The Long View: Individualism on the Camino de Santiago

Every year thousands of pilgrims traverse ancient pathways across Europe to a remote corner of Northern Spain. Their reasons and backgrounds vary, but they all walk with a singular purpose — to reach the tomb of St James, the Apostle of Christ and the patron saint of Spain, in Santiago de Compostela. St James’s body is said to have been placed on a stone boat covered with scallop shells, and miraculously sailed to the Galician coast where the saint had once evangelised. Modern pilgrims walk with the same symbols as a medieval pilgrim. They fix to their backpacks a scallop shell, the symbol of St James, as both a sign of their devotion and their status as a pilgrim. 

Pilgrims will also be holding their credencial (passport). These documents tell a story of where the pilgrim has walked, slept, and eaten. They are stamped by albergues (pilgrim accommodation), restaurants, and churches along the route as proof of one’s pilgrimage. Each stamp is unique and patrons take great pride in designing them; some monasteries and churches even resurrect the same designs as were stamped over a thousand years ago. Frequent symbols appearing on stamps include the scallop shell, the heraldic Cross of St James, and the pilgrim’s profile, walking staff in hand. No two credentials are the same. The credencial is verified at the end of one’s pilgrimage by Santiago de Compostela Cathedral’s Pilgrim Office and, just as in the Middle Ages, the pilgrim receives their Compostela of completion as long as they state that they have undergone pilgrimage for religious reasons. 

Image 1 - Credential
Credential © Giselle Bader

From 2007 until 2017, there has been a monumental 264% increase of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. At the same time in Spain, the percentage of those identifying as atheists or non-believers has increased by 7% over the last ten years and in Britain, by 10%. Although only 9% of pilgrims indicated non-religious reasons for their journey in 2017, these statistics are likely skewed by people wanting to receive the Compostela. Anthropological data collected on the trail, not by the official office, reveals that the real reasons for many pilgrims’s journeys are not religious. Why then, as religious devotion in the West is decreasing year after year, are more people than ever undertaking a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage to the tomb of St James?

History of the Camino

The historical ebbs and flows in the Camino’s popularity reveal the influence of large scale cultural changes within both Spain and Europe. The pilgrimage route finds its origins in legends surrounding the execution of Jesus’ apostle St James’ in 44CE. His final resting place would lay forgotten until the early ninth century, when a local hermit followed a glowing star into a field. In it, so the legend goes, he found the lost tomb of St James. A chapel was built and the site was named Compostela (campus stellae — the starry field). It was not long before the first wave of pilgrims began to arrive. 

Image 4 - St James Matamoros
St James Matamoros, c. 1221–1567, Burgos Cathedral Wikipedia Commons

Unsurprisingly, this narrative is difficult to prove historically and most scholars believe that its origins emerged out of the Reconquista’s religious and political climate. The Reconquista, or ‘Reconquest’, refers to a series of Christian campaigns between 722 and 1492 to recapture the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. Stories of St James’s missionary activity and local resting place emphasised Christian occupation of Iberia prior to the Islamic conquest, implying that Christians had a right to reclaim this territory. Reconquista iconography often pictured St James as the Matamoros –– the Moor-slayer.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the Camino’s popularity culminated in a frenzy of pilgrim activity. Routes weaved their way across the European continent to Northern Spain, and the introduction of indulgences for pilgrims in 1095 only bolstered this movement of peoples. Santiago de Compostela became the third most popular pilgrim destination after Jerusalem and Rome. Church-run pilgrim accommodation and monasteries developed along the routes and a militia was even founded to protect pilgrims from thieves, bandits, and fraudsters.

In the twelfth century, the illuminated manuscript Codex Calixtinus was created. Considered the first real tourist guidebook, it contains sermons and homilies on St James, the origin story of the Camino, miracles attributed to St James along the route, and a practical guide for pilgrims including route descriptions, noteworthy relics and sanctuaries, and accommodation and food reviews. In a section on the city of Burgos, the author writes: “After Navarre, the Camino crosses the forest of Oca and continues through the Spanish territory of Castile and Campos towards Burgos. This country is full of royal treasure, of gold and silver, fabrics and the strongest horses, and flush with bread, wine, fish, milk and honey.” But it wasn’t all praise for Burgos — the author continues to complain that “It is however lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.”

By the thirteenth century, 500,000 pilgrims were walking to Santiago each year. The Camino became synonymous with pilgrimage. Dante famously wrote that: “No one is a pilgrim unless they go to or from the shrine of Saint James.”

Image 5 - Codex Calixtinus
Codex Calixtinus

The Reformation brought the decline of the Camino in the sixteenth century and those living along its once bustling routes soon forgot about its significance. Santiago de Compostela remained a dormant regional city until the twentieth century, when the Galician dictator Francisco Franco revived the mythology of St James in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Just as in the Reconquista, St James was wielded as a symbol of traditional Catholicism in Franco’s fight against the progressive Left. During the 1954 Holy Year Jubilee in Santiago de Compostela, he proudly proclaimed St James as the greatest symbol of Spain’s crusading spirit. The mythology of St James was reborn and the city reawakened. Pilgrims began to return.

Franco’s vision, however, was not to last. With a new democratic government in power, they promoted the Camino’s ancient networks across Europe as a symbol not of Francoist Spain but a united European continent. The pilgrimage route’s integrative power was even emphasised by the Spanish government to aid their 1986 membership application into the European Community. The greatest unsung crusader aiding this resurgence was the Spanish priest Elias Valifia Sampedro (1929–1989). From the 1960s until his death, he undertook his doctoral thesis on the Camino’ history, wrote both Spanish and English guidebooks for modern pilgrims, created detailed maps of the various routes leading to Santiago, and began marking the route with its now famous yellow arrows.

Image 6 - Yellow arrow
© Giselle Bader

He inspired countless others to help in marking the route and to open albergues. By 1985, the trail had become so popular that the Archdiocese in Santiago began documenting pilgrim arrivals. 2,491 received a Compostela of completion this first year. In 1987, the Camino became the first European Cultural Route and in 1993, Santiago de Compostela was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That year was a Holy Year (a year when the feast day of St James, the 25th of July, falls on a Sunday) and 99,439 pilgrims walked to Santiago de Compostela.

The Camino Today

If we can find the origins of the Camino in ninth century politics, its popularity in medieval indulgences, and its decline in the Protestant Reformation, what broad cultural changes account for its current resurgence? Franco’s propaganda, its designation as a European Cultural Route, and the efforts of Elias Valifia Sampedro only go so far. A major clue for understanding modern pilgrim’s motivations can be found in the publication of best-selling memoirs and films about the Camino. As the trail has grown in popularity, pilgrim accounts offered a unique approach to the travel literature genre, merging spiritual experience with historical. Examples abound, including Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage (1987), Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino (2000), Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago (2006), Tom Trumble’s Unholy Pilgrims (2011), and the 2010 film The Way. 

These books and films stripped much of Catholic history from the Camino, viewing it instead from either a new age or secular perspective. This evolution in meaning is supported by guidebooks presenting the Camino as having pre-Christian origins, by pointing out the reference to stars in the name Compostela, and the way the route appears to follow the Milky Way. There is no historical or archaeological evidence to support this theory, but it reveals the attempts of secular pilgrims to neutralise a route so entrenched in Catholicism. 

These memoirs and films have established the Camino as a mainstream option for self-transformation. In I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago, Hape Kerkeling draws a direct parallel between the pilgrimage and his biography. He writes:

My pilgrimage can be interpreted as a parable of my path through life. It was a difficult birth – which is literally true in my case. At the beginning of the route – and in my childhood – I had trouble hitting my stride. Until the middle of my path through life, no matter how many positive experiences I enjoyed, I experienced many twists and turns that sometimes threw me off-course. But at about the midpoint of my journey, I started moving cheerfully toward my destination. It almost seems as though the Camino has seen fit to grant me a little peek into my future. Serenity might be a goal worth pursuing.

Anthropologists interviewing pilgrims on the trail have found that pilgrims’ motivations are overwhelmingly centred around self-transformation, healing, and a personal search for meaning. In a 2014 fieldwork study conducted on the Camino, pilgrims were asked to rank six motivations in order of importance. The highest three were: spiritual growth (including terms such as to “find my deeper self”), followed by sensation seeking (e.g. “proving myself”), and seeking life direction. The final three were religious growth, community, and religious devotion. The experience of physical hardship and the embodied notion of sacrifice are considered key components of this transformation.  

We can view this phenomenon through the philosophy of Charles Taylor, who proposes that modernity has had two major effects on the Western world. First, it has allowed individuals to choose their lifestyles and beliefs to an extent never before possible. Second, this freedom has resulted in the loss of hierarchies that while restrictive, provided individuals with meaning and significance. The loss of these has resulted in what Taylor terms a “disenchantment” of the world. If Taylor’s philosophy is to be accepted, it is unsurprising that the Camino surged in popularity in the 1970s and 80s to such an extent that the Archdiocese in Santiago began reissuing Compostelas to arriving pilgrims. 

Tom Wolfe famously described the 1970s as the “Me Decade” in reference to rampant individualism and a rejection of communitarianism. Similarly, a Western preoccupation with self-sufficiency emerged in the 70s and was articulated by seeking out strenuous experiences. The parallels are clear in the Camino experience. The average pilgrim walks 25km a day wearing a backpack on an often arduous route featuring mountains, long stretches without water, and intense heat in the summer months. Many pilgrims consequently suffer injuries such as back pain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis. With albergues disallowing stays for more than one night at a time, the opportunity for rest is minimal. This makes the Camino a prime site for experiencing self-sufficiency through strenuous living.

Image 7 - Camino today
The Camino today © Giselle Bader

When walking the Camino myself in 2015, I was struck by two things; first the common use of the phrase “my Camino.” Pilgrims used this term to indicate the highly personal nature of their journey and the autonomy they wished to exercise over it. Online resources available to pilgrims support this idea. Popular websites such as the ‘Camino de Santiago Forums’ allow future pilgrims to individually design their Camino according to their personal motivations for undergoing pilgrimage. Which route to take, whether to stay in pilgrim accommodations or hotels, the option to have one’s bag transported each morning, whether to walk, cycle or ride a horse… these are all up to the discretion of the individual. By reading previous pilgrim accounts, one is able to pick and choose a way to experience their  Camino. 

Another striking experience was the easy conviviality between pilgrims. Those walking together would feel compelled to share intimate details of their lives and for some, the past traumas that brought them to the Camino. It seemed to me a type of walking therapy. This relationship between pilgrims is a phenomenon scholars of pilgrimage studies call communitas — an egalitarian state wherein social boundaries and roles disintegrate. 

But this is too utopian a conclusion. The pilgrimage is too carefully tailored to be an individually-focused experience to comprise a real communitas. There are no unifying physical markers on the Camino beyond the scallop shell and even then, one is able to select different colours and whether or not to have the cross of St James imprinted upon it, generally done as a sign that one is undertaking pilgrimage for religious reasons. The physical choices made by the pilgrim in selecting their route, method of transportation, and the budget they are travelling on are indicative of the pilgrim undertaking the Camino in a heightened state of individualism. This is further evidenced in the few rituals undertaken on the Camino. Most pilgrims will pick up a stone and carry it throughout their journey, depositing it at a certain point along the route. Leaving the stone symbolises releasing one’s sins or trauma on the road, emphasising the unique background of each pilgrim.

Accepting the notion of a communitas risks ignoring the individual experience of pilgrimage and moreover, strips pilgrims of their social and cultural contexts, making any critical understanding of modern pilgrimage close to impossible. The interactions between pilgrims on the Camino look inward, not outward. The Camino is a place for pilgrims to codify their social selves, through open and frank discussions with others.

Image 8 - Pilgrim stone
Pilgrim Stone © Giselle Bader

I have found equally in my academic research and my experiences on the route that the popularity of the Camino today speaks to its flexibility in adapting to the historical concerns of its patrons. It is clear that modern pilgrims are seekers desiring to both re-enchant their world and mediate movement from problem to solution, trauma to healing. This is a transformation that promises to sustain one long after their pilgrimage. The individual nature of the Camino means that no two pilgrimages are the same; it is too open to the vicissitudes on the road.

Giselle Bader

Giselle Bader is Masters by Research student at Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity. She is currently writing her dissertation on landscape and identity formation in Christian pilgrimage. 

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