History of the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago represents more than one thousand years of history and tradition. UNESCO has recognized the network of routes that converge in Santiago de Compostela as a significant factor in the cultural, historical, artistic and architectural advances on the Iberian peninsula.

By embarking upon your own pilgrimage, you can experience those traditions, find your spirituality, face your challenges and get into the flow of becoming a pilgrim.

Plaza Obradoiro and Santiago de Compostela cathedral
The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

What is the Camino de Santiago?

In English, “el Camino de Santiago” means “the Way of Saint James” and it represents the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Greater lie in Santiago. The Camino has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years, and there is even evidence of a pre-Christian route as well.

Throughout the medieval period, it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken. Indeed, it was only these pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela—which could result in a plenary indulgence, which frees a person from the penance due for sins.

The First Century Origins

Christian legend has it that when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, the Iberian peninsula fell to James. Seventh and eighth-century documents suggest that he spent a number of years preaching there before returning to Jerusalem, where in the year 44 CE he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I.

After his martyrdom, a popular belief arose which says that Saint James’s followers carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat. The boat was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land in Northern Spain at Padrón, which is near Finisterre.

Queen Lupa, the local queen, provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb. which she had also provided. Saint James was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there, the body lay forgotten until the 9th century.

The Discovery of Saint James’s Burial Site

In 814 CE, Pelagius, a hermit living in that part of Galicia, had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars. They led him to what proved to be an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He immediately reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir. The bishop declared the remains to be those of Santiago and two of his followers. Theodomir, in turn, reported the finding to Alphonso II, King of Asturias, who then declared James (Santiago) the patron saint of Spain (or of what would eventually become Spain).

A small village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars or Compostela) and a monastery were established on the site. It’s also possible the “Compostela” phrasing came from the Roman word for cemetery or “to bury”, which is “componere.”

In any event, news of the discovery spread, and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles. This was all greatly encouraged by the powerful Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities, who were anxious to promote Santiago as a pilgrimage destination, as well as by the monks of the Abbey of Cluny in France who were anxious to support the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors on the Peninsula.

And thus began the millennium-long relationship between the holy and the commercial.

The Significance of the Shell Symbol

As with many myths, the details change depending on who is telling the story. One version is that during Saint James’s boat journey, it arrived near Finisterre as a wedding was taking place. The bridegroom was on horseback, and upon seeing this mysterious ship approaching, the horse spooked, plunging both the horse and rider into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse emerged from the waves and both horse and rider both covered with cockleshells.

Another version substitutes a knight for the bridegroom, but regardless of the version of events, Santiago had performed his first miracle. Another option is that the symbol may have come into being simply because pilgrims visiting Santiago de Compostela had ready access to a plethora of sea shells. Perhaps enough pilgrims returned home with them as souvenirs that the sea shell eventually became the symbol of the pilgrimage. But whichever story you choose to believe, it is a fact that the scallop shell remains the symbol of Saint James and the Camino. Today, pilgrims carry shells as symbols of their intention or devotion.

The Camino in the Middle Ages

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached its peak during the Middle Ages and it is safe to say that it constituted a major cultural aspect of that period of history in Europe. By the 12th century, the Camino had become a rather organized affair. In 1140 CE, the Codex Calixtinus was developed and it’s widely regarded as the world’s first travel guide.

The Codex Calixtinus provided the would-be pilgrim with the rudiments of what he or she would need to know while enroute. Book V, the famous Liber Peregrinationis (Guide of the Medieval Pilgrim) would have provided practical information, while Book II, the Book of Miracles, would surely have provided encouragement while underway.

In addition, a massive infrastructure was developed to support pilgrimage, and not coincidentally, to gain commercially from it. Bridges were constructed across rivers to draw pilgrims to certain cities . . . and the cities prospered. Pilgrim hospitals were chartered by religious orders, kings, and queens (done for charitable purposes and also to gain favor in heaven). All manner of commercial businesses were established to both take advantage of and support pilgrims. Cultures mixed, languages merged and history was affected.

The Camino’s Decline

After peaking in the Middle Ages, the phenomenon of pilgrimage to Santiago tapered off. Several possible causes or contributing factors have been cited. At the end of the 16th century, Spain engaged in wars with both England and France, effectively cutting off access to Spain from elsewhere in Europe. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther around 1520 CE, certainly would have had an effect, being deeply critical as he was of the practice of indulgences, a concept thoroughly intertwined with the pilgrimage to Santiago.

Two centuries later, the Age of Enlightenment certainly did not encourage its rejuvenation. But throughout all of this, the pilgrimage to Santiago never quite died out. One small piece of evidence of its continuation comes from the journals of John Adams who, while making a land crossing from the Galician coast to Paris in December 1779, wrote that he “. . . always regretted that we could not find time to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.”

Tired pilgrim with backpack

The Camino’s Resurgence

Some aspects of the modern Camino are fundamentally the same as they were for the medieval pilgrim. As a practical affair, the Camino is a good long walk. While underway, the pilgrim needs support for food, lodging and direction. An infrastructure of hospitals arose in the Middle Ages and this infrastructure still exists – and in fact, it is growing rapidly. There are still a number of facilities run by religious orders, but you’ll also find albergues or pilgrim hostels which are run by local towns or private businesses.

The medieval pilgrim was nearly always undertaking the arduous journey for serious religious reasons– often to seek forgiveness for sins or to ask for the Saint’s assistance in some matter. The modern pilgrim’s reasons for walking surely span the range from religious to spiritual, psychological, historical, cultural and for the physical challenge.

Probably the most obvious and serious difference between the medieval and the modern pilgrim is that pilgrimage for the former began on his or her doorstep, wherever that might have been, and upon reaching Santiago, the pilgrimage was only half over, as they needed to then walk home.

Related to this is that the modern pilgrim can elect to start the pilgrimage in any arbitrary location with the single restriction that to obtain the Compostela, the last, westernmost 100 kilometers for walkers or 200 kilometers for cyclists must be documented.

It’s also worth noting the effect that popular culture has had on the resurgence of the Camino. Movies like The Way, and memoirs like Hape Kerkling’s I’m Off Then or Kevin Codd’s To the Field of Stars have brought the Camino into greater consciousness.

Spain has responded by expanding resources, upgrading waymarking and designating new “official” routes to Santiago.

More Camino Resources

If you are planning a Camino, you can request a credential from us before you go.

Be sure to check out our FAQs on planning your Camino and what to expect while on the trail. If you want some inspiration, check out our list of books, movies and podcasts which feature folks sharing their experiences.

Join the community by becoming a member of the American Pilgrims on the Camino, engaging with a local chapter or joining our general American Pilgrims Facebook group.

Rev 04/07/2023