History of the Camino de Santiago: The 3 Key Points to Understand the Origin of the Legend.

The history of the Camino de Santiago is fascinating. It is probably the most famous pilgrimage route in the world. More and more people are willing to embark on this legendary adventure filled with physical challenges, but above all, mental ones. It has evolved exponentially over the centuries to become what is now known as one of the best options for active tourism, being certified (among other recognitions) as the first European Cultural Itinerary in 1987.

At Camino Compostela, we want to bring you closer to the fascinating history of this ancient route, always balancing between legend and historical data from the chronicles of the time.

Resilience and Renewal: Challenges Throughout the Centuries

Throughout its history, the Camino de Santiago has faced and overcome numerous challenges, from political crises and epidemics to changes in the religious and cultural landscape. Each obstacle has been an opportunity to reaffirm its importance and adapt to changing times. Likewise, the reception and support of pilgrims have always been central elements in the Camino experience. From medieval hospitals and hostels to the network of establishments we have today, the spirit of assistance and community has endured, demonstrating the importance of solidarity in this millennia-old journey.

In the speech at the 2004 Prince of Asturias Awards gala, the current King of Spain, Felipe IV, described the Camino de Santiago as follows: ‘The Camino was the first common European project, the first enterprise in which people from many communities converged along various paths to a single destination, enriching our lands with words, buildings, customs, food, lifestyles, legends, and songs that the pilgrims brought with them and left among us like a fertile seed.’

The Beginnings of the Camino de Santiago: Discovery and Reverence (9th Century)

It’s important to consider that these events occurred during a time when Spanish territories were disputed between Christians and Muslims. Fears of losing territories by both sides were evident in society.

The history of the Camino de Santiago dates back to the 9th century, and its origins will always be shrouded in various legends. The discovery of the remains of Saint James the Greater (Apostle James) is attributed to the hermit Pelayo. While he was on top of Mount Libredón (where the old town of Compostela is currently located), he witnessed a shower of stars, and at the summit, he found the remains of three bodies. He presented the discovery to Bishop Teodomiro, who went to the site with his entourage to witness it in person. Upon seeing it with his own eyes, he reported it to King Alfonso II of the Kingdom of Asturias as a ‘miracle.’

The monarch ordered the construction of a church (laying the foundations for the creation of the current Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela), and from that moment, the veneration of the ‘locus Sancti Iacobi’ (the literal Latin translation is ‘the place of Santiago’) began, with the first route starting from Oviedo, what is now known as the Camino Primitivo.

From various speculations, the toponym of the city also derived, Santiago de Compostela. The most widespread popular belief is that ‘Compostela’ comes from ‘Campus Stellae’ (Latin for ‘field of stars’), with a clear reference to the discovery of the Apostle’s relics witnessed by both the hermit Pelayo and Bishop Teodomiro. However, there are other versions that claim it may derive from ‘composición,’ attributed to the works carried out by the king of the time, Alfonso III, around the Apostle’s remains, or ‘composita tella’ (‘beautiful lands’ in Spanish), being a euphemism to refer to a cemetery.

2. The Golden Age of the Camino de Santiago: Expansion and Diversification (11th-13th Centuries)

About 200 years after the discovery of the Apostle’s remains, during the 11th to 13th centuries, the Camino de Santiago became one of the most important Christian pilgrimage destinations in the world, alongside Rome and Jerusalem. It was a place where cultures converged, coming from pilgrims all over Europe. They arrived in Santiago, bringing with them advances and artistic trends in music, architecture, and sculpture from the rest of Europe. In addition, there was an increase in infrastructure with the improvement of roads, bridges to cross rivers, and the construction of pilgrim hospitals, which today would be equivalent to hostels.

In 1139, the Codex Calixtinus emerged, attributed to the French monk Aymeric Picaud. It is probably the document that best describes the DNA of the Camino de Santiago. It is a book composed of sermons, liturgical chants, miracles, accounts of Apostle James, and the first travel guide of the Camino Francés, including advice to pilgrims on churches to visit and warnings about the dangers of certain stretches.

The Codex Calixtinus suffered the same fate as other globally significant works, gaining popular fame after being stolen, similar to what happened to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum. Coincidences of fate, in 2011, a hundred years after the theft of the painting, the Codex suffered the same fate. The news caused a great stir, and the vast majority of society became aware of the importance of the manuscript, which had been stored for so many years under the roof of the Cathedral.

3. A New Dawn for the Camino: The Camino in Modernity (19th-20th Centuries)

In 1589, the relics of the Apostle were hidden due to the fear of looting during the English invasion of Galicia. Furthermore, despite not losing all of its pilgrims over the years, the decline of the Camino was gradual. As a global socio-economic engine, the route was influenced by the various political and religious crises that Europe went through during those centuries, as well as the Black Death.

Three centuries after the concealment of the remains, what became known as the rediscovery of the relics of Saint James took place. This event marked a milestone in the significance of the Camino, revitalizing pilgrimages. Pope Leo XIII sent an envoy from Rome to Spain to verify the remains of Saint James, and after a lengthy process, the authenticity of the relics was confirmed. This situation resulted in the issuance of the bull ‘Deus Omnipotens,’ which is the origin of the ‘Holy Years,’ during which the Catholic Church grants forgiveness of sins to those who undertake the Camino de Santiago in those years.

The declaration of Santiago de Compostela as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and, two years later, its recognition as a European Cultural Itinerary have strengthened its global significance. The Xunta launched the Xacobeo Plan in 1993, a promotional program for cultural and leisure revitalization, which achieved significant results in society. Furthermore, during Xacobeo 93, the directions of the Camino were unified (giving rise to the yellow arrows), under the guidance of the Sarria parish priest Elías Valiña.

The Camino Today: A Global Phenomenon (21st Century)

Currently, the Camino de Santiago is a global phenomenon that attracts pilgrims from all over the world. In 2015, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela was designated as a World Heritage Site, whereas previously only the French route and the four Northern Routes were included.

The religious motivation to complete this ancient route is diminishing in favor of a more spiritual one, although the essence remains the same. It is a journey through time, a path of introspection, and an encounter with the rich cultural heritage of Europe over the centuries.

At Camino Compostela, we invite you to emulate the millions of pilgrims who came to Compostela from all over the world and experienced this spirit firsthand. If you need any advice for preparing for the Camino, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

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