Camino de Santiago. Decline and Rebirth.

Camino de Santiago. Decline in the 14th-15th Centuries.
Pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela boomed from the 11th to the mid-14th century, with the Camino francés (French Road/Way) being especially popular.

Camino frances.

However, political, social and religious events from roughly the second half of the 14th century combined to push Santiago, and pilgrimages in general, increasingly into the background. Between 1347 and 1351, for example, Europe was devastated by the Black Death with a mortality rate estimated at over 20 million, or over one third of Europe’s population. It is not difficult to imagine the effect felt by survivors at all levels of society. 

The Church was particularly exposed when the death or flight of large numbers of the clergy left it unable to fulfil its pastoral duty, which in turn undermined the faith of believers. Public order broke down and large numbers of people, out of fear or despair, resorted to violence targeting especially the Jews. Others took to self-flagellation in the hope of appeasing God with their displays of devotion.

This undermining of confidence in the Church spilled over into an increasing scrutiny of its privileges, perceived corruption and immorality. Amongst the criticisms were those that later became fundamental arguments in the appearance of Protestantism: e. g. sales of indulgencies, lack of scriptural justification for the existence of the papacy, disapproval of celibacy and prayers to saints, and the condemnation of pilgrimages. These unorthodox/ heretical views were held, for example, by the English theologian, John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1385) and his followers, known as Lollards. A Lollard manifesto, the Twelve Conclusions, written in 1395, contained a clear condemnation of pilgrimages and associated practices. Conclusion 8 affirms that “the practices of pilgrimage and the veneration of relics at best are ineffectual for spiritual merit and at worst approach idolatry in their worship of created objects.

Similar devaluations of pilgrimages by Catholic priests continued in the 15th century, but clearly the very continuation of the attacks only confirms that people still continued the practice.

Sculpture of Santiago Matamoros in the Mosque, Córdoba. Note horse’s hoof trampling a Moor,

In Spain, however, the Church was not subject, during the 15th century, to such critical scrutiny of its scriptural legitimacy as in Northern Europe. There, the Church was actively involved with the push to rid the Peninsula of its religious rival, Islam. St. James had long been popularly linked to the efforts to remove the Moors (as the Muslims in al-Andalus were commonly called). Christians claimed that he had appeared –mounted on a white horse– in various battles and helped them against their Muslim adversaries. This had earned him the title of Santiago Matamoros (St. James Moorkiller). It was to St. James’s shrine that the famous Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabella, went to pray for help in 1486 when preparing for the final push to rid their kingdom of the last vestiges of Islam. 

Where the decrease of pilgrims heading for Santiago was most sharply felt was in the reduction of their number from north of the Pyrenees. Not only did the Black Death, accusations of corruption etc. and attacks on the value of pilgrimages undermine the purpose of the practice, a recurrent conflict between England and France (aka as the Hundred Year War) 1337-1453 also discouraged travel from those countries.

The 16th Century.
The popularity of Santiago de Compostela decreased even more in the 16th century with the impact of humanism and the birth of Protestantism and its break from the Catholic fold in northern Europe. The influential Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) mocked pilgrims returning from their journeys loaded down with useless tin and lead images.  

With the birth of Protestantism came emphasis on simplicity, a personal relationship with God (i. e. eliminating priests as mediators/intercessors), and in extreme cases, a rejection of painting (and sculpture) as idolatrous. Martin Luther, a pivotal figure in the birth of Protestantism, had himself undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome as a young monk in 1511 before his famous break with Catholic Church in 1517. He had become increasingly disillusioned with pilgrimages which he condemned as “unnecessary” and “dangerous.” For Luther and others, a pilgrimage became an inner journey into faith and not a physical requirement, an ‘internal’ pilgrimage as opposed to its physical practice.

The end of the 16th century witnessed attacks by Turkish pirates and Sir Francis Drake on the coast of Galicia. Threats to destroy the cathedral and the Saint’s remains led the archbishop, Juan de Sanclemente (1587-1602), to remove the remains. Their exact location remained unknown until 1879, but the absence of the Saint’s relics removed the principal reason and main attraction for the pilgrims’ journey.

17th to 20th Centuries.
In the 17th century, St. James’s position as Spain’s patron saint was challenged by the canonization of St. Teresa of Avila in 1622 and by a petition by the Carmelite monks that she be elevated to co-patron with St. James. [Pope Urban VIII did indeed proclaim Sta. Teresa co-patron in 1627, but reaction was so furious that two years later the proclamation was withdrawn].

The Enlightenment of the 18th century cast a skeptical eye on what in many quarters was viewed as religious superstition, while in the 19th century, wars, political upheavals and Spain’s reputation as a backward, poverty racked, robber-ridden country did nothing to persuade pilgrims to head for out-of-the-way Compostela.

The decline continued well into the 20th century which witnessed two European wars (1914-18; 1939-45), and in Spain itself a vicious Civil War (1936-39), two dictatorships (1923-30; 1939-75), and a volatile and deeply divided Republic (1931-36). These political convulsions wedded to the general poverty of the country were hardly favorable for pilgrimages.

It is hardly surprising, then, that over the centuries, large chunks of the original Camino francés disappeared, overrun by growth in the forests and mountain slopes or simply fading away through lack of use in the large stretches of open land in Castile-Leon.

The Return of Pilgrims.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that interest in the Camino was revived despite the fact that Spain had become well known as a major destination for thousands of visitors from northern Europe from the early 1960s. A revitalized post Second World war economy, low-priced package tours and cheap accommodation enticed these modern “pilgrims” for whom all caminos led to Spain’s sun-filled beaches. For these, sun, sand and sangria satisfied their needs, while those pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela in search of spiritual needs were very few and far between. According to the web page Galicia Guide, fewer than 10 pilgrims were registered in Santiago in the early 1970s (  By 1985, the number had climbed to 690. From there it jumped to 4,918 in 1990, and to a staggering 347,578 in 2019 .

But why has the Camino francés (and its sister routes) become so popular since the 1980s? Is the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela the result of a “new spiritual age” as argued by John Brierley, author of a popular guide of the Camino francés, or is it really an offshoot of the tourist industry? 

Father Elías Valiña Sampedro (1929-89).
Whether the camino fulfills some innate spiritual need or not, its existence and popularity nowadays owe an enormous debt to one particular individual: Father Elías Valiña Sampedro (1929-89), a parish priest of the small, frequently windswept and mist covered Galician village of O Cebreiro from 1959 until his death. 1959 was the year that Father Valiña graduated in Canonical Law from the Pontifical University of Comillas. 

View of O Cebreiro.

As part of his studies for the priesthood at the Universidad Pontificia in Salamanca, he wrote a history of the road which he defended in 1965 and had published in Madrid in 1971. This was followed in 1982 by El Camino de Santiago. Guía del peregrino, translated as The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago in 1992. It is the first modern, comprehensive travel guide to the Camino francés and considered by some to be the modern equivalent of Picaud’s 12th century guide Liber Sancti Jacobi: The Book of St. James. Like its famous predecessor, Father Elias’s book describes churches and monuments, discusses legends and miracles associated with the road, and covers food and accommodation. Numerous maps help the pilgrims along their way and are a testament to the time Father Valiña himself spent travelling and mapping out the Camino.

One of the most distinctive features of the Camino that travellers nowadays benefit from are the signature yellow arrows marking the direction to Compostela.

Arrow pointing to Santiago in O Cebreiro. Above, a stylised scallop shell, a symbol closely associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago.

These were painted in 1984 by Father Valiña and numerous helpers  A well-known anecdote relates that when he began painting the arrows in the Pyrenees, near the French-Spanish border, he was stopped by the Guardia Civil (National Spanish rural police force) who feared they were intended to help Basque ETA terrorists then very active in the area. When asked what he was doing, he is said to have replied that he was preparing for a major invasion from France. True or not, what followed has been, in a way, a modern invasion.

Father Valiña’s efforts (which also included conferences and lectures) were rewarded by international recognition of the pilgrimage route: the historic centre of Santiago was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1985; in 1987, the European Union declared the Camino francés Europe’s first Cultural Itinerary, an honour which was followed by its selection to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1993. In 1989, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Santiago de Compostela, a visit perhaps long overdue given the importance the city and its related caminos played in perpetuating the Catholic faith in the Peninsula.

Nowadays, the Camino de Santiago and its various sister routes figure amongst the most widely travelled Christian pilgrim roads, having recovered to some degree the preeminence they enjoyed in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, for many people, the Camino has now become a victim of its own popularity. There is frequent dissension between pilgrims for whom the journey is spiritually inspired and who walk the whole distant, and those who have been referred to as “pseudo-pilgrims” or “pilgrim wannabes.” The latter often walk the last 100 kilometres (to qualify for the much desired compostela, the certificate showing proof of having completed the camino!) and are identified by not carrying knapsacks/ backpacks or walking sticks/staffs, considered essentials by most walkers. Or there are other travellers who go high end and look on the Camino more as a tourist experience. These avoid the modest pilgrim accommodation in albergues (hostels) or refugios, stay the night in hotels, and travel lightly having arranged to have their luggage transported between hotels.

For those interested, there is an excellent and perceptive discussion by Alison T Smith on the tensions arising from the different expectations related to the Camino. The first three pages are those most relevant to the Camino, but the whole article is worth reading:

Covid 19, of course, has had an effect, and any pilgrim contemplating travelling to Compostela now should be aware of restrictions and requirements which can change according to circumstances. There are web pages that address the problems: Google something like Santiago de Compostela Covid 19. 

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan 2nd ed. 2009
Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook New York: St. Martin’s Press 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London: Penguin Books 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 New York, London 2003.
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Road to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987 Very good web page
Map of the Camino francés: 

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