Pilgrims on the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela


Who were the people in medieval times who left their homes and families to walk for weeks to a shrine in a distant city? What were their motivations to endure hardships, dangers and discomfort along the way?

The People who Went on Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

‘Palmers’ was the name given to people who had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. ‘Romeros’ were the ones who had been to Rome. And the people who had walked the Way of St James (El Camino de Santiago) to Compostela in Spain were called ‘Peregrinos’.

The ‘Peregrinos’ of medieval times were a diverse group of people. 80% of them were French, many walking the longest route (900 miles) from Paris, down through France, across the Pyrenees and along Northern Spain to the pilgrim city in Galicia.

After receiving permission to travel from their local religious authority, the pilgrims gathered into groups to travel, partly for protection, partly for companionship during the months that lay ahead. Some travelled on horseback or on mule, the majority walked. They set off during spring and summer. The pilgrims were protected by law, able to cross borders freely, exempt from tolls and entitled to charity.

The Reasons for Going on the Compostela Pilgrimage

Some of the pilgrims were devout laymen, whose genuine piety saw them walking to the tomb of St James to seek salvation. They believed that by doing this they would receive divine forgiveness and so go to heaven, not hell. Others were monks and priests, who regarded going on a pilgrimage as the pinnacle of achievement in their religious life.

Some pilgrims were knights, many of whom had returned from crusades. Their Compostela pilgrimage was to fufil a vow made to God that they would undertake the journey if He would protect them in battle. Other knights on the Way of St James were part of the Spanish Order of the Knights of Santiago of the Sword (Caballeros de Santiago de la Espada), founded in 1167. Their original aim was to fight the Moors to protect Christianity. Their duties extended to guard the pilgrimage route and they patrolled the roads to protect and provide hospitality to pilgrims.

Criminals were among the many pilgrims in medieval times. In some cases, the wrong-doers had been given the choice at sentencing – go to jail or go on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. These court-ordered pilgrims were required to get a certificate, a ‘Compostela’, on arriving at the cathedral to prove that they had completed the pilgrimage, the equivalent of serving their time. However, a thriving black market in fake compostelas was active in towns on the borders of Spain. Many criminals walked only part of the route, paid a lot of money for the forged certificates, and returned home.

Merchants were part of the bands of pilgrims also. Selling their goods packed on mules to their fellow travellers, they used the route as their marketplace. Over time, trade fairs were established in some towns along the way.

Others had financial motives for going on pilgrimage as well. Unfortunately, theirs were not lawful. Beggars appealed to wealthier pilgrims’ sense of charity; forgers faked compostela certificates and religious badges; robbers mingled with the travellers, picking what they could from others’ possessions.

Accompanying the many groups walking the Camino de Santiago were entertainers – jugglers, minstrels, poets, acrobats, musicians – providing fun and distraction from the real hardships of the long days of travelling.

French government spies and agents also mingled with the pilgrims. Because France had such a vested interest in the pilgrimage route, financing churches, pilgrims’ hostels, bridges and roads, the Camino de Santiago with its millions of pilgrims was big business. Many of the towns along the route in Spain had Frankish quarters and all pilgrims approaching the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela from the north had to pass through the Azabacheria Square which was controlled by France. The government agents were appointed to watch out for French interests.

Craftsmen who went on the pilgrimage often contributed their labour free of charge to churches along the route. Stopping off for a few days or weeks, they might help with the building of a chapel, paint a fresco or sculpt a statue to decorate the church.

At the End of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, housing the holy relics of the bones of St James, was the end point after months on the road. The pilgrims were assured of a warm welcome in the city. They flocked into the church, awed by the sight of the carved Portico de la Gloria, and completed the rituals of arrival, filled with joy that they had reached their goal.

Now they were entitled to three days free board and lodging at hostels and inns run by the church. The compostela certificates were issued to them and they were now able to buy the metal badges and brooches of scallop shells sold by licensed dealers in the city. For poorer pilgrims, new clothes were given by the cathedral chapter.

In Book 5 of the “Codex Calixtinus”, written in the 12th century, the guide stated:

“All those who wend their way to the altar of the Apostle, be they rich or poor, and alike on arrival and on departure, are to be well received and humbly by all in a spirit of goodwill.”