While not well-known in our times, the Premonstratensians who founded the Retuerta Abbey were pioneers in championing apostolate as opposed to the contemplative aspirations of most of the religious orders of their day, and they emerged as an important centre of power in Castile and Leon. Hence, they tried to contain the reformist ambitions of Philip II.
With the arrival of the monks to the banks of the Duero River in 1146, Abadía Retuerta became the first settlement of the Premonstratensian Order in Spain and also the origin of subsequent communities in Palencia, Salamanca and Soria. Furthermore, it became the circaria or head of the rest of the abbeys and monasteries of the order in Castile and Leon.
According to historical records compiled by Patricia Andrés González, professor of Art History at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at the University of Valladolid, Retuerta benefited from the donations of noble Castilian families from its inception and was supported by various monarchs who endorsed its possessions and privileges. The donation of 5,000 maravedis to King Sancho IV’s military campaign, one of the largest ever made for this cause, turned it into the most powerful abbey in Castile by the end of the 13th century.
The religious reform of Philip II
But its golden days gradually faded away and Retuerta lost ground to other religious centres. According to Andrés González, the breakdown of communal rules and standards with questionable practices such as the perpetual abbots who clung to their seat of power also played against it.
The general context was increasingly unfavourable. If the reform of religious orders was under debate in Spain since the 15th century, Philip II made it a cornerstone of his reign. On September 17, 1565 he decreed the reform of the Premonstratensian order, but he previously had to address the objections of Pope Pius IV. With his successor, Pius V, he succeeded in accelerating the process, as in 1566 the new Pope approved the termination of conventualism.
The survival of the Premonstratensians was at stake, since the reform sought to integrate all the abbeys and their members into the Order of Saint Jerome. Thanks to the account written by Friar Diego de Vergara, there is a great deal of information about this dark period in the history of the abbey.
Idiot friars without education or doctrine
Among the arguments for the abolition of the order presented by the court of Philip II was the existence of only 18 abbeys in the kingdom “and in all of them so few friars, that in most of them they do not exceed four, five, six or eight. These are all idiots, without education or doctrine, and there is no preacher among them, not even a pulpit in some of their houses. And furthermore, besides being idiots, they are very distracted in their habits and set a very bad example, for they do not keep a cloister, nor do they have any way or form of order or observance”.
The account of Fray Diego de Vergara describes the arrival of the Hieronymite monks in the abbeys at Christmas 1568, requesting, “in better or worse ways”, obedience to the king’s orders. The greatest resistance was encountered in Retuerta, where the Hieronymites despised the Premonstratensian monks with offensive and indecent acts. They often locked them up in the library or in solitary cells, leaving them totally isolated. They survived with some help, such as a servant who secretly passed on information and food to them. They were apparently not lacking in chickens, ram’s legs, bacon legs, game, geese; fritters in the corresponding season, and in Lent, pickles, cheeses, almonds, biscuits… They even had 115 residents of Quintanilla coming to work in the monastery’s vineyard on a festive day.
Eventually, their firm opposition, coupled with the Pope’s support, made it possible for the order to survive, but on condition that it be reformed.
The dolce vita of the time
On the other hand, the “relaxation” Patricia Andrés González talks about in her research would not be such if seen through contemporary eyes. The minutes of several inspection visits that have been conserved condemn, for example, the habits of two religious men who went out to hunt. They also criticize the fact that they had “old” women living in the house, but outside the cloister, to cook and wash, or that at occasional celebrations such as Christmas the monks played and bet on cards at night with money lent by the abbot.
The reform undertaken by Philip II also sought to remove the monks from the order’s centre of power when their motherhouses were located in other countries. This was accomplished with the creation of the Hispanic Premonstratensian Congregation in 1601. These communities continued to exist during the 17th and 18th centuries, until the exclaustration approved in the 19th century, which prompted the abandonment of the abbeys. But that is another story.