“When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.”
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Today is Day 42 of our lockdown. We’re tethered to our apartment by an invisible 200 metre chain. The Piazza dei Miracoli is seven times further away than that. Right now, a trip up to the Leaning Tower seems about as exotic as the moon landings. Today is also the day we were due to start our 1700 kilometre walk from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena. That’s 8500 times the length of our invisible tether. We’re staying at home of course.
This was to be no ordinary walk so I can’t let it go without marking the day. We’ve spent a whole year winding up projects and setting aside more than a decade of constant travelling, working, and being apart from one another. The plan was to take a four-month break from everything and think about nothing more complicated than the essentials of what to eat and where to sleep, while putting one foot in front of another. As it turns out, that’s more or less what we are doing, just without the walking.
The Via Francigena is an ancient pilgrim route. It winds its way through Kent, and, once over the water, heads down past Reims and through Champagne, crossing into Switzerland past Lausanne, before dropping down into the Val d’Aosta, through the Po Valley, past St Gimignano and Siena and across to Rome. It goes almost directly past our home. Whether it would be cheating or not to break off and spend a night here has been a topic of some debate.
Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury and King Æthelred the Unready’s trusted adviser, made the trip in 990 to pick up his pallium from Pope John XV. His travel diary was one of the major sources used in recent years to reconstruct the route. I really hope he waited until mid-April to set off. Our planned start date was determined by the vagaries of the San Bernardo pass which re-opens sometime each June depending on the weather.
400 years after Sigeric’s trip, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, using the 75 mile route between Southwark and Canterbury to let the Knight, the Pardoner and the rest of the crew talk about post-Black Death English life and society in all its turbulence. It was at this time that the Lollards started speaking out against the abuses of the Church, and the Kentish peasants revolted and marched on London, protesting the Poll Tax. I wonder how we’ll see our 21st century John Wycliffes and Wat Tylers emerge in the coming years.
I’ve thought more about the Black Death in the last months than at any other time in my life. Reading about Chinese people being abused on the streets of London, New York, and other centres of cosmopolitan living puts 14th century accounts of Jews being burned out of their houses, and pogroms of entire communities into sharp relief. Pointing the finger seems to be a near universal human response to disasters over which we have no personal control.
Our ancestors seven centuries ago had some inventive theories, blaming everything from tight clothing, poisonous air, and black cats for the disaster engulfing their way of life. Pilgrims also came under suspicion, quite possibly with good reason. If you only read one thing about why quarantine is so important, make it this very cool reconstruction of the spread of the Black Death along mediæval trading and pilgrimage routes.
Back in October we bought our Pilgrim’s Passports ready for the walk. I’m the kind of person who collects international number plates on road trips, so there was no way I was passing up the chance to geek out over official stamps marking 1000 miles and countless stops over four countries. They asked for the purpose of our pilgrimage. The options were tricky for a pair of people simply looking for a way to take four months off work and reconnect with a simpler way of living.
In the end we checked the box marked spiritual. That choice is going to have unexpected meaning for us next spring, the one after, or whenever we can safely revive our walk. For now, I’ll wait for the day the tether is loosened and we can take just one step beyond.