Hospitality during the first centuries of the pilgrimage to Santiago begins as with the passage of the pilgrims who, upon hearing the news of the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle in Compostela began to flock to the northern lands of Spain in pilgrimage to Galicia. Studies indicate that hospitality was first offered in monasteries which, following the standards of Christian charity which very clearly takes shape in the monastic rules, opened their doors to the pilgrims as they would to any traveler, rich or poor, who passed by their doors. This is what leads scholars to maintain that “until the middle of the 11th century, hospitality toward pilgrims was carried out almost exclusively in monasteries.” 1
There is also reference in documentation to a basic welcoming in churches which greeted pilgrims in the churches themselves, following a tradition of spending a night of prayer before the tomb of the saints. In some Asturian churches there are records that confirm this simple and occasional hospitality 2.
As the number of pilgrims increases, it becomes necessary to establish places other than monasteries so that the growing influx of pilgrims does not disturb the normal functioning of the monasteries. Therefore, from the 11th century on, hospitals dedicated to welcoming “pilgrims and the poor” in a way that becomes typical in this type of establishment begin to appear. It is important to note that when we talk about pilgrims we are referring either to simple travelers coming from other areas or else poor people and vagabonds and it is precisely the expression “poor” that we refer to as pilgrims. By the middle of the 11th century, there are only five known hospitals on the Camino: Sahagun, Villavascones (location is currently unknown), Arconada, Najera, and Santo Domingo de la Calzada. But in later centuries many more were established along the Jacobean Route.
The first hospitals are monastic or Episcopal foundations and from their inception they are supported by monarchs or individuals that leave donations of their wealth in their wills. Later, many others were directly established by kings or nobility, religious, or military orders, confraternities, or individuals that had the economic means to do so. We also must mention the actions of individuals like Santo Doming de la Calzada or San Juan de Ortega whose hospitality was the road to their sainthood. In some cases, there were hospitals that depended on support from French monasteries as in the case of Hornillos del Camino which depended on the monastery of Rocamadour and later upon the abbey of St. Martin de Tulle in the Limoges region 3.
In addition to these charitable hospitals, lodgings that charged pilgrims for their stay also appeared. These lodgings flourished, especially in the cities along the Camino de Santiago. The proliferation of these types of establishments which offered lodging to all types of people, and not just pilgrims, and the competition that developed between these places created an environment for all types of abuse to develop. These abuses were referred to in the “Verananda dies” sermon in the Codex Calixtinus 4 and are referred to in some of the miracles of the Apostle who, in the middle of the hanged man, alerts pilgrims to these fraudulent practices. In Oviedo there are records of a street called Rua de albergueros (Innkeeper Street) and there are even records of some pilgrims of a rather adventurous and vagabond spirit that temporarily became servants or promoters of these types of establishments 5. It is said that these people would go out onto the roads and pretend to accidentally come across pilgrims and promise them good treatment at the inns only to mistreat them later 6. It is also said that they would throw out pilgrims who had already arrived and settled in if other pilgrims offering more money arrived later on. The things that happened centuries ago!
In terms of what was offered to pilgrims in the hospitals, we can say that it was common to give them food, the quality and quantity 7 of which varied greatly from one hospital to another as is reflected in what pilgrims wrote in their diaries and in what they told one another. But this did not happen in all the hospitals. It was common for some pilgrims to take advantage of the opportunities that were offered to them as is reflected in the diary of Guillermo Manier 8 in the 18th century. To avoid these abuses, it was common practice to mark the walking sticks of the pilgrims that had already been to a refuge so that they could not return many times.
The washing of the feet must have been a common practice in the hospitals and was a symbolic tradition which, following the example of Christ at the Last Supper, was used to show respect and veneration toward the pilgrim in whom could be seen the image of Christ. At the same time, this was a basic hygienic measure that would have helped comfort pilgrims and improve the environment in the hospitals. Beds, such as they were, were also available, although they might not have had the meticulous cleaning as might have been desired. With respect to how pilgrims were treated, some places tried to have greeters who could speak several foreign languages and who would treat pilgrims with great charity, although there are reports that on some occasions the doormen beat some pilgrims with sticks 9.
Regarding religious concerns, it was quite common for hospitals to have a chapel cared for by a priest. Also, prayers were solemnly said at dinnertime 10. There were also measures in place to take care of sick pilgrims, both physically and spiritually, as well as to bury the many pilgrims who died along the way.
1 Vázquez de Parga, Lacarra y Uría, “Las peregrinaciones a Santiago” Madrid 1949, Tomo I. Pag. 288.
2 Vázquez de Parga... Obra citada. Tomo I. Pag. 289.
3 Vázquez de Parga... Obra citada. Tomo I. Pag. 302
4 Liber Sancti Jacobi I, capítulo 17.
5 Así aparece ditado un personaje de una novela francesa del siglo XIII que durante una temporada estuvo haciendo este trabajo en un hotel de Santiago. Cfr. Vázquez de Parga... Obra citada. Tomo I. Pag.392, nota 371.
6 Vázquez de Parga... Obra citada. Tomo I. Pag. 390
7 En los informes que a veces se usan en los estudios históricos sobre lo que ofrecían a los peregrinos en los hospitales y el número de raciones que se daban hay que suponer un deliberado intento de aumentar cifras y calidades que a veces poco tenían que ver con la realidad.
8 “Llegamos a las 9 y fuimos a la catedral...oímos misa y a las 11 fuimos a comer al convento de S. Francisco, nos dieron buen pan, sopa y carne; a las 12 fuimos también a comer sopa al convento de los benedictinos de S. Martín donde nos dieron bacalao, carne y pan excelente, que es raro en esta región; a la una dan pan y carne en el convento de las religiosas de Sta. Teresa; a las 2 dan pan los jesuitas; a las 4 nos dirigimos a tomar la sopa, que nos sirvió de cena, al convento de Sto. Domingo...encaminándonos después a dormir al hospital que tiene buenas camas” Citado por Ángel Rodríguez González en PEREGRINO nº 9, pag. 19.
9 Vázquez de Parga... Obra citada. Tomo I. Pag. 313
10 Vázquez de Parga... Obra citada. Tomo I. Pag. 341-344