The great medieval pilgrimage to Santiago was arguably Europe’s first exercise in mass tourism. Home to the supposed shrine of St James the Apostle (Santiago to the Spanish, Saint Jacques to the French), the city became the third holiest site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome. Following in the footsteps of Godescale of Puy, who arrived in 951, an estimated half-million pilgrims turned up each year during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Although the shrine was visited by the great – Fernando and Isabel, Carlos V, Francis of Assisi – you didn’t have to be rich to come. The various roads through France and northern Spain that led here, collectively known as El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James, or the Pilgrim Route), were lined with monasteries and charitable hospices. Villages sprang up along the route, and an order of knights was founded for the pilgrims’ protection. There was even a guidebook – the world’s first – written by a French monk called Aymery Picaud, which recorded, along with water sources and places to stay, such facts as the bizarre sexual habits of the Navarrese Basques (said to expose themselves when excited, and protect their mules from their neighbours with chastity belts). It was an extraordinary phenomenon in an age when most people never ventured beyond their own town or village.

Why did they come? Some, like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who had “been in Galicia at Seynt Jame”, had their own private reasons: social fashion, adventure, the opportunities for marriage or even for crime. But for most pilgrims, it was a question of faith. Thanks to the miraculous power of St James, they knew the journey guaranteed a remission of half their time in Purgatory. Few doubted that the tomb beneath Santiago’s high cathedral altar held the mortal remains of James, son of Zebedee and Salome and first cousin of Jesus Christ. It seems scarcely credible that the whole business was an immense ecclesiastical fraud.

Yet the legend, at each point of its development, has no apparent basis in fact. It begins with the claim, unsubstantiated by the Bible, that St James visited Spain after the Crucifixion, to spread the gospel. He is said, for example, to have had a vision of the Virgin in Zaragoza. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he was undoubtedly beheaded by Herod Agrippa. But the legend relates that two of James’ followers removed his corpse to Jaffa, where a boat appeared, without sails or crew, and whisked them in just seven days to Padrón, 20km downstream from Santiago.

The body was then buried, lost and forgotten for 750 years, before being rediscovered at Compostela in 813, at a time of great significance for the Spanish Church. Over the preceding century, the Moors had swept across the Iberian Peninsula, gaining control over all but the northern mountain kingdom of Asturias. They drew great strength from the inspiration of their champion, the Prophet Muhammad, whose death (in 632) still lay within popular memory, and a bone from whose arm was preserved in La Mesquita in Córdoba. Thus the discovery of the bones of St James, under a buried altar on a site traditionally linked with his name, was singularly opportune. It occurred after a hermit was attracted to a hillside by visions of stars; the hill was known thereafter as Compostela, meaning “field of stars”. Alfonso II, king of Asturias, came to pay his respects and built a chapel, and the saint was adopted as the champion of Christian Spain against the infidel.

Within decades, the saint had appeared on the battlefield. Ramiro I, Alfonso’s successor, swore that James had fought alongside him at the Battle of Clavijo (844), and that the saint had personally slaughtered 60,000 Moors. Over the next six centuries Santiago Matamoros (Moor-killer) manifested himself at some forty battles, assisting, for example, in the massacre of the Inca armies in Peru. While that may seem an odd role for the fisherman-evangelist, it presented no problems to the Christian propagandists who portrayed him most frequently as a knight on horseback in the act of dispatching whole clutches of swarthy, bearded Arabs with a single thrust of his long sword. (With consummate irony, when Franco brought his crack Moroccan troops to Compostela to dedicate themselves to the overthrow of the Spanish Republic, all such statues were discreetly hidden under sheets.)

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