden age of pilgrimages to Compostela; a crowd of tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of believers take the Way every year: on horseback for the most fortunate, on foot for the poorest, helped by the stick -used as a support and sometimes as a weapon against bandits- and the calabash to carry water. These two elements have become the symbols of the pilgrim, like the shell that the walkers will wear with pride on their return as proof of their journey…
Of course, there are not only pious men and women on the roads: the crowd also attracts false pilgrims who live on charity from hospice to hospice, thieves and opportunists; gambling and prostitution are also present… With time, some prison sentences can be abolished by making the pilgrimage. On the other hand, if you are rich, you can also pay someone to walk the Way in your place… And you get the indulgences that go with it!

The decline of pilgrimages

From the 14th century onwards, the pilgrimages to Compostela began a serious decline, mainly because of the plague epidemics that ravaged Europe. In addition, at that time, the stakes of the reconquest were shifted to the South of Spain where the Muslims were still established and where the Christian kingdoms were going to devote all their energy and support, leaving the Northern part of the country behind as a consequence.
200 years later, Luther began a struggle against indulgences which was to be the origin of the emergence of Protestantism. He openly declared himself against pilgrimages to Santiago and condemned them in these terms: « …One does not know if James, a dog or a dead horse is buried there… So, do not go there… ». The success of Luther’s doctrines in many parts of Europe was a blow to Compostela.
Then, the relics of Saint James disappeared. Indeed, around the year 1590, the English corsair Francis Drake threatened to ravage Santiago de Compostela, to destroy its cathedral and to plunder the tomb of the apostle. The bishop of Santiago, Juan de Sanclemente, decided to hide the relics of James. The problem is that he dies without telling anyone where they are…
During the following centuries, the decadence of the Route accelerates. The chronicles tell that on July 25, 1867, the day of Saint James, there were only a few dozen pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela…

The rediscovery of the relics and the impetus of current pilgrimages

While Miguel Payá y Rico was bishop of Compostela, work was being done in the Cathedral of Santiago. Behind the main altar, on January 28, 1879, workers broke through a vault and found an urn with human bones. The bishop immediately thought that these might be the relics of Santiago hidden by his predecessor, and sent the remains to the University of Compostela for analysis. The conclusion (perhaps a bit partisan, but understandable…) is that, indeed, it is these relics. Pope Leo XIII in his letter « Deus Omnipotens » announced this rediscovery to the Christian world. This was the starting point for the renewal of the pilgrimage.
But it was really during the last decades of the 20th century that the Pilgrim’s Way to Compostela experienced a new dynamism unprecedented since the golden age of the Middle Ages. The search for spirituality for some, the possibility of making a long journey on foot for others, the cultural and architectural richness of the itinerary linked to… a big promotion campaign launched by the regions crossed made « snowball » on the Way of Compostela. The declaration of the Camino de Compostela as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993 completed the conditions for this renaissance.


Article by Gonzalo Lopez

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