Essay, History, Italy, Medieval, Travel

Lonely Planet Guide to Eternity, on Foot

Our Life’s Journey


Halfway along the journey of our life 

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

For I had wandered from the straight path.

[L’inferno Canto I lines 1-3]


The Divine Comedy describes a tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Dante’s is a body-and-soul journey: physical movement from Hell to Heaven and spiritual movement from despair towards knowledge of God. He treks through the circles of Hell, climbs up Purgatory Mountain (in the Southern Hemisphere) and cruises through the nine celestial spheres. On the last day of the trip, his soul becomes aligned with God’s love— and the happy consummation of this ‘comedy’:  


But already my desire and my will

were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,

by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

[Paradiso Canto XXXIII  lines 142-145  C.H. Sisson]


Dante finished the poem in 1320, one year before he finished his life’s journey. In doing so, he left behind not just a poem but a kind of roadmap for other Christians who sought ‘the right path.’


Itinerary of Hell 





The idea of a spiritual journey was not just a product of Dante’s fevered imagination; pilgrimage–the devotional act of walking to a Holy Place–was an integral part of Christian life. The earliest surviving Christian pilgrimage plan is the Bordeaux Itinerary, which recounts an anonymous pilgrim’s journey to Jerusalem in the years 333 to 334. 

By the tenth century, pilgrimage was so important that it was central to Pope Urban II’s justification for a holy war;  it was imperative to maintain access for Christian pilgrims to Holy Sites. Secondly, what we now know as a ‘Crusade’ was at the time referred to as a peregrinatio (a pilgrimage). Exhorting people to join the fight, Pope Urban II promised spiritual benefits to his special ‘pilgrims’–he offered absolution to those who died on the journey or in battle with the infidels, and indulgences (a kind of spiritual credit) to those who completed the trip.

By travelling to a Holy Site, a pilgrim officially earned indulgences for sins. The more pilgrimages he undertook, the more indulgences he got and the more likely he was to get into Heaven.  Laura Martisiute mentions one particularly zealous indulgence-collector:


Some people went a little crazy in their hunt for indulgences. In the 12th century, Gerald of Wales undertook a pilgrimage to Rome and visited as many sacred sites as possible to acquire as many indulgences as he could. After calculating that he had collected 92 years of indulgences, he undertook another religious act and thus rounded his indulgences to 100 years.



In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII declared that anyone present as a pilgrim at Rome that year (starting from Christmas 1299) would be granted a plenary indulgence, that is, full forgiveness for all sins. This was the first ‘Holy Year’ or ‘Jubilee Year’ in which pilgrims could earn more forgiveness points than in ordinary years. The Jubilee Bull stipulated that Romans who wanted plenary indulgence should visit both the basilica of Saint Peter and of St. Paul at least once a day for thirty days (not necessarily continuous). Visitors to the city could do the same job by visiting them once a day for 15 days. Clearly, the move was a very popular one; there is a reference in “L’Inferno” to l’anno del Giubbileo when Dante describes a huge crowd having to resort to a two-lane system on bridges for traffic-flow purposes (XVIII lines 28-33).


Sandro Botticelli. So crowded.




A pilgrimage was  physically and mentally demanding–an act of penance rather than a pleasure. In fact, by the fourteenth century,  it was often enforced as a criminal punishment. In the first place, it was expensive—some people had to sell their houses to the Church to afford it. Then, it was time-consuming—a trip to Jerusalem, for example, could take years. The roads were often not very clearly marked and GPS wasn’t a thing, so getting lost was a probability. Although there were abbeys and hospices along the way, travelers might have to sleep out in the open. Food and drink were not always easy to come by. A pilgrim might be attacked by a wild animal or (more likely) a bandit or a member of his own travelling party. Illness was another danger—the mingling of masses is always a good way to spreading disease, and the busy pilgrimage routes probably doubled as convenient vector routes for conditions like leprosy and Black Death. Apart from that, there was the risk of food poisoning, dysentery, malaria and blisters. 

You couldn’t just head out on the road and call yourself a pilgrim; there was a certain procedure involved. Before leaving, a pilgrim was required to have all his (usually his) affairs in order—to confess his sins, pay his debts, make peace with enemies, make a will and make a vow in front of the priest that he would complete the journey. There was a strong chance he wouldn’t return.


Medieval pilgrimage – detail of miniature showing the Lover, dressed as a pilgrim, setting off on his pilgrimage. British Library Egerton 1069 f. 145


Having received a blessing from a local bishop, he donned a coarse garment, a broad-brimmed hat, a small purse and a tall walking staff, then set off. Depending on his means, he might also carry a small prayer book and a portable altar. Then he would walk during the day, stop at a monastery to pray, drink, eat and sleep, then start it all over again–until he reached his destination. 

Although Jerusalem was the Holy of Holies, the most popular destination in the medieval period was undoubtedly Rome, site of the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul, as well as many relics. One of these is the Scala Santa–a marble staircase said to be from Pilate’s palace, and therefore touched by Christ’s feet after he was condemned. Faithful pilgrims climb the stairs on their knees. In order to help pilgrims navigate such holy sites, a twelfth-century canon wrote a travel titled Mirabilis Urbis Romae.




The cult of the saints beginning from the third century offered believers even more opportunities to come in contact with sacred sites. Places that had some association with a saint–for example there might be a body part (relic) kept in the church or some miracle might have occurred–became sites of pilgrimage. In The Canterbury Tales, for example, the group of pilgrims are heading from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett. Santiago de Compostela, in north-west Spain, was (and still is) another pilgrim hub. James (son of Zebedee) is the patron saint of Spain and was one of the first disciples to join Jesus.

Saint James’ emblem was a cockle shell, and those who made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela were entitled to wear (on your hat or clothes) a badge in the shape of a cockle shell.  These badges sold at the holy sites, were useful souvenirs as they immediately identified you as a pilgrim and not just some lout. The more badges the wore, the more devout you could prove yourself to be. In Jerusalem, rather than simply buy a badge, some pilgrims would want to make sure they could prove it by getting a tattoo of the Jerusalem cross. 


pilgrim badges
Pilgrims all badged up. Note blister.



The Via Francigena

Occasionally, when wandering about town, I see a sign depicting a pilgrim with a stick flanked by arrows leading either to Rome or to Santiago de Compostela. These signs indicate that I am standing on a pilgrimage route.




One of the main pilgrimage routes during the middle ages was the Via Francigena, literally the ‘Frankish Road’. This was the path taken, for example, by Sigeric the Serious when he travelled from Canterbury to Rome in 990 to 994 to receive his pallium (a vestment acquired when he became archbishop of Canterbury). Sigeric, being serious, recorded every stop along his journey and it is still possible to trace his path.

There is a website especially devoted to people who want to walk this path, and the descriptions of the landscapes are really stirring. This paragraph, for example, describing the stretch after the Alps, is hot stuff:


You have just left the Alpine valleys, but the mountains continue to watch over your path. The glaciers of Monte Rosa at 4000 meters are reflected in the flooded rice fields in the spring. This is the best time to face the challenge of the Po Valley, the endless straights, the geometric fields, startling and unexpected landscapes. You did not expect to spend days walking briskly between surfaces of water and light, marked by thin dikes. The town of Santhiá envelops you in silence, broken only by the sudden flight of herons.


Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be a pilgrim after all!


The Via Francigena from Great St Bernard Pass to ROME



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