21 June 2010
Bodleian Library Publishing’s new translation of a rare fifteenth-century pilgrimage account to the Holy Land is perhaps the first known travel guide, and offers compelling insights into travel, religious faith and the topography of Medieval Europe.
William Wey was a Devon priest, Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and Bursar of Eton College. Granted special dispensation by Henry VI to go on lengthy pilgrimages, he made three trips between 1456 and 1462 – to Compostella, Rome, and the Holy Land. Prompted by his friends to write an account of his travels, Wey describes in vivid detail his journeys across a Europe embroiled in turmoil. Uniquely, he includes word lists and practical advice on kit, such as taking a small chamber pot should you be too ill to climb to the upper deck of the galley, on conduct, exchange rates, and currency. Wey’s account is the first to include this indispensable travel information and, as such, is essentially the original ‘Rough Guide for Pilgrims’.
The Itineraries of William Wey is the first modern translation of Wey’s travelogues, opening up his writing to a new generation of pilgrims. An intriguing and devout person, Wey is adventurous, highly observant and eminently resourceful. While waiting for the pilgrim galley to sail to Jaffa, for example, Wey spent over a month in Venice and gives a colourful description of a mercantile city in its heyday. Not only was Venice a good place to exchange money and stock up on provisions, but also a theatre of civic pageantry and drama, as Wey describes with awe the elaborate funeral procession of the Doge and the inauguration of his successor.
Eloquent and descriptive, Wey offers fascinating glimpses into the vagaries of medieval travel: ‘Another miracle! One of those sailing on our ship had his purse cut from his belt. He lost his valuables and all the money he had. He immediately made a vow to St James that if he recovered his property he would go to him stripped. After he had made this vow, a Breton, who had cut his purse, was caught in the act of cutting another man’s purse. The pilgrim’s purse was discovered in the thief’s pocket, and so, with St James’s help, he got it back. Immediately he set off for St James, stripped as he had vowed.’
Francis Davey, the editor and translator, has followed in Wey’s footsteps, identifying some of the relics and shrines mentioned in The Itineraries that exist to this day, such as the hand of St John the Baptist in Cetinje in Montenegro, and locating the modern versions of Wey’s medieval stopovers, like Zawe (Sankt Vith in Belgium) and Hospytale (Helenenberg in Germany).
Francis Davey attended New College, Oxford, and taught Classics for many years before his appointment as Headmaster of Merchant Taylors' School. In retirement he and his wife have followed several medieval pilgrimage routes across Europe and the Middle East, especially those described by William Wey and Richard of Lincoln. They have also written guide books for the modern pilgrim to three of the routes to Compostella.