The tale of the hanged-unhanged man by Janice Lert

The gallinero in Santo Domingo de la Calzada where the hen and rooster are kept.

The tale of the hanged unhanged man

Once upon a time there was a road, called the Via Tolosana, that crossed Languedoc all the way from Arles to Toulouse, then continued through the Pyrénées mountains and on to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. In the Middle Ages, thousands if not millions of pilgrims wore out the soles of their shoes over the centuries on this route, heading for Compostela and praying on the relics of all the saints they met along the way. The trail is still important today: walking the entire route takes about two months.


P ilgrims walked (or rode, since some had horses) during the day, but needed places to stay during the night. Of course in the larger cities there were inns, but in some of the more desolate spots monks were encouraged by the Church to create monasteries where travellers could rest and recuperate in relative security. Generally they were created on spots where a miracle, perhaps imaginary, had occurred, and pilgrims were encouraged to leave a coin or two to make life worthwhile for the friars.


To make the trip interesting, a man called Aimery Picaud wrote a document in the 12th century which has come down to us as the Pilgrim’s Guide, and which is still preserved at Santiago de Compostela. Aimery Picaud was a French monk who travelled extensively and visited all the churches and monasteries he met along the way. He mapped out four routes through France designed so that all the pilgrims of Europe could reach Santiago safely. And he spiced up his text with stories of miracles that had taken place along the way.


If you remember Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, you can get an idea of how the travellers, during the long days of walking, told stories to each other, and the tale I am about to tell falls into that category and is taken from Picaud’s Pilgrim’s Guide. There are two versions of this tale: one taking place in Toulouse and the other in Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the same road but in Spain.


This is the Toulouse version;


A German traveller passed through Toulouse in 1090 with his son, heading for Compostela. He stopped over and spent the night in an inn. During the night the crafty innkeeper managed to slip a silver cup into his baggage. In the morning, oh, surprise!, the innkeeper was missing a silver cup. The traveller’s baggage was checked and, lo and behold, the cup was found! The man and his son were dragged before the judge who attributed all of their belongings to the innkeeper and who decided that one of the two would be hanged. So the son was hanged and the father continued on his way to Santiago. When he came back through Toulouse 26 days later, he stopped in front of the body of his son, still hanging on the gallows. As he was weeping the son suddenly spoke: "Don’t cry, father, I have never felt so good. Saint James (Santiago) has taken care of me up ‘til now". The father called upon the inhabitants to come and see. They cut his son down and strung up the innkeeper instead.


Now for the Santo Domingo de la Calzada version;


The story begins in the same way with the son of the German traveller being hanged. And when the German came back from Santiago he found his son still alive, so he went to the local "cadi", the judge who officiated in what were at the time cities controlled by the Moors or Saracens, and explained the situation. The cadi was in the middle of an excellent meal where a roasted rooster and hen were being served. His answer was simple: "If this rooster begins to crow and the hen begins to cackle, then I will know that your son is still alive". Well the miracle happened: the rooster awoke and began to crow, and the hen started cackling. The cadi was convinced and took down the young man. The German family got back all their belongings and the innkeeper was hanged instead.


But this story has a sequel: at Santo Domingo de la Calzada the inhabitants and the church have continued to celebrate this event by keeping a rooster and a hen in a cage in the church. Pilgrims got into the habit of taking a feather from one or the other of these birds. So they were rescued by moving the cage higher up on the wall. The birds are still there today and replaced every three weeks.


This story illustrates one of the many miracles attributed to Saint James, and seems to have been included in the Pilgrim’s Guide to warn pilgrims about staying in inns along the way and to be wary of tricky innkeepers. Perhaps Aimery Picaud also wanted to promote monasteries as safer places for pilgrims to spend the night. The curious thing about the Guide was that it was not apparently designed for the pilgrims themselves, but for the members of the clergy. Today we think that perhaps the Guide was written to discourage rivalry among different monasteries which would beg, borrow or steal relics to attract pilgrims. Church authorities definitely preferred to consider all the different rest stops along the pilgrimage routes complementary, rather than rivals, and this was perhaps the message intended at the time. And the happy ending is that it worked!