Finding relief of sickness can be a compelling motivation for undertaking a pilgrimage. Millions of Catholics find their way to healing waters of Lourdes each year, while Sufi Muslims visit dargahs in hopes that they will be cured of mental afflictions. In twelfth- and thirteenth-century Britain, pilgrims would drink to their health with the diluted ‘blood’ of St Thomas Becket, which could be bought in a vial at his shrine in Canterbury.
Yet, on the other side of the same coin, a pilgrimage could also take a serious toll on one’s physical constitution. Whereas inland trips to nearby shrines and sanctuaries were relatively safe, the danger of contracting a serious illness on a long-distance pilgrimage was all too real. In his 1565 travelogue, Adriaen de Vlaming describes how one of his companions died in Bethlehem and notes that “many more, who were also ill, should have stayed at home”. Arent Willems, in 1525, mourns the loss of two fellow pilgrims, who died shortly upon arrival in Jaffa without ever setting a foot ashore. Recent archaeological findings, moreover, suggest that a medieval English pilgrim contracted a foreign strain of leprosy in the Holy Land and died of the complications back at home.
Medieval people were certainly concerned with their own health and wellbeing, as the abundance of medical recipes in household manuscripts attests. It thus seems likely that pilgrims would take medical precautions to reduce the risks of falling ill en route to Jerusalem. However, we know little about the possibility that pilgrims took medical texts with them or whether medical information was brought back from the East. A recipe for a “drink of Antioch”, which can be found in several medieval manuscripts, might either be a relic of the crusades or a feigned remedy that invokes the authority of Eastern medicine. Moreover, as Anthony Bale explains in this recent blog post about a medical miscellany containing a pilgrimage itinerary, it is near impossible to ascertain whether its owner actually travelled to the Holy Land.
Several pilgrimage accounts do offer some insight into health and safety precautions that were taken before going east. William Wey (1456), for example, suggests purchasing medications and a chamber pot in Venice in case one would become too sick to climb to the upper galley of the ship. A contemporary account, now at the Wellcome Library (MS 8004), lists good resting places, spas, and churches with healing relics that can be visited along the way. Joos van Ghistele (1481-1485) is adamant that pilgrims must pack purgatives and dried rhubarb root before going on board, and restock their medical kit at foreign markets. Venice was the best place for this: Jan Aerts (1481) advises to buy medicinal spices and laxatives there, as well as a panacaea made from diluted violet syrup. In his 1520 account, Geert Kuynretorff urges his reader to visit a professional physician before leaving the Venetian harbour. The pilgrim must ask this doctor to prescribe medication against fever, diarrhoea, and indigestion, and Kuynretorff provides a number of recipes that can be taken to the apothecary.
Some high-profile travellers did not wish to take any chances and had their personal medics write instructions for them. King Philip VI of France, for instance, ordered a health regimen that was particularly tailored to him visiting the Holy Land as a ‘senior’ man (aged forty-two) in 1335. The Italian physician and inventor Guido da Vigevano, who is perhaps best known for designing the first prototype of the automobile, compiled the work which now known as the Liber conservationis sanitatis senis. The first half of the Liber follows the ancient doctrine of dietetics and concerns finding the right balance between food and drink, sleep and wakefulness, motion and rest, replenishing and emptying. The second half of Vigevano’s tract describes the influence of the air, accidents or ‘moods’ of the soul, prevention of afflictions of the eyes, ears, teeth, and memory. Lastly, Da Vigevano addresses the harmful liquids and food that are to be avoided during travel. Despite this well-researched medical advice, no records attest that the king ever made the journey. The tract survives in two manuscripts. The first, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 11015 contains another of Vigevano’s works about warfare in Outremer and can thus be placed in a crusader context. The second, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1251, is a collection of medical writings and includes other gerontological works, suggesting that the compiler was mainly interested in medicine. It is thus unclear whether Da Vigevano’s tract was ever read in preparation for an actual pilgrimage.
Another medical tract that was likewise made at the behest of a rich patron is Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s treatise for the pilgrimage to Mecca, written for a secretary of the caliph. Like Da Vigevano’s regimen, this treatise is informed by the works of Galen, Avicenna, and Hippocrates, but it also contains advice that is specific to the Middle-Eastern climate, fauna, and landscape. Ibn-Lūqā (820-912), a Christian scholar from Baalbek, pays particular attention to the sourcing of water, improving the quality of contaminated water, and quenching one’s thirst in the absence of drinking water. Furthermore, the scholar discusses the prevention of parasites such as roundworms, a prophylactic against snakes, and the treatment of snakebites and the stings of other vermin. Moreover, he writes about curing eye- and earaches caused by fluctuating temperatures and the dusty desert wind. Most of these ailments can be prevented by a turban, if worn correctly. Yet, in case one suffers from earache caused by the heat, dripping one of various substances into the ear will prove effective: lukewarm egg-white or lamb-gall mixed with rose oil, for instance, or olive oil in which earthworms or molluscs in their shells have been cooked (though honey and almond-oil will work equally well). One chapter from Ibn-Lūqā’s regimen will have sounded more appealing to pilgrims regardless of their destination: different kinds of foot massage (except hard rubbing, which is only good for thick-skinned or idle people who have eaten too much) he argues, are “useful for someone who has been walking much or standing still frequently”.
 Ben Wasser, Dit is de pelgrimage van het Heilig Land en daaromtrent, (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014), 112.
The bibliographic remnants of medieval pilgrimage are often haphazardly or imprecisely catalogued; one can rarely rely on caalogues and handlists, without inspecting a book itself, to understand what the medieval source is. A good case in point is a book I recently inspected in the beautiful John Rylands Library, Manchester; from its record in the Index of Middle English Prose, I had thought that this manuscript (now Latin MS 228) might be a Jerusalem-bound pilgrim’s manuscript.
Latin MS 228 is a miscellany, and represents a very common kind of medieval manuscript, in which ‘useful information’ – legal documents, recipes, poetry, medical writing, and many other types of text – were gathered together. It is neither always apparent that a miscellany has an organising principle, nor is it often clear when the manuscript was organised. In the case of some manuscript miscellanies, their development seems to be organic, taking place over many years, and with many different owners adding – and deleting – contents, according to changes ideas of what was useful or desirable.
Latin MS 228 looks, on first sight, like it could be a pilgrim’s manuscript. It has a beautiful binding, dating from c. 1490-1525, in soft vellum. It would have been highly portable, and the back of the binding even has a flap in which to store loose leaves or other items. The binding is also important because it represents the moment at which someone put the book’s current contents together: that is, the moment of the book’s binding can reveal what was valued at that particular moment in time.
Rylands Latin MS 228: binding
Rylands Latin MS 228, showing storage flap in soft cover
Rylands Latin MS 228
Moreover, Latin MS 228 contains two texts that relate to pilgrimage to Jerusalem, one in Latin and one in Middle English.
The Latin text (ff. 43v-44r) is headed ‘Itinerarium terre sancta’. In fact, it contains a few notes on the distances from Rome to Naples, from Venice to the Holy Land, fromJaffa (‘Portiaff’) to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, from Bethlehem to the River Jordan, and from Jerusalem to ‘Monte Synay’, Mt Sinai, and the tomb of St Katherine there. Then follows some notes on the relics and indulgences of Rome, and some historical notes on Saladin and the history of Jerusalem. There’s no evidence from this short Latin text that it was used by an actual pilgrim.
The Middle English text reads:
The way from venice unto Jaffe. Fro Venice to Jaer [Zadar] CCl mille ffor the town of Jaer to Corslake [Corcula] ciiiixx x mil ffor Corslake to Ragosa [Dubrovnik] iiiixx mil ffro Ragosa to Curfu CCC mil ffrom Curfu to Modyn [Methoni] CCC myle Ffrom Modyn to Candy [Crete] CCC myle ffrom Candy to þe Rodes [Rhodes] CCC myle ffor Baffe [Paphos] to Jaffe [Jaffa] CCC myle ffor Jaffe to Rames [Ramla] x myle ffor Rames to Emax [Emmaus] xxv myle ffor Emax to Jerusalem xvi myle from Jherusalem to Fflome iordan [River Jordan] xxxti myle. Curfu standys in Cypris [Cyprus] and Albany standys in the tother syde within the torke. Summa milliarium de venecia usque Jherusalem et deinde usque fflome jordane ii milia ccc iiiixx I millaria.
The Middle English text is perhaps more likely to represent an actual journey undertaken, suggested by the late-medieval toponyms and its greater detail. The mileages given here are not the same as in the Latin text, and the two texts are written in different hands. At the end of the Middle English itinerary a charm has been added.
So was Rylands Latin MS 288 a pilgrim’s book? Sadly, it’s impossible to say. We don’t know who its medieval owners were; the book has been much reorganised; and the Middle English text is on a single leaf – the other pages it was originally with have been cut out. On the reverse of this leaf is a short Latin extract, in the same hand as the itinerary, with an excerpt from the political prophecy of ‘Sixtus of Ireland’ (which includes the prophecy that the cities of Jerusalem and Acre will be retaken by a Christian prince).
However, the miscellany as a whole suggests that the pilgrimage texts were valued by whoever brought the book together in its current binding probably in the fifteenth century. What else did this person value? From the contents of his miscellany, we can discern an interest in medicine, law, and history. Some of the texts include:
the fees and lands of the knights of Yorkshire
a Middle English prose treatise on how to ‘undrestand what thi dreme betokenes’ using the letters of the psalter (f. 60r)
the archers of each English shire, in French (f. 69r)
medical recipes, including one to reduce swelling of the testicles through applying a paste made of boiled mint and pigeon-droppings
several Middle English herbals, including a text on the uses of rosemary, which can ‘destroye all infirmites in manys body’ (f. 123v)
a recipe for ‘bragot’ (f. 137v), a drink of ale warmed with honey and herbs
a mass for ill cattle (f. 140r), which involves leading the animals into the barnyard, and having a priest with holy water say various gospel texts to the cattle as they turns their heads to the east.
As I am repeatedly discovering, it is very difficult securely to connect ‘pilgrims’ texts’ with actual pilgrimage or pilgrims. The journey to Jerusalem was clearly valued as a useful piece of information, something worth remembering, a mental route to return to over and over again, whether or not it had any practical application. We cannot say with any certainty that Rylands Latin MS 228 was ever used by a pilgrim; but we can be confident that the route to Jaffa and Jerusalem was on the mind of the book’s owner(s) in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
Pilgrims vs Venetians: a history of hidden truths. The inspections of the galleys and the “visits” to the Arsenal.
Since the thirteenth century, each pilgrim who departed from Venice towards the Holy Land was involved in that social and economic process seen by Venetians as the “normal administration” of business. The transportation of pilgrims, initially treated as an occasional form of income linked to Mediterranean trade, became a permanent activity after its official regulation by the Doge Jacopo Tiepolo in 1233. From that moment onwards, the Venetian government needed to organize pilgrims’ arrivals and departures according to official laws as well as to handle unexpected problems such as the curiosity of pilgrims not only towards the “religious side” of Venice, but also towards its naval industry.
Because of the length of the journey and the dangers of the sea-crossing from Venice, pilgrims often raised concerns about the construction of the galleys, their safety and the sailing experience of the crew, asking to check the means of transport with their own eyes. For that reason, the Venetian government formalised a double inspection of the galleys intended for the Holy Land. Indeed, by the end of the fourteenth century pilgrims were authorised by the Venetian senate to inspect the allocated pilgrims’ galleys and choose the one they retained as “trustable” not only according to the physical appearance of the vessel, but also to the condition of travel offered by the Venetian patron (e.g. route followed, number of meals on board etc.). Prior to this inspection, officials of the Venetian government checked that each galley was bona et sufficientia pro peregrinis. Nevertheless, the legislation does not specify whether the Arsenal was considered as the location where the inspections were to be carried out and, in this regard, no information is given about the authorisation of pilgrims to visit the Arsenal either as part of a touristic visit, or as part of the galleys’ inspection process. However, some of the most famous fifteenth-century pilgrims such as William Wey, Bernard von Breydenbach and Pietro Casola stated they were able to visit the Arsenal. In fact, this was only partially true. Indeed, while the entire Venetian lagoon ran into open waters, the Venetian Arsenal was the only part of the city protected by walls and military personnel.
During the Middle Ages, it was considered the heart of the Venetian military industry and commercial sea power; guided visits within were usually strictly forbidden, and granted, with permission, only to illustrious and trustworthy personages. Furthermore, due to a huge expansion of the Arsenal in the late fifteenth century, Venetians became even more protective of their “construction secrets” and the government did not trust even its own merchants and craftsmen. As proof of this distrust, at the end of fifteenth century the Senate enacted different laws to avoid the construction of “foreign Arsenals” even in places under the same Venetian control such as Candia or Cyprus. The legislation was addressed to those families of merchant and Arsenal workers who went in terre et luoghi alieni per guadagnare […] a grandissimo danno della signoria nostra (in foreign places to make money to the detriment of Venice). The punishment for revealing the Arsenal’s secrets or for construction of vessels out of Venice was banishment from the city and a fine of 500 ducats. Therefore, due to these restrictions, visits to the Arsenal were rare for common pilgrims who were likely authorised to explore only the zone just beyond the Arsenal’ s monumental “land door” that operated the passage of people and vessels since the mid-fifteenth century (Fig. 1).
It is likely that the Venetians, in order to satisfy the curiosity and needs of pilgrims, organised the inspections of the galleys as well as “visits” to certain more accessible areas of the Arsenal. For instance, the English pilgrim William Wey wrote, “In the city they have a large area where they build the galleys to defend our Faith. I saw eighty galleys there, either completed or still under construction. Below that place, they have huge buildings for stores of all types. These are full of the various kind of equipment needed to defend our Faith”. William Wey’s description gives the idea of a panoramic tour of the Arsenal rather than a detailed visit of the various pavilions. Similarly, Pietro Casola, who gave a more precise description of his visit, described seeing in the Arsenal “three large sheds […] where the galleys are placed all together” and “a great crowd of masters and workmen who do nothing but build galleys or other ships of every kind”.
Vague descriptions of the Arsenal in such fifteenth-century narratives confirm that what pilgrims described as “visits” were actually basic tours of the “less military” Arsenal’s areas, probably the ones with the production warehouses and disposition of the galleys scheduled for departures. This emerges clearly from the description made by Breydenbach, who states that he experienced in the Arsenal “the power and circumspection of Venice” conveying to his readers that despite being allowed to witness a measure of its inner working, Venetians were too prudent to reveal their military secrets to foreigners such himself. Indeed, until now, the Arsenal’s military zone remains a separate, inaccessibile and patrolled area despite its proximity to the public area (Fig. 3-4).
Professor Anthony Bale shared a strong vision for our joint project on Medieval Pilgrims Libraries when we met in London December 9-10, 2016. We’re all grateful for his leadership and helpful push in new directions and especially for bringing together researchers from such diverse fields. Here are some reflections based on our initial conversations.
Many medieval pilgrims belonged to lively lectoral communities. They carried their libraries with them on their way to Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago even when there were no books at hand. Memories of books read before leaving home were fondly rehearsed aloud among bands of sacred sojourners, texts that scripted the experience even while walking and sailing to distant shores. Some deliberately bade farewell to their books for a while as a personal discipline or as part of the acetic rigor of the trip, somewhat like foregoing bathing or haircuts. At opportune stops along the way they may have read or listened to the recitations of unfamiliar writings, purchased souvenir texts, or either made or commissioned copies of admired works to take home. Not a few pilgrims eventually composed their own travelogues as itineraries, diaries and guidebooks for subsequent travelers.
Complementing those who enjoyed full agency as readers – the ones who were personally literate – almost all pilgrims participated in ever rotating communities of secondary literacy. Many who could not read for themselves because of lack of education or failing eyesight listened to texts being read aloud and participated in their interpretation. Throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages almost all reading was done aloud and routinely by young adults whose eyes were better suited for the task. Pilgrims probably carried few books with them and in any case one literate reader among any given travelers’ band would be enough.
Most importantly there was the internal library shared equally among the literate and illiterate, the vast oral stream they all grew up with. Medieval sojourners carried a rich imaginary of their journey spun out of their memory hoard stocked by prior reading plus all their accustomed folk genres as they moved through their newly fluid discursive landscape. Some of their more pious texts they accessed “from within”: a common stock of Latin prayers and rituals, hymnody in Latin reliably re-encountered at hosting institutions, and vernacular devotional songs learned by heart back home and happily belted out along the trail or on arrival. To lift their spirits and anticipate possible spiritual adventures there was the reverent recounting of hagiography and miracle stories associated with the shrine sites they visited.
On the secular side were ballads and ordinary walking songs, and epic stories in prose or verse. Some medieval travelers had their recollections of itineraries or topographical plans, but even without them all had mental maps that constituted a “consensus cartography” that fused sites and anticipated encounters. When their accounts of physical geography seem defective, they are probably reporting a traveler’s topography of significance and holiness.
Much of their remaining common oral culture was plainly utilitarian: medical knowledge and techniques (as distinct from miraculous cures), guesstimates of diverse monetary exchange, knowledge of equivalents for local weights and measures, calculation of distances, seasons, climate, and folk tales and games to pass the time. Any of these could end up in written records but the bulk of it churned through the living oral stream, the cultural “soup” everyone swims in without recognizing one’s conceptual environment always known from within.
The accounts that most attract our attention now – what pilgrims who made it home again wrote down and left unsystematically among family papers and local archives – are their own compositions in the form of itineraries and daybooks. Most are middle brow, repetitive in their sequence of places and sights, and doggedly anonymous. This is probably not because generally poor writers took up the task. It would have been hard to actually compose anything serious while traveling in the Middle Ages. Toting reliable supplies of ink, quills and parchment or paper – much less wax tablets – is pretty much ruled out by the tiny satchels shown in most contemporary painting and sculpture.
Medieval travel accounts were likely put together after a return to a writerly environment and perhaps before the pilgrim company disbanded. For pilgrims returning from Jerusalem, the logic site would be on disembarking at Venice. A troop which had shared the journey could share the reminiscing and the most able scribe among them could stitch together what each individual agreed was true. That would help explain the depersonalized and often pedestrian accounts that come down to us. The stationers’ shops in Venice could also supply enough raw materials to make multiple copies for as many of the companions who wanted a set of reliable notes to embellish orally for family, friends and fellow parishioners. Producing a “corporate report” from a whole group of travelers usually makes for dull reading but would lend a certain weight and credence to the narrative.
Bands returning from Jerusalem enjoyed the advantage of a fairly stable party from start to finish, or at least from departure from Venice until their return there. Venice would have also marked a psychological “homecoming” even if individuals had started out from more distant parts of Christendom, and no other pilgrim node along the thousands of sacred routes in medieval Europe provided the same urban nexus of launch point, site of return and time to linger. There are points of convergence along the trails to Santiago (Ostabat and St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the eastern slopes of French Pyrenees) and to Rome (certain Alpine passes on the descent into Italy) but none in an urban center that invited potential writers to linger and compose. Of course, Rome was the most heavenly and best provisioned writers’ environment of all, but writers in residence on the Tiber did not routinely overlap with visiting pilgrims and they produce different sorts of works.
All these factors would have favored greater numbers of travelogues about the Holy Land, somewhat less so for Rome and relatively few for Santiago and other pilgrim shrines, and extant archival witnesses seem to corroborate this scenario.
Herbers, Klaus. “Peregrinaciones a Roma, Santiago y Jerusalén.” El mundo de las peregrinaciones. Roma, Santiago, Jerusalén. Ed. Paolo Caucci von Sauken. Barcelona/Madrid, 1999. 103-34. Subsection on “Relatos de los peregrinos en el medievo tardío,” 128-34]
Herbers, Klaus, y Robert Plötz. Caminaron a Santiago. Relatos de peregrinaciones al »fin del mundo«. Santiago de Compostela: Xunta de Galicia, 1998.
Howard, Donald R. Writers and Pilgrims. Medieval Pilgrimage Narratives and Their Posterity. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1980.
Plötz, Robert. “Santiago de Compostela en la literatura odepórica.” Santiago de Compostela: ciudad y peregrino. Actas del V Congreso Internacional de Estudios Xacobeos. Eds. María A, Antón Vilasánchez; José Luis Tato Castiñeira. Santiago de Compostela: Xunta de Galicia, 2000. 33-99. [on mapmaking and the concept of space]
Reynolds, Roger E. “A Precious Ancient Souvenir Given to the First Pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela.” Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art & Architecture 4.3 (Spring, 2014): 1-30.
Stones, Alison. “Medieval Pilgrimage Writing and its Manuscript Sources.” Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage, ed. L.J. Taylor, et al. Leiden: Brill, 395-413. [see bibliography 411-12 for list of travel narratives]
Stones, Alison, & Jeanne Krochalis. “Qui a lu le Guide du pèlerin ?” Pèlerinages et croisades. Ed. L. Pressouyre. Paris: CTHS, 1995. 11-36.
Linguistic anthropologists working in Chiapas, Mexico have observed how leaders of base Christian communities (comunidades de base) could be illiterate yet function as the most insightful and trusted commentators of scriptural and inspirational texts. (As reported by Vincent Barletta, now at Stanford, from field work in the 1990s during doctoral studies at UCLA. Personal communication.)
The phrase was coined by Mary Carruthers in her classic The Book of Memory. A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1990).
The “Pilgrims Guide” in the Codex Calixtinus describes how various nationalities, clustered together in their respective corners of the tribune level of the cathedral in Santiago, would loudly compete as they sang hymns in their native tongues.
The earliest and one of the most intriguing prose epics about the adventures of Charlemagne and Roland in Spain is consecrated in the “Historia Turpini” of the Codex Calixtinus, the twelfth-century master compilation on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The connection to Charlemagne’s supposed devotion to St. James and the saint’s instructions to have the French secure the pilgrimage route against the Muslim foe is tenuous in the narrative, entirely fictional in terms of history.
Folk tales contain many stories about the intervention of saints on behalf of their devotees. A version of hopscotch became the pilgrim game of Juego de la Oca or Goose’s Game, a modern version of which has been laid in the paving outside the church of Santiago the Elder in Logroño along the main route to Compostela.
Anxiously sincere personal narratives of travel along the Camino de Santiago have repopulated this genre in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, most of them just as artless as their medieval forerunners if more heartfelt.