A historian along the camino

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Attached to the village church in Monbuey is a tower unique in the world. The slender, fortified tower was added by Knights Templar. There is room in the tower for not more than five or six men. Not a lot of water or arrows could have been stored there. High on the tower is the undamaged — after centuries — stone head of a horned ox, buey in Spanish. I met the village priest in the small square. He talked for half an hour about the history of the village, the history of his church and the tower. The priest is a historian.

The way he told me there would be an evening Mass told me I was expected. The church owns the albergue where I slept. Again misquoting Henry IV, a bed is worth a Mass.

Later, I sunned in a corner of the empty square. Three Spaniards parked their car and sat looking carefully around the square. Evidently, they did not see me. When they thought the coast was clear, they hopped out of their car and pulled heavy rucksacks from the trunk. They shouldered their packs and marched up to the refuge. They greeted Leonard the German with hearty holas and buen caminos. The albergues are for foot pilgrims.

Leonard is a German army reserve lieutenant colonel. Leonard explained in great detail — in English — why the German army is superior in every way to the American army. I did not ask why I had not heard this from anyone else. We were five in the refuge that night: the three Spaniards, Leonard and me. All five attended the evening Mass. Eight elderly ladies attended as well — the most worshipers I would see at a Mass before Santiago. I did not see Leonard, or these Spaniards, again after Mombuey.

After the Mass, the priest showed the several treasures in his church, some from the 11th century. He told us the history of each piece. Afterward, I put 10 euros in the limosna — alms box — and thanked the priest for his kindness. Like the earlier priest I thanked, he looked startled and then — very briefly — grinned. Priests seem not to get a lot of attaboys.


One of the treasures was a 12th century painted stone Virgin and Child that had recently been discovered hidden from the Moors in a wall of the church. I asked the priest which wall. He pointed to the wall above the altar. The ancient mortar between the stones was undisturbed. I asked one of the Spaniards. He pointed to the same wall. I didn’t get it.

When we left the church, a young couple, smiling shyly, waited outside for the priest.

The Templars were one of three orders of knights organized to protect pilgrims on the several pilgrimage routes to holy places. Templars built castles and hospitals along the camino. They patrolled constantly.

The modern pilgrim can only try to imagine what the camino must have been like for early pilgrims. The early pilgrims wore brown wool cassocks and sandals. Some were barefoot. Some carried a few rations in small shoulder bags. Some wore brown felt hats.

Most carried a staff and a cockleshell, the symbols of a pilgrim. The pilgrims suffered from heat and cold and rocky trails. They had fleas and lice. They were unbathed. Personal and dental hygiene were impossible. They were robbed and raped by bandits.

Many died. Many who reached Santiago were in terrible condition. The huge, five-star parador in Santiago was built as a pilgrim hospital where pilgrims were treated for wounds and diseases.

The Templars accumulated a vast hoard of gold from the profits on loans to pilgrims. They accumulated vast landholdings. King Phillip le Bel of France resented Templar wealth and power. As a young man, Phillip had been denied membership in the order.

Phillip accused the Templars of Satan worship and homosexuality, and his armies destroyed them. The king and the pope got the Templar land and gold.

Of the three principal orders of knights who protected pilgrims, only the Knights of St. John survive. The Knights of St. John today are a fraternity of Catholic notables. Modern knights carry red diplomatic passports. Kaiser Wilhelm used his to escape to neutral Holland after WWI. The Kaiser was fleeing angry Germans, not the Allies.


Marcus Wilder, a San Antonio retiree who last year traversed the entire 600-mile Santiago de Compostela trail with his two walking canes, is documenting his Spanish journey week by week in the Express-News Travel section.

in http://www.mysanantonio.com

Marcus Wilder is a San Antonio-based world wanderer and retired insurance salesman. He can be reached at marcus wilder2@sbcglobal.net