A major Christian pilgrimage route
The Way of St James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned; other major pilgrimage routes include the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Legend holds that St. James's remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. There are some, however, who claim that the bodily remains at Santiago belong to Priscillian, the fourth-century Galician leader of an ascetic Christian sect, Priscillianism, who was one of the first Christian heretics to be executed.
The Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one's home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly traveled. However, the Black Plague, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims arrived in Santiago annually. Since then however the route has attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987; it was also named one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 8th century, in the time of the Kingdom of Asturias. The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey. This practice was gradually extended to other pilgrimages.
The earliest recorded pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees visited the shrine in the middle of the 10th century, but it seems that it was not until a century later that large numbers of pilgrims from abroad were regularly journeying there. The earliest records of pilgrims that arrived from England belong to the period between 1092 and 1105. However, by the early 12th century the pilgrimage had become a highly organized affair.
One of the great proponents of the pilgrimage in the 12th century was Calixtus II who started the Compostelan Holy Years. The official guide in those times was the Codex Calixtinus. Published around 1140, the 5th book of the Codex is still considered the definitive source for many modern guidebooks. Four pilgrimage routes listed in the Codex originate in France and converge at Puente la Reina. From there, a well-defined route crosses northern Spain, linking Burgos, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún, León, Astorga, and Compostela.
The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to, and from, Compostela were met by a series of hospitals and hospices. These had royal protection and were a lucrative source of revenue. A new genre of ecclesiastical architecture, Romanesque, with its massive archways, was designed to cope with huge devout crowds. There was also the now- familiar paraphernalia of tourism, such as the selling of badges and souvenirs. Since the Christian symbol for James the Greater was the scallop shell, many pilgrims would wear this as a sign to anyone on the road that they were a pilgrim. This gave them privileges to sleep in churches and ask for free meals, but also warded off thieves who did not dare attack devoted pilgrims.
The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela was possible because of the protection and freedom provided by the Kingdom of France, where the majority of pilgrims originated. Enterprising French people (including Gascons and other peoples not under the French crown) settled in towns along the pilgrimage routes, where their names appear in the archives. The pilgrims were tended by people like Domingo de la Calzada who was later recognized as a saint himself.
Pilgrims would walk the Way of St. James, often for months, in order to arrive at the great church in the main square of Compostela to pay homage to St. James. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway of the church that a groove has been worn in the stone.
Oddly, the popular Spanish name for the astronomical Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago. The Milky Way was said to be formed from the dust raised by travelling pilgrims in a common medieval legend. Compostela itself means 'field of stars'.Another origin for this popular name is the Book IV of the Book of Saint James which relates how the saint appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the route of the Milky Way.