The medieval nuns’ guide to virtual travel
With travel still restricted across the world, we are all longing to resume exploring the various wonderful places on the planet. Virtual tours of distant places on various platforms such as Amazon explore or the National Geographic are some solace but most will agree it is not even close to the real thing. What could be closer though as this article explains is reading a well-detailed travelogue. The piece by Gili Merin who is doing a PhD in medieval piligrimage, cites the lives of nuns who couldn’t step out of their convents but relied on the diaries of other piligrims to experience the feeling of visiting holy places.
“We think of virtual tourism as a phenomenon of the pandemic, brought about by a combination of travel restrictions and immersive technology. But for a nun in the Middle Ages, conditions weren’t so different. The world beyond the convent was considered too dangerous for its occupants’ delicate souls (as well as being prohibitively expensive). Yet the nuns did have access to an immersive technology that enabled them to experience the world remotely: books.
Pilgrims’ diaries were one of the hottest literary trends in 15th-century Europe. Travellers (inevitably men) who had visited the holiest sites in Christianity would write detailed accounts of their journeys, both as a guide to future pilgrims and as a form of medieval virtue-signalling.
…Nuns did more than read these diaries: they went on imaginative journeys with them. Many paced their cells like medieval Fitbit junkies, counting out the same number of steps the travellers took to reach holy sites (authors often included these measurements in their diaries, in part to prove they’d actually been there). These convent-bound travellers described feeling transported, physically as well as mentally, to the holy places they were “visiting”.
Props and rituals assisted the teleportation. As well as travel diaries, many nuns consulted devotional manuals full of repetitive prayers aimed at producing a state of meditation that would cause their immediate physical environment to melt away.
… The most popular virtual pilgrimage was the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the road on which Christ supposedly dragged his cross as he was led from trial to crucifixion. In 1516 the Ottomans captured Jerusalem, which meant few Europeans travelled there. This expanded the market for literature that would enable nuns and laypeople alike to experience the city’s spiritual riches remotely. Scores of books and manuscripts sought to capture the place’s essence for those who would never see it. (This imagined Jerusalem was so popular that when Thomas Cook, the eponymous founder of the travel company, started taking tourists there in the 19th century, many found the real thing rather disappointing.)
Real-life pilgrims to Jerusalem were supposed to use its setting and architecture to evoke the feelings that Jesus went through on his journey. Virtual pilgrimage took people straight to the emotional plane. Devotional books on Jerusalem told readers how to imagine each station on Christ’s journey to Golgotha, aided by graphic images. “Here your interior eyes should fall on the crucified, bloody, naked Christ,” ran one such instruction. Another invited the reader to put themselves in Jesus’s shoes and imagine “the tremendous pains you had as the heavy beam of the cross was laid upon you”.