This is part one of a two-part post on the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella, one of the most important goals for the multitudes of pious pilgrims who converged at the shrine of Saint James from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
This illuminated manuscript Codex Calixtinus is the oldest known guide to the Santiago pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. It is generally ascribed to Aymeric Picaud, a French scholar from Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Poitou region of France. Picaud’s work is integral to our work at Via Lucis, providing much of the information available on the medieval pilgrimage churches on the different routes across France and Spain. It also provides a rationale for pilgrimage.
“The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent, the road of the righteous, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens. It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, loves poverty. It hates the reproach of those fuelled by greed. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works; And, on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.”
The medieval pilgrimage was an exile – enforced or voluntary – a journey of hardship and sacrifice that had to be endured in order to achieve sanctification. The pilgrim left home to walk in the company of strangers across great distances. The way to Santiago de Compostella involved crossing mountains, rivers, and deserts over long distances, on foot, braving brigands and illness. The voyage was made by old and young, sick and infirm, men, women and children. This great effort was intended to purify the soul and enabled the pilgrim to receive the blessings that Christianity could bestow on its adherents, including translation to heaven upon death for an eternity of bliss in the sight of God and the Saviour. It would represent a triumph over the efforts of the Devil to ensnare the souls of the faithful and to damn those soul to an eternity of suffering.
This struggle between the Satan and God was a constant and real presence among the faithful in the Middle Ages. The conflict was not in any sense metaphorical. There were many who had seen the Devil face to face and contested with his demons. Only the safety and protection of the medieval church kept the soul from the grasp of the powers of Evil. The priceless relics of saints and martyrs were a line of defense against the assault on the soul of the Christians, and they needed to be protected, displayed, and venerated.
In this battle against evil, pilgrimage was one of the greatest weapons. In this exile of the spirit, faith was tested and fired, refined to a purer essence. The medieval roads were filled with these exiles. They walked across Europe to receive the blessings of the saints and martyrs who helped to combat the demons who fought for possession of the soul – even the soul of a saint – until the very end.
But there is more than the fear of sin and damnation that accompanied this exile. There was a hunger of the soul as well. There was exultation in knowing what was expected by God and abiding by that expectation. Joy moved the multitudes as much as fear.
We can get an idea of the significance and importance by the words of the Almoravide emir Ali ibn Yusuf, who, on a diplomatic mission to the court of the Doña Urraco, Queen of Zamora, asked “Que apenas se puede transitar por la calzada hacia occidente.” (Joaquín María Córdoba Zoilo, Viajes y viajeros en la Europa medieval).
“Who could be so great that so many are coming and returning from Santiago so that you can barely move on the road to the west?”
All along the routes to Santiago, the monasteries built churches to shelter, nourish, inspire and teach the pilgrims. A giant spiderweb network of churches filled the pilgrimage roads, even in the most remote places. They were filled with relics of saints and martyrs, and most precious of all, of the Saviour or his Mother. The veneration of these relics was the tangible evidence of the sacrifice at the heart of Christianity.
The churches taught the lessons of the Bible, reminding the pilgrims of the message of Christianity. The life of Christ, stories from the Old Testament, life of the martyrs, and the symbolic stories illustrating the faith all appeared on the capitals, tympana, decorated facades, and frescoes that adorned the churches.
These same adornments taught the nature and dangers of sin and the temptations of the Devil, urging faithfulness and diligence on the pilgrims, reminding them that evil never rested.
To walk across the European continent despite all hazards and difficulties meant that the pilgrim entered the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in a state of grace. Sins were forgiven, the pilgrim could restart life with a clean slate.
This journey of exile, of banishment, continues into our own age as many still walk the Camino today. The scallop shell badge and the Credencial, or Pilgrim’s Passport, is shared by thousands today to join the walkers from the Middle Ages. The passage of time attests to their multitudes, as even stone is worn by the passing feet.