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the way of st james, a history

When you look heavenward on a clear night may see a light smudge across the sky, “The Milky Way”. It comes from the Greek word galaxias (gala = milk).

Romans would also observe the Via Lactia as they trod the ancient trade route across northern Hispania. The journey ended at the ocean, and they called the village, Finisterrae, literally “The Finish of the Earth”.

The factual origins of the Christian pilgrimage are lost in the mist of legend and colourful myth. This was during a time where the early church mixed superstition with faith to explain the unexplainable. Unpicking the history is a hopeless task but maybe I can clarify a few elements.

Jesus had 12 disciples, one of whom was James. Legend has it, after the death of Jesus he travelled to the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) and preached the message of Jesus. On his return to the Holy land, about 44AD, he was imprisoned and executed on the orders of King Herod Agrippa. Some friends took his body to be buried in Spain.

This is where the story goes off in different directions but about 800 years later, a shepherd called Palayo was told by angels where to find the lost remains of Saint James. The remains were moved to a town named after him on his previous visit, Santiago.

Saint >>> Sant, Diago >>> Portuguese for James. The latter part of the name probably comes from the local Latin Composita Tella, meaning burial ground.

Santiago de Compostela >>> The Burial Ground of St. James.

As the faithful made pilgrimage to stand before the shrine of St. James, stories of miracles and cures added to his importance.

It’s a strange time in history, the church is concerned with heavenly rewards but also earthly treasures. An important Saint was a big attraction. The rich would donate gold, jewels, and land to the monks, to say prayers on their behalf. The poor would give what they could afford for the same request. Prayers were said out loud for the dead beseeching God to release the recently dead from purgatory and allowing them sanctuary in heaven. The more you donated the more prayers were said. And if you could call on the name of a very important Saint, like James who knew Jesus, then you had a better chance of being heard. So, the importance and wealth of the church in Santiago grew.

Santiago de Compostela became a safer and more popular alternative destination to Rome. Even this was made impossible by the Moorish invasion of Spain, and later into France. The Moors were defeated by the Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours (France) in 732, and gradually driven south and out of Spain.

The followers of Mohammed captured the “Holy Land”, and the subsequent failure of the various Crusades meant pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a death sentence, so Christians turned their attention to Rome. However, waves of barbarian invasions, famines, and plagues, interrupted the interest in travelling anywhere for many centuries.

By the time Aymeric Picaud wrote the Codex Calixtinus in the 12th century many thousands of pilgrims would make their way from home to Santiago, despite the dangers.

It was at this time the Kings of Navarra and Leon would permit the great building projects which could now be funded from pilgrims' gifts and taxes. Roads were improved, bridges, and hospitals built. Small chapels, larger churches, and the incredible cathedrals in Burgos and Rome were built during these heydays.

This is why there is no “The Camino”. The word Camino simply means path or road. Pilgrims would start from their home and make their way from small paths to larger ones, from tracks to roads. The closer they got to the destination the paths would converge. This is why there are many Camino paths.

One of the more popular paths is called the Camino Frances. Pilgrims from France, western Europe, and Britain would make their way to the South of France and gather at a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees, St Jean Pied de Port. Here they would rest and wait until they were a large enough party to make the journey across the mountain range. A big band of pilgrims would be safer in the treacherous conditions for the crossing but also safer from being robbed and killed by bandits.

From the 13th century onwards, the European royalty would be fighting over land, wealth, and title. If they weren’t at war on land they were at war on the sea, if it wasn’t in Europe it was in the newly explored lands, soon to be colonised. The idea of pilgrimage started to slide into obscurity, helped along by the Bubonic Plague.

No sooner had Europe recovered from this than the wars started again. One would end and another begin, it went on for hundreds of years. Napoleon lit the gunpowder all over Europe. Later WW I, The Spanish Civil War, and WW II, would add poison gas, trench warfare, Stuka dive bombers, and the Blitzkrieg to the list of calamity Europe brought upon itself. Pilgrimage and The Way of St James were long forgotten … until …

The rediscovery of the Way of St. James began in the 1980s with the parish priest and academic Don Elías Valiña Sanpedro. He dedicated the last ten years of his life to marking The Way. Sadly, much of the original path was lost during the ’70s as Spain tried to drag itself into the modern age. Thankfully, efforts were made to “recreate” the journey rather than the history, and much has been saved.

In 1965, 650 people walked The Way of St. James, this number had grown to nearly 20,000 ten years later. In 2018, 327,378 people registered their names in the Pilgrims Office in Santiago de Compostela.

Much of this popularity has come from “celebrities” who have written about their journey.

  • Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage

  • Kurt Koontz, A Million Steps

  • Joyce Rupp, Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino

If you are German then

Hape Kerkling, I’m Off Then, would be on your inspiration list

For me, it was a film, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his dad, Martin Sheen.

And for you …?

#theway #camino

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