The story of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is intertwined with the history of Christianity.
After Jesus’ resurrection, St. James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. According to tradition, he also traveled to Spain to spread the Good News, then returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred. Following his death, his followers are said to have taken his body to the coast, where a ship was miraculously waiting for them. The body of St. James was interred in a tomb in northwestern Spain, after which its location fell into oblivion for centuries.
Around the year 815, a Spanish hermit named Pelayo had a vision in which he saw a bright light shining over a spot in a forest. The matter was investigated and a Roman-era tomb containing St. James’ body was found. The bishop of a nearby town, Theodomir, had a church built on the site of the tomb.
Around this shrine the city of Santiago de Compostela grew (while its origins are not certain, Compostela may come from the Latin campus stellae, “field of stars”). The shrine began attracting pilgrims, who steadily increased in number until by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a half-million pilgrims a year were making their way to Santiago.
The pilgrimage drew the devout from across Europe for several reasons. In the year 1122 Pope Calixtus II granted the city various privileges, including an indulgence for those who journeyed here on pilgrimage, with special consideration given to those who made the pilgrimage in a year when the Feast of St. James (July 25) fell on a Sunday.
Spanish bishop Diego Gelmirez was a strong advocate for the city as well, starting a large-scale building program that included the construction of its immense Romanesque cathedral, as well as facilities for the many pilgrims who made their way to Santiago.
The kings of the neighboring lands of Aragon, Navarre and Castile contributed to the route’s popularity by building bridges, hospitals, and other pilgrim services, often entrusting the work to the monks of the French order of Cluny. While many roads led to Santiago from all over Europe, the most traveled became the French Road, which passes over the Pyrenees Mountains before entering Galicia
The Way of St. James was difficult, but for many pilgrims it offered a much easier trip than the journey to Jerusalem or Rome. Monuments, churches, monasteries, towns, and cities grew up along the network of roads leading to Santiago, and the city itself benefited greatly from the spiritual, economic and cultural growth stimulated by the millions of pilgrims.
The Way of St. James became the first great thoroughfare of Christian Europe, a meeting place for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and nations. On the road pilgrims from many countries mingled, from Amsterdam and Gdansk to Lisbon and Zagreb.
For many centuries, the pilgrimage drew both the wealthy and the poor. A pilgrimage was seen as an enactment of the spiritual journey to Christ, and the hardships along the way were welcomed as tests of faith.
As the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela grew in popularity, so did the legends and lore associated with it. The scallop shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage, in part because the shells were common along the Atlantic beaches just west of Santiago. Travelers would wear a scallop shell to proclaim their status as pilgrims, and the motif was incorporated into many of the buildings, wells, churches, and monuments along the route.
The shell was also the subject of a legend that said that when the body of St. James was being returned to Spain, a knight fell from a cliff on shore and drowned as the body passed by. When the knight miraculously arose alive from the water, he was covered in scallop shells.
In the seventeenth century, Sir Walter Raleigh immortalized the pilgrimage with words that remain popular among pilgrims to this day:
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, hope’s true gauge
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.