Pilgrimages Then & Now

The topic of pilgrimages recently came up & I thought to write about the history of & recent resurgence of one of the most popular pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago. There are many different routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, but the most popular is the one almost all of them (except the trail out of Portugal) meet up with at some point: the Camino Francés.

The Camino de Santiago actually traces a much earlier path called “The Milky Way” which led to the end of the Earth (or Finisterre), but most pilgrims stop at the Cathedral in Santiago to pay respects at the tomb of St. James the Greater. During the Middle Ages, only 2 other pilgrimage routes were more popular: the one leading to Rome, & the one leading to the Holy Land.

Pilgrims came from all over Europe, at all times of the year. The more well-to-do were able to make their pilgrimages in the spring to fall, while the poor would most likely only get permission from their lords to go in the winter.

Vast numbers of pilgrims’ hospitals were established all along the route, and it was for the most part guarded by the Knights Templar. Remnants of Templar churches can be found all along the Camino Francés, most notably the round church at Eunate, just outside of Pamplona. None of the medieval hospitals are in operation as such today, but you can walk past ruins of them all along the Way. While the pilgrims’ hospitals are now gone, you can still find lodging in many convents & monasteries along the way, & even in some churches. Given the size of the ruins I have seen of these hospitals, however, I’d have to guess that the numbers of pilgrims they served were huge.

The pilgrimage to Compostela was widely known in England. Chaucer’s Bath of Wife made a pilgrimage there, according to the “Canterbury Tales,” while in real life, Earl Rivers made his own way to Santiago. It is unknown if Richard III ever journeyed to Spain, but he did make pilgrimages to Canterbury, Walsingham, & other religious sites in England. However, even today, the journey is not easy. It is physically, mentally, & spiritually grueling, & many times the hardest thing you have to battle is your own inner voice suggesting that you quit. Unlike medieval pilgrims, however, modern pilgrims do not have to contend with battles between Moors & Christians or worry about bandits stealing their horses.

At several places along the Way, pilgrims then & now encounter places made famous by the tales of Charlemagne & romanticized in “The Song of Roland.” In fact, the Valcarlos Route over the Pyrenees follows the route taken by Charlemagne & Roland, and ends at a small village called Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux in French), which has greeted pilgrims & held daily masses for them for over 1000 years.

If you want to get a feeling for how medieval people lived, or see first-hand places & things that Richard III would have been familiar with, walking the Camino Francés is a good way to do it. The towns you walk through, especially the smaller ones, are still on their medieval footprint. In areas where fighting was heaviest, the towns are situated on tops of steep hills, always a welcome site after a long, hot day’s walk, I can attest.

At the end of your journey, you reach the Cathedral in Santiago & are rewarded with your own Compostela with your name written in Latin on it, so long as you can prove you walked the last 100 kilometers. You are also allowed to give the statue of Saint James that sits behind the altar a hug, & then descend into the crypt where his coffin is. Being a few feet from the grave of someone who knew Jesus is a heady experience today, so you can imagine how medieval pilgrims felt about it. All pilgrims, ancient & modern, do get to use the scallop shell as their personal device or on their coat of arms, if they have one. Unlike medieval pilgrims, however, modern pilgrims do not get time off for good behavior from Purgatory or other indulgences.

There are many good online sources where you can research & plan your own Camino, if you feel called to go.


  1. Truly interesting, kbinldo. I think you are very courageous to undertake such a pilgrimage walk, but it has given you such insight that it was obviously well worth the pain…to get the gain. Well done, and thank you for letting us all in on it.


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