Medieval wanderlust

  • Themes: Books, History, Middle Ages

Pilgrimage was a hugely popular, yet expensive, activity in Medieval Europe with an entire industry – from clothing to souvenirs – built up to support intrepid travellers.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger's 'Return from the Pilgrimage', 1564.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger's 'Return from the Pilgrimage', 1564. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages: The World Through Medieval Eyes, Anthony Bale, Viking, £18.99

In 1384 a married couple left their home town of Danzig (Gdańsk) to embark on a 1,000- kilometre pilgrimage to Aachen, a journey that would take nine weeks. The husband, Adalbrecht, had agreed to the journey in repentance for his sins, namely beating his wife, Dorothea, almost to death.

Since the early 14th century, Aachen had become a popular tourist destination – by 1496 it would attract 142,000 pilgrims in a single day. The star attraction was the cathedral, which housed intimate relics belonging to Christ and the Virgin. Among the collection, including the greying loincloth that Christ allegedly wore during the Crucifixion, was the smock worn by Mary on the night of the Nativity. For Dorothea, this was the most affecting. Her trip to Aachen prompted further pilgrimage leading to life as a hermit, locked in a cell in Marienwerder, becoming Prussia’s first saint thanks to her mystical revelations and miraculous acts.

Pilgrimage was common during the Middle Ages and almost anybody could travel across the world, as it was then conceived, by land and sea. The most popular destinations were places of religious importance, the Holy Land or sites elsewhere that held relics or shrines, from Aachen to Istanbul. In England, people flocked to the Yorkshire town of Pontefract to visit the shrine of Thomas of Lancaster, whose hat was said to perform miracles, such as restoring sight.

The pervading and often surprising theme in Anthony Bale’s superb book is not only the length, breadth and frequency that medieval people travelled, but how prepared they were for their journeys and how, like today, an entire industry was built around their travels. Pilgrim badges became a popular means of evidencing these journeys. Cheap to manufacture, they were sold in their thousands and clipped to the pilgrim’s hat or cloak, ‘an early example of a tourist souvenir, a miniature that aims to help one remember a journey taken in the past’. Souvenirs were important to pilgrims and one of the more bizarre but popular trends were profane badges depicting ‘winged penises, boatloads of pricks sailing the seas, walking vulvas dressed as pilgrims’. Explicit in their nature, Bale suggests that their purpose was to ‘mark the point where holy day meets holiday’.

As Bale demonstrates so vividly, such pilgrimages were far from a holiday, and could be more appropriately described as endurance tests. The main mode of long-haul travel in the Middle Ages was by sea, with journeys often taking weeks. The most common ailment was sea-sickness, for which Gilbert the Englishman, in his Compendium of Medicine (c.1230-60), offered advice; travellers should only eat bitter fruit or ‘firmly hold the ship’s beams, that they avoid looking around and move their head only with the ship’s motion’. If all else fails, he suggests sucking sweets or ‘eating seeds to produce belching’. Margery Kempe, the English mystic, on her voyage over the Baltic Sea, was so undone by sea-sickness that she believed God consoled her. He told her ‘in her soul’ to ‘lay down her head and avoid looking at the waves’. Like travel today, one of the worst afflictions was boredom. In 1458 the Italian nobleman Roberto da Sanseverino was stuck in a dead calm sea for 22 days. Boredom. Paralysis. The only thing worse was a shipwreck or contracting disease on board, a constant danger of sea travel.

Life did not get easier for pilgrims once they reached their destination. The Holy Land, Terra Sancta, ‘not a country but a landscape of memory and emotion, built from stories of the Bible’, was the main destination for most pilgrims and local people sought to capitalise on its popularity. Pilgrims travelled through the dust and sand riding on tired asses and ‘spitting camels’, exhausted by the heat and with no knowledge of local languages. Margery Kempe ‘almost fell off her ass’ when she was so overcome with joy and relief upon spotting Jerusalem on the horizon. As Bale prudently demonstrates, however, travel in the famous holy city did not come for nothing. From arrival to departure, ‘every single thing – each blessing, indulgence, sip of watery wine – continued to cost money. There wasn’t a person in Jerusalem who didn’t profit – either in their soul or in their wallet – from Christ’s death’. Like many popular tourist destinations cost did not equate to quality. The Swiss Dominican Felix Fabri of Ulm recounts his stay in the Muristan, a ruinous giant hall with smaller rooms attached to it that had been built by the Knights Hospitaller in the Crusader era. Fabri describes it as ‘squalid and ruinous’, while others comment on its pervading stench. Detestable sleeping quarters are commonplace in Bale’s book, with pilgrims suffering rats, fleas and bedbugs, and the flatulence of other travellers.

Why did they bother? With the raucous and often humorous anecdotes that Bale offers his reader about medieval pilgrimage, he does not fail to evidence the powerfully emotional, sensual and affecting reasons that people made such arduous journeys; ‘the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [in Jerusalem] is a gloomy, noisy, fraught and confected building. But when one crosses its threshold one feels something final, the sense of an arrival. Walking into the half-light of the church is like stepping into the built fabric of a memory palace’. Fabri on stepping into the church ‘had confused awe with holiness’. Such confused awe and wanderlust is the shared experience of medieval characters, but Bale expertly draws on the human experience and emotions of his travellers, of people they met and loved along the way, those that kept on going to discover different languages and different versions of themselves.

In his remarkable and expertly executed prose, Bale demonstrates his skill as a historian in his handling of the expansive source material available, to explain travel in the Middle Ages. The micro personal experiences told against the backdrop of macro topography is a Herculean task and one that is undertaken with immense passion and knowledge. A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages is a stunning example of the point where true scholarship meets popular history.


Helen Carr