The Way of Saint James

Bayonne, September 2011

James was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and together with his brother John, was one of the first disciples of Jesus. Legend states that after the crucifixion of Jesus, he went to Spain to preach and convert. Later he had a vision of the Virgin Mary and subsequently he returned to Judea.  He died there in 44AD, decapitated under the orders of Herod Agrippa, the then King of the Jews.  After his death, his disciples took his body back to Spain, where he was buried at a place somewhere inland.

The legend claims that in 813 his tomb was discovered in the town of Iria Flavia – today known as Padrón. Bishop Theodomira of Iria was informed, and after he told King Alfonso II of the discovery, the remains were moved to Compostela, for ostensibly political and religious reasons.  A basilica was built over the tomb, and over the centuries this building evolved to the current cathedral.

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

By the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela had become an important destination for Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins. It ranks equal with the other two important Christian pilgrimage destinations – Jerusalem and Rome.

In the early days of the pilgrimages to Santiago, much of Spain and Portugal was still under the control of the Muslim Moors, who were not finally defeated until 1492.  In that era, the majority of the pilgrims were French.

For pilgrims, their route started from their door.  They would make their way to the nearest town or city and join other pilgrims, for there was safety in numbers.  One of the major staging posts was Paris and the church of Saint Jacques la Boucherie, close to Nôtre-Dame, on the north side of the Seine.  Today only the church tower remains.  And Le Puy-en-Velay was the main gathering point for pilgrims from the south and east.

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The principal European pilgrim routes

As trickles form a stream, before joining to a tributary, and finally flowing into the main river, the pilgrims converged on Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for what was the most convenient crossing of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain. From there they went on to Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León and finally to Santiago de Compostela.  And along the route hospitals and hostels sprang up, many of which still exist today.

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The main towns on the Camino Francés

With the exception of recent years, undertaking the pilgrimage was not without risk.  Not only were pilgrims liable to be attacked and robbed by bandits, but disease was rife, and many died on the way.  Indeed, even today, though the route is quite safe and secure, there are still casualties, mainly due to physical exertion or from exhaustion in the prevalent heat of the summer months.  One can observe many crosses and memorials by the path.

And one must not forget that in all but modern times, the pilgrimage was only half completed upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela; there were no buses, trains and planes to take one home, and the arduous outward journey had to be repeated in reverse.

During periods of war or plague, the number of pilgrims would have been greatly reduced, although some would have persisted, by taking the more challenging northern route that follows the coast.

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Formerly the pilgrimage was undertaken for purely religious reasons, but for most people today, it has evolved to being a leisure activity.  Modern pilgrims may be participating for the physical challenge, for the exercise, the fresh air, the experience, the opportunity for solitude, to meet other like-minded people, or for a host of other reasons.  Some may complete the journey from end to end in one go, while others, who may have limited time or resources, progress in sections over a period of years.

Although most people complete the pilgrimage on foot, there is an increasing number of cyclists, and I even saw some people running from village to village.  There were several accompanied by a dog and I was even passed by a couple on horseback.

Not everyone carries their possessions on their back.  There are many who contract a specialist tourist agency to reserve accommodation along the route, and arrange for their bags to be transported from place to place. And at the other end of the scale there are the low-cost options of the albergues, with dormitories and the local restaurants with their ‘cheap and cheerful’ three-course pilgrim menu. As one Spanish family told me – ‘It can be a quite inexpensive holiday’.

Are many participating for purely religious reasons?  I suspect that these days they are very much in the minority. And perhaps this is reflected in the fact that, apart from being open during their occasional mass, most churches and chapels in the villages are shuttered and locked.

Does the crypt under the cathedral in Santiago actually contain the remains of Saint James?  Until the tomb is opened or x-rayed to reveal a decapitated skeleton, and I suspect that the Church will remain reluctant to ever give permission, it will have to remain a matter of individual faith.

But does the veracity of the legend really matter?  Every year thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and all nationalities walk for weeks for hundreds of miles across a beautiful landscape in all weathers.  That is surely no bad thing.

And if some of them benefit spiritually, that’s their bonus.