Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Three Destinations of the Medieval Pilgrim

By April Munday

In the Middle Ages the top three destinations for pilgrims were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, in that order of importance. For the English, a pilgrimage abroad was never an easy thing to undertake and wars, thieves and bandits made it even more difficult.

St James the Great by Georges de la Tour

Jerusalem and Rome were top of the list for obvious reasons, but why was Compostela the third? Compostela is in Galicia, in northern Spain, and is a little less than fifty miles from Cape Finisterre, which the Romans thought was the edge of the world.

The cathedral at Compostela is said to contain the remains of St James the Great, believed to be the first apostle to be martyred. One of the legends about St James is that he preached in Spain, before returning to Judea where he was martyred by being beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. His remains were then transported from Judea to Spain in a rudderless, stone boat guided by angels. Santiago is the Galician form of St James.

There were earlier churches on the site, but the current cathedral of St James was built between 1060 and 1140.

Technically a pilgrim’s journey began with the first step and then he (or she) could follow whichever route he wanted to the shrine which was his goal. In reality this was not very practical, since he needed to pass through somewhere where he could get food fairly often. As long as he was on a route frequented by merchants, this was not a problem, as there were inns at regular intervals along the way.  Where the routes did not coincide the pilgrim could expect hospitality, or at least some kind of shelter for the night, from monasteries. Where there were neither inns nor monasteries there were often hospices. These were built by monks to assist pilgrims and there was a great need for them on the routes to Compostela. Most of these hospices were built by the Cluniacs.

There were four main routes across France and pilgrims from the north, east and south gathered at the four towns where those routes started and travelled, usually in the company of others, into Spain.  
Each route started in and went through towns containing important shrines. The route that started in Paris went through Orléans, Tours, Poitiers, St-Jean-d’Angély, Saintes and Bordeaux. The one from Vézelay (where the supposed tombs of Mary Magdalene and Lazarus were to be found) went through Bourges, St-Léonard-de-Noblat, Limoges and Périgueux. From Le Puy the route went through Conques and Moissac, before joining the first two routes at St-Jean-Pied-de-port at the foot of the Pyrenees. The final route went from Arles through St-Gilles, St-Guilhem-le-Désert, Castres, Toulouse, Auch, Oloron, the Somport Pass and Jaca before joining the other routes in Puente la Reina.

This meant that English pilgrims were presented with a huge amount of choice, depending on where they crossed the Channel. It was possible to sail from Bristol to La Coruña which meant a walk of approximately forty miles to get to Compostela once they were in Spain. This might sound like an easy option, but the Bay of Biscay was known for its storms and there was also the possibility of falling prey to wreckers or pirates (English, French or Castilian). It would entail travelling on a small ship for at least five days, usually much longer, in cramped and uncertain conditions. Generally passengers each had enough room to stretch out and sleep, but no more.

If a longer walk was required, the pilgrim could sail to Bordeaux which would allow him to complete his pilgrimage without going into territory held directly by the king of France, which might be the safest route during times of tension, if not outright war, with France. During more peaceful times, a shorter trip from Dover to Dieppe or Plymouth to Brittany might be preferred, which would mean the pilgrim walking the length of France before reaching Spain. If they sailed from Dover, they probably spent a night in the Pilgrim’s Hall at Aylesford Friary on their way through Kent.

The Pilgrims' Hall
It took about six months to walk from Paris to Compostela and back again. Pilgrims travelling overland faced wolves, bandits, fever, rivers that were not easy to cross, mountains and, in the early day, Moors. On the plus side, there were plenty of shrines along the route where they might pray and see miracles.

From the 1370s on most English pilgrims travelled by sea to Galicia since they were not permitted to cross Castile without the permission of the king of France.  Since the Hundred Years’ War was going through one of its more violent patches at this time, that permission was never going to be forthcoming. As the French gained more and more territory that had belonged to the English crown, English pilgrims had little choice but to travel by sea.

Pilgrims travelled with the hope of seeing, or touching, the relic of the saint. Some even broke or bit off part of the relic to take home with them. Clerics were particularly prone to this. This led to the construction of shrines and reliquaries to protect relics, but the pilgrims merely tried to take back bits of the shrines and reliquaries as souvenirs. 

At most shrines pilgrims could leave offerings of wax models which reflected the reason for their pilgrimage. This was not permitted when they reached Santiago.  Only money and jewellery were acceptable offerings. 

The eleventh century was a time of peace across Europe, allowing pilgrims to travel overland even to Jerusalem.  It was almost a golden age of pilgrimage. Hospices were built along the routes to Santiago and bridges were repaired. It is said that around half a million people a year went to Compostela in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

There were pilgrim guidebooks, describing the route to be followed. The earliest known guidebook covering the route to Compostela was written by Aymery Picaud, a French monk, in the twelfth century. He detailed the stages of the journey starting from the Gascon side of the Pyrenees.  The book recommends shrines to be visited and describes things to be seen along the way. There is also a description of the cathedral which is the object of the journey. For good measure he tells some precautionary tales about the fates of people who tried to hinder or did not help pilgrims on their way to Santiago. A weaver, for example, did not give bread to a pilgrim and later found the cloth he had been working on torn in half and thrown on the ground. Picaud and, presumably, the weaver, attributed the act of vengeance to St James. We, however, might suspect that the perpetrator was someone other than the saint.

Travelling to Compostela from England was not cheap. Although there were hospices where he could expect to be accommodated for free, the pilgrim needed enough money to buy food, and to pay for accommodation in inns. A pilgrim could beg or work in order to gain the money, but most preferred to leave home with the requisite amount.

Once he reached Compostela, the pilgrim would purchase his cockleshell token, attach it to his tunic or hat (as modelled by St James in the picture at the top of the post), and return home.

Portrait of St James the Great by Georges de la Tour in the Public Domain
Pilgrim’s Hall, Aylesford – Author’s Own
The Age of Pilgrimage – Jonathan Sumption
Pilgrimages to St James of Compostela from the British Isles during the Middle Ages – Robert Brian Tate
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe – Peter Spufford


April Munday lives in Hampshire and has published a number of novels set in the fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They include Beloved Besieged, The Traitor’s Daughter, His Ransom, The Winter Love and the Regency Spies Trilogy. They can be purchased from Amazon 
Her blog ‘A Writer’s Perspective’ ( arose from her research for her novels and is a repository of things that she has found to be of interest. She can also be found on Twitter.


  1. I was there in 2001. It is a magnificent cathedral and has the largest censer of any church in the world. The acolytes love to give demonstrations of how this worked during the Middle Ages.

    1. I've never been, but I've seen video of the censer being swung. It looks rather frightening.

  2. Thank you. It was great fun to write.

  3. My best friend forever and her daughter did the pilgrimage to Compastela several years ago and she lost most of her toenails in the process! They did complete the trail though! And they saw a womanwho did it on her knees. Incredible.

    1. That sounds very uncomfortable. I hope they grew back.

      I suppose some people must just get into such a state of ecstasy that they don't feel the pain.

  4. Wonderful, concise post, lots of information I didn't know. I love the name Finisterre too..lovely to think you'd could look out from the end of the world.

    1. Thank you.

      It was certainly a definitive statement on the Romans' part to call it that and quite brave.

    2. There is also the French Department of Finistere in Brittany, named for the same reason. I wonder if there are other places with that name or concept (and how many) existing around the world...

    3. In England we have Land's End, which is on the most westerly tip of Cornwall. I expect there are other places.


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