Sahagún gets its name as the site where in CE 303 Romans martyred the brothers Santus Facundus and San Primitivus. The Romans threw them into the Cea River when they refused to give up their new faith.
The whole area was populated with small Roman settlements. But it was in the medieval period, especially fueled by the Camino, that made Sahagún a religious center. It was also once the most powerful Benedictine monastery in Spain under the Cluny Order.
This happened under the leadership of the Cluniac abbot Bernardo de Sauvetot who arrived in Sahagún from Burgundy in 1080. Around the same time, in 1085, Alfonso VI gave Sahagún a charter. Soon the town attracted people from all across Europe and other parts of Spain. Sahagún also grew wealthy as a center of commerce and crafts and as a popular stop along the Camino.
Sahagún had four neighborhoods, each defined by the origins of its inhabitants: Iberian Jews, Iberian Christians, Iberian Muslims, and Franks (a mix of French and other European settlers who came to repopulate the frontier lands between Christian and Muslim Spain).
Sahagún’s most stunning churches have a distinctive Mudéjar-Romanesque style in red brick that weave in the aesthetics and many of the symbols shared by all of the religious communities of Spain. (Mudéjar architecture is a style that comes form Muslim craftsmen living and working in Christian Spain.)
The Iglesia de San Tirso dates to the early 12th century and is a harmonious blend of Mudéjar and Romanesque architecture. Its bell tower is classic Mudéjar: made of red brick laid down in lace-like patterns, a square bell tower reminiscent of mosque minarets in the south of Spain, blind arches surrounding the outer walls and horseshoe arches defining the doorways. Inside, the Romanesque space is intimate, human-scale, and warm.
The 13th century Iglesia de San Lorenzo also has a square, brick Mudéjar tower. Its arched porch is also a nice fusion of Mudéjar and Romanesque.
Also from the 13th century, is the Franciscan Santuario de la Peregrina, on a hill on the edge of town. Built with both Gothic and Mudéjar styles, its exterior and interior show the fusion of these two aesthetics, from the outer horseshoe arches to the inner multi-lobed arches and plaster-carved Islamic geometric patterns called atauriques.
Part of the church’s attraction is that it is on a quiet hill. (This is my favorite place in Sahagún.) But the other is that it is a part of a sweet legend. Preserved in one of Alfonso X’s cantigas (sacred songs) from the 13th century is the story of the church’s construction:
A group of pilgrims had arrived in the dark on the outskirts of Sahagún and lost their way to the town when they saw a woman carrying a staff of light. She led them safely to the church. They were fairly sure she was Mary who had come to their aid and so on the spot where she appeared, they built the church sanctuary to the pilgrim. (La peregrina, also implying Mary in the gender of the name, rather than el peregrino…)
Sahagún remains a vibrant market town. As you pass through you’ll notice the numerous communal kitchen gardens surrounding the edges of town. People love their food and wine here. They produce it all a few steps away from where they live. This is the case practically everywhere you pass on the Camino, but here it is more evident.
This colorful self-sufficiency and hard work can easily pull you in. Is it any wonder that some pilgrims, the Franks, came back here to live rather than going back home?