Running of the Bulls History

We love hosting guests in Pamplona and sharing the rich history of the Running of the Bulls, which dates back to the 13th century. Like some of the world’s most celebrated traditions, the origins of the annual bull runs in Spain are surprisingly practical and, originally, had no association with the San Fermin Festival.

History of the Bulls

Cattle herders who wanted to transport their animals from barges or the countryside into city centers for sale or bullfights needed a practical means of moving their valuable animals. Over the years, it became tradition to clear a narrow swath into the city center, through which the spirited animals would run together into a crudely-constructed pen or bullring, following one courageous herder.

In Pamplona, this bull run was the easiest way to transport the animals from the city corral to the Plaza de Toros, or bullfighting ring.  The beasts would tear across a half-mile stretch of narrow roads, as townspeople goaded them on with sticks and loud shouts.

According to an article published in TIME magazine in 1937, the practice of running ahead of the bulls to steer them toward the ring was established long before the San Fermin fiesta. Just when local residents started racing in front of the herd is still up for debate, though researchers believe the history of bull running in Spain started in the 1800’s.

Tradition of bull running in Spain

By capitalizing on the animals’ fear and excitement as they were herded through the street and into the bull pen, herders were able to speed along the process. After many decades of this tradition, bull runs in Spain became more of a competition, as young men would jump into the street, rushing alongside the animals while trying not to be trampled. Soon, the running of the bulls became a test of bravado, attended by thousands of townspeople before the evening bullfights.

While Pamplona isn’t the only bull run Spain offers, it is by far the world’s most famous, attracting more than a million tourists who come to watch the charging beasts. The Encierro as it is locally known, is the keystone event of the San Fermin Festival, which runs from July 6-14 every year.

Every morning during the fiesta, throngs of daredevils gather in Pamplona’s Old Town dressed in traditional red and white garb, for the most dangerous and exciting three minutes of their lives.

San Fermin Encierro

It is believed that the religious facets of Pamplona’s fiesta of San Fermin, held in honor of the city’s co-patron saint, and the popularity of bull runs in Spanish cities merged over time. In 1591, the San Fermin Festival was moved from September to July, and since then the famed running of the bulls in Pamplona has taken place every summer, attracting growing numbers of spectators and participants.

Thousands of visitors watch the Encierro from the safety of balconies along the bull run route, which has been modified to prevent the bulls from escaping into other parts of the city. Although the San Fermin fiesta is awash in flowing wine and spirits, there are strict rules when it comes to participating in the bull runs. Participants are not allowed to run while intoxicated, and are not allowed to use cameras to film their run. Even with all the precautions, serious injuries occur every year.

Many visitors are lured to the festival by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel that romanticizes the Pamplona bull runs. The now infamous stampede is not without risk; runners have been gored, trampled and bashed by the angered bulls, and numerous deaths have occurred. Given the dangers involved, revelers always ask Saint Fermin for guidance and protection before each run.

The history of the bulls and the Encierros of San Fermin are intertwined, and at times vague. But one fact remains certain: this gripping, albeit controversial, tradition is a sight to behold, one that paints an indelible picture of passion, bravery, and unbridled exhilaration.

Want to experience San Fermin fiesta like a local? Our Pamplona travel experts can help! The Running of the Bulls® is your authoritative source for Pamplona tours, balcony spots, festival attractions and more!