Thursday, December 18, 2008


What is the deal with the veneration of relics?

Without them, there probably wouldn't have been any shrines, and without the shrines there wouldn't have been any pilgrims, and without a body in a reliquary casket in Santiago de Compostela, there wouldn't have been any pilgrims or a camino pilgrimage. Luckily for us, relics became popular from about the 5th C and by the time of Charlemagne (8thC) no church could be consecrated without a relic.

".... the demand for bones and body parts was so great that the practice of exhuming, dismembering, and distributing the bodies of saints became widely accepted. Amputated fingers, hands, feet, heads and, of course, bones circulated throughout Europe. With increase in demand, supply became a problem, and a profitable but dubious market in relics emerged. Pilgrims to the shrines did not seem to care whether the relics were genuine or not." Mark C Taylor, Sacred Bones:

What did the church say about the veneration of relics?

St. Jerome
said: (ca. A.D. 340 - 420)

... we honor the martyrs' relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him Whose [witness] they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their Master... Consequently, by honoring the martyrs' relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of "latria" to dead men."

In the Middle Ages the church taught that life in this world was merely a preparation for the next, be it heaven or hell. Christians were indoctrinated from an early age with the urgency to obtain divine forgiveness for their sins and the purification of their souls or face eternal damnation and an afterlife in purgatory.
Purgatory was depicted as a sort of half-way horror house, with terrifying demons waiting to suck the soul from your sinful body and send you to everlasting hell – it was a place so terrifying that people were prepared to make incredible sacrifices to ensure a shorter stay and their place in heaven.
One of the surest ways to obtain indulgences for the remission of time spent in purgatory was by contact with the saints who could intercede on your behalf. The Church encouraged the veneration of saints, and the relics of saints were believed to hold great power. If the saint was a martyr, so much the better and if he was a martyred Apostle, better still. And so people from all over the Christian world sought out the intercession of saintly relics in churches and cathedrals all over Europe.

A thorn from Jesus' Crown - Sevilla

Santiago's tomb in the cathedral

What can the modern pilgrims to Santiago see in the way of relics as they walk across Spain to the relics of St James that lie in his silver casket in the crypt of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela?

Classes of relics:
1st Class: part of the Saint (bone, hair, etc.) and the instruments of Christ's passion
2nd Class: something owned by the Saint or instruments of torture used against a martyr
3rd Class: something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic. You can make your own 3rd Class relics by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic, including the tomb of a Saint.

Here is a list of some of the relics still to be found in the churches of Spain. The list is far from complete. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other relics – fragments of bone, wood, fabric, hair, thorns, nails, bread crumbs etc tucked away in Capillas, reliquaries and altars in the churches and cathedrals of Spain.

San Juan de la Pena:
Gilded silver urn contains the relics of San Indelcio,
Relics of St Felix and St Voto

14thC Gothic reliquary that contains bones from more than 30 Saints.
15thC reliquary carved to look like a Saint’s arm
16thC gold reliquary with 2 thorns from Jesus’ crown of thorns.

14thC reliquary with a fragment of the cross sent to Carlos 111 en Noble from Paris in 1401. In 1400 Emperor Manuel Palæologus gave to the Church of Pamplona a particle of the wood of the True Cross and another of the reputed blue vestment of Our Lord and the Holy Sepulchre; these relics are preserved in the cathedral.


Iglesia de San Pedro de la Rua: Fragment of the true cross and a shoulder bone of San Andrés

Santo Domingo del Calzada:

Numerous reliquaries containing fragments of bone, cloth etc.


A chest bearing the relics of San Millán (11th century), decorated with ivory plaques,gold
and precious stones, and the chest of San Felices (11th century), with Romanesque bas
reliefs carved in ivory.

Capilla de las reliquias - Burgos

Capilla de la Relquias - bones from most of the apostles and many other saints.
The Black Christ by Nicodemus. "Santo Cristo de Burgos" an image of Christ crucified, from the fourteenth century
Five small relics of the Holy Cross of Christ, brought from Santo Toribio de Liébana in Cantabria.
A shrine of the Apostle Santiago, as well as many other relics of saints and Santas.

San Isidoro’s 11thC wood and silver plate reliquary
Urn reliquary with the remains of St Isidoro
Plateresque silver chest San Froilan’s relics
Enamelled reliquaries with fragment of the true cross


Cathedral: Tomb and relics of St James
Chapel of San Fernando: Reliquary containing the skull of James the Less

Capilla del Relicario. Two thorns from the crown of thorns

Camino del Norte y Primitivo


Cathedral of Oviedo:
Five thorns (formerly eight) from the Crown of Thorns
A fragment of the True Cross
A cloth said to be Jesus' shroud or a grave cloth used to bind Our Lord's mouth duringHis entombment, which is now used to bless the people every Good Friday as well as each Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross (14 September)
A sandal worn by Pope St. Peter the Apostle

Camino Madrid:

Tiny silver frames with bone fragments.
S. Valerianni ; S. Crescenty.;
S. Severus; S. Clementis ;
Sta Felicissima: S. Celiani,

In principio erat verbum; Ubertus, victorius; Tiburio et Candida, mar:
S. Cosmas;
S. Cyrill;
S. Celia.
S. Modestiy
S. Celestiy
S. Vasil
S. Iago (yes, they also have a piece of our saint):
Santa Ana, Madre de la Virgen:
Santa Catalina;
Santa Ana Madalena: Apostle Bartholomew. Apostle Philip: Saint Nicholas of Myra:
Saint Frutos and his sister Engratia: The head of Saint Frutos:

Not on the camino, but a very important relic in Spain. In the Monastery of Santo Toribio of Liébana there is the relic of the Lignum Crucis, the largest surviving fragment of Christ’s Cross.

The Monastery was founded in Mount Viorna in the sixth century, although the current church is from the thirteenth century. Santo Toribio, along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, is one of the four Christian holy pilgrimage sites.

Antonio Barrero Aviles helped in compiling the list of religious relics along the camino. He has over 10 000 records and photographs of relics in Spain. You can see some of his huge collection of photographs here:
Adrian Fletcher of Paradox Place gave permission to use some of his photographs.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


14th October 2009 - Due to a corruption of some of the script, this post has been moved to:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


A friend who walked his 4th camino in September told me, “I don’t think I’ll walk that route
[the Camino Frances] again. It’s becoming too crowded and commercialised. People even come on the paths to hand out leaflets about new albergues. Its not like it used to be.”

This set me thinking. 'What did it used to be like? It was a forgotten relic for almost 400 years and was only revived in the early 1980's, so what was it like before it died off? 

What was the Camino Frances like in the middle ages?
Wasn’t it overcrowded and commercialised then too?

There are legends and urban legends about the numbers of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in the middle ages. Many are grossly exaggerated; some claim that over 500 000 pilgrims walked to Santiago each year. Half a million pilgrims a year would mean that 10% of the population in Europe was mobile and on its way to Compostela – even during the height of the plague that wiped out almost a third of the population by 1350.
Documented numbers of pilgrims, and of hospices built to house them, provide some evidence of the popularity Santiago in the golden age of pilgrimage.

How many pilgrims were there?
“.. in 1121, when Ali-ben-Yussef, the Almorávide, sent a deputation to Doña Urraca, the legates were amazed at the crowds of pilgrims who thronged the roads. They enquired from their escort in whose honor so great a multitude of Christians crossed the Pyrenees. “He who deserves such reverence,” answered the escort, “is St. James…” (Walter Starkie)

14th-c and 15th-c
Research for the book “Jacobean Pilgrims from England to St. James of Compostella” by Constance Storrs showed that the majority of Jacobean pilgrims from England went to Spain by ship and most went in the Holy Years.
“From 1390 to 1399 pilgrims went every year in ships of West Country, south-or-south-east ports, the greatest number in 1395, a Jubilee Year. In the 15th-c the most favoured were the Holy Years of which three in particular, 1428, 1434 and 1445 had the heaviest traffic although in 1451, 1456 and 1484 pilgrims going by sea were still numerous … and, if the licence holders of these years did in fact carry full numbers .. some thousands of English pilgrims visited the apostle’s shrine in the 15th-c.” ²
A register dating1594 at the hospice at Villafranca de Montes de Oca recorded 16,767 pilgrims that year, over 200 on some days.

“As late as the 17th-c, well into the decline of the pilgrimage, the Roncesvalles hospice was hosting 25, 000 pilgrims per year.”

(By comparison, the total number of pilgrims to receive a Compostela in 1994 was only 15,863).

(Canons of Roncesvalles - a monastery established to care for pilgrims in the 12th-c)

Growth from the 10th to 17th-c:

As the number of pilgrims to Compostela increased, more and more refuges were established. In the 9th-c the majority were simple shelters attached to parish churches and provided floor space for small numbers of pilgrims. Royalty and wealthy families sponsored the building of many hospices, even in remote areas. At least four were established in Villafranca de Montes de Oca. Alfonso III built the Hospital de la Reina in 884. In 1270 Doná Vilonate founded another and Enrique’s queen, Juana Manuel, built another in 1380. It was improved and enlarged in the 15th-c. Pilgrims brought prosperity and entire villages, such as Estella, were established as a result of the pilgrimage. Shops, markets, manufacturers, artisans, inns, taverns and all sorts of traders benefited from the rise in pilgrim numbers.

Hospices - pilgrim shelters
In the middle ages almost every town and village on the Camino Frances supported at least one pilgrim hospice. Many were small - a favourite number was 12 beds that corresponded with the numbers of apostles.

The town with the highest number was Burgos which in the 15th-c boasted 32 hospices, and even as pilgrimage declined, still supported 25 into the late 1700’s.¹
Astorga had 21, Carrion de los Condes had 14 and at one time there were 7 in Castrojeriz. Even small villages like Obanos and Viana had several pilgrim shelters. Terradillos de los Templarios and neighbouring Moratinos were among the few pueblos that did not provide a hospice for pilgrims.
Just as they are today, some hospices were provided by Confraternities, some by the church and some were privately run.

How many hospices were there?

It is not possible to know how many hospices existed at any one time on the Camino Frances. Numbers fluctuated between the 10th and 15th centuries. By adding up all the hospices actually mentioned in the books The Road to Santiago by Gitlitz and Davidson and The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela by Annie Shaver-Crandell and Paula Gerson, we know that by the 15th-c there were at least 161. One would have to make a few assumptions regarding the others. Gitlitz and Davidson say that in some villages there were, “… several pilgrim hospices” and that others had, “…. many pilgrim hospices.”
Towns that had ‘several’ or ‘many’ include Pamplona (at least 6), Obanos, Estella (about 11), Logrono, Najera, Sahagun (4 in the late 15th-c), Puente de Villarente, Leon (many), Portomarin and Santiago.
One can reasonably estimate that in the middle ages, at the height of the popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago, there were over 200 pilgrim hospices, probably more, on the Camino Frances. It seems reasonable, therefore, to presume that the numbers of pilgrims were high enough to warrant the existence of so many hospices.
(As of June 2008 there are about 130 albergues (Red de Albergues 2008 Brochure.)

The decline of the pilgrimage
We know that from the early 16th-c pilgrimage became not only unpopular but dangerous and that numbers were affected by the plague, the reformation of the church and religious wars in Europe.

In 1589 the relics of the saint were moved and hidden from a possible attack by Frances Drake – and were then forgotten for almost 300 years! It’s not surprising that the number of pilgrims to Santiago dried up almost completely and it would be almost 400 years before its reanimation.
An occasional foreign pilgrim still walked to Compostela and some wrote about their journeys. Domenico Laffi, an Italian priest walked from his hometown in Bologna in 1673.Another Italian, Nicola Albani, walked from Genoa in 1743 and left a collection of delightful water colours that document his pilgrimage.
“In the 17th century, the Spanish national cult of Santiago experienced a crisis when it was challenged by that of saint Teresa of Avila, a hugely popular 16th century mystic St. James remained the patron of Spain, but the quarrel left the cult much weakened. In late 17th century, the pilgrimage experienced something of a revival and reached a new (if more modest, honestly religious) peak, but mid-18th century again saw a marked decline. The scientific and industrial revolution in 19th century also rendered the pilgrimage obsolete in the rest of Europe.” Antti Lahelma

The Spanish Civil war of 1820 – 1823 further prevented pilgrims from visiting Santiago and in whole of the 19th-c less than 20 000 pilgrims visited Santiago - most from the areas around Santiago and the majority of those arrived in the Holy Years. (Don Jose Ignacio Diaz Perez)
“In the Holy Year of 1867 just 40 pilgrims turned up for the celebrated mass on 25th July.” ³
A search for the relics was launched in 1879 and they were eventually found between the walls of the apse. “A papal bull from Pope Leo XIII (in 1884) declared them to be genuine in order to silence sceptics.” ³
A New York Times article describes the 15th August 1965 Holy Year celebration.
“.. hundreds of pilgrims including scores of priests in black cassocks lining up in the Obradoiro square.. The worshippers who stream into Santiago by bus and car … The 50 miles of road from La Coruna are crowded with large tourist buses…” (no mention of walking pilgrims.)

It was mainly art historians who showed interest in the old pilgrimage roads to Compostela. Georgiana Goddard King published her book, “The Way of St James”, in 1920. This book in turn inspired Walter Starkie to make 4 pilgrimages to Santiago between 1934 and 1953.
In 1937 Sant’Iago was officially restored as the patron saint of Spain by Gen. Franco.

The modern pilgrimage - 20th-c

The modern pilgrimage, as we know it, really only started in the 1970’s although a motorised pilgrimage was promoted in the Holy Years starting in 1954, complete with a credencial and a diploma at the end.
David Gitlitz’s imagination was fired by Walter Starkie’s accounts of his pilgrimage experiences. When Linda and David walked the old pilgrimage paths across Spain in 1974 they did not meet even one other pilgrim.
In 1979 they met one, a Frenchman who had made a vow during WWII to walk to the tomb of St James.
The numbers of pilgrims who have received the Compostela increased from about 6 in 1972 to 114 000 in 2007. This was the highest number of pilgrims, outside the Holy Years, since the reanimation of the pilgrimage in the early 1980’s.
(This number does not include the many thousands who walk short sections of the various camino roads during their holidays and do not receive the Compostela certificate.)
The reanimation of the route from Roncesvalles to Santiago can be attributed to D Elias Valeno Sampedro, the parish priest of O Cebreiro who devoted his life to rediscovering the old ways.
" In the 1970’s there survived only a remote memory of the Jacobean pilgrimage” he wrote. In 1971 he wrote the book ‘Caminos a Compostela’."
Don Elias’ guide was published in 1982 and at a gathering in Santiago in 1985 he was entrusted with the co-ordination of all the resources for the camino. “Refugios” were established and he was the first to mark the way with yellow arrows.

Back to the Past

The roads to Santiago used to throng with pilgrims who found hospitality in the many church, confraternity and privately owned shelters as well as inns, taverns and private dwellings.

Another important feature that helped to keep the phenomenon of Jacobean pilgrimage alive was hospitality, which on the Way of Saint James involved both rich and poor. The practice of hospitality led to the founding of welfare institutions that attended to the spiritual, material and health needs of the pilgrims. According to their ecclesiastical, civil or popular origins, the centres can be classified as episcopal or cathedral hospitals, hospitals run by the military, monastic or royal orders, noble foundations, parish hospitals, and in the cities along the Way, hospitals run by guilds and religious brotherhoods. Especially important in this respect were the monasteries of Cluny and the military orders, especially the Knights Hospitaller.  (

Competition in commerce and industry flourished and there was a vibrant tourist industry.
In medieval times the Compostela tourist industry pitched its wares in Lavaolla. Documents tell us that just like today’s merchants, 12th-c Compostelans posted advertisements, in a variety of languages, touting the virtues and prices of their inns, restaurants and taverns.” ¹

The Galician Xunta expects to host over 10 million visitors to Santiago in the 2010 Holy Year and estimate that about 250 000 will walk parts of the way.
Perhaps el Camino is becoming exactly as it used to be in the middle ages!!

1. The Road to Santiago - Gitlitz and Davidson
2. Jacobean Pilgrims from England to St. James of Compostella - Constance Storrs
3: Camino de Santiago - Cordla Rabe, Rother Walking Guide.
4. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela” - Annie Shaver-Crandell and Paula

Wednesday, October 01, 2008




It isn't always easy to post photos onto a blog when you are walking the camino. Although there are internet facilities in many towns and villages, in cafe-bars, albergues and municipal libraries, some machines are old and very slow whilst others don't have the technology.
There are a few gadgets that can help.

ACCSTATION sells a Memory Card to USB adaptor for $5.39.
  • This USB SD/MMC memory card reader is the ideal companion for your digital media. Avoid the hassle of carrying a bulky card reader in order to transfer photos, music, data and more between PCs.
  • Ideal for portable use on the road or at home with a desktop or laptop. Your data and pictures can be instantly transferred to your PC/Notebook.
  • Instantly convert your SD/MMC cards into a USB Flash Drive.

Read Evan's blog for more info on blogging and posting photographs.

Blogging - How easy is it on the camino?

A guide to blogging from the Camino by John Misfud and Evan

Veteran pilgrim and WanderingTheWorld blogger, Jim Damico, guest posts on another moBlogging option: Pocketmail*.

Jim describes a simple-to-use mobile emailing device which might provide the perfect solution for those who wish to blog on the go from the Camino but find the prospect of dealing with the technology and price of a smartphone daunting.
An update from Jim:

Pocketmail is definitely much easier to use than trying to find an internet cafe (or at least one that doesn't have a dozen of peregrinos already waiting to log on). You pay about $99 for the device which is pretty easy to learn, definitely not complicated. And while using it, you pay about $13 a month for the service. In Europe, they give you phone numbers in a few major cities in each country that you dial-up to send and receive email. On my travels, a typical download/upload of email lasted at most 20 seconds. So, a pretty cheap phone call.

I just finished a trip biking across Canada and I took my laptop instead. What a lot of work! I really should have brought my Pocketmail. At first I didn't think their would be enough pay phones (as they are disappearing fast in the USA) but every little town in Canada had a pay phone so the Pocketmail would have been ideal. Lesson learned.
Cell phones/Mobiles: You can take your own, rent one or buy one. For the best coverage in Spain either Movistar or Orange is recommended.
service in Madrid, run by an American/Scottish expat has been recommended. He can set you up with a mobile phone at the best price available, and have it waiting for you when you arrive in Pamplona or Leon. You can either rent one or buy one, the quality is excellent and the price is right. His name is Jer, you can find him and his business at

If you
do take your mobile/cell phone, take an adaptor plug for Spain and a USB reader for the phone memory card so that you can post pictures onto your blog. Switch off when in a church, monastery, museum etc.

If you don't want to carry a cell phone you can buy a World Call card before you leave home.
When using phone cards, its often half the price if you use the yellow and blue phones inside the bars and not the Telefonica Call boxes on the streets.You can also buy cards very cheaply in Spain to make international calls.