The Origins of the Camino

The altar of St James, wearing pilgrim gear in Le Puy
The altar of St James, wearing pilgrim gear in Le Puy

To understand the modern experience of what we now call the Camino de Santiago, it helps to start at the beginning and see where it came from and why it matters. After all, this was never meant to be a recreational hiking trail.

I’m not much of an ancient historian, but here’s my understanding of how the story goes.

Throughout the first millennium, as the Roman Empire spread, Christianity spread with it. The Romans brought trade, and the Church unified disparate peoples and gave them a common purpose. It inspired them, and it gave them something to focus their attention on other than killing each other.

Building a religion among an illiterate, diverse population took some doing, though. Faith needed to be more than a story in a book; it needed to be experienced through the senses: what could be seen, and touched, and tasted, and heard. Every gaudy statue and painting in a Medieval cathedral isn’t just there to show off wealth; for better or for worse, those images taught the moral lessons and legends of the time.

One of the core practices of first century Christianity, and of most early religions, was pilgrimage. Traveling to one of the holy sites was an act of penance, of devotion, and of adventure. In a world where few people ever left the village where they were born, a pilgrimage marked a person’s identity and piety.

There were many local and regional pilgrimage destinations, each one claiming the blessing of some superstitious relic. But there were two Big Trips, each one a key site of the larger Christian story: to Jerusalem, where Christ was killed, and to Rome, the site of many of the early apostles’ martyrdom (at the hands, of course, of the same Roman empire that now partnered with the Church to aid both of their expansionist goals, but let’s not get into the details).

As the years passed, and Christianity spread north of the Alps, those journeys became more difficult. With the added dangers of the first Crusades, the Church had a real problem unifying its expanded congregation.

Conveniently, at about this same time, a Spanish hermit named Pelayo had a series of strange visions in a field in northern Spain. He followed a mysterious star and discovered, in an unmarked field, the body of St. James the Greater, one of Jesus’ original apostles.

How a Jewish guy from Galilee happened to wind up buried in one of the farthest corners of the known world is a legend worthy of the first-century storytellers. It seems that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his apostles scattered over the known world to share the story and convert others. James traveled to what is now Spain, but had little success with the Celtic people there. He returned to Jerusalem, where he was arrested, beheaded by Herod Agrippa, and thrown over the city walls for the dogs to eat.

The Christians snuck out under the cover of night and retrieved the body (and, presumably, the head), and put it on a rudderless, unmanned stone boat. The boat miraculously traveled back to Spain, where the handful of James’ disciples found it and retrieved the saint’s remains. In some versions of the story, the boat sank just offshore and the body washed onto the beach, covered in scallop shells.

The disciples secretly buried James in an unmarked grave in a Roman cemetery, which was later abandoned and forgotten until Pelayo rediscovered it under the star (hence, Compostela: the Field of the Star).

Say what you will about the Christian Church in the first century, but they were very good at recognizing opportunity. First the Spanish bishop, and then the leaders in Rome, saw the potential. Santiago was sufficiently far away from the northern Christian population to offer an arduous, sacrificial trip. Pilgrims would have to cross the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian mountains—but there was an existing Roman trade road to follow. And as an added benefit, the additional attention could help the struggling Spanish Christians in their ongoing fight against Moorish invaders in the south.

The Church built a cathedral worthy of the relic it protected, and a city grew around it. Just like that, Santiago de Compostela became the third holy site of Christianity.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, as the first wave of Santiago pilgrims peaked, there were as many as a million people streaming across Europe to Santiago. The pilgrims sought miracles, forgiveness, favor, and probably a story to tell at their local watering holes for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of thousands died along the way from disease, exposure, and violent crime. Towns sprouted up all along the way to support them, and in exchange were blessed with a steady stream of commerce.

The popularity of the pilgrimage dwindled in subsequent centuries, with the additional risks of the Black Death and then, later, the Protestant Reformation. By the 20th century it was all but forgotten. But a series of events in the 1970s and ‘80s brought it back into public attention, culminating in 1987, when Paulo Coehlo’s influential book The Pilgrimage first released, and the route was named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The number of pilgrims exploded; in 1987, only 690 people received a Compostela in Santiago. In 2014, the number was 237,886—and 2015 looks like it will be even higher.

There is no official starting point for a pilgrimage, of course. The journey for each person begins when they walk out their front door. However, early pilgrims tended to funnel together, both for safety and for the practical purpose of using existing trade roads. And to get to Spain from pretty much anywhere in Europe, you had to cross what is now France. (The exception being the British, who get to travel mostly by boat.) The twelfth century manuscript Codex Calixtinus, probably arranged by the scholar Aymeric Picaud, identifies four primary routes to Santiago that all originate in France, yet accommodate pilgrims streaming in from every direction. (Links will take you to longer descriptions of each route, provided by the American Pilgrims of the Camino)

(I just ordered an English translation of Picaud’s Traveler’s Guide, Book 5 of the Codex. Sometime down the road I’ll bring you a future review of the western world’s very first travel guide.)

The routes to Santiago
The historic routes to Santiago

Each path begins in and winds through other “holy” cities that were popular pilgrimage sites on their own. Le Puy, for instance, had been drawing French pilgrims for years. Charlemagne himself came twice, in 772 and 800, years before the remains of St. James were eve discovered in the field of the star. Even at the height of the Santiago pilgrimage, it seems that more French went to Le Puy than to the Holy City (proving that the French tendency to stay within their own borders has a long and distinguished history).

Today, both France and Spain make maintaining and supporting the Camino routes a national priority. All four historic French routes are part of the much larger Grande Randonnée network, and Spain invest heavily in the seven trails that fan out from Santiago in all directions–much like that emblematic scallop shell.

The French town of St. Jean Pied de Port also has historical significance; three of the French paths cross the Pyrenees over the route that Napoleon first made famous, and Picaud references the village by name as the last town to get supplies and rest before the crossing. However, the Basque border town wasn’t traditionally the “starting point” that it is for international pilgrims today. (Then again, early pilgrims didn’t have the option of flying into Biarritz and taking a cab.)

The day we left Le Puy, there were perhaps 25 pilgrims at the cathedral blessing, and probably only a few more who set out without going to the church. People came and went, but that number stayed more or less consistent for our trip across France; at any given time there seemed to be a few dozen other walkers in our vicinity.

Then we got to St. Jean. The day we left, in mid-May, I heard that the pilgrim’s office issued more than 400 credentials for new pilgrims.

But the story of St. Jean is for another day.

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