Sitting directly on the Camino de Santiago in the heart of Spain’s famous Rioja wine district, the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada was founded in the year 1090 by its namesake, St. Domingo de la Calzada. This former hermit turned engineer dedicated his life to the safety and welfare of the pilgrims of his day by building them roads and bridges and even a hospital. He also began work on a church that ultimately would become the beautiful Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
One of the first things I noticed as we walked into this church was the faint smell of chicken poop. A little bit surprised, I looked upward, and there, directly across from the Tomb of St. Domingo, in two separate cages, were a pair of white chickens. One was obviously a rooster; the other was a plump little hen. Our guide then told us the story of the Miracle of the Chickens.
In the middle of the fourteenth-century, a family of great virtue and piety stopped to rest for a couple of days at an inn located in the then small village of Santo Domingo. This family consisted of a father, mother and their,sixteen-year-old son. During their short stay, the innkeeper’s daughter fell passionately in love with the young son. In the words of a sixteenth century travel writer, Andrew Boorde, “. . . she was a wenche whych wolde haue had hym to medyll with her carnally.” In other words, she wanted him for a lover. The young man, however, declined outright—he was, after all, on holy pilgrimage.
The old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in this situation turned out to be somewhat of an understatement! This troubled young lady was livid! Enraged beyond words at the boy’s rejection of her offering to bed him, the innkeeper’s daughter plotted the ultimate revenge. During the night before the family was planning to depart, she hid a silver goblet in the boy’s knapsack. Then, in the morning, just after the family had resumed their pilgrimage to Santiago, she told her father of the “theft” of the innkeeper’s silver.
The local sheriff and his deputies then tracked the family down, and when they searched the hapless young man’s backpack, they did indeed find the silver goblet. As the falsely accused boy screamed and pleaded his innocence, he was mercilessly brought before the magistrate for the theft. The judge found him guilty of the crime and sentenced the boy to death by hanging. All the young man’s parents could do was stand by in abject horror as the wardens dragged their son to the gallows on outskirts of town, slip a noose over his neck, and then open the trapdoor beneath his feet. It was ordered that he be left dangling for a week as a stern reminder to all who passed of the penalty for being a thief.
That evening just after the sun had gone down, the distraught parents returned to the site of their son’s execution to mourn him one last time before setting out to fulfill their obligation to complete their pilgrimage. They could do nothing else; the magistrate had issued the edict that he remain where he was. As they tearfully approached what they thought was their dead son’s body, they were confronted by a great surprise. Their boy was still alive!
Still hanging from the gibbet by the rope around his neck, the boy, when he saw his tearful parents, calmly spoke to them. “Fear not, my dear father and mother,” he said. “Blessed St. Domingo holds me in his arms as I now speak. Run, run! with all your might and tell the honorable judge that I’m still alive. St. Domingo will perform a miracle!”
Without a second’s hesitation, the father and mother rushed back into Santo Domingo to the home of the magistrate. After frantically knocking on his door for over a minute, they were finally let in to the inner courtyard, only to be informed by the judge’s servant that the justice was eating his evening meal and absolutely did not want to be disturbed. The determined parents, however, would not be deterred. Barging into the home, they quickly found the dining room.
Prostrating themselves before the seated magistrate, they quickly told him of the miracle taking place involving their son. The judge, who was just about to begin cutting up the two roasted chickens he was about to eat as his dinner, rather than being annoyed—or even worse, downright pissed off—at this intrusion into his home, was moved by a sort of mocking compassion. Legend says that he looked the anxious parents directly in the eye and bluntly said to them as he pointed to his dinner plate, “My dear pilgrims, your boy can no more be alive than these chickens could get up right now and crow!”
The words had no sooner sprung forth from the magistrate’s lips than the Good St. Domingo performed his second miracle of the evening. Immediately, the two chickens, a rooster and a hen, came to life, squawking and scurrying across the table, and then running outside back to their barnyard roost. Upon witnessing this miracle, the judge fell to his knees in fearful penitence, and after begging the Lord for his forgiveness, he granted clemency to the parents’ beloved son.
Our guide continued, “And it is the direct descendants of those two birds that are in the glass cages that we see across from St. Domingo’s tomb. They are maintained by the Confraternity of Santo Domingo in a special place called a gallinero; they are never eaten. Finding one of their feathers lying about the cathedral guarantees a successful completion of your pilgrimage. Also it is said that if the rooster crows while a pilgrim is in the church, those people who hear it are considered to have special favor in the eyes of St. Domingo.”
“Maybe it’s just me,” he said jokingly before leaving us on our own to explore the beautiful cathedral, “but in the two years I’ve been guiding pilgrims, I’ve never heard the rooster crow even one time!”
And perhaps it was just me (and/or the group I was with), but as I explored the interior of that beautiful Gothic church, with its much-venerated and beloved saint, I managed to find not just one, but three white chicken feathers. I kept one and gave one to my wife. The third one, which I had intended to keep as a spare, I later gave away to one of the members of our group. But even more important than finding any of these feathers, I/we all must have truly found supreme favor in the eyes of good St. Domingo, because as we left the good saint’s holy sanctuary, the rooster not only crowed one time for our avian blessing, but FOUR times!