The Pilgrimage to Cathedral of Compostela

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The Pilgrimage to Cathedral of Compostela

In the twelfth century one the most popular destinations for pilgrimages was to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The shrine of St. James the Great is in the Cathedral of Compostela and it is what attracted so many people. The saint's shrine was believed to be a healing shrine for all sorts of problems. The religious relics that the Cathedral contained held a special power for the pilgrims by curing them of their problems. The pilgrims used the road to Santiago as a test of their faith and love for God. At the same time that they were testing their religious devotion they were also contributing to generating massive information. The pilgrims were creating and recycling information and taking that information on the road to more people. Two ways that the pilgrims were putting information out was by visiting the shrines on the way to the cathedral and at the actual Cathedral of Compostela and through the book of Codex Calixtinus.

A pilgrimage was essentially a course of movement along a sequence of shrines along a road until one reached a final destination (usually a large cathedral or religious site). Besides the remission of sin, a reason for a person to go on a pilgrimage was to search for the renewal of physical or mental health. In the twelfth century, there was a deeply rooted belief in Christians that plague, leprosy, fever, migraines; even toothaches were all caused by sins. A doctor did not heal the person as well as saint could and thus, pilgrimages were occurring all the time. Not just people who were ill went on the pilgrimage, people seeking religion or adventure also set out on the road of Compostela.

The pilgrims that were on the road to Santiago came from a wide variety of backgrounds. The route of Compostela became literally a cultural highway. The pilgrims "founded churches, monasteries, and hospitals; they robbed and killed, composed stories, legends, poems and songs, and slept rough in the hostels provided for them" (Tate, Pg. 1). Most importantly, the pilgrims talked. They talked about St. James, about the church, and about their different ideas and beliefs. By doing so they were exchanging information that otherwise would not be available to them. They talked about the history pertaining to St. James and at the same time learned through the shrines themselves at the Cathedral about the Moors, Charlemagne and other historical figures.

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The shrines told stories of what that particular saint stood for. St. James became known as the "Moorslayer" to the pilgrims because he led the Christian Spaniards against the Moors. The saint's shrines and statues were of the battle with the Moors and of St. James defeating them. The shrines and pictures told the story of how it happened, they spoke to the pilgrims. When they made their journey to Santiago, they had access to this information because it was all around them, in the shrines, in the statues and pictures they visited and talked about (Mullins, Pg. 124).

The other way in which the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela generated information was through the Codex Calixtinus. The Codex Calixtinus is composed of five books. It is "the most celebrated among all the propaganda literature surrounding the legend of Santiago" (Tate, Pg. 32). There are only two copies of the manuscript surviving. The Codex Calixtinus is also known as Liber Sancti Jacobi (its original name) and it was put together by a French Cleric named Aimery Picaud of Parthenay le Vieux in about 1139 (Tate, Pg. 28). It starts with a letter, supposedly written by Pope Calixtus II. Following that, in Book I, is an anthology of liturgical pieces composed in honor of St. James. Book II has to do with the miracles St. James is "reckoned" to have performed during the lifetime of the first archbishop of Santiago, Deigo Gelmirez (Tate, Pg. 123). Book III recounts the legend (told as fact) of the evangelization of Spain by the St. James, his martyrdom in Jerusalem, and the subsequent return o his body to Galicia. Book IV describes the various battles of Charlemagne and other men in the reconquista of Spain. Book V is the actual Pilgrim's Guide on making the trip to Compostela. The books together are considered the first promotional tourist books in history. They describe the history of St. James and his importance in liberating Spain from the Moors, the miracles of St. James on behalf of pilgrims and others, and information about the principal route leading to Santiago de Compostela.

Book V in particular provides information for the trip, a description of the route and cities, the character of countries and people, religious highlights and relics to be visited. It provided information on such practical matters as hospitals, the quality of food and water, and a brief vocabulary guide to the Basque language. It also has a detailed description of the city and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Pilgrim's Guide (Book V) is the best source of information on how the Cathedral appeared in the early twelfth century. The Codex Calixtinus is a source to which all scholars still turn for information.

Information was circulating all around Santiago and on the way leading there. The pilgrims received information from the shrines they visited and became the source of information in the Codex Calixtinus. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela allowed the pilgrims to have information at their fingertips that they would not normally have.

Works Cited

Mullins, Edwin. The Pilgrimage to Santiago. Richard and Clay (The Chaucer Press). Great Britain, 1974.

Tate, Brain and Marcus. The Pilgrim Route to Santiago. Phaidon/Oxford Press. Spain, 1987.


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