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Spotlights on Saint James and Compostela

Compostela owes its fame to Saint James, the Apostle supposed to have evangelised in Spain. In the VIIIth century, he became Patron Saint of the Christian resistance to the invading Saracens. In the next century, his tomb was miraculously rediscovered in Galicia in the northwest of Spain. Compostela, beacon of hope, was born. Humble and powerful came there to express and defend their faith. Today, pilgrims from all around the world are more numerous than ever on the roads to Compostela. But they do not stop at Compostela, they walk on to Finisterre, where the Earth ends, and the Milky Way joins the Ocean

Compostela is built on a beautiful legend, photo MTP
The façade of the cathedral of Compostela in the light of the setting sun

  The legend of Saint James

  Historical or legendary facts

  Men and women on the roads to Compostela

  Millenary pilgrimage


  Pilgrims of today


The legend of St James and Compostela

How St James returned to Galicia

Compostela makes us dream. This distant Galician town in the far northwest of Spain owes its fame to St James. In the Bible, Matthew presents the holy apostle James as being " the son of Zebedee and brother of John". Mark adds that Jesus gave both brothers the nickname of "Boanerges, that is, The sons of thunder ". After the death of Christ, the Acts of the Apostles recount that Herod " killed James, the brother of John, with the sword ". In the VIIth century, biographers state that James previously " had preached the Gospel in Spain as well as in other western countries". 

What is the origin of Compostela ? James was chosen in the VIIIth century as patron saint by Catholic Spain then under the Saracen yoke. In his name, the Church calls for help in beginning the Reconquista, the long fight against the Moslem invader which will end only in 1492 with the taking of Granada.

A beautiful legend was elaborated, telling how the body of St James was returned to Galicia after his death, " by a raft with neither sail nor rudder ". The arrival was followed by a series of fantastic adventures : the followers who had accompanied James asked a heathen queen, Luparia, to bury the body of the Apostle in her lands. She refused and the unfortunates fled, pursued by the royal troops who, conveniently, died by drowning, thanks to the collapse of a bridge. Then Luparia tried wild oxen guarded by a dragon. They killed the dragon and tamed the oxen, upon which Luparia converted, and finally allowed the burial in a place which was soon forgotten.
Then, says the legend, it was rediscovered at the beginning of the IXth century : " While he was at prayer, the hermit Pelagius was informed by angels that he was near the grave of the saint. Then people nearby saw lights indicating the precise place. They informed the bishop of Iria who asked them to fast for three days. Afterwards, he found the grave of St James. Since this time, the people of those countries have gone there in large numbers ". The first foreigners to go to Compostela were most probably knights and soldiers. Between these first pilgrimages and that of Pope John Paul II in 1982, a whole imaginary edifice was constructed, which continues to evolve to this day.

The founding text : the chronicle of Turpin

St James appears to Charlemagne in a dream and tells him to journey along the Milky Way and rescue his tomb

The chronicle known as Turpin (then Pseudo-Turpin), written by the bishop Turpin, tells the story of Charlemagne, Roland and his knights, who, in the name of St James, set off to deliver Spain. It starts with the vision of St James asking Charlemagne to come to Galicia by following the Milky Way. It then develops the story of the battles ending in the death, after long pursuit and some Dantesque struggles, of the heathen king Aigolan. It ends with the defeat at Roncevaux and Charlemagne's death. This text was used as an authentic document in France, in Spain and in the Germanic Empire to justify their claims to be the successors of Charlemagne. In fact it is complete invention, the first doubts about it appearing in the XVIIth century.

The soul of Charlemagne escapes Satan thanks to St James, who saves it because of the good deeds done in his name.


Historical or legendary facts

The pilgrimage to Compostela is based on a beautiful legend. Its history was subsequently tightly interwoven with real and imaginary facts. Neither Charlemagne nor, later, Francis of Assisi ever went to Compostela. But the knights in the Emperor's retinue had to be motivated and it was necessary that such an important saint had made the pilgrimage. If Bishop Godescalc was indeed the first famous pilgrim in the Xth century, this fact was not known until 1886. Many of today's pilgrims believe that Adalard founded the Hospital at Aubrac on his return from Compostela in 1120, but this legend only dates from 1324. The Order of Santiago was indeed founded in 1150 but not for the protection of pilgrims. The aura of Compostela and the politics of its canons often led them to embellish reality, or remain silent over events not to their advantage. Thus, it is little known that pilgrims had to wait until 1885 to be admitted to the tomb of the Apostle. Exaggerations continue: it's common to read, for example, the hasty generalisation that the "chemins de Compostelle form part of UNESCO's World Heritage", whereas only six sections of French road have received this recognition.


Men and women on the roads to Compostela

Symbolic crowds

Whatever may be said, foreign pilgrims never descended in crowds on Compostela. Counts based on border documents, hospitals or confraternities reveal only very small numbers on the roads of France. Pilgrims by sea were without any doubt much more numerous.
The first texts evoking these crowds of "foreign peoples, come from all parts of the world" all emanate from Compostela, which in the XIIth century invented the CAMINO DE SANTIAGO, a brilliant promotional campaign, the effects of which span the centuries. Compostela presented itself as the image of Paradise on Earth, a Paradise towards which entirely symbolic crowds, those of the Chosen Ones of the Bible, march along this Camino. In our more rationalist times this vision was forgotten, which led to a long-term miscalculation in the numbers of pilgrims. The revival of this vision offers today's pilgrim a more inspiring ideology than that of walking behind millions of ghosts: that they are walking in the light of the Chosen Ones of the Apocalypse, or walking on behalf of all those who have never been able to undertake this pilgrimage.


Real pilgrims

For centuries, the mentality of pilgrims did not really change, in spite of the changes inherent in each epoch. Religious motives were always important in the departure for Compostela, but there were also other, very varied ones :
• a nobleman's desire to win fame by waging war, participating in the Reconquista or in the fight against England. In the XVth century, an educational treaty explains that it is "proper for young people of noble families to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Santiago whilst at the same time making war on the Saracens and other miscreants".
• a diplomatic mission, which can sometimes be divined behind official reasons : in 1192, the archbishop of Reims, uncle of Philippe-Auguste, the king of France, leaves for Compostela. A person this important does not leave his see for a distant pilgrimage without a serious reason ; the Church would not have approved.
• business, which sometimes causes traders to visit Compostela : the itineraries of the XVth century mention roads to shrines as well as to places of international trade fairs. Some traders are paid to make a pilgrimage in place of people not wanting or not able to make one themselves.
• a desire to take advantage of the hospitality traditionally reserved for "poor passers-by, travellers and pilgrims", especially during difficult periods (the Hundred Years War and also the wars of Louis XIV)
• an excuse to leave home, or to have an alibi ...
• very rarely, an obligation of pilgrimage made by a civil or religious court. These are the famous 'penitential' pilgrimages, which created the false idea that pilgrimage roads were frequented by very dangerous individuals. In fact, those to whom these measures applied were rather people whom it was good to take away for a while from their place of residence, without putting society in danger.

See also : Queens and Princesses on Pilgrimage to Compostela


Literary pilgrims

The pilgrim of Compostela occupies a modest place in literature, no doubt proportional to reality. The portraits given create an embellished image of the real pilgrim. The chansons de geste are inspired by the Legend of Charlemagne (chronicle of Turpin) : the Chanson de Roland develops the disaster of Roncevaux, Gui de Bourgogne reports the French victories in Spain, where Charlemagne lived for twenty-seven years without removing his armour. Novels add amorous intrigues and fantastic adventures. Blancheflor begins with the attack of Norman pirates on the Cantabrian coast, the Fille du comte de Pontieu, who left with her husband to ask St James for a child, is violated in the Galician forest. The Dits des annelés illustrates the dangers encountered by a virtuous female pilgrim. The Dit des Trois Pommes tells the pilgrimage of a rich trader's son.

in the XVIIIth century the poor people are on the roads, so the nobility can amuse itself
Château-Thierry, musée Jean de La Fontaine,
engraving of Larmessin after Lancret

The poet La Fontaine, in the fable Le petit chien qui secoue de l'argent et des pierreries, has the lover seeking to inveigle himself into the presence of his heart's desire, dressed as a pilgrim of St James:

 «jouant de la musette…
notre pèlerin traversa la ruelle…
Il surprit et charma la belle
Vous n'avez pas, ce lui dit-elle
La mine de vous en aller
A S. Jacques de Compostelle».

(playing the bagpipe, our pilgrim crosses the street. He surprises and charms the fair one. You do not, she tells him, look like someone on the way to Santiago de Compostela.)

Did he start a fashion ? In the XVIIIth century noblemen acquired a fondness for the pilgrim's costume, which they borrowed or sometimes hired from the confraternities of St James in order to disguise themselves when attending popular festivities, and also for clandestine rendez-vous. An engraving entitled The young pilgrim has the caption:

«En revenant de Compostel
Plus d'un aimable jouvencel
Rencontrant pèlerine et fringante et légère
A su par ses tendres propos
Avec lui l'engager à faire
Un pèlerinage à Paphos»

(Returning from Compostela, more than one amiable youth, encountering a free and easy (female) pilgrim, has been able by his tender words to get her promise to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Paphos [a town in Cyprus with a cult of Aphrodite]).


Millenary pilgrimage

The roads to Santiago

since 1938 these four roads have been presented as historic

click to enlarge

Turpin tells us that Charlemagne left Aachen following the Milky Way, «a sort of road strewn with stars which started by the seas of Friesia and, passing between Germany and Italy, Gaul and Aquitaine, passed through Gascony, the Basque country, Navarre and Spain as far as Galicia».

As for the Pilgrim's Guide, the basis for modern routes, it was unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages, contrary to the first hypotheses. Its aim was to indicate routes for the French lords of Aquitaine invited by the Emperor of Spain (Alfonso VII, the new Charlemagne) to come and render homage to him as vassals. The boundary of Aquitaine was marked by the four shrines of Tours, Vézelay, le Puy and Arles, and the territory was studded by all the others mentioned in the Guide. Three of the routes were important commercial routes of the XIIth century, the commercial route passing through Le Puy went southwards and did not coincide with that given in the Guide. See the map opposite for roads of south-central France as established by R-H Bautier.


Pilgrim accounts and literary texts often portray other routes, which vary as a function of the times and the pilgrims themselves. None has a superior historical value to any other.

For a long time it was thought that the many objects which constitute the rich heritage relating to St James indicated the roads to Compostela across Europe. Modern knowledge leads us to reconsider the question and admit that the major part of this heritage is evidence rather of local devotions to the Apostle : across Europe, the faithful experienced a frequent need to venerate him, combined with their reading of the Epistle, a biblical text attributed to him, sometimes as late as the XIXth century.

The rediscovery of the body of St James at Compostela in 1884

At the beginning of the XIXth century, the pilgrimage to Compostela had practically ceased, which impoverished the whole town to the point that, in 1833, it lost its title of provincial capital to Corunna. Before the end of the century, everyone was mobilised to regain its lustre: city councillors, university academics and industrialists, to which the archbishop and cathedral canons were also added. In 1879, these last announced that they had rediscovered the body of St James, lost for a long time, and the relics of which they decided henceforth to display for the veneration of the faithful (something which had not been the case previously). In 1884, Pope Leo XIII confirmed this discovery, very useful, he said, «in these days when the Church is particularly tormented» and invited Catholics to take once more to the Camino de Compostela.

Compostela by the maritime route

Pilgrimages by sea were always much practised, for travel by ship is practical, fast and simple, which compensated pilgrims for the numerous inconveniences, discomfort, storms and the risk of capture by pirates.

Pilgrims were jammed together, hustled by the sailors who they inconvenienced. They were seasick. The poorest slept in the hold and had to distribute themselves the bread, salt and water that doubtless formed their only nourishment.

In 1446, a pilgrim from Poitou related that, «being on the sea en route for Saint-Jacques, he and several others were caught in a hurricane such that they thought they would die».

In 1443, five pilgrims from Tournai, returning via Montserrat were taken by pirates near Barcelona. For three years, they were forced to row on galleys where they endured the worst brutality. Ten years later, English pilgrims of Compostela, after setting sail, were attacked and robbed by Bretons

St James appears as protector of sailors, as opposed to Satan who caused shipwrecks : in the XIIth century, the king of England Henry II had the hand of St James brought from the abbey at Reading «before setting sail so that he was strengthened by his protection and his blessing». When Margerie Kempe, a very ecstatic English pilgrim, tried to leave Bristol in 1417, the other pilgrims took her for one possessed of the devil and, because of this, feared that she would set off a storm. They warned her that, if a tempest should arise, they would throw her in the sea in order to rid themselves of Evil.

Hospitality in the Middle Ages

The duty of hospitality applies to everyone. Originally, everyone was obliged to open their home to the passerby. The Christian religion demanded that every stranger be received as if they were Christ, according to the principle of St Matthew's gospel: «I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.».

A principle very suited to tempering the instinctive suspicion of the foreign. When the movement of peoples grew in the XIth and XIIth centuries, lay and religious communities were organised for founding hospitals and hospices, financing them and ensuring they functioned.

The hospital gathered together all types, the local poor, the «travelling poor», wealthier travellers paying their way, and, to look after them, those provided to manage the establishment. The pilgrim, enveloped in the marginal world of the wanderer, received something to eat and shelter for one night, maybe more if ill, in an atmosphere that the texts, dependent on place and epoch, described as images of Paradise or Hell. Until the XVIth century, the hospitals of Saint James were no exception. At this time Compostela attracted more and more of the faithful, eager to find out how Spain had managed to escape from Protestantism. Only then did some hospitals specially reserved for pilgrims to Galicia appear.

Relics of St James

St James was venerated in numerous other places besides Compostela
reliquary of the arm of St James at Liège 
photo J. Michel 

relics are still offered for the veneration of the faithful

St James, so the story goes, not only evangelised in Spain, but throughout the Occident. This is no doubt why one finds his traces all over the place (a «footprint of St James» at Buxerolles, near Poitiers), and even some relics. In France alone, there are three tombs containing his body, nine heads and numerous limbs! The Church tried in vain to identify each relic as a different James but the faithful saw only one unique one, the apostle. It admitted that such devotion was the response to a profondly human need, going so far as to declare that «the intentions of those who honour them are laudable».

On the Camino de Compostela, the pilgrim Jean de Tournai, in 1490, listened to each legend and put it all into perspective by remarking that all that was of little importance for «in any case, St James is in Paradise».

Patron Saint of the Reconquista, St James arose every so often in the sky above the Christian armies, mounted on a white horse and unfurling a large standard. The first apparition was at Clavijo near Logrono in 844, on the occasion of a battle joined to stop the sending every year of a tribute of a hundred young women for the harem in Cordoba. In its place, the winner, King Ramiro, imposed payment of an annual tribute to the church of Compostela, a tax which continued for centuries. One of the last interventions of the apostle dates supposedly from the Spanish civil war (1936-1938).


Symbols ...


For the most part, the medieval pilgrim was clothed in the same way as any other traveller. Little by little, under the influence of pious imagery, symbolic signs were added to the costume. In the XVIIIth century, the Chanson du Devoir des pèlerins (Song of the Duty of Pilgrims) explains that they «Must be equipped with the necessary items, in the example of the fathers, and not be without staff, a small pack, also a large hat, and a good coat for storms». Symbolically the pilgrim is «clothed with steadfastness, love and chastity... Cloaked with the mantle of good works», the pilgrim leans on «the staff of hope, studded with charity», the «purse and the pack» enclose the treasures that God gives, and the «gourd is full ... of water from the living fountain».

  Pilgrim signs, staff, pouch, shell ...
Find out more  : 

The pilgrim's blessing in the Middle Ages

Numerous «rituals» include the formulas used by priests for blessing pilgrims departing for a distant destination. This one, drawn from the Codex Calixtinus, is adapted for a departure for Compostela:

«In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, receive this scrip, insignia of your pilgrimage so that, purified and liberated, you may come, as you desire, to the house of St James, and that, having completed your journey, you may return among us in good health and happiness, by the grace of God who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.


Receive this staff, comfort against the fatigue of walking on the road of your pilgrimage, so that you may be able to vanquish the ambushes of the Enemy and arrive in all tranquillity at the sanctuary of St James, and that, your goal reached, you may return to us with joy, by the grace of God who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen».

The pilgrim shell

Shells have been found in the graves of a Merovingian cemetery in Paris, from well before the discovery of the tomb of St James at Compostela. From the XIIth century, Compostela made it its own, sold as a souvenir to pilgrims. The cathedral vendors explain its symbolism : the fan-shaped lines, spread out like the fingers of a hand, are the image of the work that the pilgrim should undertake (the word «work» intended in the sense of «charitable work», but also as «physical work»). Little by little, the iconographic representations of the Apostle St James include a shell as a matter of course, sometimes on the scrip, sometimes on the hat. Then, in the XVIIIth century, in the first classification of species, the mollusc in question is given the name coquille Saint-Jacques, St James' scallop which systemises the link between the shell and the pilgrimage to Compostela.

But the shell is sold just as much in other shrines, especially Mont Saint-Michel, and it remains part of the insignia common to all pilgrims : for example, when Emperor Charles IV visits Paris in 1377 and makes a pilgrimage to Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, the king sends him «shells because he is a pilgrim».

In heraldry, the shell is often simply a «decoration» which in no way entails a link with Compostela.


Pilgrims of today

Ways and customs

 the pillar is worn away but many pilgrim traditions are recent

The pillar of Jesse,
on the Portico de la Gloria
in the cathedral at Santiago,
inviting visitors and pilgrims
to meditation

80 % of pilgrims passing through Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port start their pilgrimage there, an aberration, the section to Roncevaux by the mountains being the most difficult of the route. It's not often stated, but bad weather is frequent there, one can be lost up there for hours, perhaps even die there.

The number of pilgrims there went from 1264 in 1996 to 13638 in 2001 ...


At Santiago, some 100,000 pilgrims receive the Compostela every year compared with 4 million other visitors (9 million in Holy Years)

The Compostela, certificate of pilgrimage

formerly required in certain cases, the pilgrimage certificate makes an attractive souvenir
a Compostela from 1976

For a long time, and especially since the XVIIth century, pilgrims carried back from Compostela a certificate attesting to their having really been there. This certificate has been revived. It requires that the pilgrim arrive in a spirit of piety (pietatis causa) but, although its text does not mention it, it is issued only to those who, in addition, have completed the last 100 km on foot (or 200 by bicycle), to the exclusion of all others.

Here is the translation of the text of this Compostela

«The Chapter of this Holy Apostolic Metropolitan Cathedral of St. James, custodian of the seal of St. James' Altar, to all faithful and pilgrims who come from everywhere over the world as an act of devotion, under vow or promise to the Apostle's Tomb, our Patron and Protector of Spain, witnesses in the sight of all who read this document, that ... has visited devoutly this Sacred Church in a religious sense. Witness whereof I hand this document over to him, authenticated by the seal of this Sacred Church.»

To each their own way.

The pilgrim leaves home and habits. Takes the road, open to others, in search of self. Such an adventure can be lived on everyday roads. But pilgrimage on the roads to Compostela is privileged and takes various forms always implying separation, rupture.

Today's pilgrims, on foot for weeks at a time, seek to recover the sensations of their ancestors, creating a stereotyped imagery : there must be suffering, comfort must be left behind, frustrations must be accepted, privations endured ... One must leave from Le Puy and follow the GR 65 which passes for a historic path ... Only there can one relive the company of the crowds of pilgrims of the past.

But is marching through mud part of pilgrimage ? Is suffering in impassable tracks obligatory ? Is not begging one's bread an insult to the real poor? No travel account from former times notes such requirements. The Rule of St Benedict even warns against overindulgence in asceticism (beware of the sin of pride !).

Another way of walking

Leaving behind all preconceptions, all the advice of predecessors who sometimes encourage fears in order to magnify themselves, all constraints of guides of any sort, today's pilgrims can enjoy their own personal pilgrimage. They can organise it as they like, without imitating others and without ostentation. They are free to depart from their own home and to walk in a straight line, on the watch for encounters with others, with all those interested in or indifferent to their progress. It is they who, humbly, can approach others to ask the way or find an address. En route, they can imbue themselves with the living conditions of the inhabitants of the regions traversed. Instead of hiding away in paths where they meet only people like themselves, or «erasing» the towns by taking the bus, they can «venture» into industrial zones (an opportunity to observe the activities of the region), walk along the roads, maybe even on the main roads (thinking of those who have to suffer their harmful effect all year round, unlike those who are only passing by). In the villages, they can discover those true meeting places, the cafe-bar-grocery-village-shop, or the locally-run guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts. To make oneself the foreigner for the duration of a pilgrimage offers unexpected pleasures, and this pilgrimage far from the beaten track in no way detracts from the value of the journey, quite the opposite.

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