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A Brief History of the Peoples of the Camino


In June, a spirited group of 36 pilgrims, myself included, will embark on an exhilarating two-week odyssey across both land and sea, tracing the captivating Camino Ingles from Fowey to La Coruna, and ultimately reaching the famed Santiago. This extraordinary expedition holds a profound significance as we, modern pilgrims, set sail on a majestic tall ship — an unprecedented nod to the pilgrimage traditions dating back to the Late Middle Ages. Our journey echoes the footsteps of countless others, spanning across generations, all united by the shared aspiration of reaching the revered shrine of St James the Apostle.


Legend states that after St. James was martyred in Jerusalem around 44 AD, his disciples transported his body by sea to the Iberian Peninsula. Despite this, however, the legend that the apostle James was buried in the far north-west of Spain gained currency from the ninth century during the time of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule). It was here that the tomb of St. James was said to have been miraculously discovered, which elevated Santiago as a significant pilgrimage destination in medieval Europe, second to Jerusalem. Very quickly the shrine began to attract pilgrimage to Compostela, which in time connected to a host of places along the major routes leading to it. Among them were Limoges, Conques, Le Puy and Noblat (the shrine of the hermit St Leonard). 


Whilst the first pilgrim known to have gone to Compostela from France was bishop Gottschalk of Le Puy, in 951, it was not only Churchmen who would walk the paths. Like our own host of pilgrims, they were of different ages and backgrounds. Monks shared the road with merchants, peasants, noblemen, knights, and even kings. In 1331, the constable of France  ‘vowed personally to visit the shrine of St James, and relying on the fact that several magnates and other nobles were undertaking an armed expedition against the Saracens in the kingdom of Granada, and agreed to go with the said constable, he vowed he would not bear arms until he had reached the goal of that journey."


A common pilgrim found on the Camino was the penitent. Pilgrimage as penance and punishment remained a weapon in the hands of both ecclesiastical and secular authorities in the later middle ages. From the mid-thirteenth century onwards, the inquisition worked with a list of pilgrimages, ‘major’ and ‘minor’, on which convicted heretics were sent according to the gravity of their offence. Given England's ease of access to Santiago via the sea, it was not unreasonable that the inquisitors should classify Santiago as a favourable place for redemption. Bishop Hamo of Rochester sentenced John Laurence clerk of London, for involvement in the murder of Walter de Stapledon, bishop of Exeter. When a ‘general passage’ to the east next took place, he was to join it; and he was to go not only to Compostela, but to the shrines of the Virgin at Le Puy and Boulogne, and also to Canterbury, all of which could obviously be effected in one return journey.


Even Pope Urban V recommended to the archbishop of Bordeaux that pilgrimages be imposed on members of military companies who desire absolution in 1366:


Those able to sail should within a year of absolution set sail and spend as long on pilgrimage, visiting the Lord’s Sepulchre and other holy places overseas, as they have been members of the companies aforesaid. The weak and those permanently incapable of sailing should be instructed to go within six months to Rome and to stay there for a year, and every week of that year to visit the shrines of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul and the other places in the City which penitents are accustomed to visit, and then they should visit the shrine of St James in Compostela

Whether an imposed penance or self-made vow, what linked these people who were, by the structures of feudalism, so different in society was this shared experience. To represent this, the making and marketing of the pilgrim symbol emerged in the twelfth century:


"People bring a cross back from Jerusalem, a Mary cast in lead from Rocamadour, a leaden shell from St James; now God has given St Thomas this phial, which is loved and honoured all over the world, to save souls; in water and in phials he has the martyr’s blood taken all over the world, to cure the sick. It is doubly honoured, for health and as a sign."

This passage from Garnier’s Life of St Thomas Becket bears witness to the new development. Naturally occurring objects served, for example, the palms which were blessed and distributed at the Palm Sunday services in Jerusalem and became treasured mementoes. Beatrice tells Dante to commit to memory what she is telling him as pilgrims bind palm about their staffs in remembrance of their pilgrimage (Purgatorio XXXIII, 76–8). The scallop-shell emblem of Compostela too began its career as a natural object which came to be identified with the shrine and which some enterprising craftsman or entrepreneur must have seen the possibilities of reproducing in tin or pewter. 


The earliest reference to the marketing of pilgrim ‘signs’ in the west occurred in the stalls in the plaza before the church of St James, where they were sold, together with a lot of other useful items. The words cruscille piscium suggest that these were natural shells. Towards the end of her life St Bona of Pisa (d. 1207), a passionate devotee of St James, was transported by the saint himself on a last pilgrimage to Compostela; bringing her back by the same miraculous means, he was careful to supply her with ‘those things, which pilgrims are accustomed to bring back from St James of Galicia’. We are not told whether these were natural or man-made shells, but by this time, on Garnier’s evidence, they were clearly being reproduced in metal. 


We will be taking with us the pilgrim passport and other symbols, such as the shell, to pay homage to the centuries of traditions we will be immersed in. Yet, not all in history have been kind to the Camino. Franciscan Preacher, Berthold of Regendburg (1270-72), was often recorded as being critical of what people had seen on their sea voyages or their journeys to Rome or St James. In one particular sermon, he addressed that the Christian can at any time obtain more pardon, more grace, at home than by going to St James. He humorously announced, "What did you find when you came to Compostela? St James’s head. That’s a dead man’s bone, a dead man’s skull; the better part is in heaven." Yet, what he warns in this critique is the strong implication that charity begins at home, that pilgrimage should not be undertaken at the expense of others but rather enrich the mind and soul. From having the pleasure of working behind the scenes with the pilgrimage group, ferry company, Confraternity of St James, and other supporters, I do not doubt that this pilgrimage will change our lives for the better - all of which I believe we will convey in the documentary film we will be producing. 

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