Saturday, 28 February 2015

Santiago de Compostela - The Emergence and Development of a Medieval Cult

How to create something from nothing? Surely a question for a magician rather than a historical writer but, from time to time, history throws up examples of such achievements. In 750 AD Compostela, in Galicia, was an insignificant Visigothic settlement standing on Roman foundations, probably a village rather than a town. A hundred years later, it was the centre of a religious cult and a centre for pilgrimage, at least within its region.

Similar cults have emerged in much more recent times (that of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes, or of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Knock, for example) and, almost always, one or more charismatic individuals are involved. In the case of Compostela, there are several such individuals, but the first was Bishop Theodomir of Iria (died 847 AD). He it was that "authenticated" human remains found at Compostela (by a shepherd in some accounts, by a holy hermit in others) as being those of the Apostle James. He also notified Alonso II, the King of Asturias, who authorised the building of a church there. Charlemagne may or may not have visited shortly afterwards (supposedly guided by the stars, although a letter from Theodomir or Alonso may also have been involved).

Theodomir's church was burned to the ground by the forces (both Muslim and Christian) of Al-Mansur Ibn Ali Aamir, acting on orders from the Caliph of Cordoba. Theodomir's tomb was one of the very few elements that survived intact.

The tomb of Bishop Theodomir at Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Froaringus (licensed under GNU).

The construction of the present cathedral began in 1075, under Alfonso VI of  Castille. Construction was halted several times owing to a lack of funds. It was at this point, however, that the second charismatic figure in Compostela's history intervened. He was an ambitious priest named Diego Gelmirez (1069-1149), who persuaded Pope Callixtus II to elevate Compostela to episcopal and, later, archiepiscopal status. Gelmirez himself became the second bishop (his predecessor having died after only a year in office) and the first Archbishop.

Diego Gelmirez, from the 13th Century Tumbo de Toxosoutos. Photo: Braracaugustana (licensed under CCA).

The Romanesque cathedral was built by two architects named Bernard (it is not certain that they were related, but it seems likely that they were father and son), and the Portico da Gloria, one of the masterpieces of the European Romanesque, was added, in 1188, by one Master Mateo.

Master Mateo's "Portico da Gloria." Photo: Scanprojekte Bundesdenk Malamt Osterreich (image is in the Public Domain).

Christ in Majesty, from the "Portico da Gloria." Photo: Pedronchi (licensed under CCA).

It is possible that Compostela was attracting some pilgrims from beyond Iberia even before Gelmirez's time (a burial recently found at Winchester with a perforated scallop-shell seems to date to the late 11th Century), but there is little doubt that, by raising the status of the shrine, he created the phenomenon of the "Camino" de Santiago, with various routes bringing thousands of pilgrims every year. Like modern tourists, these pilgrims made significant contributions both to the local economy, and to those of the towns and cities they passed through.

The Ways of Saint James. Image: Manfred Zentgraf (licensed under GNU).

The 15th Century Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella invested significant funds in the infrastructure of the Camino, establishing the Hostel dos Reis Catolicos (now a 5-Star Hotel) in 1492, but also opening many hostels along the Spanish roads leading to Compostela.

The Hostel dos Reis Catolicos at Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sanchez (licensed under CCA).

In the century that followed, however, the pilgrimage went into steep decline, the result, in the first instance, of plagues, and then of the religious upheavals and civil wars that brought the modern world into existence. When, in 1740, the Baroque façade of the cathedral that we see today was added, it was in the context of a resurgent Catholic Church celebrating its survival in Iberia, and elsewhere, after the smoke of the Reformation had settled.

The 18th Century Baroque façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Vasco Roxo (licensed under GNU).

In recent years, the Camino has undergone something of a revival (the number of people arriving at Santiago de Compostela has risen steadily since 1985). In the 21st Century, the categories of "pilgrim" and "tourist" have become difficult to differentiate: does even the most pious of pilgrims become a "tourist" when she takes a selfie, or the most secular of tourists a "pilgrim" when he kneels for a moment of silent reflection?

Whatever their motivations, a significant proportion of people travelling to Santiago de Compostela choose to walk at least part of the way, and a modern infrastructure of way-marked paths, hostels and budget restaurants has grown up to meet their needs.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. Wonderful post. My husband and I travel frequently to Galicia, not far from Santiago de Compostela, and it's on my bucket list to walk at least a small part of that road. I so enjoyed learning more of its history and how it came into being. I've been inside the cathedral, and my husband has taken photographs of the exterior. It's a magnificent building.

  2. A very interesting post, Mark. I've come across quite a few characters in my research who made the pilgrimage. Always a fascinating aspect for a writer. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks, Elizabeth & Cathie! I haven't actually walked it, but I have a friend who will shortly walk part of it, and have offered to host a couple of guest posts, so we can all get a feel for what the experience is like today.

  4. A few years ago I walked from Ferol to Compostella and recommend that route. Not crowded and a great four day walk. Lovely post .