A professor at the College of William and Mary known for his work in
medieval studies and on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage received
Spain’s highest cultural achievement distinction for foreign nationals
on Oct. 11.
The Cross of Isabel the Catholic was conferred on George Greenia, professor of modern languages and literatures, for his contributions to research and dissemination of Spain’s cultural heritage. Greenia is the first person in the College’s history to receive the honor, which is bestowed by the king of Spain and akin to the Order of the British Empire or France’s Legion of Honor.
“It’s pretty stunning news since this is an honor that’s existed for over 200 years in Spain and they give it to foreign nationals very selectively,” said Greenia. “There’s lot of people working in this area, so the first thing you think of is, ‘Wait a minute. I can name 30 or 40 people who deserve this more than me.’ But when they tell you they want to give this to you, you don’t say no.”
Carlos Westendorp, ambassador of Spain to the United States, conferred the distinction on Greenia and three other honorees at his home in Washington D.C. as part of a pre-Columbus Day celebration. During the event, Greenia received the title of “Comendador” and was presented with the Cross of Isabel the Catholic medallion.
The distinction is awarded only once a year and some years no awards are given at all. Nominations are made by the ambassador of Spain and are approved by Spain’s state department and the U.S. State Department before finally being approved by Spanish King Juan Carlos I, who is the master of the Order of Isabel the Catholic.
Formerly a Franciscan brother, Greenia has worked at the William and Mary for 26 years and specializes in the Spanish Middle Ages. He served for ten years as director of William and Mary's Program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and over the past three summers has guided William and Mary undergraduates in retracing on foot the entire 500-mile route of the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. He is both editor of the La corónica, a journal devoted to medieval Iberia, and editor of American Pilgrim, a magazine that presents public scholarship to the international pilgrimage community. Greenia also authored the textbook “Generaciones,” and he is co-editor of a two-volume encyclopedia of Castilian writers.
Although the Embassy of Spain asked Greenia for his curriculum vitae earlier this year, he had no idea that he was being nominated for so prestigious an honor. While he walked the Camino de Santiago over the summer, officials in the American and Spanish governments discussed his nomination and combed through his achievements and background.
“Apparently, I was heavily Googled on both sides of the Atlantic this summer without knowing about it,” Greenia joked.
Greenia, who plans on wearing the medallion at graduation, said that “this is one of those mythic awards,” and he never thought he’d meet anyone who had received it, let alone receive it himself.
“This is the high point for anybody’s career in my field,” he said. “I’m still 10 years away from retirement, but this will be the high point of my career.”