Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Camino de Santiago de Compostela by Anna Markland

Modern day symbol of the Camino
The Way of St. James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times. Legend holds that St. James's remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.

The Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one's home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was heavily travelled.

The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.

Two versions of the most common myth about the origin of the symbol concern the death of Saint James, who was beheaded in Jerusalem. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula.

Version 1: After James' death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, the body washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.

Version 2: After James' death his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As James' ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young groom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim. As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God's hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago.

The scallop shell also served practical purposes for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The shell was the right size for gathering water to drink or for eating out of as a makeshift bowl. It gave them privileges to sleep in churches and ask for free meals, but also warded off thieves who dared not attack devoted pilgrims.

The pilgrim's staff is a walking stick used by pilgrims. Generally, the stick has a hook on it so that something may be hung from it.

The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 8th century. The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage. The earliest recorded pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees visited the shrine in the middle of the 10th century, but it seems that it was not until a century later that large numbers of pilgrims from abroad were regularly journeying there. The earliest records of pilgrims that arrived from England belong to the period between 1092 and 1105. However, by the early 12th century the pilgrimage had become a highly organized affair.
The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to and from Compostela were met by a series of hospitals and hospices. These had royal protection and were a lucrative source of revenue. Romanesque architecture, a new genre of ecclesiastical architecture, was designed with massive archways to cope with huge devout crowds. Pilgrims walked the Way of St. James, often for months, to arrive at the great church in the main square of Compostela and pay homage to St. James. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway of the church that a groove has been worn in the stone.

The popular Spanish name for the astronomical Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago. According to a common medieval legend, the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by travelling pilgrims. Compostela itself means "field of stars". Another origin for this popular name is Book IV of the Book of Saint James which relates how the saint appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the route of the Milky Way.

Today tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many other travellers set out each year to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey.

Four pilgrimage routes originate in France, then a well-defined route crosses northern Spain. Pilgrims on the Way of St. James walk for weeks or months. They follow many routes, but the most popular route is the French Way (Camino Francés). The Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point. Common starting points along the French border are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport on the French side of the Pyrenees and Roncesvalles or Jaca on the Spanish side. (The distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostella through León is about 800 km.).

Another possibility is to do the Northern Route that was first used by the pilgrims in order to avoid travelling through the territories occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages. The greatest attraction is its landscape, as a large part of the route runs along the coastline against a backdrop of mountains and overlooking the Cantabrian Sea.

However, many pilgrims begin further afield, in one of the four French towns which are common and traditional starting points: Paris, Vézelay, Arles and Le Puy. Cluny, site of the celebrated medieval abbey, was another important rallying point for pilgrims.

In Spain, France and Portugal, pilgrim's hostels with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credencial. In Spain this type of accommodation is called a refugio or albergue, both of which are similar to youth hostels.

Modern day Pilgrims' Passport
Most modern day pilgrims carry a document called the credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church on the route or from their church back home. The credencial is a pass which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in refugios along the trail. Also known as the "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides walking pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, but also serves as proof to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago that the journey is accomplished according to an official route. The credencial is available at refugios, tourist offices, some local parish houses, and outside Spain, through the national St. James organisation of that country. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.

The compostela is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims on completing the Way. To earn the compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. The pilgrim passport is examined for stamps and dates. If a key stamp is missing, the compostela may be refused. The pilgrim can state whether the goal of his Camino was 'religious', 'religious and other' or just 'other'. In the case of 'other' a compostelate in Spanish is given asking for blessing of this heathen. In the cases of 'religious' or 'religious and other' a compostelate in Latin is given. The Pilgrim Office of Santiago awards more than 100,000 compostelas a year to pilgrims from over 100 countries.

A Pilgrim's Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at noon for pilgrims. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass.

In my latest release, Dance of Love, the hero and heroine are forced to embark on the pilgrimage to Santiago by King Alfonso of Aragon. The year is 1107. Here is an excerpt:

They rode in silence, side by side. Most of their fellow pilgrims were on foot, and of peasant stock, yet they were everywhere greeted with respect and wished Good Journey more times and in more languages than they could count. There were few women among them. It was plain to see many were ill.

While Alfonso’s guide made sure Izzy and Farah were provided with sleeping accommodations that befitted their rank, he suspected most of the pilgrims slept on communal straw mattresses, trying to share warmth, willing to endure the inevitable lice that abounded in such close conditions. Izzy shivered, revolted by the thought of his beloved Farah being subjected to such deprivations.

His anger at Alfonso rose anew in his throat. Farah was too quiet. The journey was taking a great deal out of her and he worried about her health, recalling how ill she had become after the journey across the Perinés. Compostela was still a long way away.

At least they had the means to pay for good food, which he suspected most of the pilgrims did not. Many of them probably drifted off to sleep with less than a full stomach. Food and lodging was supposed to be free for pilgrims, but even well intentioned ecclesiastical orders had a limited ability to provide meals.

Izzy had experienced firsthand the dangers from bandits along the Camino. Peasant pilgrims had no protection from such hazards or from unscrupulous ferrymen, toll collectors and money changers. The so-called safe conduct pass did little to protect them from bad elements.

Potable water was a constant problem and most pilgrims had only shoes, some of them sturdy, some not, a cloak, a staff, a gourd for water, a leather bag, and a wide-brimmed hat. Every one proudly sported the ubiquitous symbol of the pilgrimage, a small scallop shell, around their necks. Izzy refused to wear the token, though Farah wore one tucked into her bodice. She put her hand over it in silent prayer when she thought he was not watching.

Izzy marvelled at the resilience of these folk. Travelling the camino on horseback was tiring enough. They had obvious faith in the gruelling pilgrimage to the far flung reaches of Spain. Many of them would be away from family, friends, and loved ones for at least a year, if they made it back at all.

He wondered somewhat sarcastically how many of them helped their ailing fellow pilgrims after hearing the dire warning of the Miracle of the Thirty Pilgrims. The supposed miracle had taken place more than a score and ten years earlier, but it was still the most talked about event. No man wanted to incur the wrath of Saint James by foreswearing their promise to help other pilgrims.

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