The following paper by the Confraternity’s former Chairman, Laurie Dennett, was given at a Gathering of Pilgrims in Toronto on 14 May 2005. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.
2000 Years of the Camino de Santiago: Where Did It Come From? Where Is It Going?
Good Morning, Fellow Pilgrims, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you, George for your kind introduction – and thank you for inviting me to this Gathering of Pilgrims from all over North America. It is a great pleasure to be here.
I want, first of all, to convey warmest greetings to the Gathering from the Confraternity of Saint James in London. We feel a particular bond with you on this side of the Atlantic – with both the American Pilgrims on the Camino, formerly the Friends of the Road of Saint James, and with the Little Company of Pilgrims here in Canada. Part of this probably results from our shared English language in the jacobean context of so much Spanish! But we have happy memories, too, of the visits of some of you to London over the years. We recall with great affection the hospitaleros who have served at Refugio Gaucelmo in Rabanal, and with gratitude the generous fundraising to Sponsor a Week – in fact, various “weeks”.
“2000 Years of the Camino de Santiago: Where Did It Come From? Where Is It Going?” If I am going to give an overview of such a long period, with some specific areas of focus, in 45 minutes, I will have to get my walking boots on, so to speak. The title, perhaps, needs a word of explanation. I could have begun at what might seem the logical starting point, the discovery of the tomb of St James in the early 9th century, and carried on from there. But this would have left out the development of the literary tradition through which, as scholars such as Professor Manuel Díaz y Díaz and Dr Robert Plötz have termed it, the “discovery-invention” of the tomb of St James came to be seen by contemporaries as plausible – and indeed, as the fulfillment of long-held expectations. Similarly, the political considerations underlying the growth of the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James might not have been fully appreciated. These considerations led me to conclude that the “Way of Saint James”, for our purposes, should include not just how pilgrims through the centuries, including ourselves, came to go there, but how and why the relics of the Apostle came to be believed to be there in the first place. How did this amazing journey – which unites us, not just to one another but to those pilgrims of centuries past – come to exist, evolve, enjoy a tremendous, pan-European glory, fade and nearly die, and revive to become what it is today? If I have been too ambitious in trying to answer that, I may run over my allotted time, but I hope I will not bore you!
St James the Apostle: Life
I think it is worth recapitulating what we know about the apostle St James, usually called “the Great” to distinguish him from other important figures in the early Church who were also called James. The Gospels tell us that James and his brother John the Evangelist were fishermen, like their father Zebedee, and that they left their nets, boat, father and all when Christ bid them follow Him. Later, with Peter, they formed a kind of inner circle of the apostles, sharing some of the most significant moments of Christ’s earthly life: certain miracles, the Transfiguration, and the long night-watch in the Garden of Gethsemane. If, like Peter, they sometimes revealed a purely human understanding of events, their faith eventually transformed their limitations into strengths. Perhaps in their impulsiveness and confidence they took after their mother, who asked that her sons be seated at the right and left of the Master. His reply to her prefigured events to come, at least for James. The Acts of the Apostles relate how James was indeed the first to drink the cup of martyrdom, since he was beheaded on the orders of king Herod Agrippa in the year 44 A.D.
We have corroboration, and a touching description of this last event, from Clement of Alexandria, writing in about 200 A.D., who was repeating what his teacher Panteanus had been told by contemporaries of the apostles a generation earlier. Clement’s account is quoted in the great History of the Church written by Eusebius of Caesarea early in the 4th century, and is, I think, worth reading to you, as it shows the formerly impetuous “Son of Thunder” in a different light:
“It appears that the guard who brought him into court was so moved when he saw him testify that he confessed that he, too, was a Christian. So they were both taken away together, and on the way he asked James to forgive him. James thought for a moment, then he said “I wish you peace”, and kissed him. So both were beheaded at the same time.”
James’s early death was presumably the reason that he was not mentioned by Eusebius as having preached in a specific area of the world, as some of the other apostles were. It is another early text that supplied the interpretation that suggested an area for James: the apocryphal 1st century Gospel of the Twelve Holy Apostles, which describes how, with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, each apostle received the language corresponding to the land which he was destined to evangelise. On that occasion, James was given Latin, which seemed to imply a destination in the west. By the time of St Jerome, in the late 4th century, an exegetical tradition had developed which assumed that each apostle had died and was buried in the land where he had preached. There is logic in this: after all, in the face of the divine commandment to “Go out into all the world and proclaim the Good News”, it was hardly likely that an apostle would decide at some point that “enough was enough” and return home! But in James’s case, it was known that he had been martyred in Jerusalem, and so it would seem that he must have done exactly that. (As the late Dr William Melczer put it, “James’s return to the Holy Land was tacitly understood in order to square his proselytising activities in Hispania with the evangelical account of his martyrdom in Judea”.)
Centuries later, the Apostle’s death as related by Eusebius was included in the Codex Calixtinus, about which more will be said. It is usually known as the passio modica or “lesser passion” of James, to distinguish it from a later, more elaborate account, compiled somewhere in the Rhone valley in the second half of the 5th century, which also was incorporated into the Codex. In this version the basic story was added to, with incidents such as James’s struggle with the magician Hermogenes paralleling a similar event in the life of St Peter, and a miraculous healing en route to his execution attesting to his divinely endowed gifts. This more elaborate account became known as the passio magna or “great passion” of James. By the late 6th century, the passio magna was circulating as part of a collection saints’ lives and martyrdoms known as the Breviarum Apostolorum, or Breviary of the Apostles. This work was the first to claim that James had preached in Hispania, at the western extremity of the Mediterranean world. It also employed the phrase archaia marmarica used in earlier Greek texts to refer to James’s burial place, and according to Professor Díaz y Díaz, slightly altered it to emphasise the other meaning of “marmarica”, which was “sea”, so that James could be understood to have been buried “in a place by the sea” somewhere in the west of Hispania.
The Breviarum became widely known in ecclesiastical circles during the 7th and 8th centuries.Through it, the idea that James had preached and was buried in the west of Spain was disseminated throughout Europe. Isidore of Seville’s biographical study of Biblical figures, De Ortu et Obitu Patrum, written in about 630, mentions that James had evangelised the west of Spain. In Britain, the chronicler Aldhelm of Malmesbury, later bishop of Sherborne, wrote a poem in honour of St James in 709 which claimed that he had “…converted the hispanic peoples with his teaching, converting the barbarous multitudes with divine words…”. A Commentary on the Apocalypse by the great defender of the visigothic church, Beatus of Liébana, written in about 785, contained a list of the provinces of the world, each with its corresponding apostle, in which Hispania was allocated to James the Great. The famous hymn by the same author, O Dei Verbum Patris, alludes to “the great Sons of Thunder” whose designated areas of preaching – since St John was known to have died in Asia Minor – spanned the Mediterranean: “John on the right who reigned over Asia and his brother Spain”. The poem then recapitulates the passio magna and addresses St James in words that are still used every time the botafumeiro is swung in the cathedral in Santiago: “Oh most worthy and most holy apostle, shining golden chieftain of Spain, be our protector and patron on earth, warding off all ill, be our celestial health…”.
I hope that by now I have shown that by the late 8th century, a literary tradition had developed which held that the burial place of St James lay in Spain, even if the site had not yet been identified. Interestingly, it was not until after the purported discovery of the tomb in about 814 that a corresponding tradition evolved concerning the Apostle’s return to Palestine and death, and the transportation of his mortal remains back to Spain for burial. But very shortly – no more than 30 years after the acclaimed discovery – martyrologies by authors such as Florus of Lyons and Usuard of St Germaine-des-Prés were asserting that James’s body had been returned to Spain and buried contra mare Britannicum or “close to the British sea”. Such references lent credibility to the find, which from the moment of its occurrence received no less than royal confirmation. How and why did that come about?
The Political Situation in the 8th century in the Iberian Peninsula
To answer this question, we must recall the prevailing political situation in the Iberian peninsula. Unlike the rest of it, the north-west had managed to resist the Moorish invasion from North Africa in the year 711 A.D. A century later this area, the Christian kingdom of Asturias, which included a large part of modern-day Galicia, remained independent, sheltering behind the protective barrier of the mountains of León. It may have been besieged from the south, but the region was far from isolated, either politically or culturally, from the rest of Europe. The Roman road along the Cantabrian coast to the Pyrenees remained a major thoroughfare, while comunications by sea allowed the Asturian kings, from their capital at Oviedo, to maintain close relations with Frankish rulers, and especially with the Carolingian court at Aachen. Oveido, which housed the relics of San Salvador brought there by visigothic churchmen fleeing the Muslim invasion, was already a place of pilgrimage, to the shrine of the Siete Varones Apostolicos or “Seven Apostolic Youths”, who were believed to have accompanied St James during his time in Spain. From Oviedo, too, the vestiges of the visigothic church, whose spokesman was the Beatus of Liebana mentioned above, denounced the compromises made with the invaders by the church hierarchy in occupied Toledo. If the church in Oviedo had a heightened awareness of its own role as custodian of doctrinal purity, the court of king Alfonso II was imbued with a corresponding sense of territorial mission that could be realistically entertained because of powerful backing from beyond the Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay.
The discovery of the body
It was in such a climate that the news of what some historians have deemed the “discovery-invention” of the tomb of St James was announced. The story is well-known: how, in a secluded wood in the diocese of Iria Flavia near the Galician coast a tomb was found, in cloudy circumstances that later gave rise to the legend of the monk Pelayo and his being guided to the spot by a star (the parallel with the Nativity being fairly obvious). The find, a marble sarcophagus containing human remains, was at once acclaimed by the local bishop, Teodomir, as that of the apostle James the Great. Informed by the bishop of the discovery, king Alfonso II and his court set out in haste from Oviedo, probably taking the Roman road we know today as the Camino Primitivo via Fonsagrada and Lugo. The king had a simple wooden church built at the site, thereby legitimising the claim. His belief in it seems to have been genuine, in that he soon endowed the little church with all the land in a 3 mile radius around it, and on his deathbed left 500 coins of the purest gold to the shrine. His son Alfonso III replaced the small church with a larger and finer one, and granted permission for the founding nearby of the monasteries of San Pelayo de Antealtares and San Martín Pinario.
The ramifications of the discovery, and of the royal recognition of it, are hard to overestimate. Alfonso II’s journey – some claim him as the first “pilgrim to Santiago” – was the catalyst for local pilgrimage, which, like ripples extending outward from a stone tossed into a pond, soon carried the news throughout and beyond the Asturian kingdom, drawing pilgrims from the Basque provinces and Navarra. The possession of apostolic relics – the only such treasure anywhere west of Rome, and moreover, the relics of the very apostle so long associated with Hispania – fortified the Asturian kingdom’s already strong Christian identity. It also strengthened – or, if one interprets the story up to now as more “invention” than “discovery”, provided the justification for – its determination to regain lost territory. The earliest phase of the reconquista, the movement to eject the Islamic conquerors from the meseta and the lands to the south, periodically overcame the interminable dynastic squabbles of the era to unite the Christian forces across the north of the Peninsula. St James was invoked as patron and protector, and victories were attributed to his aid, as at the Battle of Clavijo in 844, when he was held to have appeared on a white horse to lead the charge.
Although pilgrimage to the tomb was initially local, the singular importance of the shrine was quickly communicated to the court of Louis the Pious at Aachen and those of the dukes and counts of the Frankish territories. From them it percolated into the noble houses, the cathedral schools and the monasteries. The first foreign pilgrim of whom there is any record was Gotescalc, bishop of Le Puy, in 947, reflecting the close connection between Christian Spain and the Aquitaine and Auvergne regions of France that already existed. During this early period pilgrims, whether from the free territories of Spain or from across the Pyrennes, made their way to Galicia by way of the Roman road along the Cantabrian coast, or from port to port in small boats along the coast itself, since the easier way over the meseta was in Moorish hands. While some visited Oviedo and then continued westward by same route that Alfonso II had used, others stayed on the coast until they could turn inland over gentler terrain on what we know nowadays as the main stem of the Camino del Norte.
The role of Cluny
As the Ebro valley and the meseta were regained, the process of repopulating these recaptured areas was assisted by the royal encouragement of Frankish settlement on privileged terms. Dynastic links with the ruling houses across the Pyrenees meant that there was a steady interchange of ideas, doctrinal trends and appointments over the whole region. The relationship with the reformed Benedictine order of Cluny, begun by king Sancho “el Mayor” of Navarre late in the 10th century continued under his descendents in the 11th. Alfonso VI of Leon, who emerged victorious from wars against his brothers, added Galicia and Castile, and later, La Rioja and Navarra, to his own Leonese inheritance so as to create a solid bloc of territory across the north. His reign marked a highly important phase in the development of the pilgrimage. He invited the Cluniacs to establish a chain of religious houses along the Roman thoroughfares that crossed the reconquered territories – we will recognise some of their names: Leyre and Irache, Santa María de Nájera, San Pedro de Cardena, Benevivere… and others at Sahagún, Astorga, O Cebreiro and other places. He also brought brought French ecclesiastics to be their founding superiors: an example was San Lesmes, who in 1070 was a monk at La Chaise-Dieu in the Auvergne, and at royal request went to Burgos, where he founded the church and hospital of San Juan, and built a bridge over the river Arlanzón.
These houses were intended to consolidate territorial gains and the Christian presence along the frontier, but they were also intended to care for pilgrims, and their very existence was meant to encourage – one might even say, make possible – the long journey to the shrine of St James in Galicia. Local initiative was not long in following these examples. Bridge-building and road improvements were undertaken by, among others, the great Santo Domingo de la Calzada; confraternities were formed and hospitals founded at strategic points. New towns came into being and older ones expanded with the increase in the number of pilgrims and the influx of Frankish pilgrim-settlers; we are reminded of this, at places like Villafranca Montes de Oca and Villafranca del Bierzo to this day. All of this meant that the Camino Francés, the route through Navarra, La Rioja and across the meseta, became the preferred way, and the coastal route waned in importance. Even so, the shrine at Oviedo continued to attract pilgrims, so that the road between that city and Leon, with its pilgrim hospital at Santa María de Arbas – also built by Alfonso VI – remained well-travelled in both directions.
Growth in the 11th century
During the 11th century, then, the pilgrimage to Santiago gradually acquired its international dimension. Thanks to court chroniclers and what we might call the monastic “grapevine”, it was becoming better known in the lands beyond Spain. In addition, the increasing difficulty of travel to the Holy Land made pilgrimage to the shrine of St James a worthy alternative. In consequence, at a profound level, the growing fame of the apostolic relics in Galicia was shifting what I will call the conceptual geography of Christian Europe, giving it a new pole in the west, a new focus for popular devotion, that balanced the Byzantine east with its spiritual centre at Jerusalem.
Bishop Diego Gelmirez
For a time Santiago de Compostela even seemed to rival the pretensions of Rome. Following the Moorish raid of 1000 A.D.that had left it and Alfonso III’s church in ruins, the town was rebuilt, with work on the cathedral we know today beginning under Alfonso VI in 1078. Under Pope Urban II – the same who convened the First Crusade – the see of Iria Flavia was transferred to the now more prestigious Santiago de Compostela in 1095. Then, in the year 1100, the great Diego Gelmírez became bishop of Compostela, initiating a 40-year period during which he was the energetic promotor of his see, the city and the pilgrimage. Gelmírez was a brilliant diplomat who had served at the court of the dukes of Aquitaine. More recently, he had been chancellor to Raymond, member of the ducal house, and as son-in-law of Alfonso VI, count of Galicia. When, in 1119, Guy de Vienne – the brother of Raymond – was elected Pope, taking the name Calixtus II, the way was open for the grant of unique privileges to Compostela. Gelmirez was made archbishop and papal legate in 1120. He lavished funds on the cathedral, creating a magnificent setting for the relics of St James.
The Codex Calixtinus
From Gelmirez’s time as archbishop of Compostela dates the compilation of the five books relating to St James and the pilgrimage known together as the Liber Sancti Jacobi, or, since it is prefaced by a letter attributed to Calixtus II, who was Pope from 1119 to 1124, the Codex Calixtinus. The fifth book, the Pilgrims’ Guide, is often cited as the first “guidebook” in the modern sense, and its author as one Aymeric Picaud, a monk of Parthenay-le-Vieux in Poitou (but to many scholars this is now an open question). The work describes, in 11 uneven chapters, the four routes across Gascony, Burgundy and Provence that fed into the Camino Francés via the passes of Roncesvalles and Somport, and the unified way westwards from Puente la Reina in Navarra. The author describes the terrain and rivers that pilgrims encountered, and supplies a vivid, and frequently prejudiced, foreigner’s view of the inhabitants. [An on-line translation of the Pilgrims’ Guide appeared in January 2011: https://sites.google.com/site/caminodesantiagoproject/ – addition by the Webmaster.]
Relics and shrines
The medieval faith in the efficacy of relics, and the passion for their veneration, is reflected in the Pilgrims’ Guide. The longest chapter is devoted to the relics and miracles of the saints whose shrines were linked by the routes through France, like pearls on a string. Pilgrims could express their devotion, then, at many points during the journey, not only at its destination in far-off Galicia. The prospect of visiting these intermediate shrines kept pilgrims’ motivation high, in the course of many weeks or even months of arduous travel. Whatever their reason for “taking the road” – devotion, the hope of a cure, as penance, or in the fulfilment of a vow – periodic proximity to the relics of the saints sustain their resolve. The hazards of pilgrimage – brigands, accidents, sickness, wild animals – and the uncertainties of travel in unknown regions being what they were, it was natural that pilgrims tended to travel in numbers. Quite apart from resettlement, the pilgrim roads thus became an important factor in the economic development of the areas through which they passed. Royal and church encouragement of the pilgrimage on both sides of the Pyrenees came to include privileges, exemptions from tax or toll, legal provisions designed to protect pilgrims (and sometimes to protect the resident populations from them) and laws to regulate the commercial activities that arose to cater to their needs. Given that by the end of the 12th century, pilgrim numbers had increased to the point where the monastery of Roncesvalles was reportedly feeding some 100,000 pilgrims a year, it is surely not exaggerating to speak of the pilgrimage as a phenomenon that was having a profound impact on the society that had produced it.
That impact was not only practical, as in some of the ways already mentioned, but cultural, in the exchange and interplay, import and export, of ideas, tecniques, skills and modes of artistic expression. With the pilgrims to Santiago, and often as pilgrims themselves, there came French stonemasons, German artisans, Tuscan merchants, Flemish noblemen, English and Burgundian crusaders…. The more educated among them brought, as part of their intellectual baggage, Provencal lyric poetry, Slav legends, Carolingian and Scholastic philosophy, new building tecniques, and endless music. On the Camino Francés all these influences intermingled and returned to their lands of origin, along with Arab aesthetics and science, medicine and culinary arts. Along the Camino itself, these outside influences contributed to the enhancement of local artistic expression, from Galician-Portuguese troubadour poetry, to the “pilgrimage churches” and the architectural features of the some of the great cathedrals.
The pilgrimage flourished through the whole medieval period, although actual numbers are hard to determine and must have been subject to the vicissitudes of numerous wars. Mentions of Compostellan Holy Years begin to appear in documents of the late 14th and the 15th centuries, and make it evident that numbers peaked in such years. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, however, dealt the pilgrimage to Santiago, and the impulse to pilgrimage in general, an all but mortal blow in much of the area north of the Alps and in the British Isles. I have always presumed that from Spain itself, and from Catholic areas beyond the Pyrenees, pilgrims continued to make their way to Santiago, at least until one shattering but often overlooked event derailed the pilgrimage for everyone.
Sir Francis Drake and La Coruña
This event was the raid on the city of La Coruña by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norrys in May 1589. As you can see from any map, La Coruña lies a bare 40 miles from Santiago. It was feared that Drake desired to capture the relics of St James, the patron of Spain and her empire. In the face of what they believed would be the imminent sack of the city, the Archbishop, D. Juan de San Clemente, and two of his most trusted servants opened the tomb, removed the relics, and reburied them where the English would be unable to find them. Unfortunately they hid them so well that the relics remained effectively “lost” for the next 300 years. It must have taken some time for the fact of the empty shrine to become known, but once it was known, the arduous pilgrim journey, especially from outside Spain, would have lost much of its inspirational force, although it never entirely died out. It was not until 1879, when a bout of redecoration was taking place in the cathedral, that its renowned historian D Antonio López Ferreiro made an educated guess about the reburial that was subsequently born out by excavation. Following the comparison of the skull with a jawbone given some centuries before to the cathedral at Pistoia in Italy, the relics were authenticated by Pope Leo XIII in 1884, and replaced under the high altar, where they are today.
The 20th century
Interest in the shrine at Compostela, outside Spain at least, was notably slow to reawaken. Why was this? Obviously times had changed, and one explanation might be that it had simply fallen through the net of general awareness: most people, even devout Catholics, no longer knew it was there. Another might be Spain’s comparative decline and isolation. A third might be the facts of two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War, and the uncanny coincidence of 20th century Compostellan Holy Years with years of war and their aftermath, or with world exhibitions and trade fairs that commanded greater interest. Not until the Holy Year 1948, a decade after the end of the Civil War and three years after the end of World War II, was the pilgrimage and the Year itself widely publicised outside Spain. Special postage stamps were issued and major art exhibitions mounted. Most notably, the year saw the publication of Vazquez de Parga, Lacarra and Uria Riu’s monumental 3 volume study of the pilgrimage, which drew on sources from all the countries and language areas that had once been represented in the crowds that thronged the medieval Camino Francés.
The first significant response came, not surprisingly, from France – the custodian of the four major routes that feed into the Way in Spain. In 1950 a small group of historians connected with the National Archives in Paris formed the Societe des Amis du Chemin de Saint Jacques. Largely academic in orientation, this group, which included such scholars as Jean Babylon, Jeanne Vieillard and Yves Bottineau pioneered the formal study of the pilgrimage and produced modern versions of essential texts. René, the Marquis de la Coste Messeliere, who was President of the Amis for more than 40 years, and Monsignor Henri Branthomme together filmed their pilgrimage to Santiago in 1949 for the French Ministry of Culture. The sight of the Camino and its monuments sparked more interest among French television viewers of the 1950’s, and a number of French pilgrims walked to Santiago as a result.
Rebirth in Estella
Another 15 years elapsed, broken only by a single Holy Year in 1954. Then in the Holy Year 1965 a Spanish counterpart to the French Amis was formed in Estella, a town with strong historic links to the pilgrimage. From the founding of the Amigos del Camino de Santiago by Dr Francisco Berguete one may speak of the beginning of a genuine revival. The Amigos of Estella were interested both in scholarly investigation and in making the pilgrim journey to Santiago once again possible in practical terms. There were, of course, no waymarks, no handy guidebooks, no refugios apart from the monastery cell or the kindly offered hayloft. The pilgrim of 1965 would have encountered a world in which the memory of the pilgrimage was very much alive but its physical vestiges little respected, in which the same farmer who offered him food and shelter would have thought nothing of planting a crop over the historic thoroughfare.
Don Elias Valiña Sampedro
The Amigos performed a notable service when in 1969 they published the guidebook and maps compiled by one of their members, the musicologist D Eusebio Goecoechea Arondo. But while the maps were excellent, the book was too heavy and detailed to be carried by pilgrims. The answer came from the other side of the country, where the Galician priest D Elias Valiña Sampedro, having restored the church and village of O Cebreiro, now turned his attention to the pilgrimage route that had been the raison d’etre for their existence. His doctoral thesis, published in 1967, was a historical and juridical study of the pilgrimage and the Camino. In the Holy Year 1971 he produced a simple handbook called Caminos a Compostela, small enough to fit into a pocket and containing only the information useful to a pilgrim on foot. This was the forerunner of the more extensive guide commissioned from D Elias by the Spanish Ministry of Tourism in 1982 – another Holy Year – and reprinted in 1985. All of these had the effect of increasing the number of pilgrims from Spain and other countries. Meanwhile, also in 1982, D Elias undertook what was probably the single most essential project to revive the Camino Francés – he waymarked it along its entire length from the Pyrenees to the cathedral in Santiago. Thus there came into being the ubiquitous yellow arrow, a symbol he devised and painted on trees, rocks and buildings using surplus paint begged from the Galician highway authority.
The crucial few years in this long renaissance were those between 1982 and 1987, during which D Elias built up a network of contacts along the Camino who became the founders of new associations of Amigos. He also persuaded municipal authorities that reclaiming the route, preserving its ancient buildings, and providing shelter for pilgrims were tasks they should properly assume. And so both conscience and consciousness were awakened. As a priest D Elias could emphasise the Christian obligation inherent in the figure of the pilgrim, while making understood the value of a heritage hitherto taken for granted. It was slow work, but ultimately successful. It all helped to create the minimal, but promising network of practical support that I and nearly 1000 other pilgrims found when we made our respective journeys during 1986.
The Spanish Federation
The fledgling associations of Amigos came together in 1985 to form what I will call for short, since it has a very long name, “the Spanish Federation”. D Elias was elected its first co-ordinator, and quickly set in motion two far-reaching projects. The first was a modest periodical – the Boletín del Camino – which was to be the forerunner of the present-day Peregrino magazine. The second was an international conference to address issues of common concern such as route maintenance, refugios, the pilgrim passport or credencial, and collaboration between the associations and the Federation. This conference was held in Jaca in September 1987 and was the first of a series of triennial conferences that continues today: the next one is in Ponferrada this October. You would perhaps be surprised at how lengthy and convoluted were the debates on some of these matters, and how difficult it sometimes was to achieve a concerted approach as opposed to a variety of local ones. None the less, such discussion laid the necessary groundwork for the comprehensive support structure that pilgrims enjoy today.
Jaca Conference, 1987
The Jaca conference was also a milestone in that it was the first forum to which the associations from outside Spain were invited. There were by now a number of them, in Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Holland, all founded between 1982 and 1987. In October 1987, a month after Jaca and with Spain a recent member of the EEC, the Camino de Santiago was designated the first European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe. This implied protection and promotion on a concerted basis, in partnership with the governments of the regions through which the route passed. This began gently but soon had a major impact, not least visually: the bright blue-and-yellow signs and waymarks erected by the Council of Europe were harbingers of change, initiating the era of the Camino-centred coach tour and the guided walking holiday.
Following the Jaca conference, when D Angel Luis Barreda Ferrer took over as President of the Federation, and into the 1990’s, there was a growing tension between the assocations of Amigos and the various interest groups seeking to make economic capital out of the Camino. This was not at all an easy balance to maintain, and by 1991, the year in which the statistical barrier of 10,000 pilgrims was broken, there were many who believed that both the physical integrity of the route and what I will call, for want of a better term, “the pilgrim experience” were being compromised by excessive promotion, especially in Galicia. There were complaints about sections of the route being gravelled or paved over, or even eradicated altogether as roads were widened to take more traffic. There was praise for the waymarking of secondary routes that in places provided safe alternatives to the roads, for the creation of new refugios and the planting of trees. Since the Holy Year 1993, when nearly 100,000 pilgrims on foot, bicycle and horseback received the compostela, the Federation has taken a more proactive role in working with regional governments and, and especially, since 1998 under its current President, Fernando Imaz, with the cathedral in Santiago. But there are now some 28 associations of Amigos in Spain, the majority representing areas or pilgrimage routes to Santiago far-removed from the Camino Francés. This has brought its own challenges, but as with so much that is still happening in relation to the pilgrimage, the attempt to meet those challenges suggests new creative possibilities and avenues.
If there have been identifiable trends since the millennium, they are surely concerned on one hand, with diversification, and on the other, with the preservation and revaluation of “the pilgrim experience”. These are, I would suggest, the ways of the future, the answer to the second part of our original question of “Where is it all Going?”. First comes diversification: the attempt to recover the larger network of routes that pilgrims once took to reach Santiago. In Spain, and to some extent in associations like the Confraternity outside it, this has led to efforts to generate more interest in routes such as the Camino Primitivo and the Camino del Norte, the Via de la Plata, and the routes from the Levant and Portugal. While it is undeniable that in Spain local economic interests are often served by such promotion, and sometimes understandably engage in promotion of their own, the approach of the jacobean associations is that these routes and the monuments on them are eminently worth pilgrims’ attention. Part of their aim is also to alleviate the crowding on the traditional Camino. Some 153,000 pilgrims received the compostela in 1999, and nearly 180,000 in 2004 – the overwhelming number of them via the Camino Francés. However comprehensive the infrastructure, numbers like these can strain it. The enduring miracle, to me at least, is that there is as little friction among pilgrims as there is, that local peoples’ patience seems to last right to the end of the season, and that pilgrims and locals alike are inexhaustible in their generosity.
Continuing on the theme of diversification, that “larger network” of historic roads is no longer confined to Spain. It is Europe-wide, just as the medieval one was, and getting wider year by year. The Vézelay route in France and the Via Francigena in Italy have enough new infrastructure to make them more viable than they were even a few years ago. The major routes through Switzerland that link up with the Le Puy route farther west are undergoing similar recuperation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, scholars have been working on re-establishing the jacobean pilgrimage routes of eastern Europe – the main itineraries that medieval pilgrims followed from the Balkans, Bohemia, Slovenia, Hungary and even Russia before they blended into the throngs marching westwards through France. One such route goes from Prague to Tillyschanz on the German border and on to Nuremberg and Konstanz. Its recuperation is the fruit of a German-led international effort during the past 8 years, and there is even a Confraternity guide to it. It only awaits its share of pilgrims.
Hospitality and Spirituality
The second priority for the future is the preservation, amidst the numbers and the competing claims for pilgrim custom, of the possibility for silence, for contemplation, shared or individual, and the experience of receiving hospitality. In recent years, and I believe this is a trend that will continue, there has been a welcome return to the appreciation of the pilgrim as a seeker, and resistance to the commercialisation of the pilgrimage. In many churches along the Camino pilgrim Masses and blessings are held daily. Some refugios offer vespers, with a chance to exchange experiences afterwards. Communities such as the Benedictines in Rabanal, the Franciscans in Vega de Valcarce and the lay group in Estaing near Conques, offer pilgrims who ask for it a time for reflection, a peaceful interlude during which they can weigh up the perplexing issues in their lives. In addition, the impulse that many pilgrims feel on returning home, to “give something back” to the pilgrimage, has found, since 1991, a formal channel in the wonderful initiative of the hospitaleros voluntarios. I am sure that everything about it has been said this week by Jan and Mariluz [in the Hospitalero training session at the Conference] – and conveyed by their example, too – but I would just like to emphasise that the feasibility of some of the alternative routes may have much to do with whether there are enough hospitaleros for them. Not only the Federation, but some of the non-Spanish associations – the French on the Vézelay route, for example – are actively seeking volunteers.
And that brings me to the end of this over-lengthy address. There is an old saying that one’s pilgrimage does not end in Santiago – it begins there, and I am sure that all of us have discovered the truth of that through experience. We return to the lives we left; we are the same, yet not the same; we have gained new perspectives, our experience has reaffirmed some fundamentals that we knew all along. The values we come to appreciate on the Camino and which, I assume, are what have brought us together here today, transcend all the barriers: age, language, race, religion, economic status and educational level. The world – our society – so often seems at odds with those values. To me, and, I suspect, to you also, the pilgrimage to Santiago offers a hopeful vision of how things might be different.
Well, we are in good company. I recently heard a story about Don José María Alonso, the priest at San Juan de Ortega, whom some of you may remember, who has been attending pilgrims in his particular spot on the Camino for more than 40 years. When Larry Boulting and his crew were there in 2002 filming “Within the Way Without”, which is being screened on Sunday afternoon, his crew – described to me as “a pretty irreligious and hard-boiled bunch” – was somewhat confused and sceptical about what the Camino was all about. They could understand what the pilgrims were doing, or thought they could, but they didn’t understand what a life-long hospitalero got out of it. So, over some of the famous garlic soup, they asked Don José María to explain what he thought that he and everyone else connected with the Camino were doing. He, in that characteristic way of his, merely shrugged and replied “Oh, just changing the world, that’s all…”. Amen.
This site includes two other essays by Laurie Dennett:
“To be a pilgrim…”, a 1997 reflection on the spirit of the pilgrimage, and
“Gifts and Reflections”, an offering to the Confraternity when she stepped down as Chairman in January 2003.