Lyon was a great hub of the vast Roman road system of Gaul, built during the first century BC. One of the roads led southwest towards Rodez where it separated, branching south towards Toulouse and west towards Cahors. It was this latter which was used by medieval pilgrims travelling the Puy Road to Santiago de Compostela.
After passing through Le Puy-en-Velay, the way traversed the high volcanic plateaux of the southern Massif Central.
The old road made its way through dense forest which was home to wolves and boar. The way was often obscured by dense fogs and in winter, sudden snowstorms. Harsh winds blew regularly through this desolate region. Bands of thieves were known to lay in wait, pilgrims were easy pickings.
At the highest point on the desolate plateau of the Aubrac stood the celebrated hospital of Notre-Dame-des-Pauvres which was dedicated to the care and protection of pilgrims. Above the western door of its church were engraved the words: “This place of horror and immense solitude”
Travellers on the road could hear the five bells of the hospital church tolling from several miles distant.
One bell was engraved with the Latin inscription: “Deo giubila, clero canta, doemones fuga, errantes revoco”. She praises God, sings for the priest, chases away the demons, recalls the lost ones.
The prior of the hospital was known as the Domus or lord and the site came to be referred to as the Dômerie. The first Domus was named Adalard in 1120. Legends of later centuries told that he was a nobleman of Flanders. Versions of the story vary in whether he was travelling to Compostela or returning home. After he became lost on the Aubrac plateau and narrowly escaped a fatal end at the hands of brigands, Adalard made a vow to return and found an establishment to protect pilgrims.
Another story tells that Adalard, with his retinue of 30 knights were travelling back from Compostela as night began to fall. Searching for a suitable shelter, they came across a cavern. Inside they were horrified to find the decapitated heads of twenty to thirty men. These they recognised to be pilgrims who had been waylaid. A vision of Christ appeared and ordered Adalard to found a refuge for pilgrims in this dangerous place. Adalard returned later to fulfill the command and established Notre-Dame-des-Pauvres on the site.
It was a substantial monastic establishment surrounded by protective walls. The monks followed the Augustinian Rule and there was a garrison of Knights Hospitaller to guard the road. The facilities comprised a wash house, a kitchen and a dormitory of fourteen beds for pilgrims. On the first floor was a hospice of eight cells for the care of the sick. This level also housed a contingent of noble ladies who washed the pilgrims and attended to their wellbeing. Outside was a pilgrim cemetery.
After Aubrac, the road descended gradually towards the more hospitable climes of the Lot Valley where Espalion beckoned.
Biblio: J.C. Fau, Rouergue Roman. A. Shaver-Crandell, P. Gerson: The Pilgrims Guide to Santiago de Compostela. Denise Péricard-Méa, Compostelle et Cultes de Saint Jacques au Moyen Âge.