The History of the Pilgrimage

Statue of St James in the abbey, Conques

Statue of St James in the abbey, Conques

Jerusalem fell to the armies of Islam in 636 A.D., and less than a century later, in 711, Spain was also invaded and conquered. The Moors rapidly reached northern Spain, and sent raiding parties into France. In northwest Spain, however, a small Christian kingdom, including Asturias and present-day Galicia, emerged in the 8th century, and it was in the reign of Alfonso II (r 792-842) that the Apostle’s tomb was discovered near Finisterre.

Relics of the saints were believed to possess great power, and those of the Apostles were especially venerated: Peter and Paul were known to be buried in Rome, and John at Ephesus, although the Virgin was early believed to have been carried bodily into heaven. In ca 800, James was the most senior member of the intercessionary hierarchy whose relics remained undiscovered. He was already believed to have been the evangelist of Spain. Though a few pilgrims to Santiago are recorded in the 10th century, and many more in the 11th, it was in the early 12th century – and particularly under the energetic promotion of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (1100-1140) – that Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage. The first cathedral was built over the site of the tomb, and Benedictine houses were established, for instance by monks from Cluny in Burgundy and from Aurillac in Cantal, along the developing pilgrimage route.

See here for some information on the historic routes.

Simultaneously with the growth of crusading fervour – Jerusalem fell to the armies of the first crusade in 1099 – the idea of a Reconquest of Spain by Christians took root. It is loudly proclaimed in the so-called Codex Calixtinus, allegedly written by Pope Calixtus II (1119-24) but in fact a compilation by various authors of the middle decades of the 12th century and closely associated with Santiago. It includes the Pilgrim’s Guide, now thought by most scholars to be a school text produced, probably in the 1130s, by a French master, possibly a Poitevin named Aimery, with close links to the Cathedral of Santiago. The two earliest MSS, both 12th century, seem to have been produced in Santiago. These and the other 10 MSS extant are used in the edition by Alison Stones et al of 1998, which also contains an English translation, with notes and illustrations from the MSS. The English paperback translation by William Melczer of 1993 has an informative introduction and commentaries. The Confraternity published the first translation into English, by James Hogarth, in 1992.

A full translation appeared on-line in January 2011:

Peter Robins has a detailed discussion of the likely standing of the Pilgrim’s Guide here.

Since the 12th century, the pilgrimage has known ups and downs, but it has never been entirely forgotten, and it is currently seeing a great resurgence of interest.

For a multimedia presentation of the historical pilgrimage, with an emphasis on Romanesque art and architecture, visit The Joining of Heaven and Earth.

For further reading, click here

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