The Compostela Pilgrimage: the Welfare of Pilgrims


From the time they left their homes, swore an oath to remain loyal to their king, and were granted permission to travel by their local church, pilgrims in the Middle Ages would be cared for throughout the months of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Instantly recognisable by the way they dressed, pilgrims were housed, fed, protected and granted free passage across borders along the way.

The Clothes the Pilgrims Wore on the Compostela Pilgrimage

At the height of the popularity of the pilgrimage in the 11th and 12th centuries, about half a million pilgrims a year walked the many hundreds of miles along the various routes that made up the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago). Their style of clothing became almost a pilgrim ‘uniform’.

The poem by Sir Walter Ralegh, “A Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage”, features the dress and accessories the medieval pilgrim would wear on his way to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela: 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 gown of glory, hopes true gage, / And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

The scallop shell was the symbol of St James. According to legend, a bridegroom drowned in the Bay of Padron in northwestern Spain. The bride in her grief appealed to St James. The groom rose from the waves, covered with scallop shells.

After reaching Santiago de Compostela, many pilgrims continued on to Padron where they picked scallop shells from the beach and pinned them to their cloaks and hats. This is the bay where the body of St James was said to have arrived in Spain in a small boat.

Pilgrims, on arriving in Santiago de Compostela, could buy a metal badge or brooch shaped as a scallop shell from traders licensed by the Church to sell them in the Square of the Silversmiths beside the Cathedral. Proceeds from the sales went partly to the Cathedral and partly to the guild of traders. So many people were trying to profit from this lucrative venture that in 1200 A.D., the archbishop of the city fixed the number of authorised dealers to one hundred. Excommunication from the church was threatened to anyone selling shells to pilgrims outside the city.

The scallop shell, with its two valves, also was the symbol of the two rules of charity observed in medieval life – love one’s neighbour and love God above all others.

The staff was a stout stick, up to eight feet long, often hooked at one end. It was useful for support when climbing hills or on slippery tracks, and for beating off stray dogs, wolves or brigands. The staffs were blessed by priests at the start of the pilgrimage.

The scrip was a shoulder bag, like a satchel, made of leather or linen. Inside would be the pilgrim’s supply of food for the day, perhaps a chunk of bread, and some cheese.

The bottle was made of leather or was a hollow gourd, slung from one end of the staff. It contained red wine, or weak beer, as the water in those times was generally not potable.

The pilgrim’s gown was of coarse home-spun wool or linen, with a cord tying it at the waist. It was long, ending just above the stout leather sandals or boots the pilgrims wore. A cape was worn in inclement weather or in the cool air of the high mountain passes. This was made of grey wool and acted also as a raincoat and blanket.

The hat was of felt with a broad brim turned up at the front. A scallop shell was often pinned to it.

After the many weeks of walking in all weathers, their clothes would be in poor condition by the time the pilgrims reached Santiago de Compostela. Before the people left the city to return to their homes, they burnt their pilgrimage clothes in a huge bowl with an iron cross on top. This “cross of the rags” can be seen today mounted on the cathedral roof.

The Welfare of the Pilgrims Going to Santiago de Compostela

A network of churches, hostels, and hospices grew up along the pilgrimage routes to care for the pilgrims. Inns and hostels were built about one day’s walk apart. A guidebook, written in 1130 by a monk called Amery de Picaud, detailed the facilities available to the pilgrims at each stage of their journey.

At Burgos, one of the main towns on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrims were entitled to collect rations of 20 ounces of bread, 12 ounces of meat and 16 ounces of red wine over a 48 hour period.

At Irache, in the 12th century monastery, a particular custom affecting the pilgrims was established. When a member of the monastic community died, the abbot fed 30 of the poorest pilgrims. One was chosen to sleep in the deceased’s cell and have his food ration.

Villafranca del Bierzo was known as the ‘city of comfort’. Any pilgrim too old or ill to travel the final 100 miles, the most difficult part, of the Way of St James could receive in this city all the indulgences as if they had completed the pilgrimage.

Communities in towns and villages cared for pilgrims in several other ways. They buried the bodies of pilgrims who died within their boundaries; set up shrines at crossroads; provided sanctuaries for prayers of thanks to lesser saints.

At the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela all offerings given during Holy Week and part of the money collected during other services was put aside for pilgrims’ welfare.

The medieval pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago knew that their arduous journey was relieved in part by the goodwill and care of the people and places along the pilgrimage routes.