This is a 700-year-old traveller’s guidebook: a practical manual for pilgrims walking St James’s Way to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, a great medieval Christian pilgrimage route that is still very popular today. The magnificent Romanesque cathedral there is dedicated to St James (St Iago, hence Santiago), whose remains are said to lie within it.
Who was St James?
James was a fisherman, called by Jesus from his nets at the Sea of Galilee to become one of his 12 followers, probably along with his brother John. According to legend, when James was killed by Herod's soldiers, the body was brought by boat to Galicia, and miraculously rediscovered in the ninth century in Santiago – as foretold in Charlemagne's vision of the saint's tomb being found 'at the end of the earth', or Finisterre. The Christian kings of north-west Spain found in James a useful champion for the reconquest of the peninsula from the Islamic incomer, and the cult of Santiago de Compostela was under way.
What is the Way of St James?
The Way of St James, or as it is often called simply El Camino, has been well-trodden for at least a thousand years. It is one of the three pilgrimages on which all sins are forgiven (the others being the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem). The Camino enjoyed a 'golden age' in medieval times, but its popularity declined, reaching a nadir in the 1980s when few undertook the journey. Since then however it has grown to become extremely popular, with tens of thousands of walkers, cyclists and horse riders covering the 800km route across the country every year.
There are many alternative paths within Spain, and a number of established trails into the Spanish leg from other countries in Europe. Pilgrim-specific accommodation along the way in simple refuges, usually serving cheap and hearty food and wine, has been a feature of the Camino for centuries. Not everyone who undertakes the Camino is expected to be Catholic, or even Christian, though it is expected that there is a “spiritual dimension” to the trip.
Was this the first guide to the Camino?
Early as it is, this was not the first guide to the Camino. In 1140, a document called the Codex Calixtinus provided practical information for pilgrims, as well as prayers and sacred songs for protection en route.
The guide illustrated here comes from the early 14th century. St James himself is identifiable in this part of the manuscript because of the scallop shells (the traditional emblem of the route) outlined on his hat in red.
What does the guide contain?
The manuscript includes guidance to pilgrims on such practical problems as which water is safe to drink and how to board ferries, as well as describing sites and the cathedral.
This guide was probably written by a Frenchman for French pilgrims, and the author doesn't hesitate to express his opinion of the regional characteristics of people along the way. The Gascons, for example, are 'verbose' and 'drunkards', also 'given to combat but are remarkable for their hospitality to the poor'.