Santiago de Compostela, the most famous city in the autonomous region of Galicia in northwest Spain, is the fulcrum of our imaginative trajectory from Palermo to Tunis, but paradoxically an end point for most late medieval travelers, the place where they turned around and went home again. The medieval pilgrimage route had as its goal the purported relics and tomb of the apostle St. James the Elder, supposedly long forgotten in Spain where James had preached before his martyrdom in Palestine in 44 CE. When an ancient crypt –a true Roman-style mausoleum from the first centuries of Christianity– was rediscovered in the early ninth century, an increasing number of pious travelers made it their destination of choice. The village and then thriving urban complex that grew up around the grandiose structures built to honor the saint took his name: “Sanctus Jacobus” was successively transformed into “Sancti Yagus”, “Santi Yagüe” and finally “Santiago”, the “Compostela” part most likely a reminiscence of the Latin compositum tellus, a ‘handsomely disposed terrain” or perhaps just “burial plots”.
Many of the cultural artefacts generated by the selfless piety and self-interested industry of the pilgrimage route share a common heritage along the Camino de Santiago and its thousand feeder trails from as far away as Canterbury, Paris, Oslo, Danzig, Moscow, Budapest, the Balkans and Rome. Most of these byways coalesced at the Pyrenees and became the now iconic Camino francés, but Spain itself boasted multiple venerable routes dating to the earliest years of episcopal and royal validation of Santiago as a site of true devotion to the Apostle, the only member of the Twelve interred in Europe other than Peter and Paul in Rome. Spaniards and other faithful arriving from elsewhere in Christendom coursed along the Vía de la Plata up from Sevilla, skimmed the northern Cantabrian coast, came down through the rugged mountains of León along the Camino Primitivo, and trekked the eponymous Camino inglés starting at the preferred British port-of-call in La Coruña. And by sanctifying those paths of faith and commerce, the vast web of caminos to Santiago generated a rosary of shrine sites whose holy edifices, those associated with St. James or entirely independent from his cult, benefitted from the swelling tide of passers-by heading to the northwest corner of Iberia.
The literature of the Camino de Santiago contains elements both perfectly canonical (devotional and historical texts) and others necessarily elusive because of their oral and popular nature. Embattled by apparently irresistible Muslim armies to the south, Iberia was necessarily conservative in its Christian culture, but the Camino opened it to new theological, monastic and artistic influences especially through the spread of enterprising Cluniac foundations that assumed the care of crucial junctures at Nájera, Burgos, Palencia and Sahagún. Gregorian chant and the Roman missal replaced Mozarabic rites in the chapel, and participated decisively in the creation of modern musical notation, liturgical tropes, polyphony and descant.
Aimery Picaud, a French traveler of no piety of note, crafted the first travelogue for the Iberian route now known as the French Way (camino francés), a report that is practical, unsentimental and often quite opinionated. He described the principal routes that descended from his beloved France and all the stages that defined the route to Compostela. His comments on the terrain, food and wine, the detestable habits of some of the natives, monuments of note and liturgical practices of the shrine site are invaluable if rarely edifying. Picaud’s “Pilgrim’s Guide” became the first of numerous first person narratives of pilgrimage to Santiago; later visitors included Margrey Kempe of Lynn (1417). The “literature” of our period, 1348-1418, also has to take account of the illusive but endlessly productive oral literature that intersected with the written record but enjoyed its own abundant life among the multicultural and polyglot stream of pilgrims, merchants, charlatans and above all storytellers who inhabited the Camino de Santiago in every age.