A brief history of the origin of Camino de Santiago

When talking about the origin and history of the Camino de Santiago, reference is often made to the discovery of the remains of Santiago the Apostle. However, it is impossible to understand the importance of this milestone without mentioning the evangelizing work done by St James the Apostle and the surrounding social context in the Iberian Peninsula, during the Middle Ages.

History of the Camino de Santiago

In this article we will tell you everything related to the origin and history of the Camino de Santiago. Not only about its origins in the Middle Ages, but also about its contemporary history, which takes place during the 20th century, with the recovery of pilgrim routes.

On the other hand, if you have an interest in pilgrimage to Compostela, we recommend the Camino de Santiago from Sarria. Share your information and details of the trip you want to take with us, and we will contact you.



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    The Camino de Santiago and its relation to the apostle

    The history of the origin of the Camino de Santiago is closely related to the evangelizing work of Santiago the Apostle in Spain and Portugal, on his journey in 33 B.C. If you want to know more about the life of Santiago the Elder, you can consult the article we have dedicated to his work.

    The death of Santiago and the transfer of his remains to Galicia

    According to Christian history, Santiago the Apostle returned to Israel, a few years later, to accompany the Virgin Mary in her death. It was there, where scholars point out that he died, in 44 B.C.

    After his death, two of his disciples moved his body to Galician lands. According to legend, in a stone boat without rudder and without sails. The Codex Calixtinus, the oldest book documenting the history of the Camino de Santiago, states that in order to get the apostle buried, the disciples had to face various raids by Queen Lupe.

    Popular knowledge says that it was the ox that pulled the carriage that carried the remains of Santiago the Apostle, which decided the place to install the saint’s tomb. At the top of a small mountain, in Iria Flavia, the animal decided to rest under an oak tree, a fact that was interpreted as a divine sign.

    There a mausoleum was raised, known as the Arca Marmárica. The temple, built by Queen Lupe herself, after her conversion to Christianity, should serve as a resting place for the remains of Santiago the Apostle.

    Two disciples of Santiago looked after him, until his death. The moment when the burial place of Santiago the Elder fell into oblivion.

    The discovery of the Apostle’s tomb

    Nearly eight centuries later, in the year 814, the remains were discovered by a hermit named Pelayo. He quickly informed the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, of the find.

    Since, according to legend, there were a few flashes of light that indicated the presence of the tomb to the hermit, the place became known as “Campo de Estrellas” (Campus Stellae/ Field of Stars). For many years, the city of Compostela was designated with this name.

    Bishop Teodomiro then stated that the three corpses resting in the newly discovered tomb belonged to Santiago the Apostle and his two disciples. What was based in order to make such a claim is not very clear.

    As of today, some ancient documents that made some vague references to the place were found where the Arca Marmanica is located. However, even today, there is no scientific evidence to show that the remains found actually belonged to Santiago the Apostle.

    The origin of the Camino de Santiago

    Bishop Teodomiro quickly informed King Alfonso II of this astonishing discovery. He was imprisoned in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, in the face of the overwhelming advance of the Arab conquest.

    When he learned of the find, King Alfonso II soon took to the road himself to confirm with his own eyes the bishop’s words. Such a discovery could be the element he needed to maintain the cohesion of his Christian kingdom. In this, his faith in God, from which his monarchical authority came, began to crack, in the face of the Muslim triumph.

    After his visit, the monarch confirmed that the remains there belonged to Santiago the Apostle and ordered a temple to be built that could guard them. This milestone marks the origin of the Camino de Santiago, as a pilgrimage route, since this temple would later become the Cathedral of Compostela.

    History and origin of the routes on the Camino de Santiago

    After Alfonso II’s pilgrimage and spreading the discovery among the Christian community, both in Spain and Europe, many pilgrims left their homes to follow in the footsteps of the monarchs.

    Camino Primitivo

    Given the importance of the king in society at the time and that the south of the Iberian Peninsula was unsafe because of the strife between Muslims and Christians, most pilgrims followed the route that the monarch followed, passing through Oviedo. That route is what is now known as the Camino Primitivo.

    Camino del Norte

    As the number of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela increased, and even without the southern lands being safe, some people in search of a simpler route, began to use some of the Roman roads that lined the Cantabrian mountain range. Creating itself in this way, the Camino del Norte.

    Camino Frances

    With the advance of the Reconquest, power moved from Oviedo to León. Castile became safer and pilgrims arriving from all over Europe were invited to use the Camino Frances as a pilgrimage route. This route was much simpler than the previous two routes.

    Routes of the Camino de Santiago

    With the tradition of pilgrimage to Compostela, already established, and a much safer Spain, the Camino de Santiago reached its time of splendour. Kings Sancho III el Mayor and Sancho Ramírez, from Navarra and Aragon, together with Alfonso VI of Castile, put everything in their power to promote and consolidate the pilgrim tradition.

    Soon enough, the Camino de Santiago became a route that moved a lot of wealth, both in terms of commerce and culture. This led many people to encourage themselves of walking along it, despite not having a strong Christian devotion.

    Camino del Salvador and other branches to Oviedo

    Despite the emergence of other routes much simpler than the Camino Primitivo, passage through Oviedo continued to be, for many years, mandatory. Not only because of the strong influence that Alfonso II had during the first years in the history of the Camino de Santiago, but also because Oviedo Cathedral guarded most of the Christian relics within the peninsula.

    The result of the above is that the route is now known as the Camino del Salvador and the various branches that link the Camino del Norte with the Camino Primitivo. In addition to the famous popular saying that goes:

    “quién visita Santiago y no el Salvador, sirve al criado e ignora al señor”

    (“Those who visit Santiago and not the Saviour, serves the servant and ignores the Lord”)

    Popular song

    Other routes

    The history of the other routes related to the Camino de Santiago, with the exception of La Via de la Plata, were not so affected by the outcome of the conflicts between Christians and Arabs. Below, we explain the brief history of the other routes on the Camino de Santiago.

    Camino Ingles

    The history of the Camino Ingles was not greatly influenced by the context of war that was experienced in Spain during the Middle Ages. Since this route runs entirely through Galicia, from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela, it was always a relatively safe route.

    The Camino de Santiago Ingles was the itinerary chosen by English pilgrims, who arrived by boat to Ferrol, to start their journey to Santiago de Compostela from there. The history of this route on the Camino de Santiago is much more recent than the previous three.

    There are references to the Camino Ingles from the first centuries of pilgrimage, since it was the path followed by the inhabitants of northern Galicia, to reach the tomb of the apostle. However, the consolidation of this route did not occur until the 12th century, when a squadron of Englishmen and Flemings disembarked at Ferrol, to head to Santiago de Compostela.

    The Camino Portugues

    The Camino Portugues also began to be used from the earlier centuries, however, while other routes of the Camino de Santiago lived their years of splendour, this route was little travelled. It was not until the independence of Portugal, in the 12th century, that this route began to gain importance.

    However, the real boom of this route started from the 14th century, with the pilgrimage of Queen Elizabeth of Portugal. The monarch’s devotion to Santiago the Apostle and her strong bond with the Catholic Church led her to be known, popularly, as the Holy Queen.

    Although, in Portugal there are two pilgrim routes, to talk about the history of the Camino de Santiago Portugues is to refer basically to the Camino Central. The Coastal Route is much more recent.

    The coastal route was only developed when the new infrastructures appeared that allowed the River Miño to cross, in A Guarda. Until that time, the only possible crossing was the one made at Tui, following the Camino Central.

    Vía de la Plata

    The Vía de la Plata is the longest pilgrim route, as it links the South of the Iberian Peninsula with the North. The history of this route on the Camino de Santiago is even before the discovery of the remains of Santiago the Apostle.

    During Roman times, the Via de la Plata was already used as a trade route. In the centuries when the south of the peninsular was dominated by the Muslims, this route acquired the name of “The Cobbled Via”.

    The Latin pronunciation was very complicated for Spanish speakers. This caused Christians to refer to it as La Via de la Plata, as the phonics between the two concepts were very similar. Therefore, its name has nothing to do with its commercial past, as it seems to be implied, in the first instance.

    When the advance of the Reconquest allowed it, many of the Christians who had lived in the southern Muslim lands, who were called Mozarabs, began their journey to Compostela. From east to west, southern Christians left their homes to worship the tomb of the apostle.

    Hence, the Via de la Plata is, today, a complex layout divided into several sections. The pilgrims of the southeast took what is now known as the Camino Mozarabe, to reach Merida. There they joined those who came from Cadiz or Seville, following the southwest route.

    The Camino de Finisterre

    The Camino de Finisterre is another route, whose history predates the Camino de Santiago. As we tell you in the article we dedicate to the origins of the Ruta al Fin del Mundo, the route that linked Santiago de Compostela to the Cape Finisterre was a pagan route.

    However, many of the pilgrims in the Middle Ages, after reaching the tomb of Santiago the Apostle, decided to continue their journey to the place where the sun was believed to be sleeping. This fact led the Catholic Church to provide Christian symbolism to the Camino de Finisterre. In this way, the Camino de Finisterre ended up being considered an epilogue to the Camino de Santiago.

    The decline and fall

    All routes of the Camino de Santiago fell into disuse between the 19th and 20th centuries.  The Mendizabal Confiscation, also known as Spanish Confiscation, together with the French Revolution, reeled the Christian faith and wiped out much of the religious infrastructure that pilgrims used to achieve to be able to reach Compostela.

    The Mendizabal Confiscation

    Spanish Confiscation means the process in which the State forcibly expropriated all the lands and property held by the Catholic Church and religious orders. The aim of this movement, as the name suggests, was to raise funds to repay public debt.

    Brief history of the Camino de Santiago

    Although, throughout history there were various confiscation processes, the one that most affected the Camino de Santiago was known as Mendizabal Confiscation. It was made between 1835 and 1837; and it was one of the most important.

    As a result, many of the religious orders that managed the monasteries and hospitals of pilgrims had to abandon them. Many of these properties fell into the hands of the new Spanish bourgeoisie.

    The French Revolution

    The Church’s loss of power did not occur only in material terms. The 19th-century French Revolution also involved a change in values and beliefs in society at the time.

    Divine power fell into question, both in Europe and Spain. In contrast, the enlightened advocated principles such as reason and equality. The blind faith that was professed during the Middle Ages in God, and thus in the miracles of Santiago the Apostle, entered into crisis and with it, the Camino de Santiago.

    For almost two centuries, the routes of the Camino de Santiago were completely forgotten. On many sections of the original layouts, roads were built and houses were erected.

    Contemporary History of the Camino de Santiago

    The contemporary history of the Camino de Santiago dates back to 1965, when part of the original route of the Camino Frances was recovered. This work was made possible by Book V of the Codex Calixtinus, considered the first guide to the Camino de Santiago.

    However, it was not until 1980 that the roads began to be re-conditioned so that they could function as pilgrimage routes once again. To do this, the paths were marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells. Some of the previous infrastructures, such as hospitals and monasteries, were also recovered, or new ones were built to make it easier for pilgrims to find places to sleep.

    Unlike the Middle Ages, during which the Camino de Santiago was managed by ecclesiastical entities, the recovery of pilgrim tradition, during the 20th century, was in the hands of secular institutions. The proliferation of associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago and the work of many volunteers allowed the recovery of most pilgrim routes.

    As the pilgrim’s layouts were provided with new infrastructure, a big effort was made to spread the history of the Camino de Santiago. So, soon the routes were filled again with pilgrims.

    Institutional recognition

    Institutional recognition of the work carried out soon arrived. In 1985, the city of Santiago de Compostela, which had been built on the Estelae Campus, was listed as a World Heritage Site.

    Later, in 1987, the Camino de Santiago was declared a European Cultural Itinerary. In 1993, the Jacobean year, more than 100,000 pilgrims visited the tomb of the apostle.

    That same year, UNESCO granted the Camino Frances recognition as a World Heritage Site. They say that given the high number of pilgrimage routes that exist, cataloguing fell to the Camino Frances because it was the busiest route during the Middle Ages.

    The Camino de Santiago nowadays

    Since then, the number of people who travel the Camino de Santiago routes has only increased. At present, motivation for doing the Camino de Santiago are quite diverse and although these routes are still considered routes of pilgrimage, it is not only the Christian faith that guides those steps to Compostela.

    As you can see, the pilgrim tradition is a legacy that is almost 2,000 years old. We hope you liked the brief history of the origin of the Camino de Santiago that we have explained in this article. If so, don’t hesitate to share it with your friends on Facebook.

    We don’t want to say goodbye, without sharing with you another article that we think will be of interest to you. We refer to the post we dedicate to those lessons that you will learn on the Camino de Santiago.

    Finally just remind you that if you dare to do the Camino de Santiago and want to count on an agency that specialises in helping you organize your journey, do not hesitate to contact us. You can use our form, leave us a comment at the end of this article or write to us on Facebook. Our team will resolve any doubts.

    Buen Camino!