The Backpack Myth
Medieval pilgrims would have been amazed to see today's pilgrims slogging across the Camino with huge packs on their backs!
So where did this myth begin? It's not a tradition and it doesn't come from medieval pilgrims - they didn't carry backpacks. The only medieval pilgrim who carried a heavy load was the criminal - sent on a long journey lugging a large load as punishment. Walking to Santiago was enough. Only the purist would weigh themselves down with a hair shirt or extra load.
There are medieval myths and modern myths about the Camino. Modern myths include those that quote the numbers of people that walked the pilgrimage roads to Santiago in the middle ages - ranging from 500 000 to 1 million pilgrims a year, depending on which website you read. That would represent half the population of Europe in the 14th century.
There is the one that claims that Goethe said, “Europe was built on the roads to Santiago”. The Goethe Foundation states that there is no evidence that this is a quote from Goethe, but like all urban legends, once it was written and repeated ad infinitum by successive writers, it ended up in the annals of fact.
Think about the value of a codex, painstakingly written by hand, only a few copies made of the original. Think about literacy in the 12th century. How many pilgrims could read? There are many theories about the Codex. One is that it was written for the Duke of Acquitane who was planning a pilgrimage to Santiago. The guide was rediscovered in 1886 by P. Fidel Fita after it had been lost for 750 years.
Types of pilgrims: Another myth is that all pilgrims were poor, mendicant, penitential miscreants footslogging alone to Santiago with nothing but the rags on their backs. The fact is that there were as many different types of pilgrim then as there are today, maybe more. There were lords and ladies with their entourages, kings and queens with their servants and slaves, ecclesiastic pilgrims journeying with their clerics, knights travelling with their ladies. Servants would walk ahead and secure the best accommodation and source the best eateries for their masters.
Some poor wretches had to carry the lords and ladies in litters much of the way. Many pilgrims went on horseback; others had donkeys or mules to bear their loads. There are historical accounts of caravans of pilgrims on the roads to Santiago. Most of the classic pilgrim stories that have come down to us were written by pilgrims on horseback - like the Codex Calixtinus and the diary of the 17th century pilgrim, Domenico Laffi.
You should not walk with a group: (This only applies to pilgrims to Santiago. If you are planning on a pilgrimage to Rome, Guadalupe or the Holy Land, you can go with an organised group).
Most large towns and cities had guilds that organised guided group walks to Santiago. It was much safer to travel this way and, like the tour groups of today, pilgrims walked with like-minded people and supported each other on the journey.
St Bona of Pisa led 10 such groups of pilgrims from Italy to Santiago in the 12th century and was made an official pilgrim guide by the Knights of Santiago.
Today, the modern day pilgrim has no option but to carry this heavy load unless he can afford to have some of it transported each day. Many pilgrims who can afford it do this walk with a small daypack containing their necessities for the day, their rain gear, a jacket, first-aid kit, food and water, a guide-book, camera, and maybe sandals to change into when they reach their overnight stop. The rest of their stuff is sent ahead each day by baggage transfer companies.
Pilgrim fundamentalist accuse them of ‘cheating’. Cheating whom??
A recent post on a Forum commented that people who send stuff ahead should not have beds in the albergues: “they should keep beds vacant for the pilgrims who have exhausted themselves carrying their possessions.” Why - that is their choice?
One pilgrim remarked, "I saw many pilgrims with small backpacks. I carried 12 kg and walked at least 30 km every day."
Why? Why did they do that, and why do they infer that they are more worthy than those with smaller packs or who walk shorter distances?
How many pilgrims walk because they hope to earn time off purgatory and earn a place in heaven? Not many. Purgatory is a foreign concept to most non-Catholics and even modern Catholics are not that familiar with it. According to theopedia.com it was invented in the early 12th Century: “One of the first documents to mention purgatorium was a letter from the Benedictine Nicholas of Saint Albans to the Cistercian Peter of Celle in 1176”.
Martin Luther wrote: “Nor have we anything in Scripture concerning Purgatory. It too was certainly fabricated by goblins.” Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper as found in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.
I do not walk the Camino for rewards.
You are a pilgrim to Santiago - with or without a backpack. What is in your heart is much more important than what is on your back - don't let anyone tell you differently!
For more myths read: http://pilgrim.peterrobins.co.uk/santiago/lsj.html