Travel writings, like travelers themselves, come in different forms. Some travel books offer a dull, tour-guide type of narrative, lacking serious reflection or insight. Other writings provide something deeper: an attempt to relate the experiences or impressions of the traveler in a way that transcends the simple activity of travel. It is the latter type of writing that I value most. For it elevates travel from a laborious task to a quest for knowledge and discovery.
So the itinerant scholar Ciriaco de Pizzecolli (Cyriac of Ancona) meandered around the eastern Mediterranean in the 1440s, searching for and recording ancient inscriptions, manuscripts, and other antiquities, which he carefully transcribed in his thick notebooks. His mission was to document the details of the crumbling monuments of classical antiquity, and in this he succeeded brilliantly.
And so also did humanist Biondo Flavio, traveling through Italy, seek to record the local folklore, geography, and historical oddities of the cities and regions he visited. His masterpiece Italia Illuminata, appearing in 1451, is a goldmine of strange information about the nooks and crannies of Italy. Describing the Piceno region, for example, he relates this story:
Quite apart from fornication and adultery (which every one of them [the adherents of a secret society near Piceno] practices indiscriminately in secluded spots furtively equipped for the purpose), another such abomination is perpetrated in their public ceremonies. All the more attractive women—widows, virgins, or wives—are summoned and purposely led aside as they assemble at night in grottoes. Shut up in the same cave…the priest tells them in a loud voice that couples must…mingle in carnal embrace and copulation. The lights are put out and every man lays down the woman closest to him, either groping for her or having previously kept an eye on her for the purpose.
Flavio reports some gruesome ritual murder practices of the cult, and ends by reassuring his readers that the members were eventually arrested and burned at the stake, “as indeed they deserved.” Alas, not all travels are this exciting.
Cyriac and Flavio were both pilgrims of the mind, in a sense. That much they shared. They were on a quest for knowledge, and traveled with the specific purpose of learning something about their external world, something that would serve as a springboard for self-knowledge.
We map the world’s macrocosm, so that we can map our own microcosm. The outer world is the gateway to our own inner world.
Many people travel for work, and many for recreation. But how many travel specifically for the purpose of self-improvement or discovery? And how many are able to leave their prejudices at home? At one time, people did undertake travel for just such a purpose: it was called a pilgrimage. What happened to the idea of the pilgrimage in the West? It has fallen out of fashion. And it is sorely due for a resurrection. It can be an important vehicle to assist the modern man on his path to self-realization and improvement.
Note that I do not necessarily mean a pilgrimage for religious purposes. By pilgrimage, I mean the act of travel to some “shrine” (house, building, tomb, etc.) of a great man, as a means of contemplating his life and what lessons it may hold. It is a sign of devotion, a method of meditation, a quest for guidance. Some background is in order here.
Pilgrimages were a key part of medieval European religious devotion. The general setting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, was the pilgrimage of an assortment of characters. By the end of the thirteenth century, one historian tells us, there were about 10,000 sanctioned sites of pilgrimage all over Europe. People undertook such journeys to fulfill some vow, seek a cure for some malady by contemplating the relics of some saint or holy man, edify themselves, or for other personal reasons.
An Englishman, might, for example, visit the tombs of St. Cuthbert at Durham, or Edward the Confessor at Westminster, or that of St. Edmund at Bury, or Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. A Frenchman might seek out Notre Dame at Chatres, or St. Martin’s at Tours. Italy, of course, had hundreds of such sites, among them the relics of St. Francis at Assisi or the Santa Casa at Loreto, as well as Rome itself, the Eternal City.
Sooner or later, all roads led to Rome, of course. Pope Boniface VIII declared a jubilee for the year 1300, and requested all who could to make the journey to Rome and visit the historical sites there. In that year over 2 million visitors reached Rome, a huge figure for those days. So many coins were deposited before the tomb of St. Peter that two priests working around the clock were needed to rake them in manageable piles for collection.
How did the idea of a formal pilgrimage as a method of self-improvement vanish? Few people today undertake such religious obligations, at least in the West. But could the idea of a pilgrimage still offer us something of value today? I believe it can. Instead of our focus being a religious site, we can instead seek out some site central to the life of a great man. By visiting the house, tomb, or architectural work of some great man, we will feel sympathy with, and kinship for, his struggles. Such a visit will be a useful way of contemplating our own hardships, and how our historical “mentor” may have handled himself in similar circumstances.
This year, consider making a “pilgrimage” to some site intimately associated with a great man whom you admire. The journey will do you good. It does not matter who it is. It does not matter where it is. The only requirements are:
1. It must be to a site intimately associated with the great man in question (house, place of work, tomb).
2. The journey should not be too easy. You will value it more if you supply yourself with a bit of hardship.
3. You should visit the site, and contemplate the life of the great man in question while you are there. Then contemplate your own life. You should then record your impressions in writing. It will mean something to you someday.
There are thousands of such sites to choose from. It does not matter if your great man was a public figure, musician, leader, saint, artist, scholar, scientist, doctor, or poet. What matters is that you sincerely believe in his greatness, and that his life’s lessons may be a candle to illuminate our own pathway.
And finally, the ecstasy of reaching a long sought-after destination, after many trials and troubles, is one that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Masculine energy is about overcoming obstacles, breaking through barriers, and seeking out the sacred chalices of our own desire. The journey, with all its hardships, is the major part of the reward of pilgrimage.
Only by knowing this, can we begin to understand the joyous release of the medieval pilgrim, reaching the gates of Rome, breaking into the stirring strains of the Pilgrims’ Chorus: “O noble Rome, queen of the world…we bless you through all the years. Through all the centuries, hail.”