Legend has it...
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The Jacobean Route, Way of Saint James, Camino de Santiago de Compostela, is the third major pilgrim-route in the world, right along with Jerusalem and Rome.
The apostle James the Elder, brother of John the Evangelist, was a missionary on the Iberian peninsula in the 1st century, and experienced a martyr's death on his way back to Jerusalem in the year 44. Legend has it, that his body was taken to Galicia, to the "End of the world" ("Finis Terrae") where he used to preach, and that he was buried later in Compostela.
At the beginning of the 8th century the Arabs occupied large parts of the Iberian peninsula and banished the Christians to the mountains in northern Spain. That's when the kingdom of Asturia was founded. Around 813 James' grave was discovered, and he got the Spanish name Santiago (San Jacobo). This discovery was used to get help against the Maurs from the christian Europe. In 844 the legend continues when the apostle appeared during the battle of Clavijo leading the Christians to victory against the Maurs. This is when the pilgrimages began, and the apostle Santiago was presented as the "Killer of Maurs" (matamoros) or as a pilgrim (peregrino). The news about the discovery of the apostle's grave spread quickly in the christian countries, and pilgrims from all over started to come. In 1139 the first pilgrim's guidebook was written, the so called "Codex Calixtinus" by the frenchman Americ Picaud. The pilgrimages had their peak between the 11th and 15th century, and the Way of St. James became the most important European pilgrim way.
Roads and bridges were built, inns, hospitals, churches and monasteries established. All this was supported by Princes and Churches. The intense construction building in the late middle ages made the romanesque style along the Camino the first all-european artistic and architectural style. The pilgrimages to Santiago were an important factor in creating a collective European identity. Thanks to the pilgrimages the northern Spanish kingdoms got a significant cultural and economic boost, which eventually lead to the victory of christian Spain against the arabesque Spain. And St. James became Spain's patron.
In the 16th century the pilgrimages lessened, but when in 1589 Santiago was jeopardized to be ravaged by Francis Drake, the relics were hidden away and got forgotten. Only in 1879 they were rediscovered.
The pilgrimages enlivened in 1985 when Santiago de Compostela was declared as Cultural Heritage of Mankind by the UNESCO. In 1993 the main way through northern Spain, and in 1998 the four major Ways through France received this recognition as well.
When the Day of St. James, July 25th, falls on a Sunday, it's Holy Year (Jubileo). Those who visit the apostle's grave in that year and do all the religious acts, receive complete absolution. During the Holy Year the amount of pilgrims increases significantly, but it's mostly due to the good PR the Galician municipality conducts. .... And now I'm checking my calender, and what do you say? It's Holy Year. Well, more people to meet along the Way :)
Reasons for a pilgrimage are as various as there are people out there, I guess. During the middle ages it was to get absolution, seek for peace of mind, hope for healing but also for pure adventure. Leave the scheduled life behind for a while, discover culture, tradition, meet new people and get some work out :), I believe, would be the most common reasons people go today on this not so easy travel.