European Medieval Pilgrimage Project -  Legends - St James

St James

St. James, the disciple of Jesus who travelled to Galicia to convert the heathens at Finisterre, the end of the world, is probably considered the greatest of all saints. He had a hard time, and only managed to save two souls, before he bitterly returned to Jerusalem, where he was decapitated in the year 44, during a purge. His friends carried him down to the seashore, where an angel waited with a ship. Within three days, through storms and maelstroms, the dead body of James was taken over the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast, to the bay where the city of Pedron now lies. The keel and planking were completely covered with shells, thereby the name “St. James’ Scallop” (“Coquille St. Jacques” in French) Sometime during the 9th century a hermit, Pelagius, brought the remains of the apostle to life. He reported to have seen, in a vision, a great star, surrounded by several smaller ones, shining from a desolate place in the mountains.

(Above) St James,  the church of St Lubeck

The local bishop Theodomir sent a team to search the area, who found a grave with three bodies, identified as the bodies of St. James and two of his disciples. The bishop quickly filed a certificate of authenticity and the Spanish king Alfonso II hurried to the site. He proclaimed St. James to be the guardian saint of Spain, and had a church and a smaller convent built on the site of the grave, in honour of the saint. A city sprung up around the grave, under the name of Santiago “de Compostela” (campus stellae – “star field” or “place of the star”).

The Christians of this time were in great need of an idol and leader, someone to guide them in their battles and inspire them. This was exactly what happened after the Christians had conquered Jerusalem. This was the seedling of the idea of the Spanish Christians; to re-conquer all of Spain. Even the pope got engaged, starting a propaganda-drive for the recapturing of Spain in the written work Codex Calixtinus, claimed to be written by Pope Calixtinus II (pope between 1119-1124). It’s more likely to be a collection of the works of several different authors from the middle of the 12th century. It also includes the first ever pilgrim’s guide, which many believe to have been written by a Frenchman sometime around the year 1130, who had close contacts with the cathedral in Santiago.

In connection to all this, the legend of St. James became invaluable. At the head of the battle against the Moors, the holy James, bane of the Moors (Santiago matamores), rode on a white horse, with a great sword, slaying the enemy by the thousands.

A different legend tells of the groom who was swept out into the Atlantic Ocean, while on his way to the wedding. The bride’s prayers to St. James were answered. The groom rose from the depths, covered in seashells. During the later middle ages, the clam or seashell became one of the most significant symbols of the pilgrim. The shell of the St. James' Scallop looks like a hand, cupped around alms. As discussed above, the symbol is connected to the legend of St. James and the cult built up around him, but also around the holy archangel Michael, who had the shrine Mont-Saint-Michel named after him, on the island of the same name.

So are the stories true? It all depends on how you view it. If you ask a historian, there is no evidence whatsoever as to St. James ever being in Spain, or lying buried in Santiago de Compostela. If you ask a devout pilgrim, you might receive the answer that it is all a big mystery and a miracle, and when a legend is retold a million times, it inevitably becomes more plausible…

It is though, nonetheless, a good story.


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