Culture on the Camino: illustrious pilgrims

Throughout history and before there was a credential that identified the pilgrim, the Camino de Santiago was traveled by men from different periods and regions of Europe (France, Scotland, Normandy, Iberia, Judea, Libya…) who, moved by their religious faith, left their mark on the art, literature, gastronomy and ways of life of the people who made up the Jacobean route. The role of all these pilgrims, mostly anonymous, is essential to understand certain aspects of our culture and even in the very configuration of the routes of the Camino.

Some names, in spite of everything, have endured the passage of time. We refer to historical figures, promoters or illustrious pilgrims whose lives are inseparably linked to the history of the Camino itself. Following in their footsteps during our tour makes us feel part of a timeless legacy of traditions and spirituality that surpasses the circumstantial anecdotes of our daily lives.

In today’s article we will talk about some of these personalities who over the centuries contributed to forge the history of the Camino de Santiago.

According to the Codex Calixtinus, the first official pilgrim was the Leonese king Alfonso II the Chaste, who set out on his journey in 830 after the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, warned him of the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle St. James. The monarch ordered the construction of a primitive church that became the center of pilgrimages to Compostela. For Alfonso II the discovery of the remains of the Apostle was not only of religious but also military importance, since in the first third of the 9th century the Muslim invasion was practically consolidated and the Christian kingdoms of the north were resisting domination. Santiago de Compostela was a reference to unite all Christians and encourage them to plan the Reconquest.

Years later, around 951, the French bishop Gotescalco made a long journey from his country to Finisterre accompanied by a huge entourage. The Way of St. James was beginning to gain importance in Europe, bringing with it many distinguished people. Some kings or noblemen who visited the tomb of the Apostle were: Maltilde (daughter of the King of England Henry I) in 1125, William X (Duke of Aquitaine) in 1137, Alfonso VII in 1138, Louis VII (King of France) in 1154 and Saint Isabel of Portugal in 1325.

Walking the Primitive Way was almost a heroic deed because it was too unsafe and dangerous. Raymond II, Marquis of Gothia, was assassinated while walking the Camino in 961, the first known case of assassination. Count Allard was also assaulted by thieves on Mount Aubrac although he did not lose his life and, in fact, to avoid such unpleasant experiences for other pilgrims, he founded an inn with his name that he ran until his death.

Knowing the routes of the Camino, the places where to find lodging, etc. was beginning to be something very necessary. Around 1140 the French monk Aymeric Picaud wrote the first tourist guide of the Camino: “Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela” included in Book V of the Codex Calixtinus. It is a detailed study of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Aymeric Picaud recounts in great detail his pilgrimage from Roncesvalles to Santiago, including anecdotal and very interesting details about the different routes to follow, descriptions of the Iberian peoples (both their geography and their customs, traditions and gastronomy), sanctuaries and monuments along the way or dangers to be avoided by the pilgrim. In short, it was a very modern and complete document for the time.

The year 1122 was declared Holy Year of Compostela by Pope Calixtus II. During the twelfth century there was a massive arrival of pilgrims from other parts of Europe, starting with the orders of Cluny and St. Francis of Assisi, to King Louis VII of France, the Dukes of Aquitaine, William of Poitiers or Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona. Some very important artists of the time, such as the famous painter Jean van Eyck, also became pilgrims. The Way of Saint James received and emanated culture, bringing together all the peoples of Europe. Not for nothing did the poet Dante Alighieri say that the identity of the peoples of Europe was forged around the Camino.

Certain references to characters of this era are halfway between reality and legend, such as the presence of the Cid, who is recorded in the Romancero Castellano but has no reliable historical sources.

Those who did make two pilgrimages to Compostela were the Catholic Monarchs. The first time in 1488 and, apparently, a second time in 1496 to thank the Apostle for the conquest of Granada. Years later, in 1502, it would be his daughter Doña Juana and Felipe el Hermoso who would become pilgrims. King Philip II would also do so in 1554, before marrying the Queen of England in Winchester.

From the second half of the 16th century, pilgrimages to Santiago were less numerous but did not fall into oblivion. Some royal pilgrims of that time are Louis XI of France and the dethroned James III of England.

In the 20th century, the political instability of Spain and the Civil War led to the decline of Compostela.

Fortunately, thanks to the work of Unesco, the EU and the support of Pope John Paul II and thousands of European and Spanish pilgrims who love this beautiful city, Santiago de Compostela experienced a real rebirth in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Can we talk about illustrious pilgrims today? Perhaps they do not belong to royalty but to the world of culture and information as is the case of actor Anthony Quinn who began his tour to Santiago de Compostela in 1999 and said he was impressed by the richness of the places he was lucky enough to visit.

Other modern celebrities who made a pilgrimage to Santiago are the writer Sánchez Dragó (1971) or the actress Shirley MacLaine (1994).

We leave you with a phrase of this last pilgrim to say goodbye to our today’s article:

“They say that the Way lies directly below the Milky Way, and that it follows the lines that reflect the energy of the star systems suspended above it….

The energy of the Way was widely known to ancient peoples, who knew that it favored introspection and self-knowledge… The journey is made with the intention of finding the deepest spiritual meaning of the self and making decisions regarding inner conflicts.”

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