El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James,” is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lie. The Camino has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years, and there is evidence of a pre-Christian route as well. Throughout the medieval period it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken.
Christian legend has it that when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, the Iberian peninsula fell to James. Seventh and eighth century documents suggest that he spent a number of years preaching there before returning to Jerusalem, where in the year 44 AD he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. After his martyrdom, popular belief relates that his followers carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, in northern Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb which she had also provided. Saint James was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there the body lay, forgotten until the 9th century.
Early in that century, Pelagius, a hermit living in that part of Galicia, had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to what proved to be an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He immediately reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of Santiago and two of his followers and who in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared Santiago to be the patron saint of Spain, or of what would eventually be Spain. That would come later. A small village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. (Or possibly the Roman word for cemetery, “componere”: to bury, is the source.) In any event, news of the discovery spread like wildfire and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles. This was all greatly encouraged by the powerful Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities, who were anxious to promote Santiago as a pilgrimage destination, as well as by the monks of the Abbey of Cluny in France who were anxious to support the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors on the Peninsula. And thus began the millennium-long relationship between the holy and the commercial.
All of that having been said, there is historical support for various aspects of the story and, on the other hand, there are complications and contradictions.
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached its peak during the Middle Ages and it is safe to say that it constituted a major cultural aspect of that period of history in Europe. By the 12th century, the Camino had become a rather organized affair and what is widely regarded as the world’s first travel guide, the Codex Calixtinus from around 1140, provided the would-be pilgrim with the rudiments of what he or she would need to know while en route. Book V, the famous “Liber Peregrinationis” (“Guide of the Medieval Pilgrim”) would have provided practical information, while Book II, the “Book of Miracles”, would surely have provided encouragement while underway. In addition, a massive infrastructure developed to support pilgrimage and, not coincidentally, to gain commercially from it. Bridges were constructed across rivers to draw pilgrims to certain cities and they prospered. Pilgrim hospices were chartered by religious orders, kings and queens and they gained favor in heaven. All manner of commercial businesses were established to both take advantage of and to support pilgrims. Cultures mixed, languages merged and history was affected.
After its peak during the Middle Ages, the phenomenon of pilgrimage to Santiago tapered off and several possible causes or contributing factors have been cited. At the end of the 16th century Spain engaged in wars with both England and France and these affairs effectively cut off access to Spain from elsewhere in Europe. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther around 1520, certainly would have had an effect, being deeply critical as he was of the practice of indulgences, a concept thoroughly intertwined with the pilgrimage to Santiago. Two centuries later, the Age of Enlightenment certainly did not encourage its rejuvenation. But throughout all of this, the pilgrimage to Santiago never quite died out. One small piece of evidence to its continuation comes from the journals of John Adams who, while making a land crossing from the Galician coast to Paris in December 1779, wrote that he “…always regretted that We could not find time to make a Pilgrimage to Saint Iago de Compostella.“
-excerpts from: http://www.americanpilgrims.org/history
To learn more about the Way of St. James:
The Camino Podcast