There were numerous motives for undertaking the pilgrimage. Pope Callistus, in 1122, during the diffusion of the Gregorian reforms, instituted the Holy Year whenever the feast of St. James (July 25th) fell on a Sunday. In 1179, Pope Alexander III’s bull granted plenary indulgence to whoever made a pilgrimage during such a time: the visit to the apostolic tomb, which already sufficed to mobilise the faithful, was now rewarded with the promise of salvation.
In order to take care of the travellers, there arose monasteries, churches, hospitals, shelters, bridges and roads, many of which attracted the surrounding rural population and became new cities. In favour was the need for repopulating the territories recently reclaimed from Islam. This led the Christian kings to offer charters of freedoms and privileges to those who settled along the route.
It is therefore not surprising to read about multitudes of up to 250,000 pilgrims being mobilised each year during the 12th and 13th centuries. Most of them were moved by unbreakable faith and the search for salvation by means of penitence; some others in order to serve a sentence and a few in order to earn money by making the pilgrimage on behalf of some ruler. They could all be distinguished by their attire –staff or crook with a pumpkin for drinking, bag, hat- but above all by the shell (natural or made of lead, tin or silver) that identified the pilgrims that acquired it, at the beginning only in Santiago and then along the rest of the Way. There are a lot of versions regarding the shell’s meaning: the first vieiras (scallop shells) were collected in Finisterre, in the region where St. James preached, and therefore represented the end of the Way, the encounter with the Teacher and with salvation. Thereafter, they were also a protective sign, since it was a serious offence to attack or rob any pilgrim bearing a shell.
After the decline experienced by the pilgrimages from the 14th century onwards, firstly due to plagues and then during the religious wars of the 16th century and the expanding influence of the Enlightenment, there has now been a genuine revival of the phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this has a lot do with the pilgrimage made by John Paul II, who visited Santiago in 1982. The 1993 Holy Year brought more than a 100,000 pilgrims to Compostela on foot, by bike or on horseback; this figure rose to 150,000 in the following Holy Year of 1999, to 180,000 in that of 2004 and to 270.000 in that of 2010. The figure of the last few non-Jubilee years has continued to double in relation to previous years, so that the 2021 Jubilee is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of travellers and millions of visitors moved by faith, the desire to see the world and to experience the Way alone or in the company of others.
Those who manage to reach Santiago unaided, during any year, are awarded the “Compostela”, a certificate issued by the Pilgrim Office to certify that the route has been travelled due to religious reasons. It is given to pilgrims that cover the last 100 kilometres on foot or horseback, or last 200 kilometres in the case of cyclists. In both cases, they have to present the official Pilgrim Document provided by the Catholic church with one or more daily stamps from the shelters or parishes visited along any of the routes.