“Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands” - Richard Burton, Explorer
The first step of any journey takes place in the imagination. For many pilgrims, such as those who have waited half a lifetime for the chance to make the Hajj, that first step can last longer than the journey itself. For the medieval European Christian contemplating a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the very real risks of the road were held in balance against potential rewards in the next life.
One of the definitive accounts of medieval pilgrimage comes to us from Felix Fabri, a 15thCentury monk who twice journeyed from the Dominican Convent in Ulm, southern Germany to the Holy Land. He makes a promise to his fellow monks to keep an exact record of all that he saw and experienced along the way and proves to be a man of his word.
Having committed to make the journey, Brother Fabri was clearly anxious at what lay ahead. He pays a visit to Prince Count Eberhard, the elder of Wurtenburg, who had travelled to Jerusalem, to ask his advice for “I was alarmed and feared for my life, and I dreaded the sea, which I had never yet seen, and of which I had heard much, and the other perils of that pilgrimage about which I had already read a great deal.” The noble Count, listens to Fabri’s concerns and responds saying “There are three acts in a man’s life which no one ought to advise another to do or not to do. The first is to contract matrimony, the second is to go to war, the third is to visit the Holy Sepulchre.”
Weighing up the pros and cons of whether to make a journey is commonplace, but for millions of pilgrims each year, the moment of decision arrives and the first step is taken. For two friends, re-united at a 60thbirthday celebration, there was a single electric moment of complicity which sealed the plan to walk from Sienna along the Via Francigena towards Rome.
We first met as students in 1976 and our friendship had been sustained over four decades, despite one living in Paris and the other in London, but the question remained how we would interact on the road ahead. Would we be like two Ancient Mariners, compelled to recount our age-old tales of misadventure in the long walking hours from dawn to daily destination? Where we would stay, or whether we were fit enough to trek across Italy were practicalities which could be addressed in the moment. More pressing was how individually and collectively we would carry the baggage of our ‘selves’. This was the true journey into the unknown, with no map or app to guide us.
In a letter to his wife Louie, the American naturalist writer and environmental campaigner John Muir declares “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”We were not quite up to John Muir’s hardy standards, but by travelling independently and on foot, C and I hoped to enter a different, more receptive frame of mind. We would carry basic necessities on our backs and look for a bed each night. Preparations for the journey were simple, being largely meditative, with the exception of a single trip to the outdoor equipment store to buy suitable boots and socks.
For Richard Francis Burton, the notable 19thcentury explorer who set out to infiltrate the hallowed cities of Mecca and Medina disguised as a pilgrim, the preparation was rather more exacting. It included having himself circumcised as a precaution, believing that discovery as an infidel would lead to certain death.
He started as he meant to go on and embarked on the first leg of his voyage from Southampton to Alexandria in character as Shaykh Abdullah bin Yusef el Farangi (Abdullah, son of Joseph the foreigner), a Persian scholar and medic who spoke little English. Burton spent the two-week journey by ship to Alexandria growing his beard and conversing in broken English with fellow passengers, something made possible by the fact that he already spoke several Eastern languages, learnt while working as an engineer in the 18thSepoy Regiment in Sindh province. He remarks that “[..] in the matter of assuming an Oriental nationality, Nature has been somewhat propitious to me: golden locks and blue eyes, however per se desirable, would have been sad obstacles to progress in swarthy Arabia. And to what Nature had begun, Art contributed by long years of laborious occupation”
After the heart-filling romance of the vision of adventure, comes the inevitable packing. Burton lists the few necessaries he acquires in Alexandria for the onward journey. “A change or two of clothing a substantial leather money belt to carry my gold, a little cotton bag for silver and small change for ready use in the breast pocket, a zemzemiyah, or water bag of goat-skin, a huge cotton umbrella of Cairene make, bright yellow, like an overgrown marigold, a coarse Persian rug, which acted [as] bed, table, chair, [a medicine chest] and lastly a shroud, without which no person sets out for Mecca.”
He explains that, should a pilgrim get sick or wounded while on the Hajj, the caravan cannot wait for him. The patient is therefore ceremonially washed, wrapped up in his kafan,partly covered in sand and left to his fate.
The function of many of the items he listed – waterproof, sleeping bag, water bottle, medicaments, can be found in many modern travel guides and indeed Burton’s list more or less mirrors the contents of our rucksacks on the road to Rome, although, when C succumbed to crippling blisters after two days walking, I did not abandon her, wrapped in a shroud at the side of the road.
The 15thcentury priest and Bursar of the newly established Eton College, William Wey made several pilgrimages to Rome, Compostela and the Holy Land, and was well placed to offer advice to those travelling onward from Venice when they “purposeth by the grace of God to pass by the sea to the Port of Jaffa in the Holy Land and so to the Sepulchre of our Lord, Christ Jesus, in Jerusalem”.
The sea route from Venice to the Holy Land rose to popularity in the 12thcentury after the land route through Eastern Europe became too dangerous, and Wey’s packing instructions for the six-week voyage are highly detailed, specifying “three barrels, two for wine and a third for water” and recommending that travellers
William Wey specified that the pilgrim must also take “a small cauldron and frying pan, dishes, platters wooden saucers, glass cups, a grater for bread” as well as a bed from vendors close to St Mark’s Church. “You will pay three ducats for a feather bed, a mattress, two pillows, two pairs of sheets and a quilt. When you return, bring the bed back to the man from whom you bought it and you will get a refund of 1 1/2 ducats, even if it is broken and worn.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to buy a second-hand feather bed that has made a round trip from Venice to Jaffa by sea, but, as is the case today, pilgrim travel in the Middle Ages had a level to suit every purse: many of the boats setting out from Venice were packed tightly, with the poorest pilgrims confined below decks and forced to live on bread and water for the entire duration of the voyage.
For many medieval pilgrims, the journey itself was a form of penance through which to achieve redemption. For others, a more distant horizon beckoned: Rome was the final resting place of two important Apostles of Christ, St Paul and St Peter, the latter of whom was deemed to hold the keys to the gates of heaven. Many pilgrims to Rome were seeking his patronage for the absolution of their sins and the promise of eternal salvation.
For the wealthy, pilgrimage offered a chance to see the world beyond the pale of their own domain, and for the poor, it represented a legitimate pretext to escape lives of misery or suffering, albeit temporarily.
The constraints on the individual during the middle ages were considerable. Many were villeins, or serfs, meaning they were the legal property of feudal Lords. It was obligatory to make confession at least once a year to the local parish priest and few could leave the confines of their village or town without permission. Religious pilgrimage offered a rare opportunity for long-distance travel that was sanctioned by the church and for many, the risks of the open road, or the discomforts of a crowded boat, were a price worth paying.
Today, even in an age of easy travel, pilgrimage offers a special kind of adventure. Whether rich or poor, the pilgrim foregoes many of the comforts of daily life in order to enter into a different, more reflective state. Getting ready for that journey means not only paring down our luggage to the basic necessities, but also setting aside the metaphorical baggage inside our heads; lightening the load for the road ahead.