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Castles in Spain
By Rosemary Sands, Director of the Study Abroad Office

The Abbey of Santa Maria de la Caridad
The Abbey of Santa María de la Caridad still stands. The former Norbertine house is now a private home and accessible to visitors.

Rosemary Sands
Rosemary Sands (Study Abroad)

A king’s wrath, imprisonment, a pair of smuggled pliers, a knotted rope, escape – all the ingredients for a fine tale of adventure and intrigue, set in 16th-century Spain, and the true story, as it happens, of Abbot Hernando de Vallafañe Merino, O.Praem.

My own recent adventures have been scholarly ones full of serendipitous discoveries like this plot worthy of grand opera. It’s a storyline that dates back to a conversation with the Rev. Theodore Antry, O.Praem., ’62 two years ago, but my love affair with all things Spanish began in 1970 with a high school trip to Spain.

Since then I have traveled to many countries and continents, but it was that very first taste of a different culture and language that left an indelible mark and informed my career path. Now that I am pursuing my doctorate, I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a dissertation topic that combines my love of Spanish and Spanish history with my love of this college.

It all began with an innocent question: Why are the Norbertines no longer in Spain?

I asked this question of Father Ted in February 2008 when he was on campus to discuss “Norbert and Early Norbertine Spirituality,” a book he had co-translated and edited. I asked why there were no longer active abbeys in Spain, knowing there were several in other parts of Europe. Father Ted did not have an answer for me because, although the Norbertines had maintained an active presence in Spain for almost 700 years, he said, very little research had been done on them. At that precise moment I knew that I had found the perfect dissertation topic: the history of the Norbertines in Spain, 1143-1835.

Although the Premonstratensian order flourished throughout the Iberian Peninsula for almost 700 years, there have not been active communities of Norbertine men in Spain since 1835. At one time, though, there were more than 30 abbeys, mostly in the region of Castilla y León and Catalonia. But by the time the liberal reforms swept through Spain in the early 19th century, only 13 Norbertine abbeys were still in existence. In 1835, all 13 were suppressed. The difficulties faced by the order in the 19th century, however, were not their first.

Let’s rewind the tape to 16th-century Spain. The Hieronymite order had found great favor with King Philip II. Members of that order had suggested to him that the Norbertines had become quite lax and in need of reform. Teams of Hieronymites were sent to each Norbertine abbey to gather evidence.

“Evidence” of Norbertine laxity included accusations that all of the abbots had servants; that each abbot had at least four horses; that the priests had su peculio (their own money); and that they used this money to dress in fine linens, berets, shoes, gloves and even “slippers” (jeweled and silken, one would imagine).

All of this provoked horror on the part of the reform visitors, but most especially the slippers since such footwear was a terrible sign of effeminateness. In addition, the Norbertines were accused of spending the time between Christmas and Three Kings’ Day playing cards.

Oh yes, and the reformers were also shocked to find an old grandmother washing the Norbertine laundry in the abbey gardens. One can easily see why King Philip thought they were quite out of control.

And now that I have set the scene, replete with anti-Norbertine sentiment, I’ll pick up on the fascinating tale of Abbot Hernando of the Abbey of Santa María de la Caridad, a Norbertine house active from about 1165 until 1805 and located in the province of Salamanca.

Upon the insistence of the king, La Caridad was taken over by Hieronymite reformers in 1578. Abbot Hernando was whisked away to the bishop’s residence in the city, where he was sequestered in an upper room with secured windows and a guard at the door.

He pried open the window with a pair of pliers smuggled in by a friend, hidden in a water jug. Tying bed sheets and blankets together, he escaped out the window under the cover of darkness and fled to Rome, where he pled his case at the Vatican before Pope Gregory XIII.

The pope, upon hearing of these injustices, ordered the Hieronymites to vacate the Norbertine abbeys and King Philip to cease his attempts to submit the Norbertines to the Hieronymites. Life returned to normal for the Norbertines – at least, that is, until the early 19th century, when the suppression of religious orders became the norm.

Rosemary Sands came to St. Norbert in January 1993, when she was hired to teach one section of Spanish 102. Now director of the study-abroad program, she is currently a doctoral candidate at Middlebury College. Next spring, Sands plans to spend three months working in the national archives in Madrid and visiting the sites of the former Norbertine abbeys.

Summer 2010 Magazine

Web extraLook here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

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Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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