Pilgrim legends: the miracles of the Order of St. Anthony

One of the most emblematic stories linked to the Camino de Santiago is that of the strange origin and miracles of the Order of Saint Anthony.

The Hospitaller Brothers of St. Anthony (popularly known as “Antonians”) were a congregation of monks who enjoyed great fame in the Middle Ages, because according to legend, they were the only ones who had the power to heal a widespread and extremely deadly disease at the time, known as “fire or fever of St. Anton”.

They were distinguished from other monks by their habit, with a large blue T on their chest.

Los caballeros de la Orden de San Antonio en un cuadro de El Bosco
The Order of St. Anthony was founded in 1095 by the noble knight Gaston de Valloire, whose son Girondo was afflicted with the terrible disease but recovered his health after praying before the relics of St. Anthony.

These relics were kept in the Church of St. Anthony in the village of La Mota. The congregation was initially made up of lay people, but they adopted the Rule of St. Augustine in 1248 and became a religious order.

Their monastery-hospitals reached all regions of France, Spain, Italy, Flanders and Germany. They enjoyed great popularity and even cared for the sick infected by the Black Death. They carried out an extraordinarily charitable work and also received many donations for it.

In Spain, they cared for pilgrims who fell ill while on the Camino de Santiago.

According to legend, they healed many Nordic and Central European pilgrims from the notorious “fire of St. Anton”. Antonian clerics touched the gangrenous limbs of sick pilgrims with their tau-shaped staff and they miraculously recovered their health. When they arrived in Santiago de Compostela, they were completely healthy.

However, it is also said that many of them fell ill again when they returned to their country of origin. It was often speculated that they had not sincerely repented of their sins and therefore fell ill again, or it was recommended that they make a new pilgrimage to Santiago.

Today we know that all these legends have a historical part and a scientific part that was not understood at the time. The disease known as “San Antón’s fire” was actually what is known today as ergotism. A poisoning caused by ergot that contaminates rye. The countries of cold Europe were regular consumers of rye, whose plantations were contaminated by the fungus. In Spain, however, the main bread eaten was candeal bread, coming from wheat crops. For this reason the health of the pilgrims improved when they arrived to the south of Europe where they healed “miraculously”.

In fact, the only known remedy for illness in the Middle Ages was a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

The truth is that although these miraculous healings are not due to any divine mediation, the medieval pilgrims who undertook the Camino de Santiago were cured thanks to their faith, without which they would never have left their countries of origin.

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