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The Pilgrim Way to Compostela

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of Salvation,
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage),
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Stylized scallop, symbol of the
pilgrim way to Compostela

Chartres, France

         Santiago de Compostela was, amazingly, as popular a pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages as Rome or Jerusalem, and even now tens of thousands make the journey every year. Many factors contributed to its popularity. Chief among them was, of course, the tomb of Saint James, the powerful friend of the Lord. And just as at places like Lourdes and Fatima today, miracles were often worked for the faithful who endured great hardships and traveled great distances to pray there.

         Beyond this there was something mythic about the journey to Santiago de Compostela. In the years prior to the discovery of the New World, the northwest corner of Spain was considered the finis terrae, the “end of the earth.” To medieval Christians it must have seemed that James had taken literally the Lord’s injunction to carry the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.” As pilgrims, they followed him to that most distant corner of the world; they journeyed as far as it was possible to go.

         A special costume both distinguished and protected the pilgrims. A dun garment, a kind of long smock, was supplemented with a cape and hood. On the head was worn a very distinctive hat, low-crowned and wide-brimmed. This hat was tied beneath the chin in rainy or windy weather; on mild days, the strings with their distinctive tassels hung down the pilgrim’s back. A belt was passed diagonally across the breast, and from the belt hung the scrip—a large square wallet—open at the top, convenient for carrying provisions; the pilgrim was further equipped with a water-gourd, and a staff of five or six feet in length for support and self-defense on the long journey.

James the Greater

Chartres, France

         Each piece of this distinctive costume had a symbolic meaning as well as a practical function. The scrip and staff were considered holy things; in fact, the pilgrimage officially began with the solemn blessing of these articles in the pilgrim’s parish church. Pope Calixtus, a great devotee of Saint James and supposed editor of a medieval anthology on the subject of this favorite devotion, called the Codex Calixtinus, commented thus on the signs of pilgrimage:

The purse… signifies the generosity of alms and the mortification of the flesh. A purse is a narrow little bag, made from the hide of a dead animal, with its mouth always open and not bound with ties. That the purse is a narrow sack signifies that the pilgrim, trusting in the Lord, must carry along with him a small and moderate provision. That it is made from the skin of a dead animal signifies that the pilgrim must himself mortify his flesh with its vice and concupiscence, through hunger and thirst, through many insults and hardships. That it is not bound with ties but that the mouth is always open signifies that one must expend one’s own things on the needy, and consequently one must be prepared for receiving and prepared for giving.

The staff, which the pilgrim prayerfully accepts almost as a third foot for his support, implies faith in the Holy Trinity in which one must persevere. The staff is the defense for man against wolf and dog. The habit of the dog is to bark against man, and the wolf to devour sheep. The dog and wolf signify that waylayer of the human race, the devil… For that reason we must admonish the pilgrim when we give him the staff that he remove his guilt through confession and frequently protect his breast and limbs with the banner of the Holy Trinity against diabolical illusions and apparitions.

The pilgrims, thus blessed and accoutered, set out from their homes, usually traveling in groups for greater safety. They came from every place in the known world. Pope Calixtus attempted to catalog them in the 12th century:

At this place the barbarous and civilized peoples of all the regions of the world arrive: namely, French, Normans, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Germans, Iberians, Gascons, Balearics, impious Navarrese, Basques, Goths, Provencals, Garasqui, Lotharingians, Gauti, English, Bretons, Cornwallians, Flandrians, Frisians, Allobroges, Italians, Apulians, Poitevins, Aquitainians, Greeks, Armenians, Dacians, Norwegians, Russians, Prussians, Nubians, Parthians, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Medes, Tuscans, Calabrians, Saxons, Sicilians, Asians, Pontics, Bithynians, Indians, Cretans, Jerusalemites, Antiochans, Galileans, Sardians, Cyprians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, Africans, Persians, Alexandrians, Egyptians, Syrians, Arabs, Colossians, Mauritanians, Ethiopians, Philippians, Cappadocians, Corinthians, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Libyans, Cyrenes, Pamphylians, Cilicians, Jews, and countless other people.

        The journey was made sometimes on horseback, more often on foot; and depending on where one started from, it could take up to a year to travel to Compostela and home again. The abuses along the pilgrim way were notorious. In his homily on the feast of Saint James, Veneranda Dies (“a day to be revered”), Pope Calixtus violently reproached rich pilgrims who shared nothing with their poor, sickly, or even starving fellow-travelers; pilgrims who fist-fought in order to be the first to the shrine; drunken pilgrims who created disorder and nullified the indulgences they were on their way to obtain.

Images of St James from the Cluny Museum, Paris

         The Pope reserved his sternest reprimands, however, for the innkeepers who cheated the wayfarers, serving them inferior food at exorbitant prices; for those who stole the possessions of pilgrims who died along the way; for moneychangers who robbed them blind; for toll-takers who blocked the way even to the altars of the churches, demanding a commission out of every offering made at the shrine. Then there were the thieves, who robbed and even murdered pilgrims; false pardoners, who, masquerading as priests, traded in fake indulgences and accepted offerings for masses never to be said. Chaucer gives us an example of this kind of thievery in the character of the Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales: “in his pouch he had a pillow case, / Which that he said was Our Lady’s veil; / He said he had a piece of the sail / That Saint Peter had, when that he went / Upon the sea, till Jesus Christ called him. / He had a cross of brass full of stones, / And in a glass he had pigs’ bones.”

         Criminal activity went on even at the gates of the cathedral, where women would sell votive candles with so little wick in them that they would not burn even half an hour. As the number of pilgrims increased it became practically impossible to find anyone willing to harbor those who were subsisting on alms: “Two valiant Frenchmen, returning one day from Santiago destitute of all, kept asking for lodging, by the love of God and Saint James, all about the city of Poitiers from the house of Jean Gautier as far as Saint-Porchare… about one thousand houses in all… and they could find none.”

         And yet, to the determined pilgrim all these obstacles and hardships counted for nothing next to the joy of reaching at long last the goal of the journey, the tomb of the Apostle. Domenico Laffi, an Italian priest who made the journey in 1673, wrote movingly of his reaction when he and his traveling companions finally caught sight of Santiago de Compostela:

         We then climbed uphill for half a league before reaching the summit of a hill which is called the Mount of Joy, from whence we were rewarded with the longed-for sight of the city of Santiago, some half a league away. On seeing it, we fell to our knees and began to weep for joy and to sing the “Te Deum,” but we could not recite more than two or three lines, being unable to speak for the tears that streamed out of our eyes with such force that our hearts trembled, and our continues sobs interrupted our singing. At last, our tears ceased and we resumed singing the “Te Deum” and thus singing, continued our descent.

Pilgrims in early days would, before entering the holy place, wash themselves in the magnificent fountain on the Cathedral’s northern side. Aimery Picaud, the French priest who is the presumed author of the first travel guide of the route (and, incidentally, the first travel guide in history!), in the twelfth century described it as “a marvelous fountain, the like of which is not to be found in the whole world.” The church was generally entered on the northern side, the “Porta Santa,” which the pilgrim would pass through on his knees. Then there was a vigil in the Cathedral, and in the morning, confession and holy communion, followed by a tour of the beautiful sanctuary and a chance to venerate the tomb of Saint James with a kiss.

         Picaud commented in admiring detail on every part of the church from narthex to sanctuary. Having enumerated in great detail the length, breadth, and height of the great cathedral, and having described its decorations, he could only conclude: “In this church, in truth, one cannot find a single crack or defect: it is admirably built, large, spacious, luminous, of becoming dimensions, well-proportioned in width, length, and height, of incredibly marvelous workmanship and even built on two levels as a royal palace. He who walks through the aisles of the triforium above, if he ascended in a sad mood, having seen the superior beauty of this temple, will leave happy and contented.”


Cluny Museum, Paris

        The pilgrims usually lingered a few days in Santiago, admiring the church by different lights and mingling with the hundreds of others who had arrived from so many different quarters of the world. However, the chief business of the pilgrim while in the city was to collect his long-anticipated and well-earned souvenirs: his compostela, a certificate which verified that the pilgrim had made the journey and earned the promised plenary indulgence (these certificates were so much in demand that forgeries were a regular commodity on the black market) and most important, the coveted scallop shell, the symbol unique to the pilgrimage of Saint James. This scallop was greatly treasured, worn proudly on the breast or on the hat. Scallop shells, Pope Calixtus noted, were shaped almost like the fingers of a hand, and therefore they

signify good works in which the bearer of the sign must persevere; and good works are beautifully signified by fingers, since we work through them when we do something. Therefore, just as the pilgrim bears the shell as long as he is in the course of this present life, he must also carry the yoke of the Lord, that is, submit to His commandments. And it is truly right and just that one who has sought such a great apostle and such a great man in such a remote region in toil and hardship persevere in good works, to the extent that he may receive with Saint James the crown in the heavenly land.

He goes on to pray:

O, pilgrim of Saint James, do not lie with that mouth with which you have kissed his altar! Do not go toward depraved works with the feet with which you have taken so many steps for him! Do not work evil with the hands with which you have touched his venerable altar! If you have commended your whole body to him for safekeeping, then preserve all your limbs for him. If as a faithful sheep you have entrusted yourself to him, do not be a stray in the thorn of vices.

         The pilgrimage to Compostela was for most who traveled the way not only a pious devotion but the greatest adventure of their lives; they accordingly treasures the souvenirs of their journey. Many (even some bishops) were buried dressed in their pilgrim garb, with scallop, scrip, and staff.

         We associate the shrine of Santiago de Compostela with the middle ages because its popularity was then at its height. But that stream of pilgrims, though no longer a mighty flood as in those days, has never run dry. Hardly a single day from the twelfth century (and even before) to the present has passed without some pilgrim or another reaching the great cathedral after a long and arduous journey. The modern-day pilgrims do not wear the rough garments of their forbears, but are easily picked out among the townspeople and tourists by their large backpacks, and their tousled, grimy, and footsore appearance. They kneel at the same altar and pray to the very same Saint James, as those who have gone before.


u Saint James the Greater Home


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