Friday, November 27, 2009


—  Canterbury Tales  —

First questions first.  What is a pilgrim?

Dante said in the 13th c that ' a limited sense pilgrim means only one who travels to or returns from the house of St James.."

He suggested that the long distance travelled, and being a foreigner in Galicia, made one a pilgrim. He did not say that pilgrim means one who 'walks' to the house of St James, only 'one who travels'.  Until the invention of the bicycle - and trains, planes and automobiles - the only mode of travel was by boat,  riding a donkey or horse, or foot slogging. Pilgrims used whichever mode of transport was available to them that they could afford. Poor pilgrims walked; middle-class pilgrims might hire a donkey, wealthy pilgrims could hire horses and travel with servants.

Besides Dante, what do the experts say?

A:  Wordnet (i) someone who journeys in foreign lands (ii) someone who journeys to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion.

B:  Wiki Answers (i) someone who goes on a pilgrimage, a visit to a place that is religious

C: Wikipedia:  a pilgrim (lat. peregrinus) is one who undertakes a pilgrimage far afield, traditionally to some place that has religious or historic significance.

D:  Oxford:  a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons. The word pilgrim comes (in Middle English) from Provençal pelegrin, from Latin peregrinus, 'foreign'.

E: Websters: (i) a person who wanders about  (ii) a person who travels to a shrine or holy place usually a long distance away.

No mention of walking, only 'travels'. 
According to James Harpur the first pilgrims were the Three Wise Men  who, according to the gospel of Mathew, journeyed from the East to Bethlehem guided by a star to pay homage 'to the one who has been born of the jews." 
Did they walk?  We don't know but it is unlikely.  Most pictures show them riding camels. 

What is a real pilgrim? 
This is the million dollar question that comes up with mind numbing regularity on all the 'camino pilgrim' forums.

Sometimes the answers are so dogmatic and illogical that one can be forgiven for thinking that there are people out there who have a genetic memory of being penitential pilgrims, tramping the pilgrimage trails of Europe in hair-shirts like Godric of Finchale, self-flagellating from one shrine to the next in order to earn indulgences for remission of their sins and time spent in purgatory before they are despatched to heaven or hell.  These are the 'Pilgrim Fundamentalists" who vehemently reject everyone else's claims to the title of 'pilgrim' as profane unless they conform to their naive version of what constitutes a 'real' pilgrim.

So how do they see a real pilgrim?
Firstly, it seems to me that the Pilgrim Fundamentalists' view of a Real Pilgrim is applied exclusively to people making a pilgrimage to Santiago. 
If you are one of the 200 million pilgrims who have visited Lourdes since 1869, chances are that you did not walk there.
Over 4 million pilgrims visit Fatima and each year.
10 Million make the pilgrimage to Guadalupe each year and just as many to Rome, and Jerusalem.
It seems that you can be a pilgrim to these shrines even if you take a luxury bus, go with a church tour or get the TGV.
But, according to the Pilgrim Fundamentalists, you can't call yourself a pilgrim to St James unless you walk to his tomb.  Furthermore, the sanctimonious idea is that you can only be a 'real' pilgrim if you walk every inch of the way on a long distance route because, irrespective of what the Santiago Archdiocese claims, 100km or 200km just won't cut it!  And, God help you if you cheat!  Taking a bus into Burgos, getting a taxi to the next albergue, skipping a few kilometers by taking a train or sending your backpack up a hill by motor vehicle will send you straight to purgatory!
Some Pilgrim Fundamentalist go as far as to insist that in order to qualify as a Real Pilgrim, one should carry a backpack (the heavier the better), stay only in basic pilgrim shelters (not the newer, up-market, private hostels that have sprung up in recent years) and definitely not in a hotel: eat frugal pilgrim meals (no fine-dining in restaurants or bistros) and, one can earn 'real pilgrim' Brownie points if you walk in winter, suffer blisters, tendonitis, shin splints, stress fractures and lose all your toe nails. To qualify as a Real Pilgrim, no pain really means no gain. 

Pilgrim Fundamentalist often refer to 'real pilgrims' as those who attempt to emulate 'tradtional medieval' pilgrims, a completely impossible task considering that mind-set, intention, landscapes, eras have all changed.  Their rather self-righteous criteria only seems to extend to walking, sleeping and eating - they do not apply their rules to the type of clothing a pilgrim should wear or equipment they can carry and paradoxically, even though the modern peregrino is expected to walk to Santiago, he or she is allowed to carry a credit card, travelers cheques, cash passport, iPod, digital camera, use the Internet, or send messages home via their Blackberry.  They can wear gortex boots, sweat-wicking shirts, polypropylene sock, carry telescopic Nordic walking poles and, buy a return ticket home.  The Real Pilgrim is a one way phenomenom.  The rules only apply to the journey there.  Once they arrive they can morph back into their 21st Century skins and fly home.  

So who were the real pilgrim role models?
There exists a confused notion among Pilgrim Fundamentalists that only the mendicant foot-slogging Medieval pilgrim can claim to a be a Real Pilgrim.  Bugger all the other millions who travelled long, dangerous distances in ships and/or on horseback.

Who was the traditional, medieval pilgrim?
Taking into account that the Middle Ages spanned a period of over 1000 years of turbulent change, from the 5th c to the 16thc, trying to conjure up a picture of a representative, traditional medieval pilgrim is more than a little problematic.  There was a melting-pot of rich and poor, pious and impious, penitential and pleasure seeking pilgrims just as there are today. By the 16th century the majority were homeless vagabonds, despised and reviled and treated with great suspicion. 
At a Council of Europe Congress held in 1988 - just after the birth of the modern pilgrimage to Santiago - a speaker elaborated on the decadence of the pilgrimage.
"The oft quoted decline and decadence of the pilgrimage to Compostela started here [16th c], although not in quantitative terms. It was the extreme forms of far-reaching qualitative changes which perverted ideas and practice. It is undeniable that the peregrination religiosa lost ground and that a tendency to depersonalise and externalise pilgrim practices emerged. The circumstances of the age also contributed to this: too few jobs for a rising population, unemployment, robber bands preying on the French routes, criminal acts by pilgrims and, from the 15th century onwards increasing criticism of the peregrination itself." 
And, there must have been a few fashion changes from the 5th C to the 16th Century.  Even though a few Popes decreed a particular dress for pilgrims, why are they always depicted in the same long robes?  We never see pilgrims in tights even though there is a 15th C song about Robin Hood to that effect!  Statues, sculptures and paintings give us an idea of what pilgrims from the different centurieslooked like, what they wore and how they travelled. 

There are just as many pictures of pilgrims on horseback as there are of walking pilgrims.  Some famous pilgrims who went on horseback - and left us their written accounts - include the Poitou priest Aimery Picaud (12th C - Liber Sancti Jacobi), the German Knight Arnold von Harff (15th C - Pilgrimage of the Horseman) and the Italian priest Domenico Laffi (17th C - A Journey Westward to Santiago in Galicia and Finisterre).  Are we, 21st Century pretenders, to strip them of their titles of 'Real Pilgrims" because they did not walk to Santiago?

On the Vatican website: you will find a list of Jubilee Pilgrimages of the Holy Father (John Paul II) from 1979 to 2004.  These include pilgrimages to many countries and shrines including two pilgrimages to Santiago.  Did the Holy Father walk there?  No, of course not.  So, are the Pilgrim Fundamentalists qualified to strip him of his pilgrim title too?

The root of the misconception:
In 1953 the Archdiocese in Santiago decided to award a special certificate to pilgrims who walked at least 100km to the tomb of the saint for religious reasons. (All records of these early certificates prior to 1970 have been lost).  Although the Compostela is based on a 14th C document, it is now considered a souvenir and is no longer used as proof to earn an indulgence.  I reckon this was a mistake.  All prilgrims should be given a document for visiting the tomb of St James - no matter how they arrive there.  It has made the journey more important than the destination.  Some walk all the different routes, planning their holidays around a walk on the camino.  Getting to Santiago is often secondary or not important.

A bit of 'Malice in Wander-land?"
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" said Alice.   "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.  "I don't much care where ...," said Alice.  "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.  (Lewis Carrol)

One often hears pilgrims say - "it is the journey, not the destination that is important".  That is a very un-"traditional pilgrim" thing to say.  The destination held the promise of  redemption (not the journey, even though longer journeys offered a few more days off purgatory) and the Archdiocese has this to say on their website:  "The most important thing here is the Goal, not the Way. Jacobean Pilgrims do not go on pilgrimage for the sake of the Way. Through the Way they do get to the Tomb of Saint James "the Great"."

Walking pilgrims can frame their credentials - these will be their "Certificate of Conscience", proof that they walked to Santiago.
Walking to Santiago is a choice.  Nobody forces you to walk 100km or 1000km - it is your choice.  The fact that you have decided to walk doesn't make you a better pilgrim than the person who saves up all their money to travel to Santiago to visit the tomb of the saint for religious reasons.
A wise lady recently said, "Pilgrim is as pilgrim does" - I think its time to stop all this judgemental, self-righteous nonsense about 'real' pilgrims. 
Over 12 million pilgrims are expected to visit Santiago next year - only 250 000 are expected to walk - and less than 10% will walk more than 114km to the city. Many will journey long distances to reach Spain and the shrine and all have the right to be called PILGRIMS.


  1. I had a bit of a funny experience last year when I was basically told by a very religious French man that I wasn't quite a kosher pilgrim since I was using the internet most evenings. I had managed to give the impression I didn't speak/ understand French for a while, but one day I was caught at the back of a wee walking quintet with this man. I had a sermon about how if I was truly a pilgrim I would be keeping internet use pretty much off the menu. I tried to explain that I was far from home, and my family would worry if they never heard from me. But all to no avail- internet should not be part of my routine. I was being properly put in my place. Then.... as we walked along.... suddenly this man's cell phone rang. He was forced to explain that he needed it to keep in touch with his family....

  2. "as we walked along.... "
    no doubt he in his gortex, waterproof boots, trousers and jacket over his thermal vest and dry-tech shirt....!!!

    I wonder if he was going to walk back home again?

  3. Anonymous4:31 pm


    thanks for these thoughts. I found that it was very easy to internalize all this stuff - when, early on, I caught the train to make a long stage manageable, I felt guilty. I had to think hard and to listen to wise advice to remember that making the pilgrimage is the right way for you.


  4. I don't remember what he was wearing sil, though I don't think it was ultra hi-tech. What I was mostly thinking at the time was "Gee I wish I was a faster walker so I could catch up to the rest of the group!!!!". And he wasn't going to walk home, though he was going home with his wife via Lourdes. To be fair, nearer the end of the walk I came to grasp why he had become so very religious: he was an alcoholic whose wife had prayed for him at the Sacred Heart shrine in France. And it seemed like their devotion as a couple to being pilgrims was basically what had saved him from an earlier death from alcoholism.

  5. Well said Sil - Amen to all of that!

    I was verbally attacked in an albergue by a small group of "pilgrims" on the last stages of the VdlP because I had booked into a down market hostal - I had walked from Sevilla and needed to do a washing etc. "Real" pilgrims don't do that they said...I effected a reconcilliation over the next couple of evenings and said we should all have dinner in Santiago..."oh we're not going to Santiago", they said..."we've got to catch a train then a flight to Mallorca to finish our holiday."

    Well I laughed of course and from that moment on decided never to stick my nose into to anyone else's pilgrimage and to ignore those who try to comment on mine!

  6. Another difference is mind set. The majority of pilgrims today don't have the foggiest idea why they are walking the camino and you often read that "there are as many reasons as there are pilgrims". I'm sure that pilgrims in the middle ages knew exactly why they walked to the shirnes of the saints!

  7. Anonymous7:47 am

    I was puzzled as to why the its the physical/material aspects of pilgrimage that have become such a focus for hardcore pilgrim zealots.
    Perhaps its because material things such as daily walking distance, staying in particular types of accommodation, amount of gear carried etc are in fact the only aspects of pilgrimage any self appointed 'pilgrim police' can measure, develop criteria for and judge?
    Though even an 'absolute' metric such as distance walked is misleading as the effort-physical and emotional-needed to go from point A to point B varies from for one pilgrim to another. So do I get more brownie points for what is for me an easy 100km stroll than someone who has really fought to cover 10km?
    Perhaps I will get a little badge to put on my pack "Spiritually Heavy Load" to get them off my back!

  8. I agree with you Nell. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of Spanish pilgrims have started from their homes - which could be less than 100km from Santiago - and others start from Sarria in order to earn the Compostela. They are walking to the tomb of their Patron Saint: why should they travel to France to start the walk??
    Some pilgrims walk many thousands of kms for 'non-religious' reasons whilst others who are deeply religious walk only short distances.

  9. Anonymous5:22 pm

    "The tourist expects; the pilgrim accepts"

  10. As one who is planning to walk the Camino Frances next year, I was extremely heartened to find this posting, although it was written a couple of years ago. While I have no apprehensions whatsoever about the physical challenges of the camino, I have been very concerned about being thrown into a community of walkers who devote their pilgrimages to judging the motives and merits of others. It appears to me that there is a great deal of hypocrisy among those purists who insist that they are "authentic pilgrims," while others are tourists or charlatans. The camino should be a place for contemplation and community, not competition, rancor, and division.

    Again, thanks for this posting, Sil. I would like to see more written on this issue.