Writing the Jerusalem Pilgrimage in the Late Middle Ages


Thank you Dr Boyle for taking the time to answer some questions about your new book Writing the Jerusalem Pilgrimage in the Late Middle Ages. To begin with, can you please provide a short summary of your book?

When we hear the word ‘pilgrimage’, it seems pretty straightforward. We think, basically, of a journey to a place of religious significance. With this book, I wanted to dig much deeper than that, and to ask how a group of pilgrims, right at the end of the Middle Ages, understood what they were doing, firstly, in going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but, even more importantly, in writing it down. So the book looks at the pilgrimages on the page produced by four late-medieval pilgrim authors, two from England and two from Germany. These texts are much more than itineraries of where the pilgrims went and when, so the book explores questions of curiosity, disguise, and identity construction, as well as the idea that a pilgrimage isn’t bound by the ordinary constraints of time and space – it has the power to take you right out of your surroundings. Pilgrimage becomes almost a kind of liturgy in these writings.  

Have you always had an interest in this time period and medieval literature in general?

I progressed from climbing on castle ruins as a child, via all those kinds of popular medievalism that children and teenagers encounter – Robin Hood, CS Lewis, Tolkien, Harry Potter – to being lucky enough to have the chance to study Medieval History as an A level subject. The writing was probably on the wall when I got hold of a translation of the Nibelungenlied when I was 17, and when I got to university, I studied as many medieval options as I could. I have found myself continually slipping forward in time, though, writing my undergraduate dissertation on the ninth century and my Master’s on the fourteenth. With this book, I reached the end of the fifteenth century, and I’ve not actually stopped there! 

What did your research process look like for this book?

A lot of reading! Not just reading (and rereading) the main four texts, but reading them against one another and against other texts, especially those which my pilgrim authors had made use of in the process of composition. These included older texts, as well as other, broadly contemporary, pilgrimage accounts, which aren’t always straightforward to find – there was a lot of combing through nineteenth-century German publications! Then I was also reading my main four texts against their descendants – later works which had made use of them. At one point, I found myself colour-coding sections of text, tracing descriptions of sites through multiple works. There was also plenty of time spent in libraries, especially the British Library and the Bodleian’s Special Collections, which moved house while I was working on this project. I’ll never forget the satisfaction of sitting in their temporary basement home and finally working out how a manuscript had been put together with the help of a model made from scrap paper. 

Was there anything from your research that especially surprised you?

I was quite surprised by Arnold von Harff’s willingness to disguise himself as a Mamluk to facilitate his tourism. He does this in Cairo, just dropping casually into conversation that Christians and Jews are not allowed to ride through the town, and so he dressed up in the manner of his two Mamluk friends, basically so he can go sightseeing. He does this again in Jerusalem, which allows him to enter the Dome of the Rock illicitly. It’s either that or the fact that Bernhard von Breydenbach was so attached to his wine that he spent a whole day waiting outside the gates of Gaza, rather than have it confiscated.  

How did you choose the four written accounts you examine? 

Although these are four accounts from a field of over 150, they provide a pretty good cross-section of the kinds of writers who were engaging with this kind of representation of the Jerusalem pilgrimage at this point in time. In Bernhard von Breydenbach and Arnold von Harff, we’ve got two authors who travelled from the centre of late-medieval pilgrimage writing and in William Wey and Thomas Larke, we’ve two from near the geographical edge of Europe, where pilgrimage writing seems to have been a much less common practice. All four of these men are thoroughly engaged in the wider literary context. We’ve got a mixture of clergy and lay authors; two accounts that were printed and two that remained in manuscript – including one that nonetheless actually draws on print; and a mixture of intended audiences in terms of social status and geographical reach – and we can trace the later influence of three of these accounts in other pilgrimage writing. In the case of Breydenbach, in fact, we’ve got a direct line to both Harff and Larke, while some of the material in Wey’s account ends up in print in 1500, and we’re still not quite sure how it got there.

How did the written accounts differ? How were they similar?

I think it’s important to stress that pilgrimage writing, as the book demonstrates, was an international phenomenon, and there was both a top-down and bottom-up effort to ensure that a consistent experience was portrayed. Top-down, in that the Franciscans in Jerusalem basically ran a package pilgrimage business, and their library was available to pilgrims, all part of their aim to standardise depictions of the Jerusalem pilgrimage. Bottom-up, in that pilgrims participated in this process by drawing on one another’s accounts, and print made that much quicker and easier. But this consistency is focused around the Jerusalem experience and the holy sites themselves – beyond that there’s immense scope for variety, though the texts usually touch on similar themes, whether that’s practicalities, the relationship between Latin and the vernacular, the sea voyage, and so on. To dig more into differences, William Wey’s account contains enormous amounts of varied repetition: in verse and prose, English and Latin, first, second, and third person, which we don’t see from our other authors. Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio is a carefully constructed, lavishly illustrated work, but it contains what we would now recognise as quite shocking polemic, far beyond the level of most other pilgrimage writing. Arnold von Harff cultivates his in-text persona as almost a literary knight, seeking adventure in the East beyond the Holy Land, and Thomas Larke maintains a carefully detached anonymity – it was only in 2013 that Rob Lutton connected his name to the account we’d previously known as the work of a priest in the service of Sir Richard Guylforde. The other three pilgrims stamp their names enthusiastically all over their accounts!

Did the geographical locations of these four men affect their writing? 

Yes and no. As I’ve mentioned, we’re talking about a genuinely international literary phenomenon, and these four men all appear to be consciously engaging in that. Geographical location does have an impact, but it can be hard to disentangle from the time of writing: both are at play in William Wey’s reticence, writing in 1470, to engage with English politics, as well as in his lack of access to printed works. The same is true of the relative willingness of each pilgrim to include vernacular quotations from scripture. Thomas Larke is a nice example, because he includes vernacular quotations when he’s got them from Breydenbach, but anything he’s sourced himself remains in Latin. But I think it’s also important to emphasise that there are geographical differences at play between authors from what we’d now understand as the same country, and that’s particularly true for the two German authors. 

What’s next for you?

I’ve continued moving forward in time and I’m currently working on nineteenth-century medievalism: the ways in which nineteenth-century writers translated and adapted medieval literature for their own socio-political contexts, specifically how anglophone writers received medieval German literature and vice versa. Perhaps surprisingly, there are some overlaps with the pilgrimage book: I’m still looking at Anglo-German exchange, but often with a much bigger chronological gap between composition and reception. I’ve also got some other pilgrimage-related projects on the go, and I hope that will be my focus again in the future. 

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

I’ve been lucky in that enough of the materials I need to keep going for now have been digitised, but of course there are resources – both old and new – that I’ve not been able to get access to. I’ve also really missed catching up with colleagues’ current work at in-person conferences and seminars. Zoom isn’t the same – it doesn’t provide any opportunities for those serendipitous chats which can lead to a whole new project. And in both cases, screen fatigue is a real issue. But the biggest challenge to my work is also the most joyful: working from home with a toddler whose main interest in academia is pulling my books off the shelf, though he is rather keen on Arnold von Harff’s picture of a crocodile! 

Writing the Jerusalem Pilgrimage in the Late Middle Ages


251 pp, 3 b/w. 6 line. Illus.
£75/$130, 9781843845805
February 2021
Hardback and ebook
DS Brewer



Also Available 

Save 40% with your Medieval Herald discount 
(Code: BB915)

MARY BOYLE is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Oxford and Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford.