Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My gown of glory (hope's true gauge),
And then I'll take my pilgrimage. - Sir Walter Raleigh, "The Pilgrimage"
The word pilgrim comes from the Latin peregrinum, which means "wandering over a distance.” No particularly spiritual or religious motivation is suggested by the word's Latin origin, and anyone who has travelled the Road to Santiago in the late 20th and early 21st century can attest to the fact that there are enormous numbers of "pilgrims" professing no spiritual or religious motivation at all who undertake the long and difficult journey to Santiago de Compostela. This fact stands in stark contrast to the motivations of the vast majority of medieval pilgrims, who undertook the journey for decidedly religious reasons, whether as an act of religious devotion, or penance for sin, or to as a petition to receive a favor from God. Nevertheless, whatever the reasons one may have, or be willing to admit to, when setting off from his chosen point of departure, walking the Camino de Santiago has a profound effect on a person. I've seen it happen time and time again. The sheer physical effort of making a journey on foot over 850 kilometers (500 miles), the long hours of walking in silence, the heat and the rain, the blisters, the thirst, the stiff muscles; the pilgrim is suddenly plunged into an alternate reality. It's a world in which time no longer moves at the frantic pace to which we have become accustomed in our daily lives, and one in which suffering and sacrifice no longer seem enemies of the human spirit, but become cherished companions and teachers along the way.
Genuine pilgrimage is a more profoundly spiritual act than mere wandering. At its core, pilgrimage is a search for contact with the Divine, with God, and for this reason, all religions have developed a rich tradition of sacred travel. Human beings are creatures of body and soul. We seek God, we desire to pay Him homage and to worship Him. We are irresistibly drawn to the places where He has shown Himself, or where holy men and women have lived in His presence, and pilgrimages satisfy these needs in us in a very concrete way.
Pilgrimage also satisifies our need to offer reparation for sin. In the Middle Ages, a pilgrimage to Santiago could be imposed by ecclesiastical authorities as a penance for grave sins such as heresy or apostasy, or by civil authorities as a punishment for serious crimes such as murder.
Unlike in Islam, pilgrimage has never been an obligation for Christians. While early Christians in Rome cherished and revered the tombs of the martyrs, pilgrimages did not begin to flourish until the fourth century, after the legalization of Chrisitianity. By the Middle Ages, when the custom of pilgrimage was at its peak, thousands were on the the roads to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago, as well as to any number of lesser shrines throughout Europe. And though it ranked third in importance to the other two in official terms, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela rapidly gained a position of special preeminence among European pilgrims. With Jerusalem in the hands of the Muslims and Rome so far away across the Alps, the Camino de Santiago soon became the favorite destination for pilgrims from central and northern Europe.
So highly regarded was the figure of the pilgrim in medieval society that many privileges soon came to be granted them. Medieval pilgrims along the road to Compostela, unlike merchants and ordinary travellers, were entitled to be received in churches, monasteries and hospices along the route. There they were given beds, fed and cared for if they were ill. Likewise, they were often exempted from tolls that other travellers had to pay. In order to distinguish genuine pilgrims from both ordinary travellers and false pilgrims seeking to take advantage of the hospitality offered to genuine ones, civil and ecclesiastical authorities soon began to require that pilgrims carry certain documents certifying their status, as well as requiring special clothing and symbols as identification. Pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem wore a small palm frond on their clothing in commemoration of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, while those travelling to Rome wore a key as a symbol of the Pope's authority as successor to St. Peter. Pilgrims travelling to and from Compostela wore a scallop shell as a symbol of their destination (Compostela is near the sea). In addition, a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun, a long cape, which served as protection from the rain and as a blanket during the night, and a walking staff with a gourd for carrying drinking water all became visible symbols of a person's status as a pilgrim to Santiago.
Naturally, all of this had its downside. Human nature being what it is, a brisk trade soon developed in false pilgrim's documents. Thieves and criminals adopted the guise of a pilgrim in order to move freely from one place to another and prey on the innocent. When they weren't being devoured by wolves or perishing in snowstorms atop treacherous mountain passes, pilgrims often became targets for robbers and bandits hiding out in desolate stretches of the route, corrupt ferrymen at rivers and unscrupulous innkeepers in towns along the route. Numerous laws protecting pilgrims and stipulating severe punishments for those who abused them were passed by the authorities, but even so, undertaking the pilgrimage was risky business. Pilgrims often made out their wills before departing as the journey was bound to last years in most cases and one's return was by no means guaranteed.
These dangers have disappeared from the contemporary pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; today's pilgrim has more to worry about from sunburn, sunstroke or being run over by a car in the stretches that cross modern highways than from wolves and bandits. The advent of the cell phone and the numerous voluntary organizations dedicated to assisting pilgrims that have flourished in cities and villages along the route also guarantee that help is never very far away. Nevertheless, the journey remains a physically and spiritually demanding, but immesely rewarding, one that cannot fail to dramatically transform the lives of those who undertake it in a spirit of faith, humility, prayer and penance.