If medieval pilgrims were the first mass tourists, then was Venice the first tour operator? S. D. Sykes investigates.
One of the undoubted joys when researching for a historical novel, is finding unexpected parallels between our ancestors’ lives and our own. When I sat down to write my third novel I knew that my protagonist, the young lord Oswald de Lacy, would be travelling to fourteenth century Venice. I had all sorts of preconceptions about this city (many of which were wrong) but one of the most unexpected aspects that came to light during my research was the place of Venice in medieval pilgrim culture. This led me onto reading more about pilgrims – their habits, their destinations and their motivations, and I couldn’t help but see much of our own, modern-day culture reflected back at me.
These days, I don’t think that many of us would consider going on a pilgrimage – particularly as we tend to think of such journeys as being solely religious. But, then again, if we were asked, would we even be able to define exactly what a pilgrimage is? Looking back through history, the pilgrimage has taken different forms. The first pilgrims, back in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, were often inspired by Christ’s forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. For these people, a pilgrimage was a time of fasting, reflection and prayer, and often led them to lonely and desolate places where they could test their faith through deprivation and hardship. This had changed by the eleventh century, and the dawn of the crusades. No longer a private and inward experience, the pilgrimage now became a call-to-arms, a holy war, as men gathered themselves into armies and attempted to take back the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the forces of Islam. This variety of pilgrimage largely came to an end with the fall of Acre in 1291, and thereafter pilgrimages, particularly those to the Holy Land, once again became personal and spiritual in their motivation.
Or did they? We’re probably all familiar with the origin of the word ‘holiday.’ It derives its meaning from ‘holy day’ – those dates in the calendar that were set aside for the celebration of the saints, or days of observance in the church’s calendar. But, of course, when people have a day away from their work, particularly if they are travelling away from home for a longer period, there is also the opportunity to socialise, to visit new and interesting places, and to be released from the drudgery of their usual lives. The further a person travels, the longer they are away from this normality. There is no doubt, in my mind anyway, that by the fourteenth century, pilgrimages had almost become a form of annual leave. Yes, there was still religious motivation at their heart – but, as we see in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, there was also a social element to this holy journey. To quote Chaucer himself, it’s true to say that there was more than one reason that ‘Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.’
Of course, most pilgrims would only get as far as Canterbury, Walsingham or Bury St Edmunds, but there were also those intrepid souls who set off with Jerusalem as their goal. This was a brave decision, for it was a long and arduous journey that would take the best part of a year to complete. But, for those pilgrims who returned safely, without having succumbed to sickness, stormy seas or the attentions of pirates, then they were justly feted and revered by their contemporaries for the rest of their lives. And for those attempting to reach the Holy Land, Venice was firmly on the route, not least because the city had established herself as the premier provider of sea travel to the Holy Land. In fact, you might even say Venice was a pioneer of the package tour, offering all-inclusive, twice-yearly return sailings to the port of Jaffa (near present day Tel Aviv.)
The idea of travelling with a group of fellow-minded people on an itinerary that has been organised by a specialist operator, is still a popular way to travel – particularly if your destination is perceived to be culturally different, and even more importantly, if there is some level of personal danger involved in going there. The Venetians recognised these concerns, realising that there was an opportunity to provide a service to those pilgrims who were adventurous enough to travel to Jerusalem, but who were also still concerned enough about their personal safety to require the services of an experienced captain and his crew. By offering a complete tour package of travel to and from the port of Jaffa, the Venetians were not only able to charge the pilgrims a higher price than they might charge a more worldly-wise merchant for the same journey, but they also spotted an opportunity to sell return routes that took in new destinations – places that were likely to appeal to the pilgrim’s taste. This might be a stop at the port of Alexandria, a visit to Cairo, or even a crossing of the desert to visit the monastery at St Catherine of Sinai. When reading about these optional extras, I’m rather reminded of those ‘excursions’ with which we are often bombarded by holiday reps. Whether it be a boat trip to a nearby island, a dinner with entertainment at a local taverna, or even a coach trip to a local monastery.
Venice was not only offering onward travel, she also set herself up as a place of pilgrimage in her own right, providing a good many ‘attractions’ to help the pilgrims pass their time (and empty their pockets) while they awaited the next sailing to Jaffa. There were a fine array of churches and shrines to visit in Venice, and a multitude of indulgences and relics to be purchased. These items were not only designed to assist in the salvation of the pilgrim’s soul, they might also be thought of as souvenirs – treasured mementos of a great journey. An object of interest that the pilgrim might proudly show off to his or her friends when they finally got home. ‘Look what I bought in Venice?’ (Does this sound at all familiar?)
The Venetians really seemed to understand the importance of customer service, and the negative effect of an unhappy customer upon future business. In order to maintain their reputation, they set up an office near to the harbour – the Tholomarii – a tourist office, where a pilgrim could meet with those galley captains who were vetted by the authorities, in order to negotiate the price of a berth to Jaffa. If the pilgrim returned to Venice and was unhappy with their captain and the quality of the ship, then they could make their complaint at the office of the Cattaveri, in the knowledge that the Venetian authorities would help to mediate the case. Both these offices were designed to give reassurance to the pilgrims, in the way that we now rely upon ABTA or ATOL.
One of the most famous pilgrims of the medieval times was a woman named Marjory Kempe – a pilgrim who was driven by intense religious conviction, and is credited as being the first person to write (via dictation, as she was illiterate) an autobiography in English. This account, The Book of Margery Kempe, records her travels across Europe to many places of pilgrimage, including Venice – although, rather frustratingly, she tells us very little about the city itself. There are, however, many lesser-known diaries and letters written by other pilgrims, particularly those who traveled to Jerusalem. First and foremost, they are accounts of the many sights and wonders that the authors encountered upon their travels; but they are also warnings to prospective pilgrims about which captains to trust; which inns or hospices to avoid; and where to change your money. In many ways, these accounts read like a medieval TripAdvisor – minus the star ratings, of course.
Another aspect of pilgrim culture that appeared to me to have modern day resonance, concerned the way in which communities would often pool resources to send one individual from their midst to Jerusalem. This vicarious pilgrim, usually a young man, was then charged with reaching the Holy Land in order to pray for the souls of those who had sponsored him. This reminded me a little of the way that we now sponsor young people within our communities to travel to developing countries in order to carry out charitable work. Sometimes, we might feel a little cynical about this, even a little begrudging perhaps – suspecting that we are somehow funding somebody else’s kid’s holiday? However, putting such mean thoughts aside, there is also a part of us that admires this young person. We sponsor them to make this journey and do this work because, rather like our fourteenth century ancestors, we can’t do it ourselves.
And this brings me to my last parallel. Outrage at the things other people do on holiday. It’s become something of a popular obsession – whether it be stories of air-rage, teenage drunkenness in bars, or lewd behaviour on the beach. It might come as some comfort then to know that, over time, the English pilgrim also came to be viewed with suspicion – particularly by the English themselves. The more that pilgrimages grew in popularity, the more that the whole undertaking came under criticism, not only from the orthodox church, but also from the growing Protestant movement. There was a fear that pilgrims were being irresponsible. Not only were they putting their physical lives and their morals at risk by making these journeys, they were also deliberately lingering over their travels when they were needed at home. Their motives came under question, as did their devotion to God. All in all, they were having far too much fun!
Pilgrimages were at first criticised, then condemned, and then finally quashed by the Reformation. And what of Venice? Well, the fun didn’t stop for her. Ever resourceful and mindful of new opportunities in the market, she plugged this gap in her income by re-inventing herself. This time as the gambling and prostitution capital of Europe.
- © Bea Pierce/Flickr
- Gentile Bellini, Procession in St Mark’s Square, via Wikimedia Commons
- Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, via Wikimedia Commons