Pilgrims to Santiago: Yesterday and today

english  |  galego

José A. Armesto


Plaque in front of the Chartres cathedral, France

Pilgrims to Santiago: Yesterday and today

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela begins very early after the “discovery” of the Apostle tomb. The first news are about Alfonso II, king of Galicia, Asturias and León in the 9th century (791-842), because it was during his kingdom, in 814, when that discover was known. The route from Oviedo, where he was at that moment, to Santiago, via Lugo, is known today as Camiño Primitivo, the Primitive Way.

Soon, the pilgrimage began from other places in the Iberian Peninsula, which was partially occupied by North African and Arabian Muslims in those times, and that fact gave Santiago an important role as an unifying force of the lands under rule of christian kings. It was also very important the arrival of pilgrims from other parts of Europe. So, it is said that in Santiago begins the idea of Europe as a unity.

In order to illustrate this idea, we expose the stories of three pilgrims from Greece, Germany and the Netherlands, two of them from the past and one from nowadays.



Conmemorating statue of the Way in Kehl, by the Rhein river, Germany

There is not much information about Greek pilgrims, but in some papers from 11th and 12th centuries (Crónica de Castilla, Historia seminense, Libro del Mío Cid, Liber Sancti Iacobi-Codex Calixtinus) it is mentioned a presumed Greek bishop named with different names: Stephanus, Astiano, Ostiano, Ostyano, Estiano, and he was an intentional protagonist of a “miracle” by Santiago Apostle.

According to these chronicles, during Coimbra's siege (in actual Portugal) by the army of King Fernando I in 1063, this bishop was in Santiago as a pilgrim. There he listened to some people talking about Santiago as a “knight” and they also asked him to help the Christian armies in their fight against muslims. Then Stephanus told them that Santiago was not a knight but a “fisherman”. But, a bit later, while he was sleeping, Santiago himself materialized during his dream to quarrel him because he hadn't believed in himself as a warrior. Santiago gave him the day and the time of Coimbra's capture. Stephanus told this information to the authorities of Compostela and they notified it to king Fernando and when the information was confirmed it was taken as an evidence of Santiago's help in the fight against the “infidels”. This story must be understood as a propaganda to encourage the people and the army for a long period of fights.



Cover of "Die Walfart und Strass zu Sant Jacob"

Hermannus Künig von Vach was a monk in the Servite community in Vach, a small town on the Hesse/Thuringia border now called Vacha-an-der-Werra. His guidebook of the road to Santiago, Die Walfart und Straß zu sant Jacob, was published in 1495. It became popular and went through several editions, including a translation in 1518 into Low German De overen und meddelen Straten van Brunswygk tho Sunte Jacob in Galicien tho Compostella. In 1899 Konrad Haebler produced a new edition under the title Das Wallfahrtsbuch des Hermannus Künig von Vach und die Pilgerreisen der Deutschen nach Santiago de Compostela.

His own pilgrimage probably began in Vacha, but the book describes a route from Einsiedeln via Toulouse - which he called the Oberstrasse, upper road - and back via Paris and Brussels to Aachen - the Niederstrasse or lower road. It seems that the reason for the names had nothing to do with the contours, but it was simply because the maps of the time had south at the top, so the Einsiedeln route was the 'upper road' and the Aachen one the 'lower road'. He seems to have disliked climbing, as he recommends using lower-level roads to bypass the two highpoints on the Camino Francés, the Cruz de Ferro and O Cebreiro.

The Netherlands


The return of the pilgrim, Leiden School

We have not much information about Dutch pilgrimage to Santiago in the Middle Ages, but we have some data that can confirm it. For instance, Lodewijkskerk or church of St. Louis, in Leiden. It was built as a hospice chapel as a stopping place on the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (St. Jacobs Gasthuis). The hospice, finisehd in 1538, was run by the St. Jacobs Broederschap, consisting of people who had returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago.

Related to this St. Jacobs Gasthuis it is the painting belonging to the School of Leiden, painted in 1530, The Return of the Pilgrim: A Scene from a Miracle of Saint James the Greater. This painting illustrates in three panels an episode from a miracle by Saint James: on his way to Santiago de Compostela a young pilgrim was greeted by the devil disguised as Saint James. The devil convinced him that he would achieve everlasting salvation by killing himself; the young man did so and thereby committed a mortal sin, a suicide. But he was saved from that fate by the intervention of Saint James, who also restored him to life. The painting belongs to a private collector.

Interview to Jan Melkert


Jan Melkert arriving in Santiago

Representing the pilgrimage history from the Netherlands, we are going to report the answers given by a Dutch pilgrim from nowadays to some questions about his pilgrimage to Santiago. The pilgrim is Jan Melkert from Alkmaar.

When did you do the pilgrimage and from where? How long did you take in it?

I made the walk (the Camino) in 2004 with a friend. We started in a village in France near Bordeaux. We walked in total 1100 kilometres in about 35 days.

What places did you stay in: free hostel, private hostel, hotel, campingsites ...?

We stayed in hostels. In some places we slept in sleeping places belonging to a cloister (monastery). And 2 or 3 times we slept in a hotel.

How hospitable were the people from the villages and the other pilgrims in the Way?

The people in the villages were very friendly, very hospitable. It was in 2004 not yet so busy as nowadays on the Camino. Pilgrims on the Camino have the same goal. They walk the same route, they see each other in the evening in the hostels/refugios. The atmosphere amongst the pilgrims is very friendly. They help each other, they talk about the camino and they advise each other about the route.

Did you meet anybody with whom you are still in contact?

Until few years ago. We had contact with two pilgrims from South Africa.

The mountains in France (Pyrenees) and the mountains in Spain in the last two weeks of our walk. In fact the landscape was very beautiful. Hills, mountains, flat routes, villages, long straight walks, silence, rain, sunshine, muddy paths.
Art: especially the interior of the churches e.g. the altar pieces in the churches of Burgos, Leon and of course Santiago itself.

What kind of pilgrims did you meet: from what countries, their motivations, ...?

From all countries: we met pilgrims from France, Italy, Holland, South Africa. There were also pilgrims from USA and Brazil.
Their motivations: some pilgrims used the Camino to reflect over their lives. Some pilgrims had experienced important changes in their life and used the walk to think things over. Other stopped working (retired) and wanted to use this walking for planning their future.

How did the idea of making the Way of St. James emerge? Which was the main motivation to make it?

Our motivation (I walked with e friend) was a mix of sportive challenge and thinking things over. My friend was just retired from work. It was an old wish to do the Camino. Also a mixture of slowing down escaping from the busy life for a few weeks.

Would you make the Way if you knew that the body of St. James is not there?

Yes, we would make the walk, even if the body is not present in Santiago

What did you learn while you made the Way?

We learned to be patient, to slow down by walking and to hurry, to enjoy the landscape and also to get wet by the rain and still walking.

Did the experience of the Way influence your daily life in any way?

I cannot say that walking to Santiago had a particular influence on me. It inspired us to do some other walks e.g. to Rome (2007) and perhaps in the autumn the beginning of my walk to Jerusalem.

Is there any moment or place from the Way that you remind in a special way?

A few nights in a refugio led by an English brotherhood at 1100 metres high. It had a special atmosphere during dinner there singing and singing with the other pilgrims. And also some visits to the Holy Mass in a few churches. One night a very beautiful mass with a choir of old women.

What was the most remarkable of the experience in general?

The arrival of course in Santiago was a remarkable event and then to the cathedral and to embrace the statue of St. Jacob and to touch the pillar in the entrance. And our names were mentioned during the mass in the cathedral.

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For further information please contact: Jose Armesto o
r María Rodríguez Valcárcel | EPAPU Albeiros
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