Camino de Santiago. Birth, Rise and Popularity. 9th to 14th Centuries.

The Camino de Santiago. Birth and Popularity.
The Camino de Santiago is a term that refers almost exclusively to a specific route that was the most popular from medieval days to now: the Camino francés: the French Road. Although there were in fact several caminos, none had the impact or influence of the Camino francés. Most pilgrims joined four main roads the starting points of which were Paris/Tours, Vezelay, Le Puy and Arles. All of these roads converged at Puente la Reina, in Navarra, just south of the Pyrenees. It was here where the Camino francés proper began.

The following is a brief history of that Camino’s birth and rise in the Middle Ages from the 9th to the 14th century. 

Camino francés.

Introduction. The Story behind the Camino.
The story of the Camino de Santiago starts with the discovery of the tomb of St. James the Greater, one of Jesus Christ’s closest disciples, who supposedly travelled to Spain to spread the Christian gospel. He is said to have reached Galicia, had little success at evangelization and subsequently returned to the Holy Land. There he was beheaded in 40AD/CE, after which his body was transferred miraculously in a stone boat –having no rudder, oars, sails or even sailors– through the Mediterranean and up the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula before landing at Iria Flavia (now merged with the town of Padron), Galicia. His body was believed to have been buried in the area following further miraculous events.

St. James’s body remained hidden until it was discovered sometime between 818 and 842. The discovery was verified by Theodomir, Bishop of Iria Flavia (c. 818-847), and the news relayed to Alfonso II, King of Asturias (r. 791-842) who quickly left the Asturian capital, Oviedo, for the site and ordered a small church built there. The route of approximately 320-kilometres from Oviedo to Santiago followed by Alfonso is generally recognised as the oldest or “original” road: the Camino Primitivo, and the king often identified as the first pilgrim.

So began the veneration of St. James and with that the initial step towards recognising Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage destination.

The Early Years: 9th and 10th centuries.
We know little about pilgrim activity in the 9th century, although given the importance attached to the discovery of St. James’s tomb by Bishop Theodomir and King Alfonso, it is likely that local pilgrims soon visited the place, to be followed later by others from farther away as its fame grew.

Certainly, by the mid-10th century, the reputation of Santiago had expanded beyond the Pyrenees and into France. Indeed, the first documented pilgrim was a Frenchman, Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy, who made the journey in 951. He was followed ten years later by the deposed Archbishop of Rheims, Hugues de Vermandois, who died returning from the pilgrimage.

Church dignitaries such as these would have been accompanied by servants, attendants, and guards to protect them from cutthroats or the dangers arising from the frequent raids (razzias) by the Moors. For example, in 997, the marauding Moorish vizier and de facto ruler of al-Andalus, al-Mansur, sacked León and Zamora in 988 and nine years later laid the town of Santiago to waste and destroyed the church, leaving only St. James’s tomb intact.

11th and 12th Centuries.
With city and church destroyed, the pilgrimage suffered a brief suspension, before rebuilding was begun around 1000 by Bishop Pedro de Mezonzo. However, this church was not sufficiently large to accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims and a new, larger building was initiated by Bishop Diego Peláez (?-?, Bishop of Iria Flavia 1071/5?-1088; 1090-94) in 1075. Architecturally significant, it formed the basis of what was to become the largest Romanesque church in Spain and Europe’s second most important pilgrim destination.

Nevertheless, Peláez’s contribution was overshadowed by that of his successor, Diego Gelmírez (1060-1140), who not only built more grandiose additions to the church, but also inspired the construction of the archbishop’s palace as well as the churches of Santa Susana, San Fructuoso and San Benito. Politically active and astute, it was the dynamic Gelmírez who got Compostela elevated to an archbishopric and himself named its first archbishop in 1120.

The elevation to cathedral and enlargement of Compostela’s church in the 12th century were measurements not only of religious clout but also of political muscle. At the same time that religious and political (i. e. royalty and nobility) figures paid homage to St. James/ Santiago, they competed with each other for influence and power and called upon the Saint to intercede on their behalf.

Mid-12th century. The First “Travel Guide”:  The Book of St. James: Liber Sancti Jacobi.
By now, the fame Santiago was such and pilgrims numerous enough that a compilation of material centering on the cult of St. James appeared in the mid-12th century. Written in Latin and entitled Liber Sancti Jacobi (Book of St. James), it is also frequently known as the Codex Calixtinus after Pope Calixtus II (1119-24), friend of Archbishop Gelmírez, and supposed author of the manuscript. However, the attribution is clearly false, since Calixtus died well before the manuscript was compiled: between 1139 and 1165.

The Liber is made up of five books, each with a different focus. The first three deal with matters relating to St. James: sermons and hymns celebrating the Saint’s feast days (Bk. 1), an anthology of the miracles attributed to him (Bk. 2), a collection of tales related to the Saint’s life, including the miraculous journey of his body to Galicia and the discovery of his tomb (Bk. 3). Book 4 switches to the tales and exploits of the eight-century emperor Charlemagne and his famous knight, Roland, in their battles against the Moors in Spain following Charlemagne’s vision of the Saint (Bk. 4).

However, for the modern reader and pilgrim it is Book 5 that is of most interest and is considered the earliest known guide book of the pilgrimage route. Commonly attributed to Aymery Picaud, a monk from Poitiers, it recommends shrines and monuments that pilgrims should visit (a town’s importance and economy were greatly increased by the holy relics they could claim to be found in them), and encourages them with the promise of miracles that could be expected from the visit: “here help is given to the sick, the blind recover their sight, the tongues of the dumb are untied, hearing is granted to the deaf, the lame are made able to walk, the possessed are delivered and, what is more, the prayers of the faithful are answered, their wishes are granted, the fetters of sin are cast off, heaven opens to those who knock, consolation is given to the afflicted, and hosts of foreign people from all parts of the world make their way here to bring the Lord their gifts and their praise” (Barton 57).

Still, the promise of miracles and importance of viewing relics is tempered by very much down to earth advice on what dangers pilgrims might expect on the road itself. For example, they are cautioned against cutthroats, swindlers (including fellow pilgrims), unscrupulous inn-keepers, questionable food, bad water etc.

Indeed, the journey can sound quite harrowing if Picaud’s opinion of the Navarrese is anything to go by: “For one sou and a half, a man of Navarre will stab a Frenchman to death. The people of Navarre are full of malice, swarthy of complexion, ugly of appearance, depraved, perverse, despicable, disloyal, corrupt, lechers, drunkards and past masters of all forms of violence, wild, savage, treacherous, deceitful, blasphemous and foul-mannered, cruel and quarrelsome, incapable of honourable behaviour. All vices come easily to them” (Nooteboom 322-23).

Picaud notes amongst the vices he attacks that in the households of the Gascons of southwest France servants and master and mistress all sleep shamelessly together on a piece of dirty straw.  Basques and Navarrese not only attack the pilgrims heading to Santiago but they also mount them like asses and kill them.  Furthermore, the Navarrese: when they warm themselves, they expose their intimate parts, the husband to wife and wife to husband. In addition, the Navarrese fornicate incestuously with their animalsIn comparison, the Castilians get off lightly, with Picaud merely noting that they are bad and depraved (

As for food in general, Picaud seems to contradict himself. Individual towns are praised for their foods. Estella has good bread and excellent wine, and so too meat and fish; Carrión is a prosperous and excellent town, abundant in bread, wine, meat and all kinds of produce; León abounds in all kinds of riches (bienes). And Castile is a land full of treasures of silver and gold, rich in clothing material (paños) and sturdy horses. On the other hand, he cautions pilgrims that if by chance you eat fish called commonly barbel (a kind of catfish) in Spain and Galicia, you can be sure that you’ll soon be dead or sick …  both fish and beef or pork in Spain and Galicia make foreigners sick (

The French Presence.
Of course, there is more than a whiff of nationalism on Picaud’s part and there is little doubt that the guide was aimed primarily at French pilgrims  who, from the simple fact of geographical proximity, made up the majority of travellers. 

It is no coincidence, then, that of the several roads heading for Compostela, the most famous and most travelled is the one commonly called the Camino francés. This is not simply because of the number of French pilgrims who travelled along it but also because of the many who settled permanently on the route. Merchants, artisans, innkeepers, masons (builders) etc., drawn by the commercial prospects from the droves heading to Compostela and encouraged by royal support, set up shops, hostels, inns and other amenities along the route.

French Religious Contribution.
Major players, too, in popularizing the cult of St. James were French religious orders, especially the Benedictines from the 11th century, and from the mid-12th their spiritual offshoot the Cistercians. The Benedictines (aka Cluniacs after Cluny, the location of their mother church in eastern France) were more prominent establishing a network of important monasteries and hostels along the north and were vital partners in the creation of an infrastructure of roads, bridges, and passable roads. 

In addition, many bishops in influential Spanish dioceses were from Cluny. The best known is Bernard who became archbishop of Toledo (from 1086 to 1125) immediately after it was retaken by the Christians in 1085.  But Cluny also provided bishops for Segovia, Palencia, Sigüenza, Zamora and Salamanca.

Adding weight (literally!?) to French presence/influence along the Camino are the many Romanesque and Gothic churches dotting the route that were built by French masons or inspired by French architecture. The most impressive are the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago and basilica of San Isidoro, León, and the great Gothic cathedrals of Burgos (1222) and León (1258), both replacing earlier Romanesque structures. 

Predictably, as Compostela’s fame grew and pilgrimages to Jerusalem became more dangerous in the 12th century with the holy city a battleground between Christian Crusaders and Muslims, St. James’s tomb became an even more attractive alternative for pilgrims from other parts of Europe. The four main starting points were identified in the Liber Sancti Jacobi as Tours, Vezelay, Le Puy and Arles. All of these roads converged at Puente la Reina, in Navarra, just south of the Pyrenees. It was here where the Camino francés proper began (see map at the beginning of this post).

The Camino thrived for centuries and only began to lose popularity in the mid 14th century when a pandemic (the Black Death) swept through Europe and recurrent conflict between England and France (aka as the Hundred Year War) 1337-1453 discouraged travel from those countries. Still, pilgrimages did stutter along internally during the 15th century, the high point probably being the visit of the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabella, to St. James’s shrine in 1486 to pray for the Saint’s aid in the final push to rid their kingdom of the last vestiges of Islam.

But the growing interest in humanism and the disruptive effects of Protestantism throughout much of Europe in the 16th century ensured that Santiago would fade into the background. It sank into obscurity from the 17th century, only to recover in spectacular fashion towards the end of the 20th century. But that is another story.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2nd ed. 2009
Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook New York 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London 1991
Nooteboom, Cees Roads to Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain. Trans. from the Dutch by Ina Rilke.  Orlando, Florida 1997.
Reilly, Bernard in Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia, ed. E. Michael Gerli *********
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Road to Santiago Oxford 1987 Very good, exhaustive web page
Map of the Camino francés: 




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