The pre-Christian name of Santiago, Compostela, derives either from the Latin compositum, “cemetery,” or campus stellae, “field of stars.”
In 819 AD, an ancient tomb was uncovered on the northwest coast of Spain. The remains were supernaturally revealed to be those of St. James the Apostle, who was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 AD. In Spanish, St. James is Sant’ Iago, or Santiago.
According to legend, St. James had crossed the Mediterranean after Jesus’ death and resurrection to preach in Spain. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he became one of the first Christian martyrs. After his death, a group of believers brought his remains to Spain to ensure they would not be desecrated.
After the discovery of the relics, King Alfonso II (reigned 791-842) built a church over the tomb, which Alfonso III (reigned 866-910) then replaced with a larger structure.
In 997, the whole town, including St. James’ church, was destroyed by Abu ‘Amir al-Mansur (Almanzor), Moorish military commander of the Córdoba caliphate. Almanzor respected the apostolic tomb, however, and left it undisturbed.
On the reconquest of the city by Bermudo III of Leon (d. 1037), the roads that led pilgrims from across northern Spain to the shrine were improved and the reputation of the shrine spread.
The earliest recorded pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees had visited the shrine in the middle of the 10th century, but it seem that it was not until a century later, between 1092 and 1105, that pilgrims from abroad were regularly journeying there in large numbers. During the Middle Ages, however, Santiago became a major place of pilgrimage, surpassed only by Jerusalem and Rome.
In 1078 the present cathedral was begun by order of Alfonso VI (reigned 1065-1109), king of Castile and Leon.
By the early 12th century the pilgrimage was a highly organized affair. Four established pilgrimage routes from starting points in France converged in the Basque country of the western Pyrenees. From there a single combined track crossed northern Spain, linking Burgos, Carrión, Sahagún, León, Astorga and Lugo. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have made the pilgrimage to Santiago in 1214.
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, a pilgrimage to Santiago was a common form of penance in the Middle Ages:
In the registers of the Inquisition at Carcassone… we find the four following places noted as being the centres of the greater pilgrimages to be imposed as penances for the graver crimes: the tomb of the Apostles at Rome, the shrine of St. James at Compostella, St. Thomas’s body at Canterbury, and the relics of the Three Kings at Cologne.
The various requirements of the pilgrim trade were met by a series of hospices along the way, by royal protection, by the evolution of a new genre of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture designed to cope with large crowds, and by the familiar paraphernalia of tourism. There is even a surviving guidebook to Santiago that dates to about 1140.
The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela internationalized the entire route to a degree unheard of in this impoverished and isolated backwater on the outermost fringes of Europe. It was opened particularly to the influence of France, the starting point of a great majority of pilgrims.