History, Medieval, Travel

The Battle of Clontarf Heritage Trail

A couple of weeks ago I set out on a coastal run little suspecting that it would be paved with the storied bones of proud chieftains and rapacious Vikings. In fact, the curve of the coast from Clontaf to Howth was marked all along the way with signs that told of the Battle of Clontarf, one of the bloodiest and most significant battles in Irish History. What was it all about?

The approach to Clontarf from Dublin

The Viking Age in Ireland

The very first entry in the Annals of Ulster, in 841, is “Pagans still on Lough Neagh”. It’s quite a telling sentence, suggesting that the strangers had arrived fairly recently and were entirely welcome to leave.

“Visitors from Over the Sea” by Nicholas Roerich (1910)

The Vikings (for they were the Pagans in question) had no intention of going away any time soon. They had been successfully raiding the British Isles since at least 793, when they popped into the priory at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast. The Archbishop Alcuin of York wrote a chilling account of that particular visit:

“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”

As long as there were treasure-filled undefended monasteries to loot, the Vikings didn’t see any reason to stop doing their thing.

Eighth century gilded disc crafted in Ireland or Scotland and excavated from the tomb of a high-status Viking woman in Norway

In Ireland, the Vikings (mostly Norwegian as distinct from the Danes who settled England) founded fortresses and trade centers that would later become cities. They first arrived in the Dublin area about 795, raiding a monastery on Lambay Island. By 841, they’d established a settlement there. The Irish called it Fine Gall (foreign people) and/or Dubh linn (black pool). Both names stuck; Fingal is now a county and Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Over the next three centuries it became a major trading post, and the biggest ‘export commodity’ was slaves.

Dublin seen from Howth. It’s true, the water is a bit dark.

The Irish frequently fought with the Vikings but they also fought among themselves. There was one nominal ‘High King’ but in fact there were about 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms, all fighting for dominance. According to John Hawyood (author of Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241) this fractured political landscape made Ireland less vulnerable to a large-scale Viking takeover than either England or France. At the same time, the Vikings gradually assimilated into Gaelic society and became Norse-Gaels.

Brian Boru

In 997, the High King of Ireland Máel Sechnaill Mór and his old enemy Brian Boru, King of Munster met and decided to make a truce and split up the island between them: Mael would get the northern half of Ireland and retain high kingship, Brian would get the southern half. The people of Leinster (an area just outside of Dublin) objected to this and made an alliance with Dublin to revolt. In the Battle of Glenmama in 999, Mael Mor and Brian Boru crushed the Leinster revolt so decisively that they had a clear path to Dublin. In 1000, Brian Boru plundered the city, burned the Norse fortress and expelled the King, Silkbeard (Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson). Silkbeard looked around for friends but found none and finally went to submit to Brian Boru, who offered Silkbeard his first daughter in marriage, while Brian took Silkbeard’s mother Gormflaith as his second wife.

Posthumous coin minted in 1050 to commemorate Silkbeard

In the 1010s, Brian Boru and Silkbeard had a falling out. In the first place, BB divorced Silkbeard’s mother, who then (according to Njál’s saga) nagged her son to kill him. Meanwhile, Leinster was gearing up for another revolt. Silkbeard joined Leinster’s cause and made alliances with the Viking leaders in Orkney and the Isle of Man. In Holy Week 1014, Silkbeard’s Viking allies sailed into Dublin. They were met by Brian Boru, High King Máel Sechnaill, several other kings and thousands of troops.

Battle of Clontarf (Vikings in Red) By 赤奋若 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hugh Frazer Battle of Clontarf (1826). Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

What ensued was the Battle of Clontarf, in which most of the commanders, along with thousands of unnamed soldiers, died. According to Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (“The War of the Irish with the Foreigners”), a twelfth-century account of the battle, Brian Boru was killed in his tent whilst praying. Silkbeard was not involved in the battle as he stayed in Dublin in case the fighting should turn in that direction. He survived for many years but his power over Dublin weakened until in 1032 he was forced to abdicate and go into exile.

The traditional view is that Viking power in Ireland was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf. However, some modern historians contend that it was merely one event in a centuries-old civil war and that Vikings fought on both sides. Perhaps, then, the main reason for the decline of Viking influence after this date was that they had so successfully fused with Irish Christian culture.

The Crozier of Clonmacnoise shows a beautiful fusion of Viking and Celtic styles

The Trail

These days, Clontarf seems pretty peaceful and if the signs weren’t there it would be hard to imagine a huge battle in the vicinity. Here is a selection of local scenery along the way to Howth.

The promenade at Clontarf, looking towards Poolbeg
A Moai statue donated to Dublin by the Government of Chile
Redshanks

View looking across Dublin Bay from Howth towards Dalkey and Dalkey Island
Racial memories
Sunset from Sutton Strand
History, Italy, Medieval, Travel

The Joanna-of-Naples Cure

I don’t know about you but reading about antique hardships really warms my heart. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly; the pleasure comes not from the terrible suffering per se, but from my own near-complete immunity from afflictions like ergotism and death by boiling. An appropriate German compound noun might be Schauderdanke or ‘shudder thanks’.

So, if you’re feeling low, instead of keeping a gratitude journal or undergoing bee-sting therapy, why not take a trip down memory lane back to the fourteenth century? Nancy Goldstone’s book The Lady Queen: Joanna the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily is an excellent source of the unending horrors of life in medieval Europe and sure to put the pep back in your step.

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Joanna I of Naples was born in 1328 and died in 1382, experiencing pretty much non-stop crises in the 54 years between. Part of the appeal of her story is that massive wealth and privilege in no way shielded her from what we in the twenty-first century would consider horrific trauma.  Though it seems pretty clear that serfs and slaves had a hard time back in the day, Joanna’s trials and tribulations have opened my eyes to the fact that, by our standards, ‘Queen’ was not such a cushy job either. Reading her story, you are forced to admit that, no matter what challenges you face right now, you should get down on your knees and thank the universe that you are not the Queen of Naples.

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Joanna with her grandfather Robert the Wise

Eight Ways Joanna’s Life was Probably Worse than Yours

8. Vengeful Hungarian Relatives
Joanna’s problems began well before she was even born when her great-grandfather Charles II named as his successor his third son Robert rather than a child born to his older son. The twelve-year-old grandson (also named Charles) was instead bundled off to Hungary (where his maternal family had roots) to claim the throne
there. Young Charles had his hands full setting up shop in Hungary but eventually managed to establish his dominance and to increase royal revenue, largely thanks to productive goldmines.  He had five children with the formidable Elizabeth of Poland and Robert the Wise foresaw that one of them might later attempt to take Naples. He tried to
deflect future conflict by marrying Joanna to Andrew (she was five and he was four).  The Hungarians expected that Andrew would rule Naples jointly with her, so restoring the throne to the ‘rightful’ descendent. However, just before dying, Robert adjusted his last will and testament to deny Andrew any real power: cue shitstorm.

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Elizabeth and kids: they’re so cute when they’re young.

As Robert the Wise was safely tucked up in his tomb, Joanna was left to manage the fall-out. The Hungarians repeatedly tried to convince the Pope to overturn Robert the Wise’s decision to deny Andrew the crown. Elizabeth of Hungary even made a special trip to Italy to pursue her case and is supposed to have bribed the Pope. Clement VI finally reversed his ruling and agreed to crown the young blister after all.  Meanwhile, though, Andrew had summarily ordered the release of brothers jailed for murder, rape, pillage, treason and ‘several other offences’, probably with a view to taking the crown by force with their help. Alarmed, the Pope changed his mind again and sent a message to Naples.

7. Her Kingdom was Invaded by a Nose-Chopper

Unfortunately, there was no email in those days, so the papal messenger got there too late. Believing the court was about to be overtaken by a dirty barbarian (the Neapolitans were quite racist), members of the royal court wished to deny Andrew the crown in a more permanent manner, i.e. by killing him. He was strangled after a hunting trip. Nancy Goldsmith doubts that Joanna herself was involved but suspicion fell on her anyway.
Pregnant with Andrew’s child, she recognized the need to marry again to some man who was able to militarily protect the Kingdom on her behalf. She chose Louis of Taranto (uh oh, big mistake!). As soon as the Hungarians heard about this, they were livid; they had expected her to marry Andrew’s younger brother Stephen instead. Although it was months since Andrew’s death, they started calling her a husband-killer and Louis I of Hungary prepared to invade Naples.

While Joanna herself had not initially been too popular with the Neapolitans, Hungarian Louis soon replaced her as the royal everyone loved to hate. One of the first things he did on entering the city was to demand exorbitant taxes. His methods of ‘investigation’ into his brother’s death (cutting off noses, fingers, ears and engaging in horrific torture) were so cruel that most noble families refused to have anything to do with him. Similarly, his men were cruel enough that potential allies closed their gates to him. Eventually he got injured and ran out of money, so returned to Hungary. Joanna returned to Naples, but her troubles were not over yet…

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Louis I of Hungary

6. Her Second Husband was the Ultimate Manspreader

Soon after his marriage to Joanna, Louis of Taranto decided to take all of her power away and to keep everything for himself. He confined her to a room of her castle, purged the court of her supporters and made it a rule that nobody could talk to her unless he was present. Eventually Joanna managed to smuggle some letters to Pope Clement complaining about this treatment and Avignon sent two galleys to Naples to convince Louis to back down. While privately he continued to treat Joanna with contempt and violence, this was par for the course in the fourteenth century. Even so, he clearly stood out even by the standards of the time, as Petrarch described him as “violent and mendacious, prodigal and avaricious, debauched and cruel.”

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He even had himself printed on the coins

5. The Popes were All Up in Her Business
As soon sixteen-year-old Joanna ascended the throne, the Pope started interfering. He sent a legate, intending to impose his direct rule, but the legate was so inept he ended up alienating everyone and was eventually recalled. From then on, Joanna was expected to inform His Holiness every time she passed wind. Admittedly (as in her problem with Louis of Taranto), a close relationship with popes could be a distinct advantage. However, it didn’t stop her from being spied on, double-crossed or excommunicated later on.

4. People Were Dying Like Flies
The Black Death came along in 1348, when Joanna was twenty. The disease coincided with bad weather, crop failures and an economic crisis, and killed an enormous number of people. Boccaccio, who spent several years in Naples, has the plague as a backdrop for his famous book The Decameron.

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Illumination of The Decameron showing plague victims

3.  Her Three Children All Died Young

When Louis I of Hungary invaded Naples, he decided to kidnap his nephew Charles Martel, Joanna’s child born to Andrew before his assassination. Little Charles died soon after reaching Hungary. Joanna’s second child, Catherine, died at the age of one. Her last child, Françoise, died soon after Joanna and Louis were crowned in 1352, at the age of eight months. In her third marriage she conceived but miscarried.

2. Her Third Husband was a Lunatic 

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When Louis died, Joanna was still of child-bearing age and time was running out to produce an heir. Her decision to marry James IV of Majorca may have looked good on paper, but he was not the sort of man most women would choose to father their children. From the age of 13, James had been imprisoned in a small iron cage and the experience had affected his mental health. As Joanna writes to the Pope, things went very wrong quite quickly:

“Eight days after I had joined my spouse in matrimony by God’s permission, Your Holiness’s consent, and the necessary exemption, he began to engage in insane behaviors, about which I did not excessively worry, thinking that they were caused by his youth and the filth of a long imprisonment which might have dulled his sensuality. But after the several days, afflicted with a fit of fever, he carried out even more outrageous deeds such that, on the doctors’ advice, I removed from his room the weapons, stones, wooden clubs and all such objects he could lay his hands on. But this too I kept silent, presuming that the infection from his disease was the cause of this. Later and as a result of familiarity caused by a more intimate association I began to notice that every month, sometimes at the change of the moon and sometimes just after the full moon he would have an outbreak of madness, with some clear-sighted moments at intervals.”

Inevitably, James tried to take power away from Joanna but with the Pope’s help she nipped that in the bud. Annoyed, James left to recapture Majorca only to end up captured by King Henry II of Castile. Joanna had to bail him out but  he wandered off again in another doomed attempt to recapture some territory and died of illness in 1375.

1. She Ended Up Excommunicated, Imprisoned and Assassinated

The Western Schism was Joanna’s downfall. To make a long story short, there were suddenly two popes Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon. Forced to make a choice, Joanna backed the wrong one—Clement VII.
She ended up being captured and imprisoned by Charles of Durazzo, her relative and a supporter of Urban VI. She was killed in the fortress of San Fele on 27 July 1382. Because Urban VI had excommunicated her, her body was tossed into a deep well on the grounds of Santa Chiara Church in Naples, a monastic complex built by her step-mother Queen Sancha of Majorca.

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Cloister and gardens of Santa Chiara

Honestly, I could go on forever, but by this time you should be feeling as light as air and ready to kiss the twenty-first-century ground under your feet. Thanks, Joanna, you made my day!

History, Italy, Medieval, Travel

Witchery in Piedmont

Seeing gleeful clots of tiny vampires and witches at a Turin mall tonight, I was pleased to see the local youth honoring its patrimony. After all, the mountains of Piedmont have long been prime witching ground.

 

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Severed fingers at a Torinese pasticceria

 

Sadly, witches have not always been appreciated by country people, who feared for the safety of their families, livestock and goods. In their eagerness to keep malignant spirits away (or at least at bay), they resorted to a variety of interesting rituals and precautions.

According to Antonio Zampadri’s book Magia e Leggenda in Valle di Susa, Alpine cowherds incised crosses on cowbells, villagers nailed twigs in the shape of a cross to their front doors, and the clothing of newborns was taken inside before dark, lest someone cast an evil spell over them.  They didn’t make butter on Friday or Saturday since this was too close to the Witches’ Sabbath. In the village of Chianocco, the Evil Eye indicated a very particular procedure. A group of men and women entered the afflicted house and, in a secret ceremony, boiled water in a big pot with seven mallow leaves and other mysterious aromatic herbs while the oldest woman present uttered ancient spells of white magic. Another cure-all ritual involved closing all the doors and windows of a house, getting a terracotta vase and putting into it an iron key and a fragment of wax taken from an Easter candle after being blessed by a priest. The belief that iron was a lucky metal is preserved in a local saying ‘toccar ferro’ – similar to our ‘touch wood’.

 

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There are records of particular women accused and convicted of witchcraft. In Avigliana 1444, Giocometta, wife of Pietro Bordaro, was arrested for various crimes by the Dominican priest Giacomo di Albano. In 1471, the Dominican Inquisitors of Piedmont (who had their headquarters here in Turin), tried a woman from Miagliano by the name of Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo. According to executedtoday.com , a website devoted to people executed for their crimes, Giovanna’s neighbors accused her of being a ‘mascha’ (witch) and said they had seen her in ‘mascara’ (going to the sabbath). She was interrogated four times. In the first two interviews, she denied everything; in the third, torture was introduced into the proceedings and she ‘admitted’ belonging to the sect of witches, participating in shapeshifting (turning into a hare and killing two hunters) and in transvection (flying around on a broomstick); in the fourth interview she offered names to get her tormentors off her case. It didn’t work and she was burned at the stake on 17 August.

 

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Evil witch in the shape of a hare

 

Legend has it that in the thirteenth century a Piedmontese woman nicknamed ‘Clerionessa’ had a reputation for preparing philtres and lotions including potions ensuring youthfulness. Unfortunately an old lady died after ingesting one of these concoctions–Clerionessa had assured her it would take decades off her and restore her youthful vigor. The poisoner was arrested and put in prison. There she refused to eat anything but certain herbs brought from her house. Mysteriously, after fifteen days, her cell was found empty except for the ashes of burnt herbs.

 

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Halloween decoration at our favourite bar

 

My favorite suspected spellbinder is Maria Gotto from Rubiana, accused in 1620. Stregoneria in Valle di Susa e dintorni by Massimo Centini, explains the case. It all started when one big fat fibber, Giovanni Ludovico, claimed she was one of seven witches who flew around cavorting with the devil and creating storms. These witches supposedly had wolves as lovers and got up to all sorts of mischief. Of these seven witches, however, Maria was the only one accused because she had also (allegedly) killed a baby. Maria is said to have looked at the baby and said “Oh, praise God, make sure you wrap your little one up, he looks ill.” Sure enough, the baby died that night. Furthermore, one autumn day an eyewitness saw Maria in the road with a little pig “even smaller than a chicken.” As they chatted, the pig suddenly disappeared, proving her magic powers. When 70-year-old Maria was asked to make a statement during the trial, she said with admirable bluntness, “I don’t know what these rumors are based on, but if I’m a witch I’m also the Queen of France.”

 

cute-piglet

 

In the cemetery of the Abbey of Novalesa, several skulls were found with nails hammered into them (post mortem). This was often done, according to Professor Renato Grilletto, to let evil spirits escape or to destroy the spirit of the dead so they couldn’t bother the living. You perforated the cranium of the cadaver, usually on the left side which is the evil side. In Piedmont they often talk about revenants, which are not just ghosts, but the real beings of the dead who, as the name suggests, return among the living.

 

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.’

 

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Itinerary of Hell 

 

 

Pilgrimage

 

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).

 

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Sandro Botticelli. So crowded.

 

Practicalities

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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. 

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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The Via Francigena from Great St Bernard Pass to ROME