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 named Domingo. Traffic had grown sufficiently to encourage Juan’s grandfather to build a modest inn. So every year, especially from April through October, the pilgrims brought their offerings and spent their money for food and shelter.

Spotty Knowledge

Juan, like most of his friends, did not know how to read or write (though he had developed a rough-and-ready system of bookkeeping for his inn). Juan’s priest, more than many priests, valued letters and had made a standing offer to village boys to teach them how to read and write Latin. Juan’s parents had not seen the point of this, so they had not sent him to the priest’s makeshift schoolroom.

Juan’s religious education was therefore spotty. It was for laymen like him that many priests wrote popular biographies of local saints. They wrote in the common tongue, that is, a form of street-Latin-become-Spanish, to tell saints’ lives, stories of the miraculous, and to praise Our Lady in her joys and sorrows.

Villagers told or summarized such stories to each other, some of which were put in verse form. Often the writing was a churchly version of the popular love songs of the wandering minstrels. The writers hoped that what of the faith a person like Juan did not pick up in church, he would learn on the street from these ballads.

Juan picked up much of his Christian education in the village’s rhythms, from the ringing of the bells calling people to worship, to the celebration of the feasts of the church year. On the many annual feast days, statues of Christ or Mary were carried in procession through the village, stopping in each neighborhood. Hymns were sung, prayers prayed, and Juan with the others dropped to his knees in the open street.

In the evenings of feast days, singing and dancing mixed sacred and secular themes in a way that was hard to separate.

From time to time, Juan also heard sermons by wandering preachers, like the Dominican who had preached the past summer in the little square in front of Juan’s inn. Juan had never seen a Dominican before. The order of friars had just recently been founded by a Spaniard, and officially sanctioned only for ten years. Juan couldn’t remember much of the sermon, except some warnings about the need to abstain from sex during penitential periods and before taking Communion.

Strange Customs

“How did you get married?” was one question the wandering priest asked Juan.

“I was married ‘at the church door.’ ” Pierre had heard this expression all over Europe. It meant that either vows had been exchanged in the presence of a priest, or that the union had been solemnized by prayers at the church door.

“Do you hear that Rome now insists that all Christians marry in church or at the church door,” said Pierre, “at least in the presence of a priest.”

Juan was taken aback. At his wife’s urging, he had had a priest solemnize their vows. But many married people in Silos had never done so. This was going to be a piece of news!

Pierre tried to ask about the liturgy Juan’s parish priest used. Spain’s liturgy was rumored to be especially eccentric. The old Spanish rite, which had been used under Muslim rule, was supposed to have been replaced with the Roman rite, and Pierre suspected that this had not been done in Silos. Juan didn’t seem to understand what Pierre was talking about.

Juan admitted, “I must confess that on Sundays, I am often too busy to go to Mass. I often stay with those in my inn wishing a drink.”

“What do you do if you sin?” Pierre continued. “You know Rome now requires everyone to confess and take Communion once a year.”

Juan had heard the rumor, and he nodded his head. “It’s been many years since I’ve confessed to a priest. When I have something to confess, I either go to one of the monks or to my priest and kneel before him while he sits and listens. It’s funny; he speaks to me in Castilian, but he prays in Latin.”

Pierre then asked, “Are you involved in any parish activities, besides the Mass?”

“Well, we have a fraternity, an association of all the tradesmen in town. We meet in the church yard when the weather allows it, and we pledge to take care of the widows of the fraternity members. We also donate food for the poor.”

From the monastery, Juan suddenly heard the bells announcing vespers. Like many villagers, every noon and evening, he prayed short prayers the priest had taught him. Juan thought he could suitably impress his pious visitor by concluding the evening with one of them. So he bowed and began, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.…”

Glenn Olsen is professor of history at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and an advisory editor of "The Catholic Historical Review."