One of my foremost interests upon undertaking this pilgrimage experience was recreating the physical difficulties of walking great distances which would have been encountered by mediaeval pilgrims. Though I believe we did successfully mimic their experiences to an accurate enough degree that I can safely say “this is more or less what it would have been like”, this method of comparative analysis is far from perfect, and I feel that the drawbacks of our experimental research should first be acknowledged.
We were not able to stick perfectly to the historic pilgrimage routes which mediaeval pilgrims would have walked. Though we tried to do as much of the route as we feasibly could, it was simply not possible to do the whole thing. Much of this was down to modern technical difficulties – for instance, we caught a couple of busses to help us on our way, one when the main road was taken over for maintenance works, and the other when we realised we could not afford to add another day onto our journey because we had commitments to keep the following day, a problem which would have been far less common in the Middle Ages. Mediaeval pilgrims left their possessions and homes to their family members or to the protection of the local bishop in his capacity as landowner, and life at home was put on pause until whenever the pilgrims returned. There was no real equivalent to the modern problem of having a very important meeting about your gas bills which you must attend on a certain fixed day.
Modern life also threw up a different problem. We could not walk all of the Roman Dere Street between Edinburgh and Melrose because much of the land which the road used to cover is now taken up by a military munitions testing ground. Much of the rest of the land is simply private, and in this day and age as much as in the Middle Ages, trespassing is to be avoided.
Speaking of private lands and trespassing, we were not always able to camp overnight in a manner befitting the mediaeval pilgrim. I am mostly here thinking of the fact that we couldn’t stay in St Cuthbert’s church in Edinburgh for insurance reasons. Though this was a slightly disappointing turn of events, in hindsight I am glad it happened; it allowed us to experience travelling Edinburgh at night, looking for a place to stay and being overcharged just to have a roof over our heads. This also contrasted with what happened at Melrose, where we came up against the same problem of insurance not allowing us to sleep in the church, only to be saved by the vicar inviting us to stay with her and her family in her own home. This was a very special and humbling moment which brought a tear to my eye, made all the more memorable and emotional because we had been through that earlier hardship. I many ways these similar but polarised events exemplified the important human nature of pilgrimage. Not everyone can be relied on to help you, which is understandable; it’s not their jobs, and they just want to get on with their own lives. But when someone does go out of their way to help you, it becomes so much more journey-altering and heart-warming. I believe the balance between people who were willing to aid us and people who were not, is not confined to our own times: what I saw was not some sort of problem caused by the stresses of modern life as one might think, but the simple balance of human nature between the genuine kindness which exists in most people and a certain practical concern of self-preservation, which exists in equal measure and which is not a bad thing.
Despite the barriers and issues we faced in completing the route as accurately as possible, I believe that our venture was highly successful. Where sections of the original path from St Andrews to Lindisfarne was unavailable we were able to find an alternative modern solution which ran next to where mediaeval pilgrims would have walked. In one such case we were able to stray from our modern path and almost literally walk back in time, leaving the busy highway for the bleak rustic isolation of Soutra Aisle, the hospital which sheltered mediaeval pilgrims travelling on Dere Street. And we still were able to cross the sands to Lindisfarne Holy Island, just as mediaeval pilgrims would have done.
What then, if anything, was the point of all of this? Why did I throw into jeopardy a friendship, my own personal health, and the chance to safely write a dissertation from the comfort of my own home? And what have you gained by bothering to listen to me tell you about it?
I first started this journey with an idea – well it was actually more of an irritation. That irritation was as I saw it the incomplete nature of history books. So often I had read in modern scholarly texts “oh and then X went on pilgrimage, and they returned five years later and their life carried on”, with absolutely no mention of where X went, how X survived, why X went where they did, what they ate, whether they got drunk, how their shoes handled the trip, how they managed their personal hygiene, and so on. Most confounding of all to me was that there was never any notion of how that person was changed by their experience. Pilgrimage turns you into a fundamentally different person; it shapes and moulds you into a hardened, tougher exterior than you had before, but inside you become softer, eased by the experience of human kindness and the understanding that your time in exile has brought you belief in yourself.
And there are several textual episodes that shed some light on this. We can read the Hoedopericon to learn how Willibald entered the Holy Land, wandered around for a bit and was then arrested because no-one there spoke English and they thought he was speaking in tongues. We can read the Vita Columbani to get an idea of where St Columbanus’ extended pilgrimage physically took him, through Gaul and into Italy. And we can read the Canterbury Tales to scrape the tip of the iceberg in understanding what it can be like to be enclosed in extreme intimacy with complete strangers.
But none of this gives us a completely holistic view. Though all of these texts can be read together and placed next to each other, the only thing that can really bind them, inextricably from one another as parts of their whole, is to experience what they’re talking about for yourself. And so, having read these texts before our journey and being a bit confused by them, I set off bearing their stories in mind, attempting to tie them together in one idea, rediscovering this kind of adventure. Because what we have to remember is that mediaeval audiences reading these texts would most likely have either experienced pilgrimage themselves, or been affected by it in some way – they would probably know someone who had experienced it. Therefore to them these texts would have represented part of a whole with which they already vaguely familiar, something which we don’t have today; we must start from scratch.
And so during this journey on which you have accompanied me and Terry, we have experienced together the silly hostility that Willibald found in the Holy Land, when we went together into the pub in Oxton and nobody wanted to talk to us. We have discovered together the best routes for getting to our destination, having to make decisions and compromises on the road to ensure our success as Columbanus did. We have been through the torturous process of having the fragility of our friendships and our lives exposed to us in all their vulnerability and flaws, only for a new, stronger conviction to seal the wounds, tempered in the fires of endurance and perseverance.
But these would not be what they are to me without the things which reading about this experience would not get across. Not only have you experienced the hostility of the pub with us, but you sat with us in the warmth listening to gentle music while the wind beats against the hostile world outside. You have come with us every step of the way as our blisters and sprains and burns have developed, getting more and more painful with each hill and pathless verge and glaring ray of sunlight, through every whip of wind, squelch of mud and slip of grass. And you have sat with us while we contemplate the future together, mulling over precious friendships and the peace of mind in our relative solitude. Perhaps a more accomplished writer than myself could have gotten all of this across in writing, but I remain sceptical.
The aim of this project has been to create a complete view of the experience of pilgrimage from the perspective of the pilgrim. I wanted to strive towards this complete view because, as many would argue, to practice history is to search for the truth. In my opinion this search has traditionally been left to facts for too long – the truth should also be searched for emotionally, physically, mentally, in as human a manner as we can. Though of course the absolute perfection of this task will forever remain impossible, I believe it is important to get as close to the truth as we may, for the sake of better understanding the people of the past and by extension who we are today.