August 8, 2010

Author Q&A: Running on faith

A USM professor makes the trek to a shrine in Spain with a photographer to capture the arduous journey made by pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

A: I think during the Middle Ages, a fair number of people actually died. If you think about it, there was very little medical care. Monasteries along the route offered medical care and a place to stay, and if you were sick, you would probably end up there.

But medieval medical treatments were so primitive by modern standards that the likelihood of dying was high, especially if you walked through France or Spain.

Now if you were from Scandinavia or England, the likelihood would be you'd take a ship to the coast and then walk in -- which was a relatively short walk -- to Santiago, and so that was less stressful. But people were walking across France and through Spain. The chances of some kind of harm coming to you were extremely great.

But in the Middle Ages, people did take off for these multi-month, multi-year journeys. And of course, there was no e-mail, there was no cell phone, there was no way to communicate back home.

People would be gone for months or years, and parents or relatives were left wondering if the person was still alive, and then they would or wouldn't show up.

Q: And as you mentioned in the book, not everyone went for religious reasons. They sent criminals on pilgrimages to get rid of them.

A: The Belgians had a whole legal system based on "ship these guys out of town." 

Q: So you don't know if the person you're meeting on the path was a wannabe saint or a murderer.

A: It's true. I don't think there were huge numbers of those people, but still. And there were lots of bandits and robber types who would lie in wait along the pilgrim routes, because pilgrims were really vulnerable. 

Q: What did the medieval pilgrims take with them?

A: Very little. Even now, people do carry rather large packs, but if you're walking for several months, usually you take something to lie on. But in the Middle Ages, they wouldn't. They'd usually have a gourd for drinking and they would have a staff to help with the paths, and they'd have a little money bag and maybe another sack with some things in them. More upscale, upper-class pilgrims tended to ride horses or mules. It was the poor pilgrims who walked, typically, or if you were really doing penitence.

There was an extra ritual at the end where you would walk from Santiago a couple of days to finish there, at "the end of the Earth," which is on the Atlantic Ocean. There was a ritual there where you would burn all your clothes, which I imagine in the Middle Ages really needed to be burned, because you've been in those clothes for months. 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

 

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