Despite the risks that the Jacobean route can entail, as happened in Europe devastated by the Black Death, the Camino de Santiago hangs the open sign today.
It is not the first time that the Camino de Santiago is shaken by planetary or continental catastrophes that in one way or another make us have to rethink its meaning and value. Napoleon or the two world wars were some of these events, but the most vivid memory of the Camino -and it can be said that it was the prelude to its decline in the modern era- was undoubtedly the one known as the Black Plague.
In 2017, more than one media outlet was astonished that a CSIC study – published by Scientific Reports – concluded that the spread of a pandemic is closely linked to the main communication routes. In that study, scientists from the Centro Superior de Investigaciones Científicas had investigated how the Black Plague had spread from 1343 onwards from China to Europe and throughout the known world. To do so, they had collected data from 1,311 medieval settlements and 2,084 connection points (route and road links) throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. And with this data, they had produced a detailed study in which they concluded that the Black Death had indeed spread along the busiest communication routes and had reached the farthest reaches of the world following trade routes and pilgrimage routes (which were usually the same and – at least in Europe – took advantage of the routes of the ancient Roman roads).
Curiously, the headline chosen by many of these media outlets played more on the idea that pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela had helped spread the disease than on the idea of the busiest routes or trade routes. And it is possible that much of the blame for this headline was due to the fact that almost a third of the urban centers studied belonged to the Camino de Santiago, which could undoubtedly be (without any other added nuance) a determining bias in the sample.
In any case, and leaving aside even this detail, the conclusion of this study is quite logical: disease was transmitted wherever people travelled, just as architectural and artistic novelties, humanistic knowledge, mathematics, European identity and faith had been transmitted. For better or worse, the roads were the arteries through which everything was transmitted. Where there was more ‘long-distance’ traffic, there was more contagion, and the communication nodes served to spread the plague in other directions. Nothing surprising.
Unfortunately, the Black Plague was an impressive blow not only to the Jacobean route but also to the entire economic and social development of Europe: it is estimated that in the successive waves suffered throughout the 14th and early 15th centuries, a third of the population of the old continent died. Its impact left towns and cities deserted, forced the abandonment of agricultural and livestock farms and caused terrible famines in what we could understand as a global economic collapse of the time. But to this brutal damage to material development, it added another much more subtle and pernicious one: social rickets.
Curiously, the lights of the Renaissance that were illuminated after this pandemic and that were announced as the triumph of knowledge over superstition, were veiled by the fear – or rather dread – that the mere mention of the Black Death aroused; and the need for answers to so much suffering led to an irrational search for scapegoats that unleashed hatred of the Jew, the poor or the pilgrim… (whichever was closest).
Also in this situation the Camino de Santiago offers us a beautiful lesson. And it is that some of those men, despite their limited knowledge, despite the fact that they used a stammering scientific method, dedicated themselves to studying the plague that came to them from afar. And despite these difficulties and shortcomings, and despite all the gaps in their explanations, they learned how to defend themselves against the Black Death.
Thus, while other cities and towns suffered the disease as a divine curse and opted to close their doors to those who were different and persecute those who came from outside, on the Camino they learnt, for example, that the epidemic had a lot to do with cleanliness or, rather, with the dirtiness of the walkers and the presence of fleas. And with this intuition, with this suspicion, instead of closing in on themselves and denying passage to the stranger, in numerous towns and cities along the Camino de Santiago what they did was to prohibit dirt: when a pilgrim arrived at their doors, what they did was to strip him of his clothes, bathe him, give him clean clothes and burn the old ones.
It cannot be ruled out that on some occasions the flames carried away more than just the dirt and dirty clothes of the pilgrim. But in general, the paradigmatic aspect of the case is that in the face of generalised irrational fear and the temptation to close themselves off, the response of the towns along the Camino was to seek solutions and not to build walls.
Perhaps something can be learned from that lesson and perhaps that explains why even today, the arrival of pilgrims – very few given the circumstances – to the villages along the Camino is still celebrated in almost all of them as a good omen, as the hopeful news that the world, despite fear and superstition, the Camino keeps spinning.