The History of the Camino de Santiago

Created by Colleen Sims | Updated : 1 March 2023 | ,

Many people have heard of the Camino; maybe through a friend or a TV program or even the film The Way. But do you know the history of the Camino de Santiago?

Colleen hiking with her Osprey pack on the Camino Frances

Pre-Christian history

Many of the main pilgrimage routes to Santiago follow earlier Roman trade routes, indeed some of the oldest settlements in Europe have been found along the Camino at the archaeological site of Atapuerca which suggest a much older history. 

The caves of the Sierra de Atapuerca contain a rich fossil record of the earliest humans in Europe, from almost one million years ago.  Along other Camino routes there are also Neolithic and Prehistoric remains from settlements and travellers; the museums along the Via de la Plata are full of early items found in places like Salamanca and Caceres.

It is thought that the Celts travelled the route we now call the Camino Frances to the Atlantic coast of Galicia, ending at Cape Finisterre. The Romans called it Finis Terrae (literally the end of the world in Latin).  Pilgrims still arrive at this point today to watch the setting sun, there is even a 0 kilometre marker here.

Ancient travellers believed this place to be the end of the world and a magical place where the living could be closest to the land of the dead.  At night, the Milky Way seems to point the way, so the route acquired the nickname “Voie lactée” the Milky Way in French.  Today we know that Cape Finisterre is not the westernmost point of Europe but Cabo da Roca in Portugal.

Sunset at Finisterra in Galicia in Spain

St James and Galicia

The son of Zebedee and Salome, James The Greater (greater meaning older or taller, rather than more important) was one of the Twelve Apostles and according to the New Testament, James is described as one of the first disciples to join Jesus.  He was also the brother of John the Apostle.

We are told that after the death of Christ, the Apostles dispersed to different regions to spread the gospel. James along with his own seven disciples travelled to the Spanish and specifically the North Western land known as Gallaecia.   History tells us that he returned to Palestine in AD 44 where he was martyred and that his remains were transported back to Spain and buried in a field a little inland from Iria Flavia to protect them from discovery and desecration. 

The Tomb of St James

The tomb lay undiscovered for centuries until it was discovered by a shepherd named Pelayo in a field under the stars. He informed the bishops of Iria Flavia, who found the grave and asserted that it was the remains of Saint James. The location was subsequently was called “the field of stars” Campus Stellae, later becoming Compostela. The then king, Alfonso the II, made the first pilgrimage from Oviedo (his home) to Santiago along the route that we now call the Primitivo (meaning first or original).  Alfonso had a small chapel built and later commissioned a larger temple to attract pilgrims from all over the world.

Apart from the obvious religious aspect, the discovery and the development of the pilgrimage route was also vital from a political point of view, as a big influx of faithful Christians travelling across Northern Iberia was a very powerful tool to keep the Moors away.

Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia Spain

The Ways of St James

It’s a common misconception that the Camino de Santiago is just one route but there are actually many routes and not just in Spain but across Europe.  The Camino de Santiago, Peregrinatio Compostellana in Latin, the Way of St James, le Chemin de St Jaques or the Jacobsweg are just a few of its other names.  These ancient trails spread out like a fan across Europe, all eventually leading to the shrine of the apostle in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  We know that Christians started making pilgrimages to his burial site as early as the 10th century but the 12th century the Camino had become one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage. 

The construction of the Romanesque cathedral in Santiago began in 1078 and it heralded a golden age for the pilgrimage to Santiago. Originally the safest route would have been along what we call today the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo.  The Camino Frances was later developed by kings Sancho the Great and Alfonso VI, allowing pilgrims to cross their territories of Navarra and Leon. Monasteries, pilgrim hospitals, bridges and other important infrastructure was developed to help protect pilgrims and ease their way to Santiago. The Christian kings also offered certain privileges to encourage their populations to move and settle along the routes, and many towns and cities grew and became thriving communities.

Pilgrims walking the Meseta from Burgos along the Camino Frances

The First Guidebook

The first pilgrim guide, the Codex Calixtinus was published around 1140 and it is still considered the definitive source for many modern guidebooks. Four pilgrimage routes are listed in the Codex originating in France and meeting at Puente la Reina in Navarra in Spain (now on the Camino Frances). From there well-defined routes crossing northern Spain, link Burgos, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún, León, Astorga, and of course the final destination of Santiago de Compostela.  In short, this route is what we now consider ‘the’ camino, but is actually called the Camino Frances.  This isn’t the only route to Santiago but it is without doubt the most popular route.

Most pilgrims would start their journey from their own home and a web of Camino routes were developed across Europe; there was safety in numbers and most pilgrims would join fellow travellers along the way as the routes converged from other parts of Europe. The 12th and 13th centuries were considered the hey day of pilgrimage to Santiago with perhaps 250,000 pilgrims travelling every year; I have read that at its height perhaps 10% of the population of Europe were either walking to or from Santiago!  From the 14th century onward, due to various events (religious wars, the Reformation and the Plague) interest in pilgrimage decreased. It’s interesting to compare the effects of 2020 and 2021 with Camino numbers when COVID interrupted the modern day revival.

Little by little the route fell intro disrepair and just a handful of pilgrims arrived each year.  In 1963, (the year I was born!) three Clergy from Estella were filmed making their pilgrimage in an effort to create a resurgence and interest in the route.  In the 1980’s Father Elías Valiña Sampedro, parish priest of O Cebreiro (and called by some the Father for the Modern Pilgrimage) worked tirelessly to mark the route and to bring about a new age for the Camino.  It was his work of marking the route with free municipal council yellow paint that was responsible for the creation of the now famous yellow arrows.  Father Sampedro died in 1989 but would have been proud of the immense success for his efforts.  1,245 pilgrims arrived in Santiago in 1985 and over 100,000 in 1993, when the route was declared UNESCO World Heritage. In 2019 (pre COVID) there were 347,538 Compostela issued by the Pilgrim’s Office.

If you’re looking for a great modern alternative to the Codex Calixtinus, I love The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson. Indeed it’s a permanent feature on my smartphone Kindle App and I use it often whilst on the Camino.

camino arrow on portuguese

The Scallop Shell

The scallop shell, found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on a variety of meanings, metaphorical, practical, and mythical. Today most pilgrims will carry a scallop shell on their pack. In France if you order scallops on a menu you’ll actually ask for Coquille de St Jacques. The History of the shell are many and varied and two common myths are:

  • After James’s death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried.  Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, it washed ashore undamaged and covered in scallops.
  • After James’s death his body was transported by a ship back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried. As the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on shore. The young groom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

Whatever its history the shell (and the yellow arrow) is the symbol of the modern Camino de Santiago and is seen frequently. It is seen on posts and signs along the Camino in order to guide pilgrims and more commonly seen on the pilgrims themselves. Most modern pilgrims purchase a shell at the beginning of their journey although historically, the shell was collected at Santiago as a sign that you had reached your destination.

The scallop shell serves practical purposes too.  It is the right size for gathering water or as a makeshift bowl; these days pilgrims also use it to drink the free wine at Estella.  During the medieval period, the shell was also seen as proof of completion rather than a symbol worn during the pilgrimage.

Shells for sale en-route to Santiago de Compostela

Original Accommodation

The word hospital originates from the Latin hospes, meaning guest or stranger. It’s the root of words such as hospice, hostel, hotel, and hospitality. The word patient comes from patior, which is to suffer. Hence a hospital can be interpreted as a place where strangers who suffer come to be cared for.

The daily accommodation needs of pilgrims were originally met by a series of hospitals, often provided by the parish and many Spanish towns still bear the name, such as Hospital de Órbigo. The tradition of providing a bed and food for the night continues with Pilgrim Albergues.  Local pilgrim associations continue to assist and support pilgrims and on some of the lesser known routes it’s still possible to find your bed in the local fire or police station.

Today, along the Camino Frances the choice of accommodation is vast; pilgrim albergues can still be found in monasteries and convents and parochial buildings.  Alongside them you’ll find private albergues and small hotels and plenty of high-quality hotels too. COVID has changed the way accommodation is provided, with more people searching for private rooms but I am in no doubt that in the coming years this will change again. The camino, it seems, continues to evolve.

Some parishes and individuals provide Donative Albergues; in the true spirit of the original Camino is it possible to eat and sleep for free. However! Donative does not mean free to all!  These albergue are run by individuals or teams of volunteers and whilst they do offer beds and food to those who cannot afford to pay, those who can pay should pay!

The Cowboy Bar on the Camino de Santiago after Astorga

Credencial del Peregrino

The Credential or Pilgrim Passport is an official document that records your journey along the route.  Without your Credential you will not be granted your Compostela or gain access to pilgrim accommodation. These days the cathedral recommends that you collect two Stamps or Sello every day to prove your journey. The Credential was originally a letter of safe-conduct given to pilgrims walking the Camino in the Middle Ages. During our visit to Valletta in Malta we learned about how the Knights of St John used a similar method to prove pilgrims had reached the holy land.

The official Pilgrim Passport is a small booklet with space for your own personal information and often with blank pages with spaces for sellos. The first page is like your letter of introduction and there is an area for the stamp of the cathedral, sealed by the Pilgrim Office when you finish.

In order to stay in pilgrim accommodation you will need to present your Credencial and your own country ID or Passport.  Your details will be recorded by the hospedeiro at the albergue and the hostel or hotel will ‘stamp’ and date your credential.  The stamps or sellos (pronounced say-o) are unique to each establishment and as well as serving as evidence of your journey for the Pilgrims Office in Santiago they are also a beautiful memoire.  You can also collect sellos from churches, tourist offices and council offices along the way and most bars and cafes will also have a sello.

Pilgrim Credentials or Passport identifies you as a pilgrim

You can purchase your pilgrims credential online from various pilgrim associations and Casa Ivar at the Camino Forum and you can also acquire them at the start of your journey at the first hostel or at tourist office where you start.  Many countries also have their own Pilgrim Associations that sell Credentials; usually for a few euros. I do prefer to order online for at least my first Credential … just in case!

The Compostela

From its earliest days there was a desire for the pilgrimage journey to be recognised. On the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims used the scallop shell as a symbol but it was easily copied, the shell isn’t exactly unique. From the 13th century documents called “evidential letters” were used as a more effective way of recording a completed pilgrimage; such documents were used by Templars and the Knights in Malta and it was this that was root of the pilgrim Compostela.

The text of the Compostela is written in Latin and it is the tradition to write the pilgrim’s name in Latin also. The text reads The Chapter of this Holy Apostolic Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint James, custodian of the seal of Saint 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 Colleen Sims has visited devoutly this Sacred Church in a religious sense.

For Catholics the Compostela has huge significance but for non-Catholics it can also hold special meaning. Today there are two different documents; one if your pilgrimage was for religious or spiritual reasons and another for those who specify culture or sport as their reason for walking.  If you wish to obtain a Compostela, the Cathedral of Santiago state that a pilgrim must provide evidence on their credential (pilgrim passport) that they walked or travelled on horseback for at least the last 100kms of their journey to Santiago and, if travelling by bicycle, the last 200kms.

You can also dedicate your Compostela to someone else; I dedicated mine to my dear late Camino buddy in 2019 and to my father when I walked again a few months later.

Pilgrim Compostela, written in Latin and issued by the Pilgrim Office

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Whenever you travel, you should have a great travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

I’ve ended up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal, Japan and Ireland! Every time my insurance took care of everything. I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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Colleen in Salamanca on the Via de la Plata

Hey I’m Colleen. I’m married to Gerry, we’ve three fabulous kids and been living in France for almost two decades. I fell in love with Spain in the 1980s and I’ve walked 1000s of miles along the Camino de Santiago. Now we’re exploring and walking the world and I can’t wait to share what we’ve learned!

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