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History and Geography of the Camino de Santiago in Spain

History and Geography of the Camino de Santiago in Spain

Pilgrim shrine

St. James the Greater was the brother of John the Evangelist. The brothers were converted to Christianity by St. John the Baptist. James was martyred in 44 A.D. in Palestine but that was just the beginning of his story. Although no historical records exist to place James in Spain, tradition has it that before his death he traveled to Iberia as a part of his evangelical mission. Centuries later, in 813 A.D. James’ remains were thought to have been found in Galicia, in northwest Spain.

This came at a time when the small Christian community of northern Spain was just beginning its struggle against the advancement of Islam throughout Iberia. A small shrine was built in honor of St. James and he was raised to the status of patron saint of Spain. St. James rose to mythical status as he was sighted on the battlefield in the fight against the Moors. So widespread was the myth of St. James among Spaniards that he was sighted as late as the 16th century helping Spain to conquer the New World!

Biking the Route

Although the beginnings of the pilgrimage to Santiago are lost in time, we know that pilgrims or curiosity seekers must have made the trek to Santiago in the 10th and 11th centuries. By 1122 Pope Calixtus II gave pilgrims to Santiago the “plenary indulgence,” special indulgences (forgiveness for sins committed and special recompense for pilgrims) for those who made the pilgrimage in a year in which the saint’s day, July 25, fell on a Sunday. That tradition continues to this day and, hence, 2004 is a “Jubilee” year for the pilgrimage to Santiago.

So popular was the pilgrimage to Santiago that soon after Pope Calixtus II granted his special privileges to pilgrims, the first pilgrim’s “guide” was published, assisting pilgrims on their journey. The guidebook, the Codex Calixtinus, bears the pope’s name, though the author was more likely a community of monks with one editor, Aymery Picaud. Those interested can purchase a modern translation of the original guide.

See this link for details.

By the 13th century half a million pilgrims a year were traveling by foot, by horse, donkey, or by cart to visit the shrine of St. James in Santiago. Today, pilgrims who travel to Santiago by foot, horseback or bicycle qualify for these indulgences in a Jubilee or holy year.

If you look at them on a map, the pilgrimage routes to Santiago (click here to see a map.) demonstrate how pilgrims flowed to Santiago from the farthest reaches of Christian Europe in 1200 A.D. In Medieval Europe, these routes marked trade routes, pilgrimage routes and military roads – a literal interstate highway network reborn in Europe after seven hundred years of decay since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Almost all of the routes from northern and central Europe converged on Spain to cross the Pyrenees over the Puerto de Somport or through the French town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port and the Spanish town of Roncesvalles. The final two routes merged into one at Puente la Reina just south of Pamplona.

Today pilgrims bound for Santiago often begin their trek at the crest of the Pyrenees in the small village of Roncesvalles or St. Jean Pied-de-Port. From here it is 744.60 kilometers (462.67 miles) to Santiago de Compostela.

To see a detailed listing of the traditional “stages” and distances on the route to Santiago click here.

Key online resources for further reading:

Rick Price