Saturday, June 13, 2015

Middle English Romance and Virtual Pilgrimage

I promised, in my last post, to write a bit about the session in which I participated back in K'zoo and -- now that final grades have been posted -- I'm finally able to sit down and do just that!

To say I had a marvelous time participating in the session, entitled "Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance," would be an understatement. Presided over by Eve Salisbury and meticulously organized by Gina Marie Hurley, David Eugene Clark, and Justin Marie Baker, the session examined a variety of texts invested in matters of journeying. I was both struck and delighted by the way in which our papers converged with one another and how this led to a lively, fruitful, and energetic Q&A period. I took so much away from our conversations, but one question in particular led me to a revised way of thinking about Isumbras (the romance I just can't quit no matter how hard I might try). An audience member asked, in response to Elizabeth Williamsen's paper (which focused on Isumbras's topography), why there might be so little in the way of landscape descriptions once Isumbras arrives in the Levant -- why, in other words, the hills and other topographical features Williamsen noted disappear at this point in the narrative. As we talked, I offered that this leveling might correspond with something I noted a while back in my article on Isumbras: that Isumbras, especially in versions that refer to the eponymous hero and his sons conquering "three lands" in Christ's name, evokes a T-O map and suggests that the entire world has thus been conquered and Christianized. The leveling of topography, then, might facilitate this kind of visual/symbolic cueing. I never would have thought to consider the landscape of Isumbras and tie it to that portion of my own argument in this way had it not been for Williamsen's paper and the question that it inspired, so I remain deeply grateful for both. 

It was also a complete pleasure getting the chance to present alongside my longtime friend and co-blogger, Kristi. She's published her wonderful paper in an earlier post, and I can't wait to see where she goes from here with the topic. 

As for my own paper, the ideas are largely nascent and, especially in light of all that still want/need to tease out and all that I took away from the session, I might try to get this into article form sometime in the future. For now though, I'm happy to share my initial ideas on the topic and would more than welcome any thoughts and comments that you might have! 


Virtual Pilgrimage and Middle English Romance

In 1358, Giovanni Mandelli invited Petrarch on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Fears of either dying or becoming ill at sea caused him to decline the offer, and Petrarch decided instead to go virtual. He composed an intinerary to the Holy Land in lieu of a physical journey, in which he announces his plans to “complete a very long journey in a concise style” (trans. Cachey, 1.0).  Petrarch’s Itinerarium is often cited as an example of the widespread medieval phenomenon of virtual pilgrimage, a practice rooted in the traditions of the Desert Fathers and one that became enduringly popular in the cultural landscape of medieval Europe.
          While reenacted pilgrimages (such as those created and conducted by the convent of St. Katherine’s at Augsburg) were popular, written virtual pilgrimages enjoyed considerable pervasiveness.1 As Suzanne M. Yeager observes, several well known medieval English writers (Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Richard Role, Walter Hilton) participated in this tradition (14).  It can even be glimpsed in the writings of Matthew Paris who, according to Daniel Connolly, intended the Chronica Majora, especially its maps, to be an “imaginative peregrination for readers who never intended to leave home.”  Moreover, lists of holy sites in Rome and the Holy Land, such as the one penned by John Capgrave, were likely used in both devotional and practical contexts (Swanson, 240).  And even prayer rolls like the Blairs 9 roll devoted to the arma Christi could be used for virtual pilgrimage purposes as well (see Newhauser and Russell).
            This form of meditative travel, as Suzanne Yeager and others have observed, was considered as valid as actual peregrinations, and I would offer that this legitimization of virtual travel affected the representation of pilgrimage (martial or otherwise) in late Middle English literature. Moreover, I suspect that these texts could, in and of themselves, have offered meditative opportunities that run parallel to, and might even incorporate aspects of, the practice of virtual pilgrimage. The generic valence of romances such as Sir Isumbras, Sir Gowther, and Sir Perceval of Galles have long been noted, and I offer here that one reason for their fluidity may lie in their allusions to and encouragement of virtual, meditative travel. In other words, I argue here that the inclusion of pilgrimage contributed to the generic valence of these romances, which allowed them to circulate easily in both secular and devotional contexts. These texts, in the end, suggest that these very reading practices – for entertainment and for spiritual instruction -- were far from mutually exclusive.
            On the surface, Sir Gowther, Sir Perceval of Galles, and Sir Isumbras  a small sampling of Middle English romance that include pilgrimage in their narratives – have wildly different plots, and I’ll just briefly summarize them so that their treatment of pilgrimage is made as clear as possible. Gowther tells the story of an unlikely hero: a child sired by an incubus (the same one, it turns out, who sired Merlin) who grows with unnatural, diabolic speed, bites off the nipples of wet nurses, and rapes and murders nuns. Upon discovering his demonic parentage, he vows to learn “anodur lare” and embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome. The Pope orders him to wander as a mute pilgrim who can only eat from the mouths of dogs until he receives word that he has been redeemed.  His salvific journey culminates in a three-day tournament against a marauding Sultan, and at lay’s end he is hailed as a hero, an emperor, and a worker of miracles.
            Like Gowther, Sir Perceval of Galles positions its eponymous hero outside the bounds of acceptable chivalric society; he is, however, a “fool of the field” — a far more harmless (however clueless) nobleman who must learn how to behave in courtly society, and, among other things, learn to distinguish a pregnant mare from a stallion. His story centers around this process of acculturation, one that includes a battle against a marauding Sultan, marriage to a noble woman (the queen of Maydenlande) and, crucially, his quest (cast very much as a form of pilgrimage) to reunite and rescue his mother, who he abandoned in order to reinter the civilized world. His story ends in the Holy Land, where he dies fighting on crusade, but only after he has successfully established his kingdom and helped restore his mother’s sanity.
Isumbras, by contrast, tells the story of a knight in good social standing at the outset of the hero’s eponymous romance, but he is punished by God for prioritizing secular over spiritual gains. He loses all of his worldly possessions (after choosing to suffer early rather than late in his life for his sins), and he and his family deliberately embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, one that gradually takes the shape of a crusade. Isumbras’ sons are lost to him along the way (kidnapped either marauding beasts or an angel depending on the version), and his wife is kidnapped by a Sultan on his way to lay siege to Christian territory. Isumbras’s redemptive journey requires that he defeat . . . wait for it . . . a marauding Sultan, seek absolution in the Holy Land itself and then reunite with his wife in the Levant. He becomes a king of the now-deceased Sultan’s territory, and his sons miraculously appear as he and his wife are about to die in battle against an army of 30,000 rebellious Saracen subjects. The family destroys the army and goes on to conquer other Levantine lands in Christ’s name.
Though their plots are quite different, their treatment of pilgrimage and redemption are strikingly convergent. Each of our heroes, for instance, decides at a crucial juncture to embark on a pilgrimage. Gowther makes this decision about a third of the way into the lay, and all that comes before it works to emphasize the unlikeliness, if not miraculousness, of this moment. The narrative lurches forward with considerable speed at this point, with Gowther’s pilgrimage to Rome barely described before he arrives and meets with the Pope. Given the gravity of his crimes, this swift pilgrimage account fails to satisfy (it’s not enough to attone for what he’s done) and what follows is hardly surprising: the Pope promises him absolution, but only after Gowther continues his penitent journey and earns his redemption. Isumbras, by contrast, vows to journey to Jerusalem far earlier in the narrative. He is introduced to us as a valiant and honorable lord, but it he is warned in the opening passage of the romance that he has privileged earthly gain overmuch. Isumbras, after losing all of his possessions, kneels down, carves a cross into his shoulder and vows to journey to Jerusalem with his family. Perceval of Galles, in turn, embarks on a pilgrimage to rescue his mother shortly after defending Maidenland against a Sultan (which results in his marrying the besieged princess and becoming both a knight of Arthur’s court and a king). His journey takes the form of a penitential pilgrimage as away for atoning for his negligence; he insists both on wearing  goatskin rather than armor and on walking on foot rather than riding his horse.
All three heroes, in other words, are called to jettison their earthly identities in order to completely atone for their sins.  Perceval, as this last passage suggests, eradicates what Jeffrey Cohen identifies as the “inhuman circuit” of horse, armor, and man, that makes him a knight in the first place; Gowther journeys to Rome on a pilgrimage for the sole intent of ridding himself of and atoning for his diabolic identity and is forced into muteness and near-complete subservience in order to guarantee his redemption, and Isumbras loses everything save the clothes on his back, with both him and his family turned into begging pilgrims, bereft of home and social status. Each hero, however, eventually reforges their identity – quite literally for Isumbras (he joins a troupe of smithies and crafts a set of armor for himself) -- in ways complementary to the salvation that they seek. And I think it is crucial that this process of redemption and ascension back up the social ladder hinges, for all three heroes, on martial victories over a Sultan. This move allows each romance to echo a particular brand of virtual pilgrimage: “the crusade of the soul,” a term coined by Suzanne Yeager to refer to texts that actively encourage virtual pilgrims to “besiege Jerusalem in their minds” (13). Crusades to Jerusalem were all but impossible to launch during the time in which these romances circulated, and as I have observed elsewhere (and as others have observed too), this was also a time that witnessed the encroachment of the Turkish Empire on the borders of Eastern Christendom, which resulted in considerable amounts of anxiety throughout Western Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. These moments then -- Perceval’s defeat of the Sultan and his battle with the Sultan’s monstrous brother, Gowther’s crusade in miniature against a Sultan, one where we literally witness his purification through the changing colors (black, to red, to white) of his armor; to Isumbras’ numerous encounters and victories over Saracen enemies – encourage a similar form of meditative holy war by inviting audiences to envision and vicariously participate in such victories.
In addition to being cast – either partially or completely – as crusades, each of the hero’s journeys takes the form of a labyrinth, which is, in and of itself a form of virtual pilgrimage. When you first enter a labyrinth, like the one on the floor of Chartres cathedral, you walk directly towards the center only to be swiftly swung out to the very borders of the circle. You think that your journey will be an easy one, only to find yourself at the periphery. This process repeats itself over and over until, at long last, you reach the center and the end of your journey. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth offers up no tricks or false endings. There is only one, inexorable conclusion to your wandering, you just have to persevere to reach it. The same, in many respects can be said of each of the romances I just described. In Gowther, for instance, the narrator hastily tells of Gowther learning of his demonic parentage, his decision to embark on a pilgrimage, and his meeting in Rome with the pope – all of these events take places in a mere 71 lines, whereas the next four hundred lines or so are devoted to his continued penitential journey, which lurches forwards and backwards as he wends his way towards salvation.
Perceval’s process of acculturation and, importantly, his process of correctly sorting out his spiritual and earthly priorities mirrors this labyrinthine structure as well. He consistently makes headway in his efforts to adhere to court customs and behaviors in the early episodes of the romance, only to make additional blunders that require correcting. And even once he’s established himself as a husband, member of Arthur’s court, and king (having defeated a Sultan and been knighted by Arthur), he remembers his abandoned mother and must jettison all of these courtly accouterments and statuses in order to right the wrongs he did to her. And then, once he recovers his mother and reinstates her at his royal court, he journeys off to die on crusade in the Holy Land.  In short, Perceval’s is a journey towards a proper sense of spiritual and earthly prioritization. He begins his journey squarely focused on the latter and, through a series of forward and backwards movements, wends his way towards the former. His would be an incomplete journey/pilgrimage without his crusade and death quest to the Holy Land.
Of the three, Isumbras perhaps mirrors the labyrinth most closely. While his life — initially so calm and peaceful (even complacent) — is rapidly destabilized, the journey he undertakes inexorably leads him to a state of absolution, a spiritual prosperity mirrored in his ascension to kingship and the reunion of his family. Like a wanderer in the labyrinth, Isumbras is flung to the far edge of his faith – he, like Gowther, is forced into a state of complete abjection -- and has to slowly find his way back to his center, and further, figure out what belongs in that center to begin with. Along the way, he – like Perceval and Gowther -- models the process of a penitent pilgrim for audiences of the story, and offers opportunities for reflection on the tensions between the earthly and spiritual priorities that all men must reckon with.
Each of these romances, which do overlap with one another in extant manuscripts (both Isumbras and Perceval of Galles appear in the Lincoln Thornton, and both Isumbras and Gowther appear in MS Advocates 19.3.1), proffer stories of spiritual redemption that stress – through a variety of convergent episodes and themes – the need to keep ones’ spiritual and earthly priorities in check. They also reveal that no one – whether the most diabolical or the most upstanding – can escape the need to embark on this kind of journey. Their stories are inherently disruptive, because – while, based on the provenances of the MSS that include them, they would have been read in secular mercantile/courtly setting -- they point an ultimately condemning finger at the trappings of earthly (and specifically noble/courtly) life. They are, in this sense, operating in ways quite similar to the Grail Quest in Malory’s Morte, which is ultimately a death quest that – through its requirement that Knight’s seek spiritual over earthly gain – obliterates the gravitational pull that Camelot had earlier enjoyed. Each, in the end, proffers a similar message – through their emphasis on pilgrimage and its redemptive potential -- about how crucial it is not to hold secular gains higher than the spiritual.

1 For more on the nuns of Augsburg and their virtual pilgrimage practices, see Ehrenschwendtner's "Virtual Pilgrimages." 


Cachey, Theodore J. (ed. and trans.). Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land: Itinerary to the Sepulcher of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Connolly, Daniel. "Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris." The Art Bulletin (December 1999): 598-622.

Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. "Virtual Pilgrimages: Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine's Convent, Augsburg." The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (January 2009): 45-73.

Newhauser, Richard C. and Arthur J. Russell. "Mapping Virtual Pilgrimage in an Early Fifteenth Century Arma Christi Roll." In The Arma Christi in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture.  Eds. Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. 83-112.

Swanson, R. N. Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? Cambridge UP, 2011.

Yeager, Suzanne M. Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

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