The Camino de Santiago opened passage routes by creating a trade corridor between the French regions and the north of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portughese lands. Although its opening takes place in the ninth century, it is during the eleventh and twelfth centuries when it truly blossoms, becoming one of the engines of the “Commercial Revolution” which at that time all Europe would go through.
In 1987, the Council of Europe declared the Camino de Santiago as the first European Cultural Route. Beyond religious beliefs and spiritual quests, over the centuries it has become a space for lovers of nature, art, and gastronomy. Since its resurgence in the late twentieth century, the experience of the Camino has gradually become less of an endurance test or an act of faith. Today there are many “caminos” tailored to the needs and pleasures of each. Customization and sophistication have turned the pilgrimage into an experience that more than 200 thousand people enjoy every year; and investment in the recovery of roads, lodges, and hostels, allowed the economic rebirth of many locations far away from the regular tourist routes.
This relationship between development and pilgrims is nothing new. The Codex Calixtinus, developed in the twelfth century by the cleric Aymeric Picaud, dedicates the last of its five volumes to the description of the different routes that were available at the time for performing the Camino from France. It recommends itineraries, the organization of stages, locations of bridges, towns, hostels, descriptions of peoples and their customs, and churches to visit. It is considered the first “Guide du Routard” for single travelers.
The artistic journey is full of surprises. Porches of churches that tell stories about the imposition of Catholicism, pagan symbols, octagonal floors that reveal the presence of the Templar order in remote places …
If there is anything that characterizes the Camino is its ability to accommodate stories, to reinvent itself again and again. Inventions considered to be historical and original. Nothing is more typical than the Santiago pie: the first and duboius reference is from the sixteenth century, and does not exist in its current form until the late nineteenth century. The opposite is also true for dishes that were considered delicacies and were present along the Cantabrian region and southern France, as the goose, which, according to medieval records, is one of the iconic animals of the Camino de Santiago along with the scallop. Indeed, the veneras (symbol of Venus) and geese (Celtic symbol) represent the continuity of the Christian story with previous legends of the road towards Ara Solis.
For a long time, the scallop symbolized the completion of the Camino and the arrival to Santiago. To ensure the accuracy of this distinction as well as the control of its rents, the Catholic Church established a monopoly on the sale of shells, and the excommunication of whomever sold them privately. However, it is possible to slow trade, but not to stop it, so a clandestine trade of souvenir shells made out of wood and stone quickly flourished at the gates of the city. It was necessary to reach an agreement formalizing a franchise of sorts. From this market that leveraged a small legal loophole to thrive, was born in Santiago the guild and neighborhood of os concheiros.
The markets of the camino
The Camino de Santiago opened routes of passage by creating a trade corridor between the French regsions and the North of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portughese lands. Although its opening takes place in the ninth century, it is during the eleventh and twelfth centuries when it will truly flourish, being one of the engines of the “Commercial Revolution” which at that time all Europe would go through.
These new routes and flows will have a great social, urban, and commercial impact. The central figure in this process is the pilgrim, who adpots different roles in their passing. First, as a consumer of services: the first urban centers emerge in order to meet their needs, the village being the smallest of all of them, organized around a church (usually built on the “castrum”), a hospital or hostel for pilgrims, and houses clustered at the edges of the road. All this created job opportunities for the guilds and professions (tailors, weavers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, tanners…)
Pilgrims created the need for increased agricultural and livestock production to ensure supplies, and also to provide exchange mounts or draft animals for the wagons. But according to the Codex Calixtinus the pilgrim is also a seller, he is used to carry light goods to trade and cover the costs of accommodation and meals on the road. They almost always carry jewelry, fabrics, and generally things that can pass as personal items in toll booths in order to avoid paying tax. Upon their arrival at the villages, an improvised trade takes place, and with time it gains structure, resulting in weekly markets of food, farming and gadgets is given. Later on, the great yearly fairs will emerge, and with them, the gradual specialization of several markets. With the fairs, travelers will be able to arrange their arrival to different locations depending on their needs.
Seeing the impact generated by the new floating population, monarchs and feudal lords launched offers to encourage permanent settlement, creating the privileges of the villas and the “Right of Franks“: A regulatory framework to facilitate access to property that contemplated a more favorable tax system, and structured the relationship between newcomers and established residents.
With pilgrims and franc merchants the population increases and new urban centers arise. And with them arrive new products, consumption habits, and perhaps most importantly, new technologies applicable to the professions which will have continuity in monasteries, the knowledge centers of the Christian Middle Ages.
An unstoppable flow
Thus, the Camino shaped the peninsular north, but also the entire continent, as a driver of the Commercial Revolution that would rebuild the foundations of a continental market from the eleventh century. And indeed, the Renaissance ushers in a long decline leading to its virtual disappearance.
But when roads capable of deeply transforming the economy and culture open up, the potential to generate wealth does not disappear so easily. The story, the inspiring power of myth, survived the pilgrimage practice. A series of campaigns and public investments, especially that mythical Xacobeo 93, reactivated the flow and mobilized thousands of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, worldwide.
And the flow continues. In the last Xacobeo year, 2010, the Camino represented, for Galician GDP only, more than 250 million euros in the midst of an economic crisis, more than ninety euros per member of the community. There will not be another Xacobeo until 2021, but only during the month of June this year, more than 33,000 people ordered their compostelana, so surely in 2014 there will be more than 200,000.
It is common to hear, as a criticism, that more and more pilgrims do not undertake the Camino driven by religious beliefs but by the desire to live the experience with others, to enjoy the route, and to dive into a historical journey. Others suggest that it is “only” another form of tourism. Probably both are true. But isn’t the “miracle” of a small humanity in motion, learning with the journey, and generating wealth in its wake, much more powerful than any other story?