There is a legend that says the Apostle James (of Peter, James, and John) traveled to the Iberian peninsula during his missionary journeys. One area he visited was Finisterre, a well-known Celtic spiritual center in Galicia (the northwest of Spain), in an attempt to preach Christianity to the pagans there who practiced a Druidic religion. Apparently, he didn’t have much success, converting only a few people. While he was there, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to him and told him to build a church in Zaragoza (a name, incidentally, that derives from the Roman name for the town: Caesaraugusta). After building the church, James left Iberia and returned to Jerusalem, whereupon he was executed on the orders of Herod Agrippa.
The legend continues with James’s friends deciding to take his body away from Jerusalem. They came to the port town of Jaffa, where they found a stone ship without sails. Upon boarding the ship, they were miraculously transported across the sea to Galicia, where they asked permission of the local queen to bury the body. Perhaps because she was a pagan and had a low opinion of Christians, or perhaps because she was a generally ill-tempered xenophobe, she sent them off to an indicated spot where they were immediately set upon by a couple of very angry wild bulls. All part of the queen’s evil plan. However, the disciples of James miraculously escaped the bulls and then buried James’s body.
Centuries passed, and the location of the burial site faded from memory. Then, in the year 813, a shepherd (or hermit, depending on which version you read – or maybe he was a hermit who kept sheep) named Pelayo was guided by a supernatural light to some remains. He told the local bishop, Theodemar of Iria, about his find and the bishop confirmed the remains were those of St. James. Just in time, too, because James became a rallying standard for Christians in northern Spain who were fighting to keep the Moors from encroaching on their territory.
Eventually, the location of the tomb became a regional pilgrimage site, and a church to St. James was built as early as 829. Santiago de Compostela grew in importance as a medieval pilgrimage destination for Christians in Europe firstly because, in the 9th century, St. James made an appearance riding on a white horse during a battle to help the Christians fight off Moorish troops. Secondly, its importance was enhanced partly because of the growing political influence of Galicia in the 10th and 11th centuries and partly because Jerusalem had become a dangerous destination, what with the Crusades and the later recapture of the city by Muslims. The other top popular pilgrimage – to Rome – had to be made by boat unless one wanted to brave the Alps. But the trek to Santiago de Compostela could be made overland from just about anywhere in Europe.
Pilgrims to various locations had symbols to show as proof of pilgrimage. For instance, those who had been to the Holy Land tied a palm leaf to their staffs and were called palmers. Those who traveled to Santiago de Compostela carried a scallop shell (or shells).
People made the pilgrimage for a number of reasons: to ask for a blessing from St. James, to venerate his relics, to do penance for sins or crimes, and sometimes just to make a sacrifice of time and means in order to do something considered worthwhile. The 11th and 12th centuries were Santiago de Compostela’s heyday. Construction on the present church began in 1075 and took about 53 years to complete. (For better or worse, the 1700s saw additions of towers and facades.)
Interest in pilgrimages waned in the 15th and 16th centuries, probably because of the rise of Protestantism and influence of the political situation and near-constant warring in Europe. From a thousand pilgrims a day arriving at Santiago de Compostela at the height of its popularity, the numbers dwindled to the proverbial handfuls, though they never completely stopped. Many pilgrim hostels closed and the buildings crumbled into ruin, and stretches of the original road were grown over or lost to later development.
In the 1980s, Elias Valiña Sampedro, the parish priest in O Cebreiro, published a guidebook to the Camino – the first in modern times – and worked to restore the Camino Francés. He had studied the history of the Camino and the lands it went through for several decades. He was responsible for opening the first new hostels – or albergues, as they are more rightly called – and for the system of yellow arrows pointing the way along the trail. Large parts of the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain are now on the World Heritage List.
In this summary of the background of the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, I have given only a brief outline, while ignoring much of the history of the surrounding areas. However, the history of Spain, from the Celt-Iberians, Carthaginians, and Romans of Antiquity, to the Visigoths, the Muslims, and the many small Christian kingdoms of the Medieval era, is a fascinating study and one that I believe should be pursued whether you’re going on pilgrimage or not.