Women on the Road

Stuffing the dried fruit and almonds into my backpack, I made a brief visit to the Cathedral to focus my thoughts and then set off from Canterbury to walk to Dover. Eight hours, and much sun-block later, I had completed stage 1 of the Via Francigena.

The path out of the perfect Kentish village of Patrixbourne rose up through a field of oats, golden stalks shyly shimmering under modestly bent heads; the first spirit-lifting moment of the day in the clear summer air. A little further on, as the path began to trace the edge of woodland I met Rachel and Sarah, two old friends marking their fiftieth birthdays with a pilgrimage to Rome. When I asked why, Sarah answered for them both “We wanted to step outside of our daily lives and have an adventure.” They were carrying the #LightFootGuide to the #ViaFrancigena and planning to take it a stage at a time. For them, this was day one of a much bigger journey.

Bidding them farewell, I strode on, the path now a flint-strewn scar across a meadow of wild flowers, the North Downs stretching away in every direction. The sun, as they say, was merciless, and my water bottle was soon almost empty. Stopping to drain the final drop,  I encountered a group from Arras, France, who were boldly knocking at the door of a friendly farm to ask for water. These were the only pilgrims I encountered in eight hours of walking and all were women.

In the middle ages, concern for the safety of women on pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem was matched by a desire to maintain the social norms of the day, which demanded that women be closely supervised in the interests of public decency. Naturally, many women ignored such constraints and of these, Margery Kempe, the 15th century mystic from King’s Lynn, Norfolk was perhaps the notable. Kempe’s notoriety stems from the very detailed account she made of her travels to the Holy Land, Rome, Assis and Compostela. These she dictated, being herself illiterate, a common condition even for relatively wealthy women of her era.

‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ , in which she refers to herself throughout in the third person as “this creature” opens with an account of the traumatic birth of her first child at the age of 20, which led to months of mental anguish. Her torment included disturbing visions of “as she thought, devils opening their mouths all inflamed with burning waves of fire, as if they would have swallowed her in, sometimes ramping at her, sometimes threatening her, pulling her and hauling her, night and day.”

In the Book, Kempe describes the raging storm of her demons and the attempts at self-harm that included biting her own hand “so violently, that the mark was seen all her life after”. And after the storm, the calm, and the visitation of “Our Merciful Lord Jesus Christ” who addresses her with the words “Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?” Margery Kempe goes on to have a further 13 children before negotiating with her husband to remain chaste within the marriage, and to live apart. This passionate 40-year-old religious visionary then sets out on a pilgrimage that was to last for two years. Through her account, we learn of the many visitations she receives along the way, and the seemingly incessant wailing and tears that mark her piety. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the noise of this keening seems to have put off her fellow travellers, who are always trying to encourage her to be merry and more importantly, to be quiet.

Margery Kempe’s motives were on one level, deeply spiritual, but they also included the more prosaic impulse for sight-seeing, telling her readers that “when Our Lord had forgiven her sin, [she] had a desire to see those places where He was born, and where He suffered His Passion, and where He died, with other holy places where He was in His life and also after His resurrection”. By the end of the 15th century pilgrim diaries were ‘issuing in thousands from the printing presses’ as the boundary between pilgrimage and tourism began to blur.

Today, pilgrims like myself, or Rachel and Sarah, or the group from Arras are propelled by a complex assortment of motives: the desire for a clear mind, reconnection with a long-lost self or spiritual purpose or simply the elevation that comes from breathing long and deep of the clean air of a path through fields and woods. Whatever drives the  pilgrim on, we can be confident that, to a greater or lesser extent, it was ever thus.


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