The virtual travel guide for medieval nuns
On the cold morning of January 1417, Sister Truyde Schutten asked a sister from her convent in the Netherlands to join her on a pilgrimage to Rome. If they left quickly, says Truyde, they could go there for the feast of Saint Agnes, the patroness of virgins, on January 21.
Sister Ghertruut hesitated. She had made the same pilgrimage herself a few years before and knew how painful it was. She feared her failing health would delay them. At the end, Truyde said his moving farewell to Ghertruut and left alone, arriving two weeks later for the celebration of Saint Agnes. This story may seem trivial to the modern reader, but for one detail: none of the nuns left the convent.
As Kathryn Rudy recounts in her book “Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent”, Truyde and Ghertruut were not the only people who traveled like this. We see virtual tourism as a pandemic phenomenon, brought on by a combination of travel restrictions and immersive technology. But for a nun in the Middle Ages, the conditions were not that different. The world beyond the convent was considered too dangerous for the delicate soul of its occupants (in addition to being prohibitive). Yet the nuns had access to an immersive technology that allowed them to discover the world from a distance: books.
PIlgrims’ diaries were one of the most popular literary trends in 15th century Europe. Travelers (inevitably men) who had visited the holiest sites of Christianity wrote detailed accounts of their journeys, both as a guide for future pilgrims and as a form of signaling medieval virtue.
These journals were first distributed in the form of manuscripts. After the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century, they could be appreciated by a much wider audience. Some guides have run to more than a dozen editions, with destinations ranging from small shrines across Europe to the holy cities of Jerusalem and Rome.
Pilgrim diaries were one of the most popular literary trends in 15th century Europe
The nuns did more than read these newspapers: they took imaginative journeys with them. Many paced their cells like medieval Fitbit junkies, counting the same number of steps travelers took to reach holy sites (the authors often included these measurements in their logs, in part to prove they had actually been there). These travelers linked to the convent described feeling transported, physically and mentally, to the holy places they “visited”.
Props and rituals aided in the teleportation. In addition to travel diaries, many nuns consulted devotional manuals filled with repetitive prayers aimed at producing a state of meditation that would melt their immediate physical environment.
These textbooks, many of which were made accessible to scholars through Rudy’s work, also featured moving woodcarvings depicting acts of suffering and sacrifice, designed to bring the reader to a state of emotion appropriate for each phase of the pilgrimage. . Some books have attempted to provide a rough approximation of the experience of each location, showing the reader a church, then its door, then its interior, like the frames of a primitive computer game.
The most popular virtual pilgrimage was the Via Dolorosa to Jerusalem, the road on which Christ is said to have dragged his cross as he was led from the trial to the crucifixion. In 1516, the Ottomans seized Jerusalem, which meant that few Europeans went there. This widened the market for literature that would allow nuns and laity to discover the spiritual riches of the city from a distance. Dozens of books and manuscripts have sought to capture the essence of the place for those who would never see it. (It imagined that Jerusalem was so popular that when Thomas Cook, the eponymous founder of the travel agency, started taking tourists there in the 19th century, many found the reality rather disappointing.)
Real-life pilgrims to Jerusalem were supposed to use its setting and architecture to evoke the feelings Jesus experienced on his journey. The virtual pilgrimage took people directly to the emotional level. Devotional books on Jerusalem taught readers how to imagine each stage of Christ’s journey to Golgotha, using graphic images. “Here your inner eyes should be on Christ crucified, bloody and naked,” said one of these instructions. Another invited the reader to put themselves in Jesus’ shoes and imagine “the terrible pains you experienced when the heavy beam of the cross was laid on you”.
“Here your inner eyes should fall on Christ crucified, bloody and naked”
Medieval spirituality was big on measurements, and virtual pilgrimage literature was full of detailed measurements that were meant to make visitors appreciate the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. The books would include 1: 1 representations of the size of Christ’s wounds, calculations of the precise number of tears he shed (72,000) and the number of drops of blood (546,000).
The key to a transportation experience, however, as any good director knows, is to be frugal enough with the details that people have to use their imaginations. Today, platforms like Amazon Explore offer a three-dimensional, pixelated simulacrum of the world’s great tourist sites. We can enjoy detailed recreations of Titian’s works without leaving our sofa. Still, more plausibility doesn’t seem to make the virtual travel experience richer. A recent reviewer of a magnificent virtual climb of Mount Everest noted that he took more pleasure in watching pigeons in his local park.
Medieval nuns, on the other hand, were able to exhaust themselves within the walls of their convent, armed only with books. They prayed with bloody knees at the imaginary scene of Christ’s crucifixion, and entered a state of ecstatic burning love for their Savior. It may not be the idea that everyone has a good vacation. But it beats an online visit to the Prado. ■
Gili Merin is currently doing a Phre to the Architectural Association in London on the idea of Jerusalem as a medieval pilgrimage
DRAWING : GERARD DUBOIS