Pilgrims have been walking the Camino since at least the ninth century. There is a long history of pilgrimages in the Catholic Church but this one celebrating St. James (Santiago in Spanish) has its own unique set of drivers.
Origins of the Camino
The reasons for pilgrimages are supposedly religious — to petition a saint to intercede with the Almighty regarding fertility or for curing an illness, for example. But the origins of the Camino had everything to do with efforts to take Spain back from the Muslims, or Moors, who had swept into the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century and came to control most of the country.
About 150 years later the Reconquest of Spain got going in earnest and the battles continued from the mid-9th century to the 13th when the Moors were successfully expelled and the Church, not to mention the country, entered its Golden Age.
A Mason-Dixon Line
The trajectory of today’s so-called Camino Frances (although there are also various other pilgrim routes to Santiago) was a kind of Mason-Dixon Line of its day. It was a border over which the Moors could not be allowed to cross.
The great cathedrals in places like Burgos and Leon, and surprisingly elaborate churches in smaller centers, were part of an accompanying religious infrastructure which included monasteries, convents, pilgrim hostels and hospitals and Knights Templar fortifications.
St. James and Spain
Where does St. James fit into this? He was one of the 12 apostles and the story has it that after the death of Christ in 33 AD he traveled to northern Spain to evangelize among pagan tribes. It did not go well and he was about to leave in frustration when the virgin appeared to him near what is now Saragossa and urged him not to forsake the country.
He did leave, however, and was later martyred at the hands of the Romans in Jerusalem. According to Christian legend, the saint’s followers feared that his body would be desecrated so they took his remains to Spain aboard a boat, allegedly made of marble, and buried him in Galicia.
Way of the Stars
There was a several hundred year hiatus before a humble shepherd found human remains near Santiago de Compostela at some point between 812 and 842 AD. The humble shepherd was apparently guided by a heavenly light suspiciously reminiscent of the nativity story. In fact, the Camino is often called The Way of the Stars for that reason. The local bishop of the day promptly authenticated the remains as those of St. James, although one is left to wonder what evidence there was for that decision. The local king, Alfonso II, built a church on the site and the shrine became an immediate attraction and beginning almost immediately medieval pilgrims began flocking to Santiago de Compostela.
Warrior and pacifist
By the 11th century Christians in what is now northern Spain were locked in an epic struggle with the Moors who controlled most of the country. The early Christian church of St. James was pacifist but now the Spanish kingdoms needed a warrior rather than a humble saint discovered by an even more humble shepherd. The myth of Santiago Matamoros, or St. James the Moorslayer, was born.
It was believed and also reported that the saint appeared on battlefields to inspire Christian armies to victory over the Moors. Many Spanish cathedrals and museums, including the great cathedrals in Burgos and Leon, contain paintings and sculpted pieces showing St. James in full battle dress and riding a white horse as he swings a great sword to decapitate Moors. He became the patron saint of Spain and remains so.
More recently the portrayal of James in locations along the Camino returns to an earlier and more humble iconography, portraying a much more benign saint than Santiago Matamoros. In churches museums and in numerous roadside renderings James often wears a wide brimmed hat, walking with a staff in one hand and carrying a bible in the other. Interestingly, some churches contain within them images of both the humble pilgrim and the Moorslayer.
Many contemporary pilgrims, possibly most of them, will be unaware of the real or exact origins of the pilgrimage, and perhaps that is just as well.