Archive for June, 2010


June 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Providing a complete overview of the route eclipses both my limited technical prowess, and my powers of clairvoyance. I hope to be able to update the route whilst on the hoof, principally because I anticipate that either I shall be waylaid by blisters, sloth and local hostelries, in which case progress will be much slower than anticipated, or otherwise rabid dogs, shotgun wielding farmers and a desire to get a good coffee, in which case I will certainly be quicker through France.

In the meantime, the proposed first 23 days follow this itinerary:

While the route as a whole looks something like this.

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June 29, 2010 3 comments

It may surprise you to learn, given what has gone before, that I have not prepared for the linguistic challenges of the trip with any appreciable rigour. The rural French can’t speak English, the urban French wont, the Swiss speak all languages but, and although Italians communicate solely through gesture and variations in vocal candescence, which may be easily imitated by a newcomer to the language within minutes, a pilgrimage to Rome still represents quite a significant undertaking given my rather limited linguistic resources.

Whilst the more high born medieval pilgrim would have spoken French and been familiar with Latin, the contemporary British education system and a considerable degree of intellectual sloth on my part has left me speaking what can be described, at best, as multi-purpose European.

The French I learnt at school, and certainly that which I remember seems particularly unsuited to any conversation one might wish to have with anybody over six or not American. My oral exam at GCSE level consisted of a tiresome role-play where I was tasked with persuading a shopkeeper to sell me a blue pen, an undertaking accomplished by repeating “je voudrais un stylo bleu” with increasing firmness while the shopkeeper, demonstrating an irritating lack of application to the task in hand, attempted to detain me in a supplementary discussion about the number of daughters I had and what colour their hair was. I only received a B, despite having successfully and promptly secured the pen, a result which should act as a suitable riposte to anyone who claims exams are getting easier.

Aside from asking for different colour writing utensils, I can order someone to close a window, explain that my father’s house has a bathroom and a small garden and ask how old you are. It might be the case that I have forgotten the rest, but I rather doubt I knew much else in the first place.

This foundation in French is supplemented by Italian, gathered almost entirely from chance encounters with the thoughtful, eclectic world of Italian television, and thus geared entirely towards persuading girls in bikinis and high heels to perform tasks which involve getting wet and pouting– a activity of dubious merit on a pilgrimage. As for Spanish, despite or perhaps because of a romantic entanglement with a Puerto Rican girl, I am able to express in that fine language only my own manifold shortcomings as a boyfriend and object of desire – of which there are an extraordinary number. While this may make for an absorbing confessional, the latter is again of limited value in the monasteries of Northern Italy.

It is in Swedish that I excel as a linguist, however. Regrettably from the pilgrim’s perspective, the language seems almost entirely preoccupied with fornication, although possibly that is more a commentary on my teacher than the language more generally. Possibly the only word of any merit in polite company that I know is slinka, which I am told means beautiful eyes. It is an engaging, if useless, tongue. I speak no German, and rather distrust anyone who does.

In order to communicate, then, I will have to rely upon the traditional tools of my countrymen abroad – speaking very loudly and very slowly in my native tongue, and hoping that the poor benighted foreigner being addressed had been fortunate enough to have gained some exposure to the Queen’s English.

I leave in four days. I shall have to spend them learning foreign.

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Aims & Intentions

June 25, 2010 2 comments

I have been away for three days learning to put up a tent. It is not something I shall enjoy repeating, but at least the family camping next to me learned a great many new words, many with a heritage in very old Anglo-Saxon.

Pilgrimage has a heritage dating to at least the second century, and, if we include biblical textual evidence, significantly prior to this (the eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, for instance). Its purposes have shifted throughout this time, however. The medieval pilgrims in whose footsteps I shall follow would have gone both as a supererogatory act of devotion, and as a penance. Diane Webb, for instance, records the case of an English adulteress whose penance was a bare-footed walk to Canterbury, where she was to be whipped around the Cathedral by monks, and attain a certificate of performance. This sensible and humane punishment – Deuteronomy is quite clear that she ought to have been stoned to death – was replicated throughout Europe and on a grand scale, as, in the words of one medieval preacher – “it is only fit that as we sin with the limbs, we atone with the limbs”, although given the prevalence of adultery cases for which penance was prescribed, it seems that the first two legs were often tasked with making reparation for the excesses of the third.

The three main pilgrimage roads were to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago. The former in particular benefited from the cult of the saints which grew up some time after the 4th century, as the miraculous properties of relics became apparent, and pilgrims flocked to see the tombs of St Peter and St Paul, and latterly the Veronica, a cloth upon which the face of Christ was imprinted. The later part of the dark ages saw the development also of the notion that visiting Rome at a prescribed time – particularly the Jubilees, a tradition borrowed from Judaism from the fourteenth century – would gain one time off from purgatory. As with the much missed Lira, these were subject to enormous inflation. While attendance of any one particular church in the 1300 jubilee would earn one at most 7 days off from ones punishment, by 1390, when the 1400 jubilee was brought forward 10 years, a single step at the entrance of a particular church could be worth as much as 7 years. This was a significant incentive to the pious Catholic of medieval Europe.

In some cases they would have gone for less noble reasons. Thanks to the extensive protections proclaimed by the Church on the property of pilgrims while away, the protection from civil law cases being brought, and the opportunities available to trade, there were at least some instances of pilgrimages undertaken in order to evade domestic trials. Johnathon Sumption, for instance, records that at least one of King John’s vassals in Burgundy placed his property under the protection of the Holy See and set out for Jerusalem when it became apparent that the French King would over-run the area and may well have otherwise attempted to deprive him of his properties.

Why am I going? A number of reasons. As a relatively new Catholic, and one whose behavior frequently falls short of what I would hope it to be, both the penitential and the contemplative aspects of pilgrimage appeal. In addition, there are interesting questions to be asked about the conjunction of religious tradition and contemporary political progression. I am grateful to the Peter Kirk Fund in indulging me while I ask such questions.

There is also another reason. A very good friend of mine – life and soul of the party, very involved in everything going – fell ill many years ago with ME, a ghastly affliction which left her bed bound in her room for weeks on end. For such an energetic person, and one who embraces life so much, this was a tragedy – she could not continue at university, she couldn’t see friends, or even leave open her curtains. Moreover, no effective treatment could be found on the NHS. There is, however, one treatment centre in the UK that she was able to get into – The Marillac in Essex, run by The Sisters of Charity. The efforts of the selfless women who work there, combined with the sheer willpower of the young lady involved were able to bring about a complete cure.

Quite simply put, without the efforts of these wonderful women, my friend would still be in bed today. Instead she has completed a fabulous degree and is set on a path of helping others through medicine. We should all be grateful for what these women do, not only those of us touched by them. No-ne asks them to, no-one pays them. They do it from love and from hope and as their Christian duty.

To that end, I hope to use this journey as a mechanism for fund-raising for the Marillac. I was intending to pay my first bank bonus to them when I went into the city, but having left that path, I will do whatever I can do – including passing on royalties if I am able to turn this into a book – to show my thanks. If this story in any way resonates, or if this endeavour in any way amuses you or helps pass the time in the next three months, then I would urge you to send a cheque – however small – to:

Marillac Care
Eagle Way
CM13 3BL

I will put a link on the side. Many thanks, and all the best.

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Historical Perspectives

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

To the Oxford History Library for some research on the medieval pilgrimage. What is striking is both how risky it was – bandits and barons preyed on pilgrims, of which more later – but also how deeply entrenched national stereotypes were as far back as the eighth century.

Most enjoyable are the various national libels that do not appear to have lost any salience in the present era.

Indeed what we view as contemporary national character traits have been in evident on the Via Francigena for a long time. As early as 750, Saint Boniface be found urging the Archbishop of Canterbury to discourage English women from embarking on a continental sojourn as, “a great part of the perish and few keep their virtue. There are very few towns in Lombardy or Frankland or Gaul where there is not a courtesan or harlot of English stock”, thus setting the tone for every subsequent Daily Mail ‘investigation’ into Club 18-30 holidays.

While the women of England were engaged spreading love, legs and lice in the towns of Northern Europe, the Swedish were busy developing the open minded and creative approach to sexual probity for which their great nation is rightly famed – Alexander III ordering the Bishop of Uppsala in 1171 that:

“Since it is appropriate to punish with adequate severity the abominable presumption of…those who couple with mother, daughter, cousins-german or grand-daughter, or with beasts…you shall compel them to come to the apostolic see, and to visit the shrines of the apostles Peter and Paul”

My favorite, though, is to be found in the Thirteenth Century Guide for Pilgrims to Santiago, whose author describs the inhabitants of Northern Spain, thus:

“They have dark, evil, ugly faces. They are debauched, perverse, treacherous and disloyal, corrupt and sensual drunkards. They are fierce savages, dishonest and untrustworthy, impious, cruel and quarrelsome people, brought up in vice and iniquity, totally devoid of human feeling…They will kill you for a penny. men and women alike warm themselves by the fire, revealing those parts which are better hidden. They fornicate unceasingly, and not only with humans…That is why they are held in contempt by all decent folk.”

So loathsome does the author consider the Basques that he concludes that they must be related to the Scottish.

I wonder how much longer, with the European cultural mix gradually dissipating in the face of American cultural hegemony on one side, the erosion of national variance under the European Court of Justice’s standardisation campaign and ex-colonial immigration on the other, it will be appropriate to speak of the English as perfidious, the French cowardly, the Scandinavians sexually incontinent and the Latin peoples of Spain and Italy as entirely sensualy oriented. Perhaps it never was, but I do find it remarkable that for almost one thousand years, there is a heritage of such descriptions, which one would imagine cannot be entirely self-perpetuating.

Leaving behind such musings, it is interesting to reflect on the scale of the challenge that the original pilgrims would have faced. Walking in Europe, one would have relied almost exclusively upon a network of Roman roads which had been essentially unmodified for hundreds of years. Progress was slow, even a skilled horseman could not average more than thirty mkiles a day through France, and even if one did make it to the days end – and many didn’t, by one estimate 50% of pilgrims walking to Rome for the 1350 jubillee were either robbed or killed – one still had traditional French hospitality to survive. Radulph Glaber records one inn-keeper in Chatenay had the bodies of 88 pilgrims decomposing in a hut adjascent to the inn. One would not be overly suprised to find Parisian restauranters with similar facilities for American tourists who have mispronounced their order of “Cinq Croque Monsieurs et un Coca Cola Light”, but even so this strikes me as a failure in customer accomodation…

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June 21, 2010 1 comment

Whilst much maligned as an exclusively destructive force, I am at least able to claim this for the Devil’s creative side. I am pretty sure he invented walking boots. These useless, painful, pointless inventions, which lack the aesthetic merit and elegance of a brogue, the well ventilated charm of a sandal, or the comfort of what Americans would call a ‘sneaker’ have plastered my feet in blisters. Walking anywhere in one is like encasing ones feet in a steel cage moulded for the feet of a circus midget. I am fairly sure that 30 miles on the back of no physical training had impact on the outcome.

I am almost certain that this would also have been the effect achieved had I walked in a pair which were the right size. In any even, I shall not find out, as I am obliged to desist from this experiment in irritation. I shall walk the via Francigena in flip flops and damn the consequences.

Fortunately, this morning was not my first piece of training.

The via Francigenia, which I am walking, a journey which it will be the duty of this blog to track, is undulating, rising from the flatlands of Calais to the Great St Bernard’s Pass in the Swiss Alps, and then making all number of needless incursions up and down hills in Northern Italy. Altitute training has therefore been top of my agenda, it is going to be important to be able to function effectively on very thin air.

Regrettably, the Final Honour School in PPE has kept me chained to a desk for the prior 6 months and away from the Welsh mountains, which would have been one way of preparing. Fortunately, another is available in the form of Marlborough Lights, which enable one to attain the same degree of breathlessness through the dedication of only thirty minutes a day to their consumption.

Likewise, I have yet to have had the time to practice carrying weights around on my back. However, by virtue of some over-indulgent college and home cooking, I have succeeded in attaching several stones of excess weight to my front, in order to practice its carriage. This too appears to have provided a time effective and effecacious method of training.

In all seriousness, though, the hard work starts here. I think fitness will be built on the hoof rather than before hand, but a Wallington-Kingston-Wallington circuit, complete with an additional 6 miles obtained via one of my father’s ‘shortcuts’ was good practice. With less than two weeks before departure, I shall need to kick on, though, in order to be ready on time.

Apologies for the poor layout etc. I have no idea how to make internet pages and I am really rather suprised that this has come out at all. I hope to update in forthcoming days about the history of the via Francigena, motivations, route forthcoming etc., prior to departure which is currently penciled in for 3rd July.

Best wishes,


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