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The two monasteries' names Suso and Yuso mean the "upper" and the "lower" in archaic Castilian, respectively. Suso is the older building and is believed to be built on the site of a hermitage where Saint Emilian (Spanish: San Millán) lived. Perhaps Suso's major claim to fame is as the place where phrases in the Spanish and Basque languages were written for the first time. UNESCO acknowledges the property "as the birthplace of the modern written and spoken Spanish language". The phrases in Spanish and Basque are glosses on a Latin text and are known as the Glosas Emilianenses. There is some debate as to whether the Spanish words are written in an early form of Castilian or in a related dialect. In either case, San Millán's importance as a cradle of the Spanish language is reinforced by the proximity of the village of Berceo which is associated with Gonzalo de Berceo, the first Spanish poet known by name.
There is a continuous history of Christianity at San Millán since the time of the saint. The scriptorium remained active during the period of Muslim rule; and over the centuries, the religious community has overcome various vicissitudes which affected the monasteries (for example being sacked by the Black Prince). However the type of monastic life evolved: the original monks living at Suso were hermits, but Yuso, the refoundation of the monastery on a lower site, developed as a Benedictine community. As the UNESCO evaluation noted, San Millán shows the transformation from an eremetic to a cenobitic community in material terms.
Suso monastery has been uninhabited since the Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendizábal in the nineteenth century. Yuso monastery was also abandoned for some years in the nineteenth century, but was reoccupied. It houses an Augustinian community, but part of the monastery has been converted into a hotel. Today San Millán attracts pilgrims on the Way of St James (even though it lies somewhat off the line of the official route between Nájera and Burgos).