When you think of the Camino de Santiago, paperwork is generally not the first thing to come to mind, but the documents known as the Credencial and the Compostela are a vital part of the history and the experience of the pilgrimage.
In the most basic terms, the Credencial shows someone’s status as a pilgrim and the Compostela proves completion of the Camino, and in this post we’ll cover important information you should know about them before you leave for your pilgrimage. Along with the Credencial and the Compostela, we’ll discuss the importance of stamps and the other kinds of certification available to pilgrims upon arriving in Santiago de Compostela.
SCALLOP SHELL: SYMBOL OF THE CAMINO
But first, let’s cover another important topic: the scallop shell.
The scallop shell is the mark of St. James and representations of it can be found the entire length of the Camino, whether painted on rocks, set into the sidewalk, or decorating your fellow pilgrims.
Legend goes that St. James' body was transported to Spain in an angel-guided ship after his execution in Jerusalem. Upon landing on the Spanish coast, the ship surprised a wedding party, scaring a rider and his horse into the water. The power of St. James miraculously lifted horse and rider, now covered in scallop shells, out of the water and deposited them safely on shore. With that, the scallop shell became St. James’ official symbol.
Before the Compostela existed as a document, pilgrims who made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela would be presented with a badge in the shape of the scallop shell. This badge was proof of the wearer’s physical commitment to his or her spiritual devotion, and was something to be treasured. It was also very easily counterfeited.
Realizing that these counterfeits reflected poorly on the church, officials in Santiago de Compostela and the Pope himself took action, threatening the counterfeiters with excommunication while formulating a solution. They hit upon the cartas probatorias, or “evidentiary letters,” which were a direct predecessor to today’s Compostela.
Scallop shells mark the way
CREDENCIAL: THE PILGRIM’S PASSPORT
Even today, and perhaps more than ever, getting the Compostela is a tightly-controlled process, and the key part to that process is the Credencial.
Sometimes called the Pilgrim’s Passport, the Credencial is the successor of the letters of safe passage that were issued to pilgrims in the Middle Ages. These letters were a sort of insurance for pilgrims, telling thieves and other would-be bad guys to leave them in peace.
This document is taken very seriously. Without it, pilgrims will not be able to enter the albergues, or pilgrim’s hostels, along the way, and will not be able to receive the Compostela.
American pilgrims who want to order their Credencial ahead of time can order one through the American Pilgrims website. Pilgrims in the UK should check with the Confraternity of Saint James. Otherwise, the Xunta of Galicia presents a nice list of confraternities around the globe. Pilgrims already in León can collect a Credencial at the Museum of St Isidoro or the Friends of the Camino Association (check opening times first).
Today’s Credencial is issued by the Office of Pilgrimages of the Diocese of Santiago and unfortunately doesn’t guarantee safe passage, but pilgrims generally don’t need to worry about roving thieves of bandits anymore. The Pilgrim’s Office, however, still has to worry about counterfeiting. This is where the all-important sellos come into play.
STAMP COLLECTING, CAMINO STYLE
Sello is the Spanish word for “stamp” or “seal,” and these precious stamps go hand-in-hand with the Credencial. There are two very important aspects to using the Credencial and receiving certification: pilgrims must travel a minimum of 100 km to Santiago de Compostela, and they must receive stamps on their Credencial at least once a day, or twice a day if only travelling 100 km.
Thankfully, stamps are provided by almost institution along the way, including hotels, albergues, churches, town halls, post offices, and even some bars and restaurants. These stamps are a badge of honor for some pilgrims, who try to get as many as possible. Los Sellos del Camino is a website dedicated to collecting and displaying them, and is generally regarded as the go-to resource for those curious about stamp availability.
Here’s a handy list of all the stops on our itinerary, excluding Villar de Mazarife:
THE CAMINO CERTIFICATES
Strictly speaking, the Compostela is a religious document. The Pilgrim’s Office of the Cathedral of Santiago explicitly says that it will only be issued to those who make the journey with “religious or spiritual reasons, or at least an attitude of search.”
This becomes even more clear when reading the prayer printed on the Compostela (translation taken from the Pilgrim’s Office website):
The Chapter of this Holy Apostolic and Metropolitan Cathedral of Compostela, custodian of the seal of the Altar of St. James, to all the Faithful and pilgrims who arrive from anywhere on the Orb of the Earth with an attitude of devotion or because of a vow or promise make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Apostle, Our Patron Saint and Protector of Spain, recognises before all who observe this document that: …………… has devotedly visited this most sacred temple with Christian sentiment (pietatis causa).
Because of its historical and spiritual significance, the Compostela is a prized document for many pilgrims. However, as we’ve mentioned in some of our other posts, you don’t need to be especially spiritual or religious to walk the Camino. Maybe you just want to appreciate the history and natural beauty of this ancient trail. In that case, the Pilgrim’s Office has another option for you.
Pro-tip: The Parador Santiago de Compostela offers a free meal to ten pilgrims each day. Just bring your completed Compostela with you.
While some consider it not as “prestigious” as the Compostela, the Certificado fulfills essentially the same function: proving that you actually completed the Camino. This is the document that you will receive if you tell the Pilgrim’s Office that you completed the Camino for anything other than spiritual or religious reasons.
Sometimes children will be issued the Certificado rather than the Compostela. The logic here is that children often haven’t yet grasped the deeper spiritual or religious meaning of the pilgrimage. There isn’t a strict age cutoff, but parents who travel with children 7 years of age or younger can expect their children to only receive the Certificado.
CERTIFICATE OF DISTANCE
The Certificate of Distance is another certification you can request at the end of your Camino that has nothing to do with religion or spirituality. In an age of calorie-counting and mile-tracking, the Certificate of Distance is a perfect fit. For an extra 3€, the Pilgrim’s Office will make your own personalized certificate showing the starting point and day of your pilgrimage, total kilometers traveled, personal route, and arrival date in Santiago de Compostela.
As the issuance of the Credencial and the Compostela is free, the proceeds received from the sale of any Certificates of Distance are an important source of funds for the continuing works of the Cathedral of Santiago. If you have previously made the Pilgrimage, or simply forgot to ask for a Certificate of Distance, you can email the Cathedral of Santiago and request one.
Anyone today can document their pilgrimage with photos of the beautiful vistas, charming albergues or local hotels, or their lunch of pulpo (and you should), but there’s nothing like remembering your Camino with the Compostela, Credencial, or Certificado. Show it off to your friends when you get home or tuck it away somewhere private and special, but at any rate bring back something special to remind you of your time on the trail.
We recommend getting a scallop shell in addition to the Credencial, even though there’s not nearly as much room for stamps. If you have any questions about finding a nice scallop shell, getting the Credencial, collecting stamps, or the best way to ask for a Compostela when you get to the Cathedral, don’t hesitate to contact us. Send us an email anytime or give us a call at 1-414-377-3555 to get in touch with one of our experts. And Buen Camino!