We’ve made it to Vico Equense from Venice on a six-hour train ride via Rome and Naples.
We were only in the train station in Naples, but I think I agree with Detective Brunetti, the fictional Venetian police officer: “For a moment, he wished himself back in Naples, where he’d spent those awful years dealing with people who ignored the subtlety of words and responded to kicks and blows” (“Death at La Fenice”). We made it out of the station without any bruises–and more importantly, with our wallets.
The views of the ocean and Mt. Vesuvius are stunning here. We can see it all from the rooftop of our Airbnb.
And here’s a time-lapse sunset from the rooftop with Vesuvius in the distance. Courtesy of Jonathan Weaver Swartz.
All fun and no study makes Jack a dull boy. So while our visit to Venice is mostly about tourism, I’m learning some interesting things along the way that relate to the trip’s purpose. Mostly that this place played a central role in facilitating pilgrimage in the medieval world.
When journeys to the Holy Land were taken overland, Venice wasn’t much of a waypoint. But the Crusades and the overrunning of the Byzantine empire by Seljuk Turks effectively closed land routes. Over time, the preferred route became the sea. And there was no more dominant maritime power than the Venetian Republic. They controlled the seas through a chain of ports and an extensive fleet of mercantile galleys. Venice was well placed to exploit the pilgrim traffic from western Europe to the Holy Land. The government basically ran a travel agency service. In fact, if pilgrims had complaints about a voyage, they could register them with authorities upon their return to Venice.
Part of a larger political and economic empire. Center of commerce for silk, grain, and art from 13th to the 17th centuries. Became the printing capital of the world. The city-state of Venice is considered the first real international financial center, emerging in the ninth century and reading its greatest prominence in the fourteenth century.
One of the most famous pilgrims who went through Venice included St. Francis of Assisi. Along with a band of missionaries, he landed at Acre in 1219, visited the Holy Places, and entered a Saracen (Muslim) camp. Possibly because no one understood what he was saying, St. Francis managed to preach a sermon criticizing the Koran without giving any offence.
The pilgrim traffic wasn’t a complete windfall. Venice had to deal with lots of pirates and sometimes navigate war with the Ottoman empire. But the Venetians did get quite wealthy off of this trade. Sometimes wealthy pilgrims were detained by Venetian authorities for special taxes. Writes John Ure, “Clearly to Venetian officials, pilgrims to the Holy Land were a useful source of revenue rather than a category of visitor to be treated with any special consideration.”
Empire is simultaneously easing the way for modern-day pilgrims and profiting off of them too. Our U.S. passports get us pretty much anywhere we want to go. Is it because Europeans care about cosmopolitan multiculturalism and want to sing “kum-ba-ya” with us? Perhaps. We’ve encountered a lot of really friendly people already. I was touched, as we walked this morning through Venice’s Jewish Ghetto (Did you know that the word ghetto originally came from Venice; also it was where Shylock, the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice lived), where Jews for many centuries were not allowed to leave after sunset and where Jews during WWII were rounded up and sent to extermination camps, to see long lines of Italian schoolkids learning about their past. It was poignant to observe two schoolmates—one Middle Eastern boy with a turban on his head and one very Italian-looking girl—walking side by side and hand in hand through the ghetto. It was a hopeful vision of loosening cultural and geographic boundaries.
But let’s be honest, we’re also bringing in dollars to the European Union, Italy, and, yes, Venice. We’re happy to do so. Venice is less of an empire now, and the New York Times has called it “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” We agree—it’s a captivating place.
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.
In 1481 the Cavalier Santo Brasca had just returned home in Milan from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Like most travelers, he liked to give advice to those embarking on their journeys. Here’s what he suggested that future pilgrims take:
The right attitude: He wrote that the sole purpose should be “contemplating and adoring the Holy Mysteries . . . and not with the intention of seeing the world and being able to boast ‘I have been there.’” What did we bring? A little bit of both! We hope to contemplate spiritual truths and see the world all in one journey.
Two bags: One should be full of patience. The other should contain 200 Venetian ducats, which might sustain the habits of those accustomed “to living delicately at home.” What did we bring? A lot of patience (hopefully enough for three–almost four–teenagers). Brought a lot less cash than 220 x $149.31, the modern-day value of a Venetian gold ducat, but we did bring a credit card and a debit card.
An overcoat reaching down to the ground to wear when sleeping in the open air. What did we bring? We hope not to sleep in the open air, but we did pack light jackets. The weather forecast looks absolutely delightful—highs mostly in the mid-70s.
Two barrels (one for water and one for wine). What did we bring? No barrels and no wine. Just six plastic water bottles.
A night-stool or covered pail. What did we bring? Bladders strong enough to get us back to our Airbnb each night.
Provisions: “a great deal of fruit syrup, because that is what keeps a man alive in the great heat, and also syrup of ginger to settle his stomach.” What did we bring? Three boxes of granola bars and six bags of almonds from the Aldi in Lexington, Kentucky.
“Be humble in behaviour and in dress” and avoid arguing about the faith with Saracens “because it is a waste of time and productive of trouble.” What did we bring? Hopefully we embody a faith that is invitational, not coercive.
As we passed through Munich this morning, it felt geographically fitting to read a Religion News piece about the revival of the Obergammau passion play. Typically held every ten years by the villagers of this small village in Bavaria not far from Munich, it was scheduled to run in the summer of 2020. Turns out that the dramatic production restarted just last Saturday after a two-year Covid hiatus.
You should read the article for yourself. It’s mostly a fascinating discussion about how the play has evolved in a less antisemitic direction over the decades. The reason I bring it up, though, is that it occurred to me that we’ve lopped off a really important part of our spiritual heritage. If we really did this pilgrimage right, we would start our narrative in the Holy Lands, not Rome. In fact, that was the top destination for the earliest European pilgrims, who went to visit Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bones of the saints, and the Holy Lance, the Roman weapon that had pierced the side of Christ on the cross.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Holy Lands were a relatively hospitable place for pilgrims to visit. Palestine was ruled by Muslim rulers by this point, but enmity had not built up between the two great monotheistic religions. That changed for a variety of reasons in the eleventh century, especially due to Pope Urban II’s effort to recapture Jerusalem for Christendom. This military invasion—usually called the First Crusade—marked a fundamentally different approach. Prior to this point, the minority Christians had inhabited Jerusalem with a posture of peace and humility. But the invasion, especially when it culminated in atrocities during and after the Christian conquest, resulted in reprisals and bitterness.
As historian John Ure notes, this reshaped the entire concept of pilgrimage. While the Knights Hospitaller operated hospitals and hostelries, the more militant arm of the Knights Templar earned a terrible reputation for arrogance and intolerance. Muslim hostility and Christian violence sent pilgrimage to Palestine into free fall in the first centuries of the second millennium.
Pilgrims didn’t stop pilgriming though. They just went to different places. One of the most important was Santiago de Compostela, where St. James was said to be buried. Also Mount Athos in Greece, St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, the great abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset in England, and the island of Iona near Scotland.
And, of course, Rome. But we’ll discuss this in more depth next week when we’re actually get there ourselves.
We’re in the middle of a rough couple of travel days. Here’s our itinerary so far:
A six-hour drive that successfully got us from central Kentucky to Chicago. Our old minivan has been in the shop twice in the last couple of weeks with a major repair scheduled for when we return home, so we’re thrilled we didn’t break down along the way.
A six-hour flight from Chicago to Reykjavik that was delayed 90 minutes due to a medical emergency by a passenger. We just barely made our connecting flight.
A three-hour flight from Reykjavik to Amsterdam.
After half a day wandering the city, we’re currently on a train ride (all four kids fell asleep within five minutes of boarding) from Amsterdam to Düsseldorf, with hopes of making a midnight train that will take us overnight from Düsseldorf to Munich. But since our train out of Amsterdam was twenty minutes late, that may create a cascade of modifications to our itinerary, which takes us through Germany, Austria, and Italy on Tuesday. Our hope is to stay at a monastery in Venice tomorrow night. All told, we’ll not enjoy a bed between Sunday morning and Tuesday night.
Still, this is nothing compared to the inconveniences, dangers, and outright hostility encountered by pilgrims a millennium ago. According John Ure in his fascinating book Pilgrimages: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, highway robbers haunted the thick forests of Europe to victimize pilgrims. Bogus pilgrims struck up acquaintances with real pilgrims, only to lead them into ambushes. Rapacious innkeepers fleeced pilgrims. Leaky boats crewed by irresponsible sailors jeopardized the lives of hundreds of pilgrims bound for the Holy Land from European ports.
Sometimes it was just merely uncomfortable. Hans Von Mergenthal reported in 1476 that “the sleeping space allotted to each pilgrim was so narrow, that the passengers almost lay one on the other, tormented by the great heat, by swarms of insects, and even by great rats that raced over their bodies in the dark.” This despite the fact that Venetian regulations required a berth a foot and a half wide per passenger.
Making everything more difficult was how hard it was to plan. It is difficult now to comprehend the degree of insularity of medieval life. Lords and peasants alike lived in tight communities and will little aware of outside activities and cultures. Maps were almost non-existent or deeply misleading. To go on a long journey was almost like staggering out into the night.
By contrast, we’ve googled the heck out of this trip to make things as smooth and efficient as possible. I’m so tired right now I can barely type out this post, but the insane logistical issues and unpredictabilities of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages swamp anything we’re dealing with.
As we fly out tonight, we’re so grateful for so many people. For the many scholars, dead and alive, whose work we’re reading. For John Sharp and others, who told us what Anabaptist sites to visit. For a multitude of experienced travelers who gave us advice.
For Asbury colleagues and administrators, who have been supportive of our idiosyncratic interests.
For Grandpa Carl for sending a letter this week that got the kids really, really excited (it involved some leftover Euros).
For the Reimers and my Swartz parents, traveling companions who are joining us for sections of the trip.
And most immediately, to my Uncle Doug and Aunt Pam, who fed us a wonderful departing meal and took us to O’Hare this afternoon.
Like all pilgrims, we’re dependent upon others along the way.
There are some obvious places—Rome, Bern, Zurich, Rotterdam—to visit on this pilgrimage. But there are some less obvious places too. Most of our ancestors were farmers in small villages in Switzerland and Germany. Figuring out where those villages are takes some specialized research.
Thankfully, my grandfather, David I. Miller, has been coaching me to do this research my entire life. When I was a child, he helped me fill out my family tree in the form of a fan chart. This past week after turning in grades, I pulled out it out. I was amazed all over again by just how many ancestors we all have. If you look carefully, I have 512 great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmothers and grandfathers.
I know who many of them are because Grandpa Miller has given me many genealogy books over the years at Christmastime. I also pulled those out to prepare for the trip. Here are some of the titles:
The Daniel Bender Family History (1985)
Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler, Immigrant of 1736 (1912)
Joel B. Miller History (1960)
Anniversary History of the Family of John “Hannes” Miller (1997)
The Swiss-German Forebears of the American Swartzentrubers (1985)
Weber-Weaver Family History
The Descendants of Lydia Zook and Abiah Byler
Not the most scintillating reading (I prefer stories), but necessary for the task. I took many photos of relevant pages and will be combing through them on European trains over the next three weeks. This will determine which villages we visit in the Emmental region of Switzerland and the Hesse region of Germany.
Of course, fan charts and genealogical books don’t always reflect real life. That’s where DNA testing comes in. As the great observer of the human condition Shania Twain once asked, “Whose lips have you been kissin’? Whose ear did you make a wish in? Whose bed have your boots been under?” Do 100 percent of my ancestors come from the Black Forest region located at the intersection of Germany, France, and Switzerland, as the books say? I suppose it’s possible, since they tended to marry within their own ethnicity and religion and tended not to travel far from home. But it’s also possible that some eyes wandered and boots strayed. Perhaps we’ll be surprised by the results.
We’ll find out soon enough, hopefully while we’re still on our trip. Our son Jonathan took a DNA test this morning. He spit into a vial, mixed it with stabilizing fluid, and packed it into a small box. Then I took it to the Nicholasville Post Office. At the processing facility lab, technicians will filter out the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from his saliva and then isolate the DNA by binding it to glass and magnetic beads. Then during the genotyping phase, a microarray will detect around 700,000 DNA markers, which will identify his ethnic origins, ancestors’ migration paths, and living relatives. In a few weeks, we’ll get an email. Finding your roots has gotten more scientific.
It has been a whirlwind of a week as we prepare to leave. Just a sampling of what we’ve been up to in the last couple of days: Mowing lawns (David and Jon). Orthodontist appointments (Andrew and Jon). Last-minute repairs in the hopes of our old van making it to O’Hare (David). Track practices and turning in his jersey (Ben). Orchestra recital (Anna, Andrew, and Jon). Track practice and meet at Transylvania (Anna). Ultimate frisbee practices and end-of-year cookout. Youth group (Ben). Coffee and walks and disc golf with friends (everyone). Turning in grades (David and Lisa). Fielding grade complaints (David). Submitting an academic article (Lisa). Copyediting manuscript proofs (Lisa). Finishing a book proposal (David). Setting up an online course that begins on Monday as we land in Amsterdam (David). Department meetings and half a dozen other faculty meetings (Lisa and David). Downloading books to read along the way (everyone). Six final exams, essay, and social studies project (Andrew and Jon). Wrapping up fifth grade (Anna), eighth grade (Ben), and two ninth grades (Andrew and Jon). Securing passports, vaccination cards, and certificates of recovery (David). Packing (Lisa). Stopping the mail (Lisa). Eating every last scrap from the refrigerator (all of us).