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Historical Perspectives

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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