Pilgrims can have fun too

Pilgrimage is serious stuff. Many medieval people went on pilgrimage to make penance for their sins. In his seventh-century book The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos relates how a mule driver in Rome had been so stricken with guilt, after his mules trampled a small child to death, that he undertook a penitential pilgrim to the Hold Land. In a state of utter misery, he ventured into the desert in an attempt to kill himself to expiate the death of the child. But before he had succeeded in doing so, he encountered a lion. To his surprise, the lion declined to eat him, and the muleteer saw this as evidence of God’s forgiveness. In other cases, the pilgrimages were involuntary. Courts imposed them as an alternative to execution or a long prison sentence. Sometimes pilgrims undertook their journeys wearing a belt made from the sword or dagger with which they had committed their crime.

Christian, John Bunyan’s hero in The Pilgrim’s Progress, was not a criminal trying to expatiate sins, but he nonetheless pursued a sober-minded spiritual quest. Perhaps the purest pilgrim of all, he did not pursue conquest, tourism or literary ambition. Nor did St. Augustin in the sixth century. He denounced curiosity for its own sake as “worthless stock . . an interruption and distraction from our prayers.” In the fifteenth century Thomas a Kempis too deplored curiosity and sightseeing in pilgrims because “one seldom hears that any amendment of life results. . . their conversation is trivial and lacks contrition.”

Nevertheless, surprising levels of non-purity pervade the medieval texts of many pilgrims. As John Ure writes, to go on pilgrimage was surely meant to assuage the consequences of sin, but it also involved “spectacular sights. And “above all, to undertake an adventure.” Wealthy pilgrims—princes and prelates and knights and merchants—often traveled in style and comfort, sometimes even with silken tents and silver plates. Even Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, though they never left their own country, each rode their own horses, assembled at inns, and they entertained each other with ribald stories.

One text in particular—the fourteenth-century Voiage of Sir John Madevile—encouraged touristic content in pilgrimages. It purported to be an account of a journey to the Holy Land. It was actually a concoction of invention and plagiarism. There were fountains of eternal youth and anthills of gold dust.

So pilgrims weren’t always pious and ascetic. They also had a little fun. That’s exactly what we’ll do for a week before our pilgrimage proper begins. We just arrived in Venice, and then we head to the Pompeii and Sorrento area. Perhaps Neapolitan pizza and gelato and hiking a volcano will sustain us through the serious stuff to follow.

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