Pilgrims in a Strange Land

Though we share a common humanity with people of the past, their world can seem alien to us, says Mathew Lyons. Was it just as disconcerting for them, too?

At the gates of Jerusalem: a detail from the Picture Book of Sir John Mandeville

We are all familiar with the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliche. And, as such, like all cliches it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros – ‘barbarians’, which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer at the vanishing horizon behind us.

It is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear, where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This thought occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early modern and medieval world: the pilgrims’ travel guide.

The book in question, Informacion for Pylgrymes unto the Holy Londe, based on the travels of a group of some 40 English pilgrims, was published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498. It was by no means the first of its kind. Pilgrim itineraries survive from the fourth century, including one written by an Abbess Etheria from Gaul, who crossed both the western and eastern Roman Empires to reach Jerusalem, before continuing on into Egypt. As the crusades inevitably re-opened pilgrimage routes to the east, so they brought forth many more examples of the genre, most notably, perhaps, those ascribed to Philippus Brusserius Savonensis in the 14th century and Felix Fabbri in the 15th.

One of the most striking things about such guides, to the modern mind, is the lack of a sense of history. The landscapes and sites that are described are those of the Bible itself: numinous, immemorial and unchanged. A bow-shot from the city of Hebron, says Philippus, is ‘a cave or crypt in which Adam and his wife did penance for a hundred years after the death of their son Abel’. The house where Mary went to school in Jerusalem is hard by the house of Pilate, where her son received his crown of thorns. De Worde can direct you to the place where soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes. Such things remind us that the immediate living presence of the holy and sacred has ebbed from much of the world.

But De Worde’s book is more recognisably a guide book in the modern sense. Of traveling by sea, he says:

Chose you a chambre as nyghe the myddes of the shippe as ye may, for there is leest rollynge or tomblynge to kepe your brayne and stomache in tempre.

And always beware of thieves: 

Take gode hede to your knyves … for the Sarracyns wol go talkyng by you and make gode chere, but thei woll stele from you if they maye. 

At the back there is a surprisingly practical glossary of useful phrases – ‘It’s raining’, ‘Where is the tavern?’, ‘You will be paid tomorrow’ and so on. 

The very familiarity of the form makes the sense of estrangement from the way his pilgrims understand what they are seeing all the more acute. The juxtaposition of a genre that seems wholly familiar to us and a world – indeed a world-view – that is centuries dead somehow makes the latter more comprehensible and human, its reality more tangible. The pilgrims have made a journey through foreign lands, where they have to learn how to talk and how to live to reach a destination that feels intimately known to them but is also wholly unknown. In this sense, at least, they are entirely like us as we work to understand them, these people we want to feel kinship and common humanity with, but who continually surprise us with their stubborn, resisting alienness.

Mathew Lyons is author of The Favourite: Ralegh and His Queen (Constable & Robinson, 2011).