The Way of Saint James History and Origins

Thousands of pilgrims travel the Jacobean Route every year, but what is the history of the Camino de Santiago? In this post we will delve into the origins of the Camino de Santiago, and the fascinating history of some of the most famous routes.

Who was the Apostle St. James?

The history of the Camino is shrouded in mystery and legends. Let us being with the story of James Zebedee, who was one of the prominent Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. Also known as James the Greater, to be distinguished from James the Lesser (another member of the twelve Apostles).

Apostol Santiago Galiwonders

The Apostle Saint James accompanied Jesus in some of the most important events of his life. And, after his death, he witnessed his apparitions.

How did the Apostle Saint James reach Compostela?

After the death of Jesus, the Apostles were sent ot preach the gospel. the Apostle James crossed the Mediterranean Sea, reaching the region then known as Hispania (now Spain and Portugal). According to some accounts of the time, the evangelization would have begun in Gallaecia (Galicia). Although there are other accounts that claim that the route would have begun in Cartagena, the truth is that no matter what, the Apostle Saint James became the patron saint of Spain. After returning to Jerusalem, he died at the hands of Herod Agrippa I between 41 and 44 AD.

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    According to the legend, his disciples preserved his body and sent it in a stone boat back to Hispania. After crossing the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, he would arrive again in Gallaecia. His mortal remains would reach Iria Flavia (Padrón, which in fact owes its name to “pedrón”, the material from which the boat carrying the Apostle’s remains was made). Once there, they were transferred to what we know today as Santiago de Compostela, and his tomb remained in oblivion for several centuries, due to the Roman persecutions. Until its discovery in the 9th century by Bishop Teodomiro.

    How was the tomb of St. James the Apostle found?

    Precisely in the IX century, around the year 813, a Christian hermit told the Bishop that he had seen some lights on the mountain. Thus, the tomb of the Apostle was found. Then, the King of Asturias, Alfonso II the Chaste, ordered the construction of a church on it, which gave rise to the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. In fact, there are theories that claim that the word “Compostela” comes from the expression “field of stars”, in a clear reference to the lights seen on the mountain where the remains lay.

    It is believed that the word “Compostela” comes from the expression “field of starts”, in a clear reference to the lights seen on the mountain where the remains of the Apostle lay.

    The Origins of the Way of St. James

    The appearance of the Tomb of St. James the Apostle was a revolution in the region, and not only from a religious point of view. The king of Asturias took advantage of the powerful story of the protection of the Apostle Santiago to unique all his territories into a single kingdom. As well as to Christianize the are we know today as Finisterre (End of the World), whose inhabitants at the time still belonged to the Celtic tradition. In fact, here we can find the origin of one of the most popular pilgrimage routes, the only road that does not end in Santiago de Compostela, but starts from this city: the Camino de Finisterre.

    At the time when the main religious destinations in Europe competed for the best relics, Santiago de Compostela was placed on the mad as a pilgrimage center. It wrote its name next to great cities like Rome or Jerusalem.

    The truth is that, in addition to the religious aspect, the history of the Camino de Santiago was also of great importance from a political point of view. It mean the creation of strong cultural connections between the north of Spain and Europe. This contributed to the creation of a powerful tool in the form of a cultural narrative during the Reconquest.

    La Catedral de santiago galiwonders

    Who was the first pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago?

    According to the history of the Camino de Santiago, the first pilgrim was the aforementioned King Alfonso II of Asturias. One of the great challenges of his reign was to confront the advance of the Muslim peoples, and to initiate the Reconquest.

    As we mentioned earlier, the discovery of the Tomb of the Apostle was a very powerful image to support the political narrative of the time. King Alfonso II knew how to take advantge of it, and initiated the first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Through the route that today we know as the Primitive Way.

    And how did the history of the Jacobean Route continue?

    After these early years that gave rise to the Jacobean tradition, the Way of Saint James gradually gained fame throughout Europe. Until the 13th century, thousands of pilgrims came to Santiago de Compostela, motivated by multiple reasons. And that the pilgrimage in the Middle Ages involved a series of dangers that we do not face today.

    What were these reasons that motivated pilgrims to expose themselves to such risks? Some were seeking salvation, or to expiate their guilt for sins committed. There were also those who embarked on this feat for money, walking the Camino de Santiago on behalf of other wealthier pilgrims, or even to fulfill a sentence.

    Such was the affluence that the Camino had at this stage, that Pope Calixtus II declared the existence of the Holy Years: as long as the 25th of July (feast of St. James the Apostle) was a Sunday.

    After this stage, from the 14th century onwards, came long years of decline of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage declined in popularity for several centuries (not on the Camino, but on all European pilgrimage routes).

    La historia del Camino de santiago infografia galiwonders

    The Way of St. James from 1990 onwards

    Although the Camino de Santiago was never totally interrupted, and there were pilgrims traveling it every year, the numbers dropped significantly between the 14th and 20th centuries.

    However, in the 1990s, a great effort was made to promote it from a tourist point of view. The Camino began to be seen not only as a religious pilgrimage route, but also as a cultural, social, and understanding of European values.

    In 1993 the Camino de Santiago was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since the numbers have only grown. Last year (2019), the number of pilgrims who obtained the Compostela, almost reached 350,000. The numbers increase every year, as do the multiple nationalities of the pilgrims who come to visit Santiago de Compostela.

    A new record was reached in 2019: 347,578 Compostelas were awarded.

    The History of the Main Routes of the Way of Saint james

    In the previous sections, we have already given some information about the history of some of the Jacobean Routes. We will focus on some of the most important ones:

    The history of the French Way

    Although the French Way is the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago, it does not mean that it is the oldest. This would be the Primitve Way, which we will talk about later. 

    The French Way emerged as a gateway for pilgrims coming from France, as well as from other European countries. It gained popularity during the Reconquest, as it was said to be one of the safest routes to Santiago de Compostela. In addition to minimizing the possible risks associated with a route on foot during a period of conflict, it made use of the route of what had previously been a Roman road. 

    The pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago in France, started from Arles (which once in Spain transited through Somport Canfranc in Aragon), and Le Puy, Paris and Vezelay. These last three entered Spain through Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Subsequently, the four routes joined at Roncesvalles, and converged in a single route to Santiago de Compostela.

    Thus, starting from France and hosting mostly pilgrims of Gallic origin in its beginnings, the French Way was born.

    The history of the Primitive Way

    Although the French Way is the most popular route, this does not mean that it is the oldest. In fact, this gonor is held by the Primitive Way, as its name suggests.

    The Primitive Way was the route used to reach Santiago de Compostela by the first pilgrim in history. Do you remember who he was? King Alfonso II El Casto, resident in Asturias, left his domains and began his pilgrimage, giving rise to the Primitive Way. it is a physically demanding route, and not very accessible. that is why it was forgotten for years, in favor of the French Way. today it is the route chosen by the most experienced pilgrims.

    The history of the Camino de Finisterre

    The Camino de Finisterre (or Finisterra), unlike other routes of the Camino de Santiago, does not end in Compostela but this city is the starting point.

    This is not the only difference with other Jacobean Routes. In this case, the route even predates Christianity itself. Since Roman times, Finisterre was known as the “End of the World”. It is a mythical place full of legends, where the sun set. This enclave became almost a magical place, a  kind of altar to the sun god, where different cultures and traditions of the time converged, among others the Celtic.

    With all this, we can conclude that the Camino de Finisterre has a pagan origin, long before the discovery of the Tomb of the Apostle Santiago. However, as we mentioned before, King Alfonso II El Casto took advantage of this situation to unite all these kingdoms into one, and Christianize this route.

    Faro de Finisterre Camino de Santiago

    The Camino de Finisterra owes its rise to several reasons. On the one hand, being a region that has always harbored a speacial mysticism, these were many pilgrims who claimed to continue their way to the sea, after reaching Santiago. And on the other hand, in the area there are several sites of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, such as the Santuario da Barca in Muxía. For this reason, despite the pagan origin of the route, a great effort was made to integrate it into the Jacobean Routes of the Way of St. James.

    The Finisterrana

    Nowadays it is one of the most popular routes, it even hs its own “Compostela” (Finisterrana). In fact, at the Finisterre Lighthouse is the milestone that marks the KM0 of the Camino, and it is very common to see pilgrims leaving their boots there, and performing purification rituals after completing their journey.

    Estatua peregrino Finisterre Camino de Santiago

    The history of the Portuguese Way

    As happened with other routes of the Camino de Santiago such as the French Way, the Portuguese Way arose by taking advantage of the route of a Roman road. Even today, remains can be seen in the area of Oporto.

    Its origin dates back to the 14th century, when Queen Isabel of Portugal understook two pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. The connection that the queen felt with the Camino was so strong that even today, one of the main streets of Santiago de Compostela is named after her. The well-known “Rúa da Raíña” (Queen’s Stret) refers to the Portuguese monarch. After the queen’s pilgrimage, not only were great legends left on the road, but the Portuguese Way was significantly improved, from the point of view of its infrastructure. Thanks to this, hospitals were created and maintained along the route.

    In addition, the importance that the Order of the Knights of St. James had in Portugal, contributed significantly to the consolidation of the Portuguese Way. So much so, that it is currently the second busiest route of the Camino de Santiago.

    We hope you have found these brief brushstrokes useful to know a little more about the history of the Camino de Santiago its routes. Do not hesitate to leave your doubts or comments below: ¡Buen Camino!

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