Throughout history and in all traditions people have gone on journeys to make their world a bigger place, to seek meaning and to try to find out more about who they really are outside the structures of everyday life. Such pilgrimages have been especially significant at times of rapid change and the common thread has been that the journey is both an obligation and a voluntary act – a search for meaning, blessing and renewal.

For example, the Varkari in the Hindu tradition is supposed to go on a particular pilgrimage every year, but ‘he has not the psychology of one who would abide by a rule but of one who fulfils an essential and well-loved promise’. There is a similar thread in Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in mediaeval times (as now), every year large numbers of Muslims travelled vast distances to take part in a common act of worship. These journeys were voluntary and individual: ‘the Hajj was the most important agency of voluntary, personal mobility before the age of the great European discoveries … the commands of the faith reinforced the requirements of government and commerce – helping to maintain an adequate network of communications between the far-flung Muslim lands … and a heightened awareness of belonging to a larger whole.’ [1]

If the Protestant ethic was a precondition of capitalism, perhaps the pilgrimage ethic helped to create the communications network that later made capitalism a viable national and international system. [2]

Contemporary Pilgrimage

Some 200,000 people have gone on a pilgrimage to a small art gallery in Holland. ‘Why?’ asked Andrew Marr. ‘Because many… will experience something extraordinary, something they will never forget…. The point of the pilgrimage is the search for something that comes close to a spiritual revelation. What Vermeer did with paint was to halt time. Watching his silent women by windows, pouring milk, reading letters or examining pearls, is like seeing moments of ordinary life seized, held fast and broken open, revealing some inexpressible mystery…. Proust… was (also) obsessed by the possibility of staring into unimportant-seeming moments of life with a gaze of such intensity that one breaks through into a different moment…. The French writer and the Dutch painter were both working on the edge where artistic technique meets mystical experience. If music is time decorated, they were masters of time frozen. And that, in the end, is why so many people have been drawn to Holland.’ [3]

Mediaeval Pilgrimage: Santiago de Compostella

This city in the Celtic north west corner of Spain was the second religious centre of Christendom and the primary goal of pilgrims for about 900 years and especially in the Middle Ages. The place attracted huge crowds from all over Europe and from all aspects of mediaeval society – people who would otherwise never come into contact.

The fascinating point about the story of Santiago de Compostella is that, as one writer says ‘it is a monument to credulity erected because an ingenious churchman of the ninth century announced that a tomb discovered on the site contained the bones of an apostle’. [4] The sceptical view is that the apostle – James – had never been to Iberia. The more credulous view is that, after the death of Christ, James befriended some Iberian sailors in Palestine and travelled with them to Spain but returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred. Legend then has it that his body was recovered and shipped to Spain – the voyage took seven days during which the sailors were inspired by the ‘aroma of sanctity’.

On arrival in Spain they were imprisoned, encountered a dragon which lay down at the sight of the cross: it also tamed a pair of wild bulls who were then harnessed to the cart carrying the body. There are different accounts of why it was buried in a particular field where it rested for 750 years until one night a hermit noticed a particularly bright star shining above the spot. He informed the bishop who found three graves one of which was pronounced to carry the remains of Saint James (Santiago). The place became known as the ‘field of the star’ – hence ‘Compostella’.

Some decades later a large basilica was built in the field. By the twelfth century James was well-established as Spain’s patron saint and so readily became the warrior saint invoked in the struggle with Islam.

For nine hundred years pilgrims came to Santiago de Compostella, most on their own account and of their own volition, exercising a freedom of choice not generally available in mediaeval society. Some came on behalf of others. All sought forgiveness of sins, healing and the invisible benefits of a sacred place.

So, ‘a monument to credulity’; what traces does credulity leave? If people believe that a place is sacred, that it has power to forgive, to enfold, to heal, does that make it so? Does it matter if people believe it? Throughout recorded history people have sought meaning usually in the transcendent, sometimes in the pragmatic, and many have gone on journeys to seek it, to try to understand themselves outside the structure of their everyday lives.

The experience of wonder, awe, belief and being held at the end of a pilgrimage is distilled in the poem below translated from the mediaeval French.

Arrival at Compostella

And the long sought splendour
Burst upon the evening of the trail
Which now had the feeling, the fragrance of farewell.

Into the sanctuary, huge as a ship in full sail
Winged and emblazoned,
Religiously they entered.

The shadows echoed with murmurs
As if the great ship, between sleeping and waking
Were drowsing on the mystery of a dream.

Column after column they passed,
Altar after altar,
Unable to think, careful and fragile,
They went on and on,
Twisting the hardened old folds of their pilgrim hats with their fingers,

So dirty
Withered and stiffened,

Before this very great Saint now in his riches
High up there; and how greatly benevolent.

Their footsteps quietened; the nave was rising
To the very heights and infinities of heaven.
They hardly breathed.

They fled along like a flock at bay before the dog,
Frightened, driven, jostling each other –

A hundred
A thousand
Crowds beyond number!

This was the whole of Christendom in one single being
Advancing up the bedrock pavement
In one irresistible Body
To the place that love and the vow of its heart had centred on.

The cathedral spread over all the loneliness of that holy place,
Her mantle of velvet and night
As a mother veils her child.
And happily she enfolded all her forgiven children
In her great loop of glittering glory.
She gave them for their weariness
The siege throne and grace of fulfilment
And she rocked them with the tender humming of her voice.

unknown author of Middle Ages
(in R. Oursel, Pelerins du Moyen Age, trans. by E. Turner)

© 1996 Gillian Stamp


  1. B. Lewis, 1966. Encyclopaedia of Islam
  2. V. Turner 1974. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors. Cornell University Press.
  3. A. Marr, The Independent 23.3.96.
  4. D. Gilmour 1992. Cities of Spain, Pimloco.