The Feast of Saint James in Spain

July 25 is the Feast of Saint James the Greater, Jesus’ first apostle and one of the first Christian martyrs. It is a day when thousands of pilgrims from all over the world converge on the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago, the Spanish name for St. James, has a curious etymology. According to linguistic logic, he should be known as St. Jacobo in Spanish. As the website Historia y Archeología tells it, the name started out as Sanct Iacobus, a derivation of the  Latin Iacobe, which evolved during the Middle Ages into Santiacus.  It is due to this unusual contraction that Santiago is never referred to as San Santiago. San Yago, his name in Galician, retains a firm link with Latin.

Many legends surround the translation of what the Catholic Church accepts to be the body of St. James to northern Spain. Some traditional stories claim that it arrived in a boat that set sail from Jaffa, while others propound the theory that it was left to drift out to sea on a simple raft without a rudder. All accounts agree that it was miraculously transported to the coast of Galicia—some claim by wind and waves, others by Providence, and still others that it was guided band of heavenly angels.

In her book Santiago de Compostela: In the Age of the Great Pilgrimages, Marilyn Stokstad explains how the scallop shell became the emblem of pilgrims traveling to his shrine:

As the ship neared the land, a horseman, riding beside the sea, was carried by his bolting horse into the waves, but instead of drowning, horse and rider came to the surface covered with scallop shells. Henceforth, the scallop shell became the symbol of St. James and the badge of the pilgrims to his shrine.

The horseman of this particular tale is variably described as a jousting knight or a bridegroom, but there are other legends that claim it was the corpse of the saint, lost at sea and carried by the currents to the shores of Galicia, that floated ashore covered in scallop shells. In any case, the scallop shell is inextricably linked with the apostle, Galicia, and the pilgrimage to Santiago.

Once ashore, a popular Spanish method for determining the final destination of saints and religious relics was employed to decide what to do with what would have been a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition. It was placed in an ox cart and the team of oxen was left to wander at will. If the beasts of burden stopped far from a church, a shrine would be built. If they stopped near a particular church, that church would have jurisdiction over the remains. This was the accepted deus ex machina for settling disputes between communities ready to make war on their neighbors for possession of a saint or a relic. Oxen did not have a monopoly on this sacred vocation however. Across Spain, mules were also chosen to be the arbiters of where holy relics were to be deposited, although it seems that they had a worse time of it than the oxen did. Most of the stories that cite mules include the grisly detail that people were forbidden to feed the beasts. They supposedly wandered aimlessly until they died of hunger or exhaustion. I suspect that their end was often precipitated by local folks who coveted the glory and added protection of a powerful relic for their local church. The oxen called on to find a final resting place for the James the Apostle wisely dragged him to a nearby pasture, which would later be the site of the city of Santiago de Compostela.

From that point in his long story, Saint James faded out of the picture for almost a millennium, but around 820 a monk by the name of Pelayo found his tomb, and in 844 the apostle made a surprise and stellar appearance at the Battle of Clavijo, fully dressed in armor and brandishing a sword of holy fire. He valiantly helped Ramiro I of Asturias defeat a Muslim army led by Abd ar-Rahman II, the Emir of Cordoba, and was quickly adopted as the symbol and heavenly guarantor of the Reconquista, the long and bitter campaign fought by Christian kings against their Islamic rivals for control of the Iberian Peninsula. Saint James’ fame grew. The pasture chosen by the oxen several centuries before was given the new name, Campus Stellae (field of the stars). A shrine was built and a city grew up around it.

Santiago de Compostela was once considered one of the three holiest places in Christendom, equal in importance with Jerusalem and Rome. Carlos Sánchez Montaña, author of the blog el Tablero de Piedra, has suggested that Pope Calixtus’ interest in faraway Galicia was as geopolitical as it was religious. He claims that Calixtus viewed Christian pilgrimage as a means of rechristening the crumbling system of roman roads in the name of the Church of Rome. Whatever first inspired so many pilgrims to undertake the long journey to Saint James’s shrine, the fervor slowly flagged and for centuries the tradition was all but forgotten. However, the Junta of Galicia successfully revived worldwide interest in the 1980s and the pilgrimage route to the city was declared the first cultural itinerary by the Council of Europe in 1987. More than 150,000 people now travel the various routes to Santiago each year, compared with a mere 3,000 in the late 1950s, and the historic district composed of Santiago de Compostela’s old town and its cathedral holds a place of honor on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.

Most of today’s pilgrims to Santiago are secular tourists, but many come seeking favors and miracles ranging from cures of physical ills to recoveries from bankruptcies and broken hearts. This year many will surely be praying to the saint for the recuperation of the Codex Calixtinus, a priceless manuscript that mysteriously disappeared from a safe in the Cathedral of Santiago several weeks ago.

The Codex Calixtinus, also known as the Liber Sancti Jacobi, was long believed to have been compiled in France by a scholar named Aymeric Picaud in the early twelfth century and brought to Santiago by Pope Calixtus II, although many modern secular scholars assert that what appears to be a letter written by Calixtus as a preface to the book is a pious forgery. Its origin and author aside, the codex is considered to be the greatest source of information on almost every aspect of the early cult of Saint James, from accounts of his miracles to the legend of Charlemagne and the death of Roland. Book V of the codex comprises the earliest known tourist Baedeker. It records many practical tips for medieval pilgrims including where to stop along the way and warnings about scammers on the lookout for hapless strangers. As tradition credits St. James with a missionary career in “Hispania” before his martyrdom in Jerusalem, Book V is perhaps a fitting tribute. Religious Spaniards still believe that the saint met up with the Virgin Mary in the old Roman forum of Zaragoza during his missionary wanderings. The magnificent Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was built to commemorate the occasion, and today the majority of tourists who visit the “immortal city” founded in the name of Caesar Augustus in 23 BC come in the name of Jesus Christ.

Editing gaffes are bound to crop any book, however important, and the Codex Calixtinus was no exception.  Ferreted away among St. James’ sermons and the notations of some of the most beautiful sacred polyphonic music ever composed, are passages riddled with errors of grammar, rhetoric, and dogma that generations of perplexed religious scholars repeatedly attempted to rationalize. Secular scholars have recently concurred that these faulty fragments were nothing more than exercises prepared to test the linguistic and copyediting skills of medieval Latin students—a revelation that might inspire some editors and writers to shift their prayers for saintly intervention away from their traditional patron, Saint Francis de Sales, and turn to Saint James for divine inspiration when they’re faced with text full of errors and a tight deadline.

No one is quite sure when the codex was spirited away, but it was categorized as missing on July 5. Whoever removed it from the safe where it was stored had somehow gained access to the key, making its disappearance a mystery on par with Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose. A faithful copy had always been used by researchers and the original was rarely handled or shown in public. Since the twelfth century, the original has only been taken outside of the precincts of the cathedral on two occasions.

As the Ad superni regis decus declares in verse and song, “We happily celebrate your feast, James. From the Galilean shore you scorned worldly things.” While it is hoped that the priceless codex is recovered, it is an earthly thing. Speculation of its fate will no doubt become a part of the eternal legend of Saint James.

To the jewel of the supernal king who contains all things,

We happily celebrate your feast, James.

From the Galilean shore you scorned worldly things.

Following Christ, you foretold his kingdom.

Without understanding him, you sought to be near Christ,

But now you sit in the cohort of the twelve on high.

You were the first martyr of the apostles in your land.

You hold in glory the first seat of the twelve.

Lift us, therefore, to the eternal heavens,

That our mind may bless the king of kings, the Lord.

Polyphony from the Codex Calixtinus