"Starting from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, under the influence of the monks of Cluny, the faithful from all over Europe come, each time with increasing attendance, to the tomb of St. James (...). The entire Europe has met itself around "the memory" of St. James, at the same ages it was building itself as a spiritually homogeneous and uniform continent" (John Paul II, Address during the European Act, Santiago de Compostela, 9 November 1982).
The first pilgrim known by name was King Alfonso II the Chaste, who in 834, that is a few years after the re-discovery of the tomb of St. James by the monk Pelagius, comes with his entire court to Santiago and orders construction of the first temple, single-nave, which includes the tomb of the Apostle.
News of the discovered Sepulcrum Sancti Iacobi spread across entire Europe of the time. It is no surprise that the first foreign pilgrimage, which has its historic record, was made about 950 and was led by Bishop Gotescalco of Puy (France): he comes from Aquitaine, with his whole diocese. The pilgrimage route to Santiago is traversed by ever new masses of people: around 959, the abbot Cesareo of the monastery of St. Christine of Catalonia; in 961, one of the compostelan documents mentions the presence of Hugh of Vermandois remensis episcopus in town; between 983 and 984, the hermit Simon of Armenia arrives in Compostela, after travelling across France, and before going to England. These are only some of the historical references about the presence of great pilgrims, and yet so many not known by the name went to Santiago at that time. Therefore, over time, Santiago has become destination of one of the so-called "major pilgrimages", that is, the most crucial to the Christian Europe, next to Jerusalem and Rome.
The most famous historical figures that made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James include: St. Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth of Portugal, Jan van Eyck, Catholic kings, Louis VII of France, etc. The Poles, such as Franciszka from Szubin, Jakub Sobieski, Jerzy Radziwiłł and Adam Naruszewicz, to name but a few, also pilgrimaged.
Another phenomenon, fairly widespread in Europe, was the existences of Pilgrimage Brotherhoods – the modern Societies of the Friends of St. James, found in almost all European countries, refer to them. Medieval pilgrims who made journey to Santiago grouped into brotherhoods, whose aim was to promote pilgrimage and support members, mostly of a religious nature, by celebrating funerals and Masses for the dead. Many of these brotherhoods built and maintained hospitals for pilgrims, raised churches and chapels dedicated to St. James, erected shelters, etc.
Today, travelling across the Way of St. James means unique personal experience which becomes a personal meeting, a reflection around the transcendent truths and creation of spiritual and social, Spanish and European community, universal in its brotherhood dimension, along with those who walk the path followed by pilgrims from all social states in search of the meaning of life throughout the centuries.