The Pilgrimage of St James’ way rose to prominence in 9th century Spain. Political unrest between the Catholics and the Islamic Moors created the need for a motivating Christian story and a centre of Christian unity. These were found in the form of St James and Santiago. St James was named the patron saint of Spain and people began to undertake pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, St James’ final resting place.
The journey was a long and significant one for anyone who undertook it. Many things needed considering before embarking on such a pilgrimage: the time of year, food and water supply, accommodation, personal safety to name but a few.
Considering how hard the journey must have been to medieval travellers, the pilgrimage was exceptionally popular. There are no exact figures, however from the rebuild of the cathedral of Santiago it was clear that large numbers of pilgrims were making the journey every single year.
The popularity of the pilgrimage dropped during the Reformation and after the Black Death. This dip did not last.
Now, the pilgrimage is more popular than ever. Tens of thousands make the journey to Santiago de Compostela every year, among them people who have walked or cycled in order to pay homage to St James. For the thousands of others who embark on the journey as a personal challenge, the experience is no less spiritual.
For many, The Pilgrimage is as much about the walking, the scenery, the art, the architecture and the chance to understand European history as it is about the spiritual journey; if you can separate them at all.
Brian Sewell’s Naked Pilgrim documentary on his course from London to Santiago de Compostela in a 1987 Mercedes gives a taste of the spiritual journey The Pilgrimage becomes even when you aren’t religious.