Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Rise, the fall and the Revival of the pilgrimage to Saint James …… and the Rise of 'The Camino'

Pilgrimages to the different Christian shrines in Europe today are perceived differently - although I'm sure this was not the case originally.  In the early middle-ages the three most important pilgrimage destinations were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Only the latter has had any great success at reviving it as a 'walking/riding' pilgrimage trail although work is being done to find the old paths along the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. (See web links at the end of this post). 

This comment on a Camino Forum set me thinking. 

"The tradition of the Santiago pilgrimage is of walking there along a Camino - or, rather, travelling there along a Camino. The traditions of other shrines is to go there, or to be there."

What he saying is that the tradition is to walk to Santiago but not to the other shrines.  Of course, there was no difference in the middle ages - pilgrims had no option but to walk to all the shrines of Europe (unless they could afford a horse).  Until about 40 years ago, 99% of pilgrims to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago travelled there by boat, bus, train or car. There was no difference in the means of travel and very few pilgrims walked to any of them. 

'Walking' to Santiago is a fairly recent 'tradition' in the modern era (as recent as the 1980s) and the perception that there is a centuries old tradition of pilgrims walking to the tomb of Saint James in Spain in a continuous stream for a thousand years is inaccurate, historically. The pilgrimage to Santiago saw about 300 years of glorious hey-days from the 10th century (reaching a peak in the 12th and 13th centuries) until its sharp decline from the 14th century.  It went through about 400 years of extremly lean days and virtual extinction!

When the relics of the saint were ‘lost’ in 1589 the pilgrims stopped coming in any number and stayed away for almost 400 years. (I doubt pilgrims have ever stopped journeying to Rome or Jerusalem.)
By the Holy Year of 1867 St james' shrine was all but forgotten and only 44 pilgrims attended mass on his feast day. (Cordla Rabe)

Only after the remains were relocated and authenticated in 1884 did the masses start returning to Compostela – this time by boat, bus, train and car. (It would take another hundred years for pilgrims to start walking to the shrine).

The old paths were long abandoned and forgotten and it wasn't until the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s that the pilgrimage trail itself was restored and revitalized. For the first time in history, the pilgrims were split into those who walk or ride to Santiago and those who arrive by other conveyances.
A new pecking order has developed amongst those who walk, an implied hierarchy that depends on how far one walks, for how long, how heavy the pack, how meager the accommodation, how frugal the meals. Taking a bus or car to Compostela to visit the Saint is considered passé - almost unworthy. Walking the Camino has become its own status symbol.

The Rise and Fall of the Pilgrimage ... and the Rise of the Camino de Santiago.

814 - The beginning: The story of the discovery of the burial site of Saint James the Greater around 814 is well known. From the time the remains were authenticated by the church, an ever growing stream of pilgrims started trekking to his tomb. In those early days, before the introduction of indulgences for the remission of sins (circa 1095), people travelled by sea and land to visit the tombs and shrines of the saints out of curiosity, respect, and to be in the presence of something holy.  No real thought of rewards.

The Rise and Fall - 12th to 14th centuries: Once earning an indulgence for the remission of sins and time spent in purgatory was thrown into the mix, pilgrimage became all the rage which soon led to corruption and fraud with shrines competing to attract pilgrims with false relics and outrageous indulgences of thousands of years. The heydays of the Santiago pilgrimage reached their peak in the 12th and 13th centuries but by the 14th century pilgrimage began to decline all over Europe due to wars, a growing split in the church and the Black Death.

1517: By the beginning of the Reformation, and the spread of Protestantism, pilgrimage and the veneration of relics became unpopular and were banned in many countries. Many churches and cathedrals were destroyed or abandoned.

1589: The relics of Saint James were moved and hidden to prevent a possible attack by Frances Drake – and were forgotten for almost 300 years! It’s not surprising that the number of pilgrims to Santiago dried up almost completely. With no body to venerate it would be almost 400 years before they started to return in any numbers.
In 1590 the Castilian parliament proposed that St Teresa of Avila become co-patron saint of Spain with Santiago. It seemed St James’ star was on the wane and pilgrimage to his tomb slowed to a trickle.

1759: “The mid-18th century again saw a marked decline in the number of pilgrims [to Santiago]. The scientific and industrial revolution in the 19th century also rendered the pilgrimage obsolete in the rest of Europe.” Antti Lahelma

1820: “The Spanish Civil war of 1820 – 1823 further prevented pilgrims from visiting Santiago and, in whole of the 19th century 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
1867: “In the Holy Year of 1867 just 40 pilgrims turned up for the celebrated mass on 25th July.” (Cordla Rabe)

1879: Something had to be done. A search for the relics was launched in 1879 and they were eventually found between the walls of the apse.

1884: A papal bull from Pope Leo XIII declared them to be genuine (which silenced the sceptics) and there was a growing revival in the number of visitors.

1886: P. Fidel Fita rediscovered the Codex Calixtinus (a copy of the so-called Pilgrims’ Guide that never was) after it had been lost for centuries. This was fortuitous timing as it spurred historic research into the pilgrimage routes to Santiago just when interest in the shrine was being revived.

The revival of the St James Pilgrimage - 1900: After the re-discovery and authentication of the saint’s relics, pilgrim visitors started flocking to Santiago once again and there was a steady rise in the numbers especially in the Holy Years. But, the old trail routes remained overgrown and forgotten and the number of people walking to Santiago was so insignificant that no records were kept of their arrival. (The following numbers of visitors to Santiago in Holy Years is from de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heiliges_Compostelanisches_Jahr)
1909 - 140 000
1915 - 103 000
1920 - 112 000
1926 - 90 000
1937 - 134 000
1938 – 8 000
1943 - 200 000
1948 - 500 000
1954 - 700 000
1965 - 2.5 million
1971 - 4 million (491 Compostelas)
1976 - 4 million (243 Compostelas)
Recording the numbers of pilgrims who arrived on foot, horseback or bicycle was resumed in Santiago de Compostela from 1953 but the records from before 1970 have been lost. The late Don Jaime of Santiago’s cathedral found an old record book kept by his predecessor which showed that in 1967 there were 37 pilgrims and in 1971, which was a Holy Year, 491 pilgrims.
An article in the New York Times (dated August 16, 1965) about the 1965 Holy Year describes the atmosphere in the cathedral as thousands of pilgrims, who arrived from all over Europe in buses and cars, lined up to kiss the stone sculptured head of the apostle at whose tomb they had come to pray. The 50 miles of road between La Coruna and Santiago was crowded with huge tourist buses and cars.
(No mention of people having walked there.)
There were always a hardy few, nostalgic Catholics, medievalists and other academics, who tried to find the old pilgrimage trails to Santiago and reach it by means other than by car or bus.
In 1917 Georgiana Goddard King completed ‘The Way of St. James’ a three-volume work tracing the pilgrimage trails to the shrine of St. James, based on her journeys on foot, donkey cart, mule and other transportation
Dr Walter Starkie made the pilgrimage through France and Spain on foot, by car and bus four times from 1924 to 1952. In his classic book ‘The Road to Santiago’ he makes many references to the work of G.G. King.
Nancy Frey – Pilgrim Stories wrote: “Beginning in the 1950s and the 1960s the pilgrimage developed as a touristic and cultural way called the Camino de Santiago based on political reconstruction and a budding nostalgia for preserving medieval European patrimony. During the portion of its current revitalisation performance of the journey was not paramount.”
This observation is supported by the pilgrim figures which show that in the 1965 Holy Year the number of ‘visitor pilgrims’ more than doubled (2.5 million) compared with 700 000 in the 1954 Holy Year, but walking to Santiago was still not an important criterion (the journey was not important) but the destination was. This still holds true for the other great Christian shrines like Jerusalem or Rome and the more modern Marian shrines of Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe (the most visited shrine after Rome).
The Rise of el Camino – late 1970s: The resurrection and promotion of the old trails to Santiago can be attributed mainly to Don Elias Valina Sampedro of O Cebreiro parish - a dedicated priest and scholar who devoted over 30 years of his life to the restoration of the Camino as a pilgrimage trail. In 1967 he wrote his doctoral thesis on - The Road of St James: A Historical and Legal Study.
Linda Davidson and David Gitlitz walked to Santiago 5 times between 1974 and 1996 accompanying groups of college student-pilgrims on academic medieval study programs. On their first trek in 1974 they did not meet even one other pilgrim. In 1979 the only other pilgrim they encountered was an elderly Frenchman who was fulfilling a vow made in the Second World War. They wrote in their book The PIlgrimage Road to Santiago "To most people in the 1970s the pilrimage road was hardly more than a vague memory of a historical relic - "You know, in the medieval times...."

1982: Don Elias published his guide for walking the Camino trails to Santiago. 1,868 pilgrims received the Compostela, but this was mainly due to the visit of Pope John Paul II.

1985: This was a pivotal year for ‘The Camino’ pilgrimage trail. At a gathering in Santiago in 1985 Don Elias 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, begging for yellow paint from the departments of roads. Also in 1985 UNESCO declared the city of Santiago de Compostela a World Heritage site

1987: El Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail is named the first European Cultural Itinerary.
1989: Pope John Paul II visited Santiago again (and sadly, Don Elias passed away) 5,760 Compostelas were issued.
Exponential growth: From then on there was an exponential growth in the number of pilgrims walking and riding to Santiago, and those earning the Compostela certificate - a junp from 5,760 in the 1989 Holy Year to 88,436 in the 1993 Holy Year.  (The pilgrim office estimates that only 1 in 5 pilgrims walking the Camino actually walk to Santiago and request the Compostela).
1986 – 2,491
1989 – 5,760
1993 – 88,436
1999 - 154,613
2004 – 179,944
2010 –272,000
Saint James pilgrims and Camino pilgrims
Reconstruction of 'The Camino' as we know it today only began in the late 1970s. It took a dedicated priest, a group of hard working volunteers with a few tins of yellow paint, and the formation of Camino interest groups in the 1980s - coinciding with the advent of Internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990s - to see it explode with exponential growth into the 21st century.
Millions of Saint James pilgrims still journey to Santiago de Compostela every year - an estimated 12 million in the 2010 Holy Year.  The focus and goal of these pilgrims has never changed, to venerate the saint and obtain a plenary indulgence.
Unlike their medieval counterparts, today's walking or cycling pilgrims rarely say 'I am makng a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James of Compostela'. 
Most say, "I am doing the Camino".  Furthermore, they say, "Its not the destination that counts, it the journey."
Doing the "Camino" has become the destination!

Watch a video of the 1915 Holy Year here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsnB1mLZwlQ

For information on the Via Francigena - the pilgrimageg trail to Rome: http://www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk/
For information on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem visit: http://sites.google.com/site/pilgrimstojerusalem/Home


  1. Thank you SIl for such a terrific "profile". Looking forward to reading your further adventures on the trail.
    Buen Camino, Karin

  2. An illuminating account, Sil. Thanks.

  3. I always wondered why the Santiago pilgrim was only ever depicted as an early middle age pilgrim (11th -13th c) with a long cloak, broad brimmed hat, scrip and staff. The middle ages spread over nearly 500 years but I've never seen pictures of them depicted from any other century, with tights or ruffles, or short overcoats and proper shoes. Perhaps that is because there weren't any typical pilgrims to show after the 1500s?

  4. Leaving on the 27th of May to do a little part of the Camino Frances- from Leon to Santiago. Thanks also for your inspiration!

  5. Ekke,you are doing a beautiful part of the Camino. I would skip the first day and a half out of Leon )long gravel paths alongside the highway) and get a bus to Hospital de Orbigo or even to Astorga and start walking from there.
    Have a wonderful walk! Its not so 'little' when you have to walk every day for two weeks carrying your pack.

  6. You are such a blessing to the Camino community, Sil!
    Thank you for your encyclopedic knowledge of what animates so many of us ♥♥♥

    PS: Our camino plans are moving all the time. No time it seems for Geneva-Arles-Santiago this year. Maybe just Salamanca-Santiago in November. Crossing my fingers!

  7. Well researched Posting Sil, Much appreciated.

  8. Very informative, thank you Sil. You might be interested in a project I am leading to establish a 1200km walking pilgrimage in South Africa. You can read more at www.indlelayobuntu.co.za

    I'd value your comments and input.