A short history of the Way of St. James
1. The Transport
In the Acts of the Apostles the evangelist Luke tells us about the death of the Apostle James, son of Zebedee and brother of St. John the Evangelist. King Agrippa I. had James executed by the sword (Acts 12:1-2) around AD 43. His corpse is said to have been brought to Galicia on a ship by his disciples Theodorus and Atanasius. In the port of Iria, where the river Ulla flows into the Ría de Arosa near Padrón, the boat was tied to a rock which can still be visited today. From Iria they took the coffin 12 miles inland until they found a suiting place to inter it. When they sought queen Lupa's permission for the burial she sent them to king Duyo, a known enemy of Christianity, who had them arrested. After a miraculous escape the disciples turned to the queen once more who tried to dispose of them once again by sending them to mount Illicinus - today's Pico Sacro. There, so she told them, they would find a number of tame Oxes to pull the cart with the Apostole's corpse. However, Theodorus and Atanasius where to find themselves amongst wild bulls wich they tamed miraculously and put in front of the cart. Upon their return to the palace queen Lupa was struck with such astonishment that she asked to be baptized and offered her palace for the entombment of St. James.
2. The Discovery
In the first third of the 9th century, when Alfonso II el Casto ("the Chaste") was king of Asturias - and possibly during the life of Charlemagne (742-814) - the hermit Pelayo witnessed the appearance of angels who announced the coming discovery of the tomb of the Apostle St. James. Some days later shepherds notified of a strange glowing above the hill called Libredón which was caused by a star. Once bishop Theodomir of Iria Flavia was notified he ordered a fasting of three days. Once the undergrowth was removed from the spot that had been illuminated by the star, a chest of marble containing a skeleton was discovered and identified by the bishop as the mortal remains of St. James. Notice was given to king Alfonso who immediately proceeded to the site and ordered the construction of a first church. In addition a small community of monks was established that was to form the nucleus of the future settlement of Compostela.
3. The Commencement of Pilgrimage
After the consecration of a new basilica built under king Alfonso III. in the year 899, it was bishop Godescalc of Le Puy, France, who became the first documented pilgrim to the sepulcher of St. James in the year 950. The continuous growth of the number of pilgrims during the first centuries of the Camino was accompanied by an equally continuous effort to enhance the infrastructure of the way of St. James - which in turn led to the establishment of a single route. Warnings were issued to avoid dangerous areas and safer ones were recommended. Bridges, refuges, hospitals and monasteries were built and even entire settlements were created along the course. Estella, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Puente la Reina as well as countless small villages bearing the addition "del Camino" in their names give testimony of how royal privileges fostered these settlements. Particularly the monks of the French abbey of Cluny who established themselves along the way and the founding of the Order of Santiago improved the pilgrim's sustenance and security considerably.
4. The Codex Calixtinus and the Holy Compostelan Year
The 12th century saw the creation of the Book of St. James also known as the Liber Sancti Jacobi or Codex Calixtinus - after Pope Calixtus II. who was thought to be its author at first. It was, however, a French monk by the name of Aymeric Picaud who combined the five books of the Codex between 1130 and 1140. It is the fifth book that is of special interest for the history of the camino. It was written by Picaud himself. Among other things it describes the landscapes, churches and monuments as well as the manners and customs of the various regions' inhabitants and even the foods that can be found along the stages of the way. Picaud's description of the 13 sections of the camino, which could be completed in several days, aided in the establishment of what is known today as the Camino Francés. Whether the introduction of the Año Santo, the Holy Compostelan Year, dates back to the 12th century as well, seems to be controversial. The Papal bull "Regis Aeterni" by Pope Alexander III. seems to be written in 1179. It refers to privileges granted by Pope Calixtus II. in 1122 for full remission of temporal punishment due for sins to those pilgrims who visit the Apostle's sepulcher during a Holy Year. However, the genuineness of the document is denied by some. They argue that it refers to an event from the year 1300 and thus to the future which is imposible. From the rise of the number of pilgrims to Santiago in the rhythm of the holy years (6,5,6,11) it could be conluded that the custom of the Holy Year was introduced in the 15th century.
5. The Decline of Pilgrimage
A number of incidents and developments led to the reduction in the number of pilgrims in the 16th and 17th centuries. On the one hand the end of the Reconquista (the reconquering of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors) and the discovery of America at the end of the 15th century shifted the focus of attention and interest. On the other hand the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther's express criticism of pilgrimage also contributed to the reduction of the number of pilgrims. Finally outbreaks of plague and the effects of the Thirty Years' War complicated the voyage to the Apostle's sepulcher in Spain's northwest. So the number of pilgrims to Compostela remained far lower than during the Middle Ages up until the 19th century. That trend wasn't changed either by the bull "Deus Omnipotens" by Pope Leon XIII. from the year 1884. It confirmed the authenticity of the Apostle's remains that had been hidden from the raids of the English Pirate Francis Drake in 1589 and had only been rediscovered 300 years later.
6. The Renaissance of the Way of St. James
After centuries it was the year 1982 that once again saw a substantial increase in the numbers of pilgrims from a few hundred in the years before to almost two thousand. This was primarily due to the pope's visit. Not only was John Paul II. the first pope to visit the sepulcher of the Apostle St. James in Santiago de Compostela, but the pontiff also chose the first Holy Year of Spain's young democracy for his visit. Four years before Spain was to join the European Community John Paul II. called for Europe to consider its roots. Public attention for the Way of St. James was boosted further by other measures of the 1980s. The UNESCO declared the old town of Santiago de Compostela, which had become the Galician capital in 1982, a World Heritage Site and in 1993 that privilege was also granted to the Camino de Santiago. A few years earlier, in 1987, the European Council had conferred the status of European Cultural Route to the Way of St. James. Finally there have been a number of very successful books on the camino written by Shirley Maclain, Paolo Coelho and others that helped draw the attention of the mass media to the old route. All this added up to a true renaissance of the pilgrimage to the Apostle's basilica. For the next Holy Year in 2010 tourism officials in Santiago are expecting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and up to 10 million visitors from all over the world.