The History of the Pilgrimage to Compostela

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at St Nicolas Church

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at St Nicolas Church

‘We are all pilgrims in search of the unknown.’ — Paulo Coelho

I was walking back from a day out at Celebrating Surrey Festival at Loseley Park, had stopped off for a much needed drink at the White House on the banks of the River Way in Guildford when as I left my eye was caught by a poster at St Nicolas Church on two talks on Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

So here I was, Tuesday evening a week later, at St Nicolas Church, or, to be more precise, the associated Parish Centre, for a talk by Dr Catherine Ferguson entitled The History of the Pilgrimage to Compostela. The first of two talks, the second the following week entitled Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela today.

The Way of Saint James (el Camino de Santiago) is a medieval pilgrims route that had fallen into disuse and was little known, until two decades ago Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho was obliged to walk the route as a penance by his master J for having the arrogance to believe he was worthy of receiving a sword. An account of which he gives in The Pilgrimage.

There were three important medieval pilgrimages, the route to Rome, the route to Jerusalem and the Way of Saint James.

The first pilgrimages were to the Holy Land, not to venerate a few sacred remains or for the experience of the pilgrimage itself, but to see where it happened.

Constantine decided to mark the important places of Christendom, he did this by building huge churches.

Constantinople lacked any relics of Saints. They were then allowed a body from the catacombs in Rome. This started a free-for-all in Holy Relics. No church could be established without its Holy Relic being entombed within the altar. Private collectors wanted their bones too.

Saint James was one of the Apostles. He took up the call from Jesus and gave up his life as a fisherman. He was beheaded in 44AD by order of King Herod Agrippa, the first of the Apostles to be executed. He is believed to have preached in Spain, but herein lies a problem, as he was already reported as dead.

His sarcophagus floated ashore in Spain at what is now Santiago de Compostela. Somewhat difficult for a marble sarcophagus, but it was aided by angels so that explains that then. The Bishop of the day said it was indeed the relics of Saint James, official approval had been granted, word spread, pilgrims arrived and Santiago de Compostela has never looked back.

The importance of this event cannot be overstated. The centres of Christianity were Rome and Constantinople and Jerusalem to the East. A centre had now been established in Western Europe.

Its timing was most fortunate. The Spanish Christian Kingdoms were under attack from the Moors who occupied all of the South of Spain. Under St James, the Spanish pushed the Moors back.

Pilgrims came from all over Europe. They needed to be fed and watered and housed and hospitalized, shoes were needed for their feet. Cluny Monks established monasteries along the route.

One of the factors that determined the medieval pilgrim to make the pilgrimage was that it reduced the time spent in Purgatory.

There was not one route. Strictly speaking the route was from your door to Santiago de Compostela. Four routes became the recognized routes as these were easiest to defend. The pilgrims followed old Roman roads, crossed old Roman bridges. The Cluny Monks built bridges.

Cluny Abbey was an independent Benedictine Order. The Abbey controlled or established 314 monasteries. Its power rivalled that of Rome. The Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Unlike today, when pilgrims walk the route and then fly home, the medieval pilgrims walked there and back, that is they walked the route both ways. This led to cultural interchange along the route.

The Pilgrimage led to major cultural shifts in Europe, 1100 was a watershed. Before 1100 churches were squat buildings, the figures slight reliefs. After 1100, within a period of only 40 years, we had graceful Romanesque churches, realistic carved figures, on the women detail of their lace, on the men detail of their chain mail.

One of the innovations brought back from the pilgrimage was the apse at the end of a church. Pilgrims could walk in through a side door, around the relics, and out through an opposite door without disturbing the congregation in the main body of the church.

Medieval man walking the route had to learn his place in life. Images of man being tormented in Hell. On arrival, the Pilgrims would pass through a portal where only figures in heaven were depicted.

On the front of Lincoln Cathedral can be seen the same images of hell.

At its height, a million pilgrims a year were walking the route. It slowly fell into disuse, the buildings fell into disrepair and were looted for their stone. Wars in Europe were one cause for the disruption of the Pilgrimage, as was disease.

From the mid-1980s the numbers undertaking the pilgrimage has shown an exponential increase. This coincides with the publication of The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho which was published in 1987. The numbers show sharp increase on Holy Years, when 25 July falls on a Sunday.

In 1985 690 pilgrims completed the Pilgrimage. In 1995 there was 19,821, then in 2005 there was 93,921. These are only the pilgrims that asked for and received a Compostela, the stamped certificate that shows you have completed the route. More than 200,000 are expected for 2010, a Holy Year. Holy or Jubilee Years are when 25 July falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.

A Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at noon for pilgrims. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass.

This increase in pilgrims is not unique to this pilgrimage. Strange in what is seen as an increasingly secular society. Could this be because people are walking away from the Church, but still seek the spiritual? If nothing else this would explain the popularity of Paulo Coelho. Do the Eden People at one end of the religious spectrum have a greater pull than the Catholic Church at the other?

This phenomena is not restricted to medieval pilgrimages. Many ‘pilgrims’, are following the trail blazed by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

French priest Aymeric Picaud who walked the route in 1123 recorded his travels and experiences in five books Codex Calixtinus. It is still accurate today!

A very interesting talk, a very inspiring speaker. This was the third season of summer talks at St Nicolas by Dr Catherine Ferguson. Catherine Ferguson has walked el Camino de Santiago twice. She has just completed the pilgrimage this summer and her knees still ached!

The talk was preceded by Mass and refreshments. Later a few of us went for a drink. Before doing so I presented Dr Catherine Ferguson with a copy of The Pilgrimage to thank her for such an excellent and inspiring talk.

Next week: Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela today and the impact it has on present day pilgrims.

Fr Andrew who took the Mass (if it be he), has a blog Heart to Heart, where he shares his thoughts with fellow Christians. But sadly in reality an apology for the Catholic Church and all its ills. St Nicolas is in all but name a Catholic Church, even though it comes under the Diocese of Guildford.

Synchronicity: Walking back from Celebrating Surrey Festival, I saw a poster at St Nicolas Church for these talks. The evening before I clicked on Suzie who had commented on the festival. She was packing her rucksack to walk this route!

Synchronicity: The evening before the talk I listened to A History of the World in a Hundred Objects on BBC Radio 4. The subject was a relic held in the British Museum, A Thorn from the Crown of Thorns!

Also see

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela today

The Pilgrimage

Carolena’s Quest for the Sword

Pilgrimage to Aylesford Priory with the Knights of St Columba

Tourists to Pilgrims

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13 Responses to “The History of the Pilgrimage to Compostela”

  1. Lainee Says:

    Thanks for the enlightenment. I always learn something new from your blogs. Can’t wait to read about the Pilgrimages of today.

    Hoping to make the walk too.

    Love ya,

  2. Thyago Ferreira Says:

    O caminho de Santiago de Compostela é sacro… Abençoado pela história de suas terras.

  3. Camila Monteiro Says:

    Delicia ler teu blog. Me sinto até mais leve!
    Muitas vezes venho aqui para buscar uma palavra de paz, de animo e sempre acabo achando!
    Blessed be you!!!!
    Sei que nao me conhece, mas adoro te ler e vc é uma companhia para o meu dia a dia!
    beijos de uma leitora compulsiva!!! rsrs

  4. Roman Says:

    First became familiar with the place about 40 years ago via the Cantigas de Santa Maria, and finally went to see it a few years ago. Enormous cathedral, unusual construction, and incredibly ornate and gilded inside.

    Check out the Cantigas, you might like them. Many recordings, but this is one of the best. The Joel Cohen one is also pretty good.

  5. John Says:

    Thank you. I wish I could take one of these ancient routes today. Recently, I followed a couple on Twitter on their pilgrimage to Compostela. It was a good journey even at 140 characters at a time!

    I did a blog on Compostela that also gives the history and importance of the Compostela pilgrimage, but I will revise the blog to add a link to this good information — thanks for posting it.

  6. danceswithcrayons Says:

    Thankyou Paulo, thankyou Keith.

    Very excited to be going to Spain.

    “His sarcophagus floated ashore in Spain at what is now Santiago de Compostela. Somewhat difficult for a marble sarcophagus, but it was aided by angels so that explains that then.”

    Enjoying this Blog so much and could read, wonder and ponder for a hundred years.
    Seeing, feeling so much synchronicity happening. Can only smile, (and cannot keep up.) Thankful : )

    Love and Blessings,
    Jane xo

  7. Marianka Pencheva Says:

    Thank you very much, it is extremely educational article. I read it with a great inerest.
    I really imagined the events happened all these years after such good explanations.

  8. Rosetta Savelli Says:

    Ciao Paolo, sì Il Tuo pellegrinaggio e effet Perchè fa ricordare Alla Gente delle Realtà Che le SONO POI appartenute Ma che ha dimenticato . E ‘UN pellegrinaggio storico ma ANCHE Interiore , mistico e religioso . NEL indirizzo e di telefono caos colomba l ‘ Unico obbiettivo e distruggere Tutto e colomba Il nichilismo sembra Essere l ‘ unica Verità , Il Tuo pellegrinaggio risveglia le memorie e puo Aiutare Meglio uno Conoscere , un Capire e forse ANCHE scegliere uno . Grazie per questo.
    Ciao Rosetta

  9. dame s?ker menn Says:

    Det er også veldig sexy å ligge på ryggen,
    på en pute, og dra opp knærne til hver side. Kos deg i tigerstaden
    og møt likesinnede mennesker her på knull kontakt. Bedre er å ha en ”anal douche”
    en ballong du kan fylle opp med væske, helst tilsatt litt salt.

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