On Saturday the 9th of March, thirty-one pilgrims (and one canine pilgrim companion) met at St Helen’s Church in Abingdon, ready to walk the twelve miles to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Much like the Canterbury Tales, our party was diverse; there were students from across the UK and across disciplines and stages, porters, academics from far and wide and members of the public (one of which who had run a half marathon the very same morning). As a BYOB (Bring Your Own Beliefs) pilgrimage, there were also a range of reasons for pilgrimaging present among our group. This was the start of the Oxford Medieval Studies Pilgrimage Day 2019, a day that would engage with the practice, literature, history and revitalisation of medieval pilgrimage.
At St Helen’s we handed out pilgrim badge replicas, kindly funded by the Oxford Pilgrimage Studies Network, to each of our pilgrims. Beautifully recreated in pewter by Lionheart Replicas, the original badge dated from the fifteenth century and depicted two pilgrims, one male and one female, ready to set out on their walk. After some quick ground rules, some advice for how to make the most of a pilgrimage and a rousing reading of the opening lines to the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from Rebecca, we set off on our journey.
Although the preceding week had been plagued with rain and wind, the day was miraculously sunny with only the occasional gusty spell, the perfect walking weather. Our next stopping point was only five minutes away: the Abingdon Abbey buildings. The curator of the buildings, Tim Miller, led us around the surviving buildings of the Benedictine Abbey, including Unicorn Theatre, the Long Gallery and the Chequer. Tim was an excellent guide for us, bringing the stories of the abbey and its uses to life and showing us the most impressive parts of the building, such as the beautifully painted remains of a Tudor room partition decorated with roses and pomegranates.
After leaving Tim, we then had a long walk ahead of us. We walked through the grounds of Radley College and across the countryside until we reached the picture-perfect village of Sunningwell and its church, St Leonard’s, at just past midday. This was our lunch stop, many of the pilgrims pausing to eat their packed lunch in the sunny grounds of the church or enjoying some hot chips and a pint at the local pub. This church is now mostly fifteenth century, but the village and its association with Abingdon abbey traces back far further. It also features a stunning seven-sided porch at its entrance, the victorian stained glass of which was designed by J.P. Seddon.
We then moved off again, quickly looking at the well after which the village took its name. The landscape was a little steeper as we climbed Boar’s Hill, but the view on the descent of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ was worth it, and we then arrived at St Lawrence’s Church in South Hinksey. Father Ben Drury kindly gave us an history of the church and pointed out the distinctive minstrel’s gallery and the little private window for viewing mass.
We then set off on the last part of our walk, trekking over the train lines and the river, then through the outskirts of the city to Christ Church Cathedral – our pilgrims had made it home! We rounded off the walk with Rebecca reading from the Book of Margery Kempe, a moving passage describing how she reaches the English shore after a stormy passage, before our pilgrims dispersed for a well-earned rest.
The last order of the day was a talk from Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, at St John’s College. Guy talked about his experience of pilgrimage, its history and how he is working to revive the practice in the UK – the perfect reflective end to the day with the lasting message that we should all work to bring pilgrimage back. If you would like to walk a pilgrimage to Oxford, we encourage you to check out the BPT website http://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/five-ways-to-oxford/ and let us know how you get on!
Some feedback from our pilgrims:
‘Talking with people about their different life experiences was enlightening’
‘I think it was great. The highlight for me was doing a journey together with people from different walks of life.’
‘Well co-ordinated, well supported, very friendly. Had a lovely day. One to remember.’
‘Really enjoyed it, would love to do more’
We would like to say thank you to the OMS Small Grant at TORCH for their support, and that of the Oxford Studies Pilgrimage Network. We would also like to say a special thank you to Guy Hayward, Tim Miller, Fr Ben Drury and Robert Culshaw for helping the smooth running of the day, and, of course, our brilliant pilgrims.
When it comes to pilgrimage, the journey is most definitely the destination. This becomes very clear when looking at literary descriptions of religious travel: in the report of his three-year-long journey, Arnold von Harff describes his travels around Europe, Palestine and the Ottoman Empire between 1496 and 1499. The book features detailed descriptions of the culture, the people and the places he has visited, glossaries and alphabets of several different languages, drawings, and even an overview of the distance between each destination. In the end, Arnold gives a most crucial piece of advice to anyone who might want to follow in his footsteps: to take care of one’s belongings so they don’t get stolen on the way.
Arnold’s report reads like an adventure, suggesting that he strove for acclaim from his readership. Yet, the religious motivation for his travels can seem to fade into the background. So why not take a look at a different pilgrim whose journey was all about connecting with God, like Dorothea von Montau (1347-1394)? As a modest and pious woman, she did not have much in common with the self-consciously masculine aristocratic Arnold – except for the fact that her pilgrimages, too, have been written about: her life as a mystic and recluse is described in her biography, which includes several accounts of religious travel. In terms of perspective, aim and context, the writings about her life differ from Arnold’s travel report in every possible way.
The differences actually begin with the texts’ purposes: while Arnold describes the things he has – allegedly – seen with his own eyes during his travels, the vernacular biography, written by Dorothea’s confessor Johannes Marienwerder was intended to enhance her popularity among the local Teutonic Order community during her canonisation process, which was initiated shortly after her death in 1394. Although it claims to be based on Dorothea’s own accounts about her life which she shared with her confessor during her last years, one has to keep in mind that the text presents a literary construct of Dorothea’s life and of Dorothea herself, in the way a male theologian imagined an ideal pious woman.
Still, we can have something of a look at the female perspective on pilgrimage – as we’ve mentioned already, Dorothea was on the road quite a lot. Amongst other destinations, she travelled to Aachen, Rome and the Swiss Einsiedeln. A pilgrimage does not simply end at its main site though, and the way back might be just as difficult and testing. The distant third-person narrator describes Dorothea’s way back home from her pilgrimage to Einsiedeln as a very straining journey. She travels with both her senile husband and their young daughter. And just like a modern-day mum on vacation, she is the one holding it all together.
While her journey is surely an adventure, it is very different from Arnold’s. Besides the challenging conditions of the journey (which are best described by the words God himself uses in the text: wassir, kot und sne [water, faeces and snow]), Dorothea’s biggest struggle is looking after her family. She is the one who carries her husband’s luggage throughout their journey and who washes her family’s clothing at night, while also protecting their belongings from theft, since her husband is too frail to do that. Her hardships are underlined by the narrator’s frequent usage of the word field ‘suffering’ and the strong emphasis on Dorothea’s loneliness and tiredness throughout this episode:
des nachtis […] slief der man herte von mudikeit, und dy muste wachen, das sy icht vorlorn das ire und beschediget worden libes und gutes, alleyne sy ouch wol hette ru und slofes bedorft
at night her husband slept deeply because of his fatigue and she had to keep watch for them to not lose their possessions and to not be physically harmed, but she would have needed rest and sleep as well
Only God helps and protects her and raises her up when needed. This very strong connection between Dorothea and God is another difference from Arnold’s reports: while Arnold only asks God for his help during his travels, we actually see God’s help in action in Dorothea’s case. She considers him a spiritual groom, which draws a sharp contrast to her real-life husband, who is only adding to her distress. Ultimately, the way she bears her misery with the help of her steadfast trust in God is what actually makes her worthy to be a saint – the main point the biography intends to prove to the reader.
Dorothea’s central role as a strong woman among incapable men promotes an interesting gender dynamic. Transgressing the stereotypes of female passivity, she takes on the role of family protector – even saving her family’s life single-handedly. At one point during the journey, they have to cross a frozen lake and manage to travel with a horse-drawn sleigh. All of a sudden, a slight cracking noise indicates a catastrophe: the ice starts to break under the weight and the carriage falls through. Whilst the sleigh driver, his companion and her husband are startled and remain passive, Dorothea acts like a true hero. The narrator describes how she quickly grabs their luggage with one hand and her daughter with the other and jumps off the sleigh. Because her husband is – once again – unable to act in this situation of great danger, Dorothea has to come to his rescue. She grabs him by his feet and pulls him out of the water. This time, it is her daughter who points out divine intervention behind these events: she insists that it was in fact the Blessed Virgin Mary who saved her (because how else would you explain a woman so strong and resilient?).
Having heard about Dorothea’s journey, the travels of Arnold von Harff sound more like an adventurous holiday and what is more, he was clever enough to travel without dependents. Apart from the topic of pilgrimage, they do not seem to have much in common. However, the accounts share one major similarity: they are written to inspire. Dorothea’s endurance and faith are exemplary for anyone who wants to lead a godlier life. As for Arnold, his report can serve as a guidance for those who want to undertake a similar journey – or as an inspiration for those who want to imagine one – or even, maybe, for those who just want to pretend they did. After all, travelling, just like writing, is just a matter of perspective.
Toeppen, Max (Ed.): Das Leben der heiligen Dorothea von Johannes Marienwerder. Scriptores rerum Prussicarum. (Die Geschichtsquellen der preußischen Vorzeit). Vol. 2. Leipzig 1863, pp. 179–374.
Translation into English: Stargardt, Ute. The Life of Dorothea Von Montau, a Fourteenth-Century Recluse. Mellen, 1997.
Josephine Bewerunge and Marlene Schilling are both reading for the MSt in Modern Languages (German) at the University of Oxford in the academic year 2020/21. This blogpost is based on their joint presentation for the Medieval German Graduate Seminar in Hilary Term 2021.
This post serves as a dual introduction, both to Arnold von Harff and to late-medieval pilgrimage writing more broadly. The latter goal in particular is, admittedly, rather brave.
Who was Arnold von Harff?
This is a question which Harff wants his audience to answer in a particular way. As he never tires of reminding us, he was a knight from an aristocratic family. To be more specific, he was the middle son of a nobleman, Adam von Harff. He was born around 1471 at the family seat of Schloss Harff in Bedburg, a castle which was demolished in 1972 for the sake of opencast brown coal mining, along with the whole associated settlement (to see full-size versions of any images, click through twice).
As you can see, pretty much nothing survived, but the Crucifixion group which had been in the churchyard since 1531 was moved to the new settlement and affixed to the modern church wall. It bears some striking similarities to the Crucifixion image transmitted with Harff’s Reisebericht, the earliest version of which is roughly thirty years older than the group (though note that this version of the image, as transmitted in MS Bodl. 972, post-dates the statues by about twenty years).
Harff set out from Cologne at the age of twenty-five on a rather ambitious programme of pilgrimage: he apparently planned as highlights Rome, Sinai, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, St Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, and Wilsnack. He did reach the first four of these destinations. He also, apparently, made it to many further-flung locations, some of them evidently only by travelling on the page. As previous generations of scholars have observed, a fair amount is clearly carried over from other sources including, but not limited to, Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone, Ptolemy’s Geography, and – perhaps most significantly – John Mandeville’s Book, also known as Mandeville’s Travels. In any case, Harff didn’t make it to Wilsnack or Ireland. He returned home in 1499. In 1504, he married Margarethe von dem Bongart and followed his uncle in the post of hereditary chamberlain at the court of Guelders. His story has a rather sad ending: he died only a year later, in 1505, leaving his wife pregnant. Their daughter died too, in early childhood, and was buried with him. But his writing has survived, and was fairly popular amongst members of his own social class in the Rhineland and Westphalia. It continued to be circulated in manuscript into the seventeenth century, though it was not printed until 1860. It was then edited by Eberhard von Groote, using three manuscripts in the Harff family archives, including one that, while unlikely to be an autograph, dates from shortly after Harff’s journey.
What is late-medieval pilgrimage writing?
So let’s now turn to the Reisebericht’s literary context. The first thing to do here is to separate the practice of actually going on a journey from the accounts of travel that we find on the page, even if they are written by people who really have travelled. It’s a constant refrain today that the lives people recount on social media are not identical with the lives they’re actually living: social media offers us the curated version, often carefully groomed to leave certain details out or to foreground others. It’s – usually – a version of reality, based, at least to an extent, in what has actually happened, but it doesn’t quite overlap. I don’t simply mean this in the sense that recounting exactly what happened at every moment of every day would be both tedious and impossible, or even particularly that people’s memories are flawed and subjective, though of course that’s true. It’s the gap between the picture of a historic landmark apparently on its own, while in reality, locals waited impatiently behind the photographer, who was carefully adjusting the angle to avoid the crane behind it and the modern building in front of it. A fifteenth-century pilgrimage on the page and a fifteenth-century pilgrimage as it really happened are deliberately and consciously different, and when we read pilgrimage writing, we’re looking at journeys on the page. Despite the huge range of texts which come under the heading of ‘pilgrimage writing’, and the scope for variation beyond descriptions of the pilgrimage site themselves, there are conventions which, certainly by the time Arnold von Harff was travelling and writing, are quite rigid when it comes to recounting visits to the Holy Places in Jerusalem.
So let’s focus in on Jerusalem. One of the key factors behind this conformity was the Franciscan Order, who had been granted the Custody of the Holy Land in 1342 by Pope Clement VI. The pilgrimage programme the Franciscans developed endured with little variation for two centuries. The sites to be visited, the liturgy at each, the order in which they were seen, the route between them, and the terms in which they were described, were shared by late-medieval western pilgrims making the Jerusalem pilgrimage (though parts of the route could be taken in reverse). But the Franciscans weren’t content for their programme to remain in Jerusalem. Pilgrims brought it back with them in their accounts, and the pilgrimage was so formalised that pilgrim authors frequently copied one another’s words, and the advent of print in the second half of the fifteenth century really speeded up this process.
Although Harff’s account wasn’t itself printed, he made use of printed accounts in his writing process, including the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of one of the Big Names of German pilgrimage writing: Bernhard von Breydenbach. We can see traces of this rather mammoth work in text and image in Harff’s account. His section on Greek Christians is a key example, and several alphabets are also lifted from Breydenbach. Nonetheless, most of the images transmitted with Harff’s Reisebericht cannot be traced to Breydenbach.
Another crucial source for Harff (and for many others), and almost certainly another printed one, is John Mandeville’s Book. This is purportedly the first-person description of an English knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his further travels in the East. It appeared in French in the second half of the fourteenth century, was transmitted widely in manuscript, and rapidly translated into various vernaculars including, by 1415, two separate German translations, those of Otto von Diemeringen and Michael Velser. Both were printed in 1480. Mandeville’s depiction of the Holy Land was enormously influential – despite the fact that it was also long out of date by the time of its first appearance, being largely dependent on crusader-era sources, and without reference to the Franciscan pilgrimage.
The point was not – usually – to use Mandeville as a source for information about the reality of fifteenth-century Jerusalem, since, as we’ve seen, this wasn’t the point of pilgrimage writing in general. Mandeville’s version of Jerusalem was already multi-era and multi-source, so mingling it with later pilgrim experiences means that the late-medieval Jerusalem-on-the-page becomes what Anthony Bale calls ‘the perfect simulacrum, a copy whose original had long since vanished, if it had ever existed’. So while there’s of course a certain overlap between Jerusalem-on-the-page and Jerusalem-in-the-world, the former was what pilgrims were aiming to describe when they copied from or drew on Mandeville’s description of Jerusalem, whether they did it with Mandeville as their direct source or whether they were copying other pilgrims who had themselves drawn on Mandeville. Bale coins the term ‘meme Jerusalem’ to describe this phenomenon.
But outside the ‘meme Jerusalem’ and beyond the Holy Land? Well, I started out by saying that it was rather brave to attempt an introduction to late-medieval pilgrimage writing, and that’s because it’s quite … elastic as a category. As Harff’s Reisebericht shows us, there was scope for pretty much whatever you wanted to include when you sat down to write about your pilgrimage. And while Harff might start his account by describing himself as ‘ritter geboren’ [knight by birth], he finishes it by asking his audience to pray for the pylgrym, weech wijser, ind dichter [pilgrim, guide, and author]. Just as he can be many things at once, so can his Reisebericht – and so can anyone else’s.