III. Spain Camino francés

Camino francés: From St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago


We cannot start on St James’s track, and even more on the Spanish track, called Camino francés, without having tried to clarify, as much as possible, this muddle that has created today the Compostela fashion. Today, nearly 350,000 pilgrims come to Santiago every year. In the Middle Ages they were even more numerous. They are talking about one million a year and demographics were less galloping than today. Then, there was a real decline. Before the 1950s, it was said that they were only a few hundred a year on the way.

But how was this story born? According to legend, the remains of Saint James have been transferred from Jerusalem to Santiago. Following the discovery of the supposed tomb of the Saint in the IX century, the pilgrimage became the true way, allowing the pilgrims to receive the plenary indulgence, a total forgiveness of the sins, a real bargaining which was one of the causes of the appearance of Protestantism. Now, for the good of things, the pilgrimage has made it possible to constitute a real heritage. The churches, the hospitals, the places of accommodation, the bridges, all that is due to the pilgrimage. And this is even more true in Spain. And recently everything changed again, when the Camino Frances was certified « Cultural Route of the Council of Europe » in 1987.

Codex Calixtinus


Let us try to understand this decision, which was somewhat a godsend. The codex Calixtinus, also called Liber Sancti Jacobi was written between 1130 and 1140. At that time all was oral transmission and the pilgrims who returned to the country told their pilgrimage. But there was a need to codify all these stories, to fix in a certain way these knowledges coming from orality. This gave birth to Book V of the Codex, the Pilgrim’s Guide, one of the chapters of Liber Sancti Jacobi. This manuscript was extensively reworked, completed, copied, but the “most true » manuscript is that deposited in the archives of the cathedral of Santiago and which is designated under the name of Codex Calixtinus, of the name of Pope Calixtus II who would have initiated the writing. In the Middle Ages, books are rare. They are only created on parchments by the copyists of the monasteries. In many documents, the copyists added illuminations, to be admired by a « general public » belonging to the elite. So was the Codex.

The appellations of Codex Calixtinus, Liber Sancti Jacobi, are not original, being recent, made in XXth century. In the past, this manuscript was simply called « Jacobus ». Over the centuries, the scribes of the monasteries have deeply reworked the manuscript, destroyed pages, added others, with about ten different versions. What remains of the original, the authentic? It must be understood that it is a true work of archaeology that historians must do to delve into this complexity of copies, to find good sheets, good tables of material, to override the preferences of monasteries or archives that still have these copies, all over Europe. In fact, many abbeys have sent their scribes to copy parts of the manuscript. This is not always bad will but the history of the codex is a real confusion, political too.

The Liber Sancti Jacobi contains 5 chapters. For the pilgrim who walks, the first 4 chapters do not offer much interest. The first book is the longest book of the codex. This book deals with sermons, how to hold the service, to sing for the festivals in honor of St. James. The second book deals with the 22 miracles attributed to the saint. The third book relates the removal of the remains of the saint of Jerusalem to Santiago. The fourth book narrates the epic of Charlemagne and Roland facing the Moors, with the help of the saint. Then, what about Book V, the guide of the Pilgrim? This was the first section of the Liber that was translated into French by Jeanne Vieillard, a translation that was a resounding success, which was for many in the attribution of the Way of Compostela to the UNESCO World Heritage. This book tells the way, a number of stages, places. But it’s a great wave. It is this book that has given rise to the most fantasies, the greatest fantasy having been to attribute, without any proof, this chapter to Aymery Picaud. Internet is full of « fake news » about it. Spanish people went head down to ensure the veracity of their way. It was wrongly developed the idea that this manuscript was used by the pilgrims of the middle ages, whereas this guide is known only since the end of the XIXth century, and especially after its French translation in 1938. This book and all the copies made of them never came out of the abbeys and their archives.

It seems well accepted, but it is not certain, that the codex was developed for reasons of faith. It was necessary to reform the sclerotic liturgy, to dust it off, to endow Christendom with a set of sacred texts. This was the message of Calixte II. We know today that the scribe of chapter I had close ties with Cluny Abbey, in France. In fact, Pope Calixtus II was born Gui of Burgundy. This Cluniac and Cistercian pope was therefore Burgundian. Before becoming pope, he had, by trickery, received the archbishop of Santiago granted by the pope in place. This fact takes place a few years before the drafting of the Codex. And it is at this time that a certain Aymeric Picaud presents himself to Santiago, coming back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. An important question is why St James, and not another apostle, was the object of devotion? James the Greater is the poor relative of the trio elected by Jesus, namely Peter, John, and James. Peter was entrusted with the Church and Rome. John was to evangelize the East. For Jacques, there is nothing specified in the Bible. But the mission of all the apostles was to go evangelize the world « finis terra », to the end of the world. Was it inferred that it was necessary to go to Finisterre in France and Spain?

According to legend or tradition, James the Greater would have gone to Spain to spread the new faith. He would have converted only a very small number of people. Back in Palestine, he would have been martyred. His friends would have brought the body back to Spain. After centuries of oblivion in 831, a hermit named Pelagius discovers by divine revelation, under the form of a star, the place of burial near Santiago. The religious and secular authorities hasten to authenticate the discovery. Compostela was born. The pilgrimage to the apostle’s tomb is enjoying increasing success, a growth temporarily interrupted by the sacking of the city by the Muslims, who left the tomb intact. The city was rebuilt and the pilgrimage started again..

Thus, in an unproven historical context, on an ambiguous saint of which neither the New Testament nor the historians know much, a true myth has been created. And that by the magic of the Cross, Santiago was created. It was therefore a good solution to codify all that. So, who wrote the Codex Calixtinus? Aymeric Picaud, the pope or some others? Nobody knows anything about it, really. Francophones speak for a French. Why? Because the author of the Codex Calixtinus often despises Spanish people, for whom he finds full of malignity and depravation, while he brings the French to the skies. The major reason is that the author speaks of 4 French roads and only one Spanish road. But, all this is not just nonsense? In the past, and still today, the roads were numerous, and if today their « official » number is reduced, it is due to the total and probably political incompetence of UNESCO and the Council of Europe, that have relied only on the Codex to normalize the thing. What childishness for a historian! If the author describes mainly French tracks, much better than Spanish routes, it is undoubtedly that he has travelled much more in France than in Spain. Moreover, half of the miracles attributed to the saint have been performed in France. Clear conclusion: the author is French, not Spanish. Of course, isn’t it? Do yourself your opinion on this. If you are French, we already know your answer..

The Liber Sancti Jacobi is a deeply religious work. It is therefore likely that the author or authors were churchmen, or that they were helped in their approach. Is it then the enigmatic Aymeric Picaud, a French priest from Poitou, quoted twice in the Codex? The latter, who is the author of a hymn in the second book, transported the Codex Calixtinus from Vézelay to Santiago. So, it had to be an important person to have the right to touch the book. But, even if the author of the code speaks of Poitou with tenderness, does this justify that this priest has written the code? Whether it was written by a single author or a compilation of older texts, the book, by historical cross-referencing, was written between 1139 and 1164. And in Latin, to be fair. Imagine the dozens of translations of the Bible, and you’ll get a better idea of the Codex Calixtinus.

So when you’ll be walking on the Camino francés, remember this story, if you think you’re walking on what Spain calls the « real way », while the French cry because they did not create them also a « true way ». It would have been much simpler, a long time ago, to find a tomb of St Jacques in France, and the trick would have been played.

Statistiques for 2018


The Santiago Registry Office provides statistics on attendance and distribution of pilgrims on the way every year. Here are the 2018 data recorded according to the origin of the pilgrims, for the 15 most represented countries:

Country Number of pilgrims Country Number of pilgrims
Spain 144’141 (44.03%) South Korea 5’665 (1.73%)
Italy 27’009 (8.25%) Brazil 65’601 (1.71%)
Germany 25’296 (7.73%) Australia 5’220 (1.59)
United States 18’582 (5.68%) Canada 5’027 (1.54%)
Portugal 14’413 (4.4%) Poland 4’785 (1.46%)
France 8’775 (2.68%) Holland 3’670 (1.12%)
England 7’624 (2.33%) Mexico 3.578 (1.09%)
Ireland 7’548 (2.31%)

Total number: 327.378

Spain provides the big battalion of the way. Beyond the 15th country, all others are below 1%. We also know that there are as many women as men on the way and that 55% are between 30 and 60 years old.

Another interesting statistic is the one that gives the figures for the track used by pilgrims to reach Santiago.

Track Number of pilgrims
Camino francés 56.8%
Camino Portugues 20.7%
Camino del Norte 5.8%
Camino Primitivo 4.6%
Other tracks  about 15%

It is often believed that all pilgrims arrive in Santiago by the Camino francés, the path of Codex. This is not the case. Only half of the pilgrims uses this axis. It must be remembered that many Spanish, Portuguese and South American people use the other paths of Spain and Portugal. So, are these paths « fake » paths? We will never get out of this confusion that was the decision of the Council of Europe.

A final statistic shows the departure place of the pilgrims.

Starting place Number of pilgrims
St Jean-Pied-de-Port 10.05%
Roncevaux 1.69%
Oviedo 2.69%
Porto 8.2%
Sarria  27%

The table shows that only a minority of pilgrims arriving in Santiago made the whole of Camino Frances from St Jean-Pied-de-Port (10%). The bulk of the pilgrim battalion on the Camino francés leaves from Sarria, shortly before Santiago. Just a few steps to get the certificate in Santiago.

When you’’ll follow the Camino francés, you will travel exclusively to the northern regions passing through Navarre, Rioja, Castilla y León and Galicia.