Origins of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

The history of the Way of Saint James goes back to the beginning of the 9th century (the year 814), when the sepulcher of Saint James, the Apostle who had preached the Gospel in the Iberian Peninsula, was discovered. A Galician shepherd named Pelai saw a star signaling a place on the hill where Santiago de Compostela would later arise. The news quickly reached Theodomir, Bishop of the Diocese of Iria Flavia, who ordered the hilltop to be cleared of brush. The sepulcher attributed to the Apostle was found, and a divinely-inspired Theodomir solemnly announced that the discovered remains belonged to Saint James. After this discovery, Santiago de Compostela became a destination for pilgrims from everywhere in Europe. The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey. codiceThis practice was gradually extended to other pilgrimages. It met all the necessary requirements: a tomb containing the relics of an Apostle, the use of sainthood as an emblem against infidels, the tomb’s location close to the ends of the Earth and conditions appropriate for pilgrims to make a difficult and self-sacrificing journey on foot headed west, toward the setting sun.

The impressive flows of people who started out for Galicia quite early on led to the rapid rise of hospitals, churches, monasteries, abbeys and towns along the route. The official guide in those times was the Codex Calixtinus. Published around 1140, the 5th book of the Codex is still considered the definitive source for many modern guidebooks. Four pilgrimage routes listed in the Codex originate in France and converge at Puente la Reina. From there, a well–defined route crosses northern Spain, linking Burgos, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún, León, Astorga, and Compostela. During the 14th century, pilgrimage began to decline as a result of wars, epidemics and major natural disasters. Activity to recover the route began at the end of the 19th century when Archbishop Payá Rico rediscovered the remains of the Apostle and Pope Leo XIII confirmed their authenticity. However, it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 20th century that the true contemporary revival of the old pilgrimage was to begin. There is no doubt that social, tourist, cultural and sports aspects have all played large roles in this revitalization, but one must not lose sight of the fact that the route originally won its prestige because of its eminently spiritual value.

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