Irish people setting out from Sarria to walk to Santiago de Compostela will find the scenery through which they make their way oddly familiar. Lush and green, it could hardly be more different from the parched plains so emblematic for many of the modern Camino, and will strike many as being almost Irish.
They’ll not be the first to have had such a thought: Irish pilgrims in the medieval period often experienced Spain’s north-western province as Galicia as a kind of homeland, long reputed as it was to have been the place from where the Milesians, ancient ancestors of the Irish, had once come.
Not, of course, that that was why such pilgrims set out for Spain. On the contrary, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would travel to Galicia every year to pray at what they believed to be the bones of St James the Great, onetime leader of the Church in Jerusalem and the first apostle to be martyred – Santiago is simply Spanish for ‘St James’.
The nascent Church had been tasked with bringing to Gospel to the ends of the earth, and in early medieval Spain it was believed that after the Resurrection, St James had travelled to Spain, the most westerly part of the Roman Empire. Succeeding only in winning a few dozen believers to Christ, he returned to the Holy Land where he was beheaded by King Herod.
According to Spanish legend, his remains were gathered together and placed in a boat which miraculously brought them to Finisterre – the ‘end of the world’ – on the Galician coast, with his remains being buried inland and forgotten until the early 9th Century, when strange lights in the night sky led a hermit named Pelayo to the grave. The local bishop wrote to the Pope, and soon the site was declared an official pilgrimage site.
In 1122 Pope Calixtus II gave Compostela the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to those who visited the shrine of the Apostle in jubilee years, ensuring that Santiago became Europe’s leading pilgrimage site of the Middle Ages. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Christendom would follow the Camino de Santiago – St James’s way – in jubilee years, and by the 13th Century, when St Francis of Assisi was one of those who travelled to pray by the relics, the Camino was at its height.
The Reformation, and a new spirit of scepticism that scorned the value of prayer and pilgrimage, sent the Camino into a long decline, however, and by the 20th Century it was almost dead, with just a few hundred pilgrims walking the ancient roads each year.
Since the 1980s, however, the Camino has been restored to life, and now over 300,000 pilgrims make their way to Santiago each year and receive a certificate – a Compostela – confirming that they are true pilgrims who have walked at least 100km – or cycled at least 200km – to visit the shrine of St James.
With the so-called ‘French Way’ or Camino Frances being the most popular pilgrim road to Santiago, huge numbers of pilgrims join the route at Sarria to walk the last 100km to the shrine. The last section of the way can be famously busy, but in that it surely just reflects the reality of the Camino at its medieval peak, when pilgrimage could be a lively and bustling experience.
Chaucer would not have written his Canterbury Tales, after all, if groups of pilgrims travelling together had not enjoyed the trip!