Running of the Bulls: History of Spain's San Fermin Festival

Running of the Bulls 2019
Running of the Bulls 2019.

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

The Running of the Bulls is a part of the annual Festival of San Fermín during which six bulls are released into the cobblestone streets of Pamplona, Spain, to be corralled to the city’s bullring. Participating runners demonstrate their bravado by attempting to dodge the angry bulls en route to the city center.

Bull running is only one part of a larger festival to honor San Fermín, the patron saint of Pamplona, but it is the bull run that draws thousands of annual visitors to the celebration each July. This popularity, particularly with Americans, is due in part to Ernest Hemingway’s romanticization of the event in The Sun Also Rises.

Fast Facts: San Fermín, Spain’s Running of the Bulls

  • Short Description: As a part of the annual Festival of San Fermín, six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona and corralled to the bullring in the city center, accompanied by thousands of visiting bystanders. 
  • Event Date: Annual, July 6 - July 14
  • Location: Pamplona, Spain

Though the contemporary festival is largely symbolic, its original purpose, dating back to the 13th century, was to allow herders and butchers to drive cattle from pens outside of the city to the bull ring in preparation for market days and bullfights. Pamplona still hosts bullfights on the evening of the bull run, a fact that has stirred significant controversy from animal rights organizations in recent years. Since 1924, 15 people have been killed at the running of the bulls, most recently a 27-year-old Spanish man in 2009. 

Running of the Bulls 

Every morning in Pamplona at 8 a.m. during the Festival of San Fermín, six bulls and at least six steers are released into the streets and corralled into the city’s bull ring. This running of the bulls, called the encierro, takes less than five minutes.

Before the run formally begins, participants sing a benediction to San Fermín asking for protection. Most wear a common uniform: white shirt, white pants, red neck scarf, and red belt or waist scarf. The white of the uniforms is thought to reference the aprons of the medieval butchers who corralled the bulls through the streets, and the red is worn in honor of San Fermín, who was beheaded in France in 303 A.D.

After the benediction is complete, two rockets are fired: one to signal that the pen has been opened, and another to indicate the bulls have been released. The cattle used in Pamplona are four-year-old true bulls, or uncastrated males, that weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds and boast uncapped razor-sharp horns. The bulls run with steers, some mixed in with the bulls, and some running behind the bulls, encouraging forward movement. At the end of the run, a rocket is fired to indicate the bulls have entered the ring, and a final rocket concludes the event.

Thanks to Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls is the most famous bull run in the world. However, since bull running was once a common European village practice, it is an important feature at many summertime festivals in Spain, Portugal, southern France, and Mexico.

The festival is undoubtedly dangerous; between 50 and 100 people are injured each year. Since 1924, 15 people have been killed, most recently a 27-year-old Spaniard in 2009 and a 22-year-old American in 1995. None of these fatalities have been women, owing in part to the fact that women were not permitted to participate until 1974. Despite the danger, thousands of people return to Pamplona year after year. Hemingway attended nine times, though he never participated in the run. American author Peter Milligan has run with the bulls more than 70 times over 12 years.

History and Origins 

The practice of bull running in Europe dates back at least to the 13th century. Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls is thought to have been an element of the Festival of San Fermín since its inception in 1591.

Far more than a festival practice, bull running—or, more accurately, corralling—was an essential activity for medieval butchers and herders who were tasked with moving cattle from ships or breeding pens outside of the village into a central enclosure in preparation for the next day’s market and bullfight. Originally taking place during the middle of the night, bull running gradually became a daytime spectator sport. Likely during the 18th century, the spectators began running with the animals, though few records exist to document this transition. 

Contemporary Criticism 

Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls has been a target of criticism in recent years, particularly from animal rights organizations. PETA hosts an annual Running of the Nudes, a naked march in Pamplona two days before the start of San Fermín to protest the run and the ensuing bullfights, during which the bulls are killed.

This criticism has extended to other bull runs across Europe, leading to policy changes. In the Occitan region of southern France, bulls have not been purposefully injured or killed in bull runs since the 19th century. In Catalonia, bullfighting was banned in 2012.

Festival of San Fermín

The Running of the Bulls is part of the larger Festival of San Fermín, which takes place from July 6th at noon to July 14th at midnight each year. The festival is held to honor San Fermín, the patron saint of Pamplona.

Fermín, who is thought to have lived during the 3rd century, was the son of a Roman senator from Navarre who had converted to Christianity. Fermín was educated in theology and ordained in Toulouse, France. While preaching in France later in his life, Fermín was beheaded, making him a martyr. There is speculation that before losing his head, Fermín was dragged through the streets by bulls, hence the contemporary festival in Pamplona.

The Festival of San Fermín takes place over nine days, and different events are held each day. Bull runs, bullfights, parades, and fireworks shows are held every day.

  • Chupinazo: The official commencement of San Fermín is marked by the firing of a chupinazo, or a firework, from the balcony of city hall on July 6. 
  • San Fermín Procession: On July 7, city officials parade a statue of San Fermín through the streets, accompanied by religious leaders, community members, the local marching band, and Gigantes y Cabezudos (oversized, papier-mache, costumed figures).  
  • Pobre de Mí: At midnight on July 14, the Festival of San Fermín comes to a close with the singing of the song Pobre de Mí at city hall, followed by a final fireworks display. During the song, participants ceremoniously remove their red scarves.

Sources 

  • “Fiestas De San Fermin.” Turismo Navarra, Reyno De Navarra, 2019.
  • James, Randy. “A Brief History of the Running of the Bulls.” Time, 7 Jul. 2009. 
  • Martinena Ruiz, Juan José.
  • Historias Del Viejo Pamplona. Ayuntamiento De Pamplona, 2003.
  • Milligan, Peter N. Bulls before Breakfast: Running with the Bulls and Celebrating Fiesta De San San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain. St. Martins Press, 2015.
  • Ockerman, Emma. “The Surprisingly Practical History Behind Spain's Running of the Bulls.” Time, 6 Jul. 2016. 
  • “What Is the Running of the Bulls?” San Fermin, Kukuxumusu, 2019.