Route Sainte Jacques de Compostelle

Les Chemins de Compostelle

The pilgrims journey ‘constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul’. Codex Calixtinus

Guide created by pope Calixtus II (1140AD)

St James’s way

Route of Santiago de Compostela

Road to Santiago

Name given to any of the Pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the Apostle st James the Great.

Here in France we live just south of Poitiers, that grand, historical city in central / western France. It is also en route to Santiago in north western Spain, pilgramage routes head across france from many directions all converging on Santiago. The remains of the saint St James are, according to tradition, buried at the cathedral in Santiago and this route became one of the major pilgrimages in medieval europe along with Rome and Jerusalem.

Earliest records of pilgramages to the shrine were 9thC. Romanesque architecture, adopted by the church, offered large archways to accommodate greater numbers of people moving from one place to another and the paraphernalia of tourism began! Sales of badges and symbols, souvenirs, most notably the scallop shell. Documents called the Credencial couls and still can be bought by the pilgrims in churches, these gave access to cheap lodgings and food along the route, they were stamped with unique stamps from each town to prove your journey once you had reached Santiago. Equally pilgrims who wore the shell were often given special priviledges at hostels, hospitals and churches. Free meals were offered and thieves dared not attack.

The route sainte jacques de compostelle was only possible due to the protection of the kingdom of france (where most pilgrime routes started). The more enterprising french, including Gascons and others, settled in the towns along the routes offering both protection and hospitality and of course the sales of the paraphernalia!

The Scallop Shell

This has always been the symbol of the route sainte jacques de compostelles. The shells worn  could be issued from churches or could be found on the beaches at Santiago and taken home, proving you had reached your destination! The tradition goes that st james preached the gospel in Spain, so when he returned to jerusalem and was beheaded in 44AD his body was returned to the Iberian peninsula to be burried in Santiago. However, the boat containing his body hit a terrible storm and his body was lost. It reappeared, washed ashore some time later, undamaged and intact but covered in scallop shells

The scallops shells though were more than a symbol for pilgrims, they also served as vessels to catch water or eat food from. The church also put a symbolic significance in it’s design. The grooves of the shell start fanned out and converge at a central point showing the widespread routes across France and Spain converging on Santiago.

Milky Way

In France, the route acquired the name Voie Lactée (milky way) as at night the stars seemed to point the way west or south to Santiago. In contrast, the spanish called the Milky Way ‘El Camino de Santiago’, according to their medieval legend, the stars were formed by the dust kicked up by the passing pilgrims! The word Composella itself means ‘field of stars’. Another link to this idea was in the Book of Saint James which tells how the saint appeared to Charlemagne in a dream urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors, showing him the direction to take by following the line of the Milky Way.

Most pilgrims come from the French direction (Camino Francés) from Paris, Vézelay, le Puy and Arles. The spanish tend to begin at the Pyrenees. Here, in our own small village, the local auberge displays the scallop shell with ‘welcome’ written in 5 languages for the foreign pilgrims (even written in Welsh due to local welsh residents!) Some pass through walking, some on bikes.

I was in the Ardenne recently and was surprised to see there a covered stone walkway in Attigny with scallop shells carved into the stone, clearly one of the routes de Compostelles all the way in a small, cold and wet town in north eastern France.

The idea of pilgrimage has fascinated me for some time. Not so much from the religious angle but the human one, the personal journey, the need to walk, the going from one place to another with a purpose in mind.

I have made many long road trips in France, sometimes just with my son, sometimes with the whole family and there is a unique experience in the ‘unknown journey’, finding hospitality, different foods and smells, the feel of ‘setting off’ contrasting to the ‘arrival’ or ‘homecoming’. These experiences are immensely rich and I do hope my son remembers them! But they are ever more intense when that journey is made on foot. The unknown weather, the people, the food supplies and the simple rhythm of putting one foot infront of the other day after day but knowing it will end, that this experience is finite, that there is a ‘journey’s end’ and a purpose. I suspect, as humans, we will continue to make ‘pilgrimages’ either for religious reasons or to create lasting bonds with family members or maybe as a once in a lifetime method of catharsis against a stressful world. The unexpected, the sense of purpose, shutting out the normal distractions and replacing them with the rhythm of walking.

Do we believe Saint James remains are really there in Santiago? I don’t know. Do we believe he came out of the sea covered in scallop shells? I doubt it. But the real gold here is in the journey not the destination and here in France and Spain is a wonderful network of ancient paths with hospitality along the way, a true relic of a time gone by and yet, still, here it is! Still here, quietly offering beds and food for those on the journey.


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