In 1170, when Thomas Becket was struck down as he knelt at the altar rail, a tide of pilgrims rose across Europe and flooded to Canterbury. The finger of responsibility soon pointed sharply towards Henry II and, fearing the ultimate sanction of excommunication by the Pope, the King was forced to humble himself by walking barefoot and dressed in a simple linen shift to Becket’s shrine. There Henry submitted himself to ritual strokes of the whip administered in turn by the bishops, abbots and the 80 monks present. This act of penance was the price of political survival.
What you wear is a big deal in pilgrimage and special clothes often mark out the pilgrim from the regular traveller. Kānvarias, devotees of the Hindu god Shiva wear saffron robes and travel bare-foot to collect the holy waters of the Ganges. On the Shikoku circuit of 88 shrines in Japan, pilgrims traditionally wear white garments which represent the shroud they will be buried in should they die along the way and for Muslims, the Hajj begins when they change into the simple white unstitched cloths known as ihram.
Keeping it simple serves the secular pilgrim too, not just for reasons of humility, but because expressing yourself through what you own never feels so heavy as when you’re carrying it for days on end. There are exceptions of course and certain belongings can lighten the emotional load. Even the US Space Shuttle program allowed astronauts to take a Personal Preference Kit or PPK – although it couldn’t weigh more than a pound and a half and had to fit into a special bag provided by NASA. For myself, I never travel without an old Hermes scarf given to me by my husband years ago. It can keep my head cool or dry depending on the weather, and it weighs almost nothing, but most useful of all, it warms my heart on the journey.