The Myth of Santiago

James Marshall-Cornwall explores how, in the Middle Ages, devout pilgrims journeyed to Santiago de Compostela in the belief that they were paying homage at the tomb of Spain's patron saint.

The practice of pilgrimage to a sacred shrine was a common feature of European life in the Middle Ages. In England we had our own pilgrimage goals in the shrines of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury and of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. As Sir Walter Raleigh wrote in the Elizabethan era:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My crown of glory, hope's true gage,
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

A century later John Bunyan echoed the same sentiment:

There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avow'd intent
To be a pilgrim.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem was the main goal for the medieval pilgrim, but it involved a long and hazardous journey, either by a sea infested by Barbary pirates or overland across the difficult geography of Anatolia. Except for the period between 1100 and 1187, when a Crusader king reigned in Jerusalem, the Holy City remained in Muslim hands, and access to the shrine was difficult and at times impossible.

A second option for the would-be pilgrim was the shrine of St. Peter in Rome, the seat of the Papacy, rewarding the pilgrim with indulgences and the remission of his sins. Thousands of pilgrims flocked to Rome each year from all parts of Europe, including England. But central Europe was frequently ravaged by war. A third objective for the medieval pilgrim was Santiago de Compostela in the north-western Spanish province of Galicia, which from the early Middle Ages attracted each year a host of devout pilgrims, mostly from Spain and France, but also many from England. Though not without its physical difficulties, the road to Santiago was definitely easier than that to Jerusalem or Rome, and the pilgrim's journey was eased by the existence of a number of hostels on the way.

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