The Camino de Santiago in the Middle Ages: How did pilgrims make the pilgrimage 1,000 years ago?

We show you how pilgrims in the Middle Ages experienced the Camino de Santiago.

Fernando Borjas
16/02/2022 18:38
Ilustración del Camino de Santiago en la Edad Media. Chema Román

Ilustración del Camino de Santiago en la Edad Media. Chema Román

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The Way of Saint James in the Middle Ages

Did you know that pilgrims already existed in the Middle Ages? Although this pilgrim route is much more popular than back then, at that time there were already people who went to Santiago to venerate the remains of St. James the Apostle.
Nowadays we can find many facilities when it comes to walking the Camino de Santiago. We can obtain information about the different pilgrimage routes or even buy objects that help us to make the route much more bearable. This is a far cry from what pilgrims found in the Middle Ages, a time when doing the Camino was a challenge to overcome. 
If you want to know more about these pilgrims, you're in the right place. Here we tell you how some curiosities of the Camino de Santiago in the Middle Ages and we will talk about different facts that marked the history of this pilgrimage route.

The discovery of the Camino de Santiago in the Middle Ages

  • The tomb of St. James the Apostle is discovered

In the 9th century, the Bishop of Iria Flavia was warned by a villager called Pelayo about some strange lights coming from the forest of Libredón. The bishop, called Teodomiro, went to the place and discovered that it was the tomb of St. James, so he quickly informed Alfonso II.

  • Alfonso II became the first pilgrim

Known as El Casto, the king of Asturias became the first pilgrim to undertake a journey to the tomb of the apostle St. James. He travelled in the 11th century from Oviedo to the Galician capital, thus originating the well-known Primitive Way.

  • The creation of the Codex Calixtinus

Also known as the Codex Calixtinus, this manuscript was created in the mid-12th century. This document is currently housed in the Cathedral of Santiago itself and contains everything from musical pieces to sermons related to the Apostle St. James, among much other information.

The evolution of the Jacobean routes in the Middle Ages

Due to the influx of pilgrims in those years, improvements were made to the road by nobles and ecclesiastics, among others. This improvement in infrastructure took place in the 11th century, a period in which bridges were also built and hospitals were founded.

  • Construction of Santiago Cathedral

Although many people were already making pilgrimages to Santiago to see the tomb of the apostle, it was not until years later that the construction of Santiago Cathedral was completed. The work was officially completed in April 1211, but even before that there were several churches that guarded the remains of the apostle St. James.

Another important point about the Jacobean routes at that time is that there were many risks along the way. The influx of pilgrims attracted many thieves, which led to an increase in criminal activity. It also caused many traders to take advantage of the situation and raise the price of their products to outsiders.

Origin of hundreds of legends of the Way of St. James

One of the most striking aspects for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, are all its myths and legends. Most of these were created during the Middle Ages and are still present today. Some of the best known are the legend of Fuente Regina and the legend of the rooster and the hen, although there are many that exist.

Whether you are going to do the Camino de Santiago or not, you should know the legends of the Camino de Santiago. These help us to know the importance that had this pilgrimage route at that time, and is an example of how pilgrims lived the experience of the pilgrims of the Middle Ages.

La concha del Camino de Santiago en Edad Media

La concha del Camino de Santiago en Edad Media

The origin of the symbols of the Way of Saint James

  • The Compostela in the Middle Ages

Since the birth of the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims arriving at the tomb of the apostle received a scallop shell as accreditation. As it was so easy to plagiarise, the ecclesiastics decided to change this recognition with the letters of proof, which we now know as the Compostela. 

  • Pilgrims' clothing in the Middle Ages

It was in the Middle Ages that the classical pilgrim's clothing was born. Some of the classic elements were the staff, the bag or the scallop shell, elements that are still linked to the Camino de Santiago and the pilgrims but not as part of the clothing, but as souvenirs.

  • The shell of the Way of St. James in the Middle Ages

As we mentioned before, the scallop shell was given to pilgrims before the Compostela was born. That is why this symbol was so closely linked to the Camino de Santiago. So much so that it was known when a pilgrim was already back home, as it was because he was carrying the shell that he had been given as accreditation.

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