Camino 101- An Introduction
The Camino de Santiago (or “Way of St. James” in English) is a long distance trek which originates in multiple points throughout Europe and culminates in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. The Camino emerged in the middle ages and has existed for more than one thousand years though it fell into dormancy after the 13th century. Recently, the Camino has experienced a renaissance - more than 300,000 people annually now make the journey.
Though once a strictly religious pilgrimage (the cathedral in Santiago is believed to be the final resting place of St. James the Apostle), the Camino today is a UNESCO world heritage site and has become popular with people of all beliefs- religious and non-religious. Many are drawn to the Camino by its rich cultural history, its ancient architecture, its beautiful scenery, the opportunity for long distance trekking, and the opportunity to commemorate, celebrate, or contemplate life.
The 2011 release of the movie “The Way” starring Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen has no doubt raised awareness of the Camino, particularly in the US and among English speaking countries. The Camino is expected to continue increasing in popularity for years to come.
For a more detailed explanation of the Camino, please read on. Should you have any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
What is the Camino de Santiago?
When attempting to define the Camino de Santiago (or the "Way of St. James" in English), one must consider both spiritual and physical dimensions. Spiritually, the Camino is a pilgrimage in the definitional sense – a journey to a sacred place or shrine. In this case, the sacred place is a shrine at the cathedral in the city of Santiago, Spain in which the earthly remains of St. James the Apostle – one of the twelve disciples of Christ - are believed to be buried. The pilgrimage was born shortly after the discovery of the human remains near present day Santiago in the early 9th century. As word of the discovery spread, the volume of faithful pilgrims traveling to Santiago increased exponentially. Indeed, by the 12th century, the time at which the Camino’s popularity reach its zenith, perhaps as many as 100,000 pilgrims made the journey annually to Santiago and in doing so helped to elevate the Camino to what many consider to be the third most important pilgrimage in the Christian world after Jerusalem and Rome.
In addition to the spiritual dimension, one must also consider the physical dimension of the Camino. Physically, the Camino de Santiago is the infrastructure and iconography that was in part born of and later facilitated the more spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage. Infrastructure in this context includes not only the network of old Roman roads, paths, and routes which originate throughout Europe and converge in Santiago, but also the churches, pilgrim’s hospitals, monasteries, statuary and directional markings along the way not to mention the countless hamlets, villages, towns and full blown cities which developed along the routes on which the volume of pilgrim traffic was highest. It is this physical infrastructure in part – the archeological, cultural, and architectural remnants of centuries past – that increasingly attracts non-religious pilgrims to the Camino today.
Popular Camino Routes
All pilgrimages theoretically begin at the individual pilgrim’s origin, which can be any place on earth. However, for the Camino, pilgrims were historically of European descent and thus began their journeys from places within Europe. The route one chose to follow to Santiago was typically a function of geography and preference. As pilgrim volume increased over time however, certain routes became more developed and promoted. These routes in turn became (and still remain) the most popular and most traveled.
Outside of Spain, there are four main starting points of the Camino – all located in France - that service practically all pilgrims originating from various points in Europe. These four routes (originating in Paris, Vezelay, Le Puy, and Arles) eventually converge to a single route across Northern Spain called the Camino Frances. Today, the most popular section of the Camino is the five hundred mile stretch of the Camino Frances and the two most popular traditional starting points on this route are the towns of St. Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) and Roncevalles (on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). Of course there were and still are other popular routes and starting points.
Many pilgrims choose to travel along the northern Spanish coast on what
is called the Camino del Norte, or through Portugal on the Camino Portuguese or up through Southern Spain on the Camino Mozarbe. During my own journey, I met pilgrims who had started the Camino at Puenta La Reina (Spain), Le Puy (France), Vezelay (France), Pamplona (Spain), Burgos (Spain), and Leon (Spain).
St. James and the Camino
St. James the Apostle is central to any discussion of the Camino de Santiago. After all, Santiago is the Spanish word for St. James and it is the Apostle’s earthly remains that are believed by many to be buried in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. However, when discussing St. James, it is necessary to distinguish between the St. James of the Holy Bible and the St. James of Camino tradition. This distinction is necessary because the biblical representation of the apostle is widely accepted as historically accurate while many details surrounding the tradition of the Camino de Santiago are less widely accepted by both secular and religious scholars alike. Although not intended to imply the former is fact and the latter fiction, the distinction does provides a helpful framework within which to learn about Camino de Santiago and its history. Given the abundance of often conflicting information on the subject from a variety of sources including the internet, this framework can be useful learning tool.
The Biblical James the Greater
Within the Christian Holy Bible there are at least three distinct characters called “James.” First is James the Greater, one of the twelve original disciples – this is the James believed to be buried in Santiago. Second is James the Lesser - so called in part because he became an apostle after James the Greater. Third is James the “Just” – often referred to as the brother of Christ - who is generally believed to be the author of the book of James in the Bible, which highlights the importance of “good works” in Christian life.
The Bible describes James the Greater as the son of Zebedee and Simone and the brother of John. James and John originally were followers of John the Baptist and were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee until being called by Jesus to become “fishers of men.” By all accounts, James and his brother John were fervent followers of Christ, earning the nickname “sons of thunder” after they called for a rein of terror upon a village that would not welcome a visit. Later, James and John requested to “drink from the same cup” as Christ, perhaps indicating their willingness to become martyrs.
James and his brother were also quite clearly part of Christ’s inner-most circle of disciples as evidenced by their presence at many significant events in Christ’s life including the Transfiguration and the Agony of Gethsemane where Christ awaited His fate. James was also present at one of Christ’s post resurrection appearances. The final Biblical reference to James the Greater is the description of his martyrdom in Jerusalem at the hands of King Herod Agrippa in or around AD 42-44.
St. James of Camino Tradition
A literary tradition based on religious and other texts established the linkage of St. James with Spain long before the human remains were discovered near Santiago in the early 9th century. As early as the 1st or 2nd century, the Apocryphal Gospel of the Twelve Holy Apostles (part of a series of early religious manuscripts not officially included in the Bible) may have implied that James preached or was called to preach in Spain. In the 6th century, the Brevarium Apostolorum – a collection of saints’ lives - explicitly stated James preached in Hispania and further hinted that he was buried there. The Brevarium was widely circulated throughout the 6th and 7th centuries and was perhaps inspiration for subsequent poems and commentaries connecting James with Spain. Indeed, by the 8th century, a more widely circulated inventory of Saints called the Commentary on the Apocalypse puts James firmly in Spain.
It is within this context then, according to tradition, that a monk named Peylao followed a bright star to a marble sarcophagus near the North West Spanish coast sometime around the year 814. Shortly thereafter the local bishop Teodomir proclaimed the bones to be those of James the Greater and in doing so set in motion events that would lead to the development of the pilgrimage.
Upon hearing of the discovery, King Alphonso II – Christian ruler of Asturias, which included large portions of the region where the body was discovered – legitimized the claim by building a simple church near the burial site. He also visited the site, becoming known by many as the “first pilgrim to Santiago.” Alphonso’s successor continued the tradition by expanding the size of the church at Santiago and promoting the pilgrimage at the local and regional levels.
Throughout the 9th century the Saint’s popularity increased and at a time when Christian rulers in Spain fought to regain territory from the Moors (Muslims from Northern Africa who had invaded the peninsula in 711), St. James began to emerge as a patron and protector. Evidence of this comes in 844 when a Christian victory in the battle of Clavijo is attributed to St. James, who is said to have appeared riding a white horse. From this point onwards, the saint assumed two distinct roles and images in Spain – St. James the pilgrim and St. James the Matamoros or “moor slayer.”
What was once a local pilgrimage was by the mid 10th century an international phenomenon as the first pilgrims from Lu Puy in France began to arrive at Santiago. The pilgrimage continued to grow in popularity and importance throughout the 10th and 11th centuries as the Spanish Reconquista raged; as Christian rulers regained Muslim held territory throughout Northern Spain, kings promoted the development of the pilgrimage route. So too did the Catholic Church as Pope Alexander III is said to have declared Santiago a Holy City. Eventually, the well-organized Benedictine monks from Cluny were invited to establish a network of hospitals and monasteries along the old Roman roads that comprise the present day Camino Frances (the most popular route across Spain).
Over time, cities, towns, and hamlets sprang up or further developed and the Templar Knights – the militaristic order that once protected pilgrims to Jerusalem – were called to protect pilgrims to Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago reached its peak popularity in the 12th century as a result of strong ecclesiastical promotion, not only from Diego Gelmirez – the energetic local bishop at Santiago – but also from the Church in Rome. Pope Calixtus II is believed to have offered plenary indulges to those who undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago during Holy Years and he also authored (or commissioned) the first official “guide book” for the Camino – the Liber Sancti Jacobi also known as the Codex Calixtinus. Though there are no exact figures, some suppose that as many as 100,000 faithful made the pilgrimage to Santiago annually during the 12th century, after which time pilgrim volumes began a gradual decline over the next several centuries.
The Medieval Pilgrimage
Who were the pilgrims who flocked to Santiago in the medieval period and why did they choose to embark on such a physically demanding journey? Moreover, what was daily life on the Camino like during this period? The late Syracuse University professor and Camino scholar William Melczer provides some insight. According to Professor Melczer, the medieval pilgrimage attracted persons from all socio-economic classes and education levels including royalty, clerics, academicians, and artisans. Indeed, St. Francis of Assisi was among those who made the journey; however, the vast majority of those making the journey were from the serf or demi-serf classes – the lowest socio-economic classes of Feudal Europe. From these classes, most pilgrims were men because women during the period were generally discouraged from traveling alone. From a maturity perspective, most pilgrims were of advanced age – near the end of their lives (or certainly after their most productive working years), and they were often in questionable health.
Motivation for completing the pilgrimage was as varied as the pilgrims themselves. Some undertook the journey as penitence –either self, Church, or municipally imposed. Indeed, there is evidence of pilgrims completing the Camino in search of absolution from or as punishment for crimes committed in their home villages. Meanwhile, other pilgrims embarked for devotional purposes, perhaps to give thanks for good fortune or as a fulfillment of a promise made in desperation. Finally, there were those for whom the Camino brought hope of a miracle or cure – either for himself or a loved one. To this point, one must recall the medieval period as a period of heightened veneration of Holy Relics for their mystical and spiritual powers. Relics of the saints were particularly attractive. Moreover, St. James’ position within Christ’s inner circle only added to the apostle’s appeal; what better saint to venerate than one of Christ’s closest aids?
Life on the medieval Camino offered no shortage of challenges. First, the distance and “by foot” nature of the pilgrimage meant the roundtrip journey could take a year or longer to complete, especially for those traveling from the far reaches of Europe or those in ill health. Second, accommodations along the Camino were of the most basic variety for all but the most affluent of pilgrims – the bed was often a communal straw mattress housed in a religious monastery or a clergy run pilgrim’s hospital. Within this context, strangers often had to squeeze into tight quarters, sleeping next to each other to keep warm; lice and other creatures would not have been uncommon in such conditions.
The primary source of food for hungry and poor pilgrims was typically that offered for free by lower ecclesiastical orders and other groups dedicated to caring for the faithful. But these groups, however well intentioned, would have varied in their ability to provide meals depending on finances, the time of year, and overall pilgrim volumes. Indeed, it is not difficult to believe that a medieval pilgrim occasionally drifted off to sleep with less than a full stomach.
Finally, in between meager meals and harsh nights, pilgrims had to brave the hazards of the Camino trail itself – including the scarcity of potable water and the abundance of unscrupulous ferrymen, toll collectors, and money changers not to mention Camino bandits who ambushed unsuspecting pilgrims to rob them of what little they did posses; the so-called “safe-conduct” (an earlier predecessor of the modern passport) did little to protect pilgrims from these bad elements. Moreover, the gear available to 12th century pilgrims was hardly comfortable compared to today’s standards; the typical pilgrim’s garb was comprised of sturdy shoes, a leather clad cloak, a staff, a gourd for water, a leather bag too small to hold much of anything, a wide brimmed hat, and a small scallop shell – the ubiquitous symbol of the pilgrimage even today.
Considering all of these factors, it is nothing short of miraculous that so many pilgrims made it to Santiago alive. Even more difficult to imagine is how these pilgrims must have felt as they first laid eyes on the Cathedral in Santiago and visited the shrine of St. James – it was for most certainly an emotional and sensory overload and easily the most significant moment of their lives. Once at the Cathedral, pilgrims were required to make confessions and take communion in order to have their pilgrimage recognized with what was known as an “autentica” – an official Church document. Afterwards, the long and
arduous journey home could begin.
The Modern Pilgrimage
After centuries of dormancy, the Camino de Santiago began to slowly awaken again during the 1950s. This revival occurred first in France as local groups interested in the Camino began to restore portions of the trail and promote its cultural heritage. This sentiment soon spread to neighboring Spain such that by 1986, nearly 2,500 pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela, having completed some portion of the pilgrimage.
Popularity of the Camino continued to increase in subsequent years. Pope John Paul II helped this popularity by visiting Santiago. By 1993, the combination of a Holy Year (St. James feast day fell on a Sunday) as well as the elevation of the Camino as a UNESCO World Heritage Site helped motivate nearly 100,000 pilgrims to make the journey. The astonishing popularity of the Camino during Holy Years continues to be high with the number of pilgrims reaching more than 179,000 and 272,000 in the Holy Years of 2004 and 2010 respectively. In between Holy Years, pilgrim volumes remain impressive- surpassing 300,000 annually.
Despite the apparent similarity between medieval and modern pilgrim volumes, much has changed since the 12th century with respect to demographics, motivations, and daily Camino life. Official statistics published by the Arch Diocese of Santiago coupled with personal observations illustrate this transformation. Of the roughly 327,000 pilgrims to Santiago in 2018, roughly 50% were women – a fairly consistent phenomenon of recent years and a stark contrast to the medieval period when women pilgrims would have been scare. Quite astonishingly, only 42% of 2018 pilgrims claimed purely religious motivations for completing the Camino while another 48% claimed “religious and other” reasons (e.g. spiritual, contemplative, non denominational); only 9% cited purely non religious motivations (e.g. cultural, nature, fitness, etc) for making the journey.
Daily life on the Camino has certainly evolved since ancient times. The roads and paths today are generally well maintained and marked, and drinking water fountains are scattered along the way to aid thirsty pilgrims. Accommodations too have improved while maintaining the spirit of austerity as most pilgrims choose to sleep in refugios – communal dormitories packed with bunk beds often situated in historic buildings or monasteries. Though often noisy and cramped, these refugios fill the basic need and are certainly a far cry from the communal straw mattresses of medieval days. Access to the system of refugios is granted to pilgrims who hold a “credential” also known as a “pilgrims passport” – a simple document that is stamped each day to mark progress. However, if privacy or quietness is a priority, the modern pilgrim will easily find an abundance of reasonably priced hotels and boarding rooms along the way. Food too is abundant and inexpensive on today’s Camino as most cafes and restaurants offer a menu peregrino – a “pilgrim’s menu” which typically includes a simple three course meal with bread and wine. At the same time, many pilgrims choose to shop in local markets and prepare simple meals in the kitchen facilities offered by most refugios.
In addition to the aforementioned “improvements” since medieval times, the pilgrim’s “garb” has perhaps undergone the most radical evolution. The modern Camino pilgrim has access to an endless list of gear his medieval counterpart could not have imagined: internal frame backpacks with specially designed shoulder supports, ultra lightweight sleeping bags that hold warmth to zero degrees, polypropylene shirts and underwear that prevent chafing and wick moisture away, waterproof boots with heel supporting inserts, trekking poles, hydration systems, waterproof and breathable rain wear, smart wool socks, sunscreen – the list goes on and on. Of course, not all of today’s pilgrims indulge in the latest and greatest equipment. Many pilgrims are "middle of the road" when it comes to choice of gear.
A final contrast to Medieval times is that today’s pilgrim is not obligated to make confession or receive communion in order to obtain official recognition from the Church for the journey undertaken. Indeed, as long as a pilgrim can present a credential indicating travel on foot for at least the last sixty miles to Santiago, he or she will receive a “Compostela” – a one page, personalized document attesting to the successful completion of the Camino de Santiago.
Considering all of the technological advances and modern conveniences, many would-be pilgrims might erroneously under estimate the difficulty of the modern pilgrimage. Be ware, for the Camino today – as in ancient times – remains an immense physical and emotional challenge. Indeed, could anyone ever realistically describe a five hundred mile hike - solo across a foreign country, carrying a twenty pound pack through mountain passes, barren plateaus, hot and cold weather, rain and mud, sunshine and wind – all the while sleeping in cramped and noisy quarters – as an easy endeavor? Think again!
Check out our Gear List page for more.