The Pilgrim’s Way Is Way Too Easy

I decided to take the prudent course this week, following the recent uproar over a certain incident which occurred involving a famous traveler, to let things die down before writing a little bit about why said incident was simply ridiculous.  The commentariat in old and new media has focused on the question of whether or not one side or the other in this situation was rude, or out-of-bounds, in their behavior.  Yet no one seems to have brought up the issue that the state of travel, at least in its present form in the Western world, is something that in truth, no one really has a right to complain much about.   There needs to be a greater appreciation of the fact that we have things very, very easy, by comparison to the way things once were.

Preparing for my trip to Barcelona in under two weeks, I have been somewhat distracted by the usual issues such as what to pack, but also by issues which are very much of the present age.  What sort of internet connection will I have at the holiday flat we’re renting? Will I be able to get a SIM card for my Spanish mobile phone when I get there? Will I be able to tweet via SMS from said mobile?

These particular concerns are very 21st century, of course, and because travel is so easy in the Western world these days, we often do not think about how dangerous it was for our ancestors in earlier times.  One reason why people tended to stay where they were until the advent of modern roads and means of transportation was because if they left their town or village, they ran a very good chance of becoming seriously ill, getting robbed, or even dying/being killed on the way to their destination.  Whether to have the chicken or the fish was certainly the last thing on their minds, or pretty close to it.

That said, some things never change. Take, for example, travel across the Iberian Peninsula half a millenia ago.  St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who crisscrossed Spain many times founding and reforming Carmelite convents, spent a great deal of time on the road.  If you look at this timeline of her life, you will probably be amazed, given the poor transportation and other amenities available, how much she managed to get around Spain during the 16th century.

The experience of one particularly grueling trip gave the Castilian nun a rather sanguine view on the passing order of things.  “Life,” she observed, “is nothing more than a bad night in a bad inn.”  She certainly knew whereof she spoke.  Roads in Spain were often either crumbling remnants of Roman civilization, or muddy paths; bandits were everywhere, and the accommodations usually less than salubrious.

When conditions for travel were so awful, many took advantage not only of traveling in groups, but behaving so raucously that Mr. Baldwin’s recent behavior seems positively tame by comparison.  A narrative from a traveler along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Northern Spain around 1500 had a bit of a rant about some of the other people making the same trip.  This fed-up traveler engaging in a bit of eye-rolling about the behavior of his fellow travelers, taken from a collection of works about Medieval travelers in Spain, could certainly be recognized even today:

They will ordain beforehand to have with them both men and women who sing wanton songs, and some other pilgrims will have with them bagpipes, so that every town they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their bells, and with the barking of the dogs after them, they make more noise than if the king came their way, with all his clarions and many other minstrels.

Makes sitting on an airplane for a few hours near a crying baby seem downright blissful by comparison, doesn’t it?

Bad travel aside, the difficulty of these journeys ought to bring home to us in the West how tough our ancestors were, compared to their descendants.  We complain if we get stuck waiting for a connecting flight for two hours longer than we had anticipated, in a comfortable, heated/cooled enclosed space, with clean running water, lavatories, places to eat and entertain ourselves, and kept safe by security.  These men and women who went meandering about rural Europe and America to engage in politics, diplomacy, commerce, evangelization, education, and so on, had to be made of sterner stuff, traveling as they did for weeks at a time with no comforts at all.  Indeed, it is extraordinary that so many of them survived to tell the tale.

As many of us prepare to head out on the road for the holidays, we should keep in mind how lucky we are to be able to travel in relative comfort, even when things do not go wholly as planned.  We all have travel nightmares that we can recount, and which annoy us to no end at the time they occur.  Yet on the whole, our complaints are as nothing compared to what those who built up our civilization had to go through, in order for us to be annoyed when we are asked to stop playing a game on our phone so that the plane can take off.


Detail of “Pilgrims Meeting the Pope” by Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1492)
Accademia, Venice

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