The Pleasures and Practicalities of an Itinerary

EL 26 A 13, f. 115v, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

by Martha Rust

“The Weye unto Rome and so to Venice and to Jerusalem”: these are the words that run across the head of a list of sixty-five place names preserved in a collection of prose and poetry once owned by late medieval London scribe and bibliophile John Shirley (San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26.A.13115v, f. 115v). As Christian K. Zacher explains, the place names here listed describe what was known as the “Duche way” to the Holy Land: by land from Calais through Germany to Rome and Venice and then by sea to the port of Jaffa, stopping at several “ylondys” [islands] on the way.[1] The places in this list are subdivided by brackets into regions–“Flanders,” “Braban,” “Ducheland,” “Lombard,” “Venysian,” “ylondys”–dividing the entire journey into sections and making it visible as a movement through territories as well as from place to place.

Written down in the mid-fifteenth century, this itinerary provides evidence of the continued popularity among English-speaking Christians of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; as such, it is a very practical set of directions, for a close study of it reveals that many of the listed places–especially at the beginning–are a day’s journey (twenty-five or so miles) apart. In other words, the list of cities and towns not only sketches a route but also indicates where travelers should plan to stop for the night. Alternatively, given the placement of the itinerary in a volume of literary works–not something a medieval pilgrim would bring along on a trip–the cities and towns it lists would be places readers might imagine spending the night, suggesting that, then as now, the activity of reading and pondering an itinerary is of interest for its own sake. From the comfort of home, one can imagine visiting all the places it lists, all the while relishing the certainty that the itinerary conveys: that by going to each place in the order it lists, one will arrive at its destination.

These twin pleasures of simply regarding an itinerary may be especially true of an itinerary whose terminal point is Jerusalem, but they are also a function of the very form of an ordered list. In the introduction to his wonderful collection of literary lists, Francis Spufford writes, “Lists refuse the connecting powers of language, in favour of a sequence of disconnected elements.”[2] When a list takes the form of an itinerary, it also ignores the rigors of actual travel–which for medieval pilgrims entailed a wide variety of discomforts and perils–in favor of a sequence of names of cities, some of them famous–Bruges, Cologne, Florence, Bologna, Rome, Venice–others intriguingly unfamiliar, all of them food for the imagination. At the same time, an ordered list has an internal logic that creates a compelling movement from item to disconnected item. Just as a “listicle” with a number in its title–the New York Times‘ annual “52 Places to Go,” for instance–draws us ever onward until we have considered the full set, so an itinerary impels us to make the readerly journey from its starting point to its destination.

The next time you’re following an itinerary generated by Google maps, it may be comforting to know that you’re under the sway less of a digital age device than of the very ancient technology of the list.

[1] Christian K. Zacher, “Travel and Geographical Writings,” in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung (Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986), vol. 7, 2235-2254; 2449-2466, at 2243.

[2] Francis Spufford, “Introduction,” in The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature, ed. Francis Spufford (London: Chatto and Windus, 1989), 1-26, at 1.

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