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How Not to Apologize: A Lesson from a 17th Century Hospital in Barcelona

The following is a guest post by Alèxia Devin, who served as a fall 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress. Special thanks to Francisco Macías for translation and analysis assistance.

Photo of Author with the Holy Cross ("la Santa Creu") of the hospital in the background. Photo by Alexia Devin.Picture of Author with the Holy Cross ("la Santa Creu") of the hospital in the background. Photo by Alexia Devin. Barcelona, 2021.

Photo of author with the Holy Cross (“la Santa Creu”) of the hospital in the background. Photo by Alèxia Devin. Barcelona, 2021.

During my Herencia internship, I transcribed quite a few historical documents that were originally written in Barcelona, Spain, the same city that has adopted me for the last six years. And among those documents, a 13-line public statement in 1656 by the Hospital of the Holy Cross in Barcelona on “the admission or not of spurious or bastards [orphans and children born out of wedlock] in the Hospital” stood out, not only because I walk by the hospital’s medieval building on a daily basis, but also because of the statement’s weirdly familiar tone and its modern way of handling a “call out” situation.

The statement is the hospital’s way of avoiding being shunned by the public. And from my point of view, this letter could fit perfectly in today’s virtual dimension — one could even consider it a 17th century response to almost getting “canceled” (as long as we ignore its old fashioned language). During the 17th century, Barcelona had one main hospital, the Holy Cross Hospital (Hospital de la Santa Creu). But more than just a medical center, it was also one of the city’s most important charitable benefactors. It counted on society’s contributions for its financing and on the various privileges granted by kings and popes. As a result, the hospital’s moral, social, and religious obligations were closely scrutinized. Their services for orphans were no exception. Improper compliance with said obligations could have consequences far worse than just financial loss — it could result in a loss of favor in the Catholic Church.

Considering the high rate of mortality among foundlings (about 75%), the role of the hospital in providing a safe space for neglected children was crucial. Although it was not an orphanage, the Holy Cross took responsibility for the abandoned newborns and their whereabouts — first by sending them to a wet nurse who would take care of them until the age of three, and after that by finding a household that would raise and train them professionally until adulthood. But right as the city was under siege by the Spanish Army in 1651, word arrived that illegitimate children (“borts”) were not being accepted by the hospital. And as would happen today if a celebrity did something morally dreadful, the natural response of the public was to call them out publicly. The statement that can be found in the Herencia collection is the hospital’s response to such social backlash. It is supposed to be an apology letter (after all, they were discriminating against particular newborns), but by the tone of it, it looks more like a rushed plea to be “uncanceled,” a way of transforming a problematic (and unethical) act into a mere anecdotal blunder.

Apologies are tricky: they are supposed to be heartfelt, selfless, and to take full accountability. But what the citizens of Barcelona got in 1656, five years after the incident, was half a page insisting that it was not the hospital’s fault and that they were still excellent Catholics. Or today’s equivalent of the controversial screenshot of an apology letter on the iPhone Notes App posted on social media:

EN LO TEMPS que esta Ciutat de Barcelona estigue sitiada no pogue aquest nostre Ospital General de santa Creu de Barcelona pendre los borts que en aquella ocasio se podian remetra à dit Ospital [ . . .] cosa que es contra tota veritat y raho; perço que en esser estada libera dita Ciudat de dit siti auem rebut y rebem cada dia dits borts de qualseuol part que vingan de Cathalunya ab tota caritat y amor, conforme sempre se es acostumat . . . [emphasis mine]

IN THE TIMES that this city of Barcelona was besieged our General Hospital of the Holy Cross of Barcelona could not take in the illegitimate children that on previous occasions could be referred to this Hospital [. . .], which is something that goes against all truth and reason; that’s why the minute that the said city was liberated, we have received and are receiving each day the said illegitimate children [borts] from whatever part of Catalonia they may come with utmost charity and love, according to what has always been the custom . . . [emphasis mine]

Statement by the Hospital of the Holy Cross of the city of Barcelona on the admission or not of spurious or bastards in the Hospital. July 10, 1656.

Statement by the Hospital of the Holy Cross of the city of Barcelona on the admission or not of spurious or bastards [orphans and children born out of wedlock] in the Hospital. July 10, 1656.

For all its faults, the current fashion of digitally indicting a public figure until the criticism becomes viral has also made me think deeply about what constitutes a real apology. Paradoxically, when an apology is made with the aim of forgiveness and redemption, the selflessness required to transmit accountability is lost. In my opinion, a real apology then should center around those who are harmed. The Holy Cross Hospital statement did everything but that, providing an excellent lesson on how not to apologize.  At no point in the 13 lines of text did the hospital apologize to the public for the harm caused or for their poor management in avoiding accountability. And although they did admit that illegitimate children were not being accepted in the Holy Cross, they seem to have glossed over the issue as a “past” problem and insisted that they were doing everything correctly now.

But why would they address this issue after five years of ignoring it? I can only speculate, but perhaps because social pressure started becoming strong enough to affect the financing of the hospital. If being considered bad Catholics was already bad, not being in the favor of the Church and the king was even worse (especially for the coffers). The link between apologies and retaining sponsors is something that many celebrities nowadays can probably also understand.

Most of these kinds of documents get lost in translation just by going from 17th century to 21st century language: the tone, power dynamics, and social norms are nothing alike. And yet, it’s remarkable how a nearly 400-year-old document can reflect patterns of social behavior that are so easily recognizable today.

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