In a blustery May night in the early thirteenth century, an old priest registered as a guest at Juan de la Cruz’s inn in Castile. Juan wasn’t surprised at the priest’s age—a large number of pilgrims who came through Silos were elderly. But he was surprised with this priest’s curiosity.

The priest, Pierre, had traveled enough to know that different areas of Christendom had different customs, and he always inquired about such wherever he went. Pierre had heard that, because of centuries of Moorish occupation, the Spains (Spain was not yet spoken of in the singular) had many eccentric religious practices.

Holy Village

The year was 1225 (though Juan did not know this; anno Domini was a system of dating unknown to him). Juan was the third in his family to run the inn at Santo Domingo de Silos. Juan’s ancestors had worked as day-laborers in the monks’ fields and as “carters,” transporting agricultural products, mostly wine, to Silos and elsewhere. Over time the village became economically diverse and independent.

Although on Sundays many villagers attended the monastic church, two other village parishes had been established, one with a secular priest (a priest under obedience to a bishop), and one with a priest from the monastery. Though the order, the Cistercians, had originally forbidden its monks to serve as parish priests—to keep themselves from the world—over time some monks had softened their views.

Though not on the direct pilgrimage route to the popular Santiago de Compostela, Santo Domingo was still a favorite detour for pilgrims. The saint after whom Santo Domingo de Silos, monastery and village, was named was widely known in Castile—Silos had been destroyed in the war against the Moors and had been rebuilt by a holy monk ...

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