Who were the protectors of the Way of St. James in ancient times?
By the 12th and 13th centuries, over half a million pilgrims were making their way across Saint James Way each year. At this point in time, kings and clergymen had begun to build hostels, roads, bridges, and hospitals to accommodate the needs of so many travelers.
The Knights Templar, a sector of the Order of St. James, patrolled the Camino, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing, and worship, and a credit-based banking system for traveling pilgrims (the first letters of credit). The Knights were also highly controversial at the time. They had secret initiation rites, Gnostic interpretations of biblical events, and rising economic influences in the Western world, which became a threat to the power of the Papacy and Catholic Monarchies. With this threat, a majority of the Knights Templar and Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Order, were arrested and sentenced to death by the joint forces of Pope Gregory and King Philip of France on Friday, October 13, 1307. (Some say that the legacy of their massacre on this day is the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky in current folklore.)
Following the downfall of the original protectors of the Way, many of their responsibilities were passed along to the Hospitallers of Saint John, who already had a strong presence along the Camino. The Knights Templar, Hospitallers of St. John, and other members of the Order had heavy influence upon numerous Spanish villages, towns, and cities we will visit, including León and Santiago. Many of the pilgrim hostels that were built to house travelers over a thousand years ago are still standing today and would not have been made possible without the protection of the Order.
A lot has changed in the past 800 years. While we are able to see some of these old relics, churches and hostels, we now have better gear with which to walk and exquisitely beautiful places to spend the night. There are no safety concerns on the Camino today, and your belongings will be securely stored throughout the entire trip. Nor will you need to travel with a letter of credit!
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