On the Merits of Walking
On the train from Poitiers to Charles de Gaulle, I had hoped to do some work, but the tabletop was sticky with something someone had spilt, and the efforts of three days of extensive walking in Paris and Poitiers plus the tension of the delay in the train's arrival had brought a heavy weariness over me. I closed the laptop on my knees and fell asleep. In Paris, from my hotel in Montparnasse to Montmartre, I had walked through the soles of a pair of shoes, an illogical stubbornness keeping me from taking public transport or renting a bicycle or scooter, but there is no better way to see a city than by walking.
Most pilgrims in the Holy Land walked, though some might ride an ass. Walking was what pilgrims did: walking and praying, walking and eating, walking and resting... and more walking. It was the core of the experience, an essential part of the penitential act, the required suffering necessary for redemption, though much of it must have been a rather pleasant form of suffering, that is, as long as one did not run into rough weather, thieves and other dangers that the road could and often did provide.
Saewulf walked. This Anglo Saxon, the earliest of the twelfth century pilgrims whose account has survived, walked from the port of Jaffa up into the Judean Hills, and judging from what he wrote it was by no means a pleasant stroll. It took him two days and he perhaps does not entirely exaggerate its dangers and difficulties. He talks of the road being very rough, as indeed it must have been in those days. Today it is a broad and modern highway that, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, takes about fifty minutes to cover. But one can get a better idea of what it would have been like in the early twelfth century from the few sections of the old Roman road that can still be observed today, near the castle of Latrun (Le Toron des Chevaliers) for example; meandering up and down, narrow and rocky in stretches, and becoming steeper and rougher, as one climbed up into the mountains. Saewulf warns of the Saracens (Muslims) "...who lie in wait in the caves of the mountains to surprise the Christians, watching both day and night to surprise those less capable of resisting by the smallness of their company, or the weary, who may chance to lag behind their companions."* Perhaps with a little not untypical exaggeration he speaks of numbers of bodies scattered along the way, unburied because of the rocky terrain ("...there is not enough earth to dig a grave") and by fear of the dangers in leaving one's group to bury the dead - "...if he did so he would rather be digging a grave for himself than the dead man". The bodies were usually left to be torn apart by wild beasts. But heat and thirst, he writes, were an even greater threat than the Muslim raiders.
Later pilgrims complained about the road as being "dangerous and troublesome" and no doubt it was indeed so, but it is fortunate for us that there was no other way for the pilgrims to travel. And fortunate for the pilgrim too, of course. And I am not talking about the considerable health benefits they gained in walking (if they did not experience accidents or attacks). Scientific studies show that walking can reduce stress and improve energy, ease weight control, reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure, bowel cancer and osteoporosis, and can generally enhance life expectancy, not to mention its various mental benefits such as improving memory, learning ability and abstract reasoning. But clearly none of these was motivation for a medieval pilgrim setting out on pilgrimage. The health benefits that he or she was thinking about related to spiritual rather than bodily health.
But when I say that it is fortunate for us, I am thinking about the benefits they experienced in really encountering the towns and countryside. It comes across clearly in the medieval pilgrimage accounts. The eighteenth century English ramblers knew this, as did so many other walkers in the past. But today, for many, walking is regarded as an unrewarding and superfluous effort.
* The Pilgrimage of Saewulf to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 4, trans. by the Lord Bishop of Clifton, London, 1896, pp. 8-9.