Imagining places: women who don’t walk (at least not today)

I’ve failed again on the synchronised walking. At least in February I made it out of the door if not at the right time; this time the dreaded lurgy is keeping me indoors, so I’m peregrinating at the right time, just not physically. This isn’t as daft as it sounds and has sound historical precedents.

Members of enclosed religious orders might have made a physical pilgrimage, but many more journeyed to the holy places in their minds using scripture of images as prompts. One of the most famous of these itineraries is Matthew Paris’s description of the routes to the Holy Land in the thirteenth century (two MSS handily digitised by the BL and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Matthew drew little pictures to symbolise castles, cathedrals and towns, but also the walled city of Acre, by now the main possession still held by the crusaders. Jerusalem, lost in the twelfth century, is tiny by comparison. He also included Noah’s ark, other sites of biblical interest and a bactrian camel. There’s a little figure in a boat (Matthew?) just off the coast of Acre too. As well as the drawings and accompanying text, the map has a number of flaps that the reader could lift up to discover more. In this way, following the itinerary became interactive as the reader manipulated and changed the text, journeying on his* way to the Holy Land. All this is discussed wonderfully by Daniel Connolly in his The Maps of Matthew Paris (published by Boydell).

We can also see elements of mental or imagined journeys in the eleventh and twelfth-century chronicles and this forms a key part of my current project on landscapes. Orderic Vitalis for example talked about the journeys Evroult made in the ‘wilderness’ to found his monastery. Orderic’s descriptions enable the pilgrim to retrace those steps, even today. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the monks of Saint-Evroult in the middle ages either physically made the journeys or contemplated them from cloister. William of Poitiers in his biography of William the Conqueror used movement to stress the energy of the duke, a theme picked up in southern Italian chroniclers detailing the conquest of the peninsula by the Normans. A previous post reflected on the importance of stability, but the middle ages were also dynamic and mobile.

So where does this leave this women and her failure to synchronise her boots? Aside from the feeling that, when reading or walking about these imagined journeys I’m following in the footsteps of those who have gone before me, the idea of mental pilgrimage of travel is still a useful way of thinking and writing about certain aspects of medieval society. Digitised manuscripts such as those of Matthew Paris help engage the students with medieval practices of reading and challenge our modern assumptions about what constitutes walking and travel. It’s a way of thinking about what one might encounter and encourages a more sensory approach.

Beyond that? Well, imagined walks constitute preparation of leisure. I’m a big devotee of the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 series of maps, with their wonderful detail and representation of the landscape. If I can’t walk, then at least I can pour over a map and situate myself in the imagined landscape of that representation

*Matthew was writing in the monastery of St Albans, a house of Benedictine monks, but there is plenty of evidence that women followed similar practices.


Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

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