Via Francigena

The header image above is from a mural by Ezra Winter which depicts some of the characters from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”. The characters shown include the Merchant, the Friar, the Monk, the Franklin, the Wife of Bath, the Parson, and the Ploughman.  Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the tales between 1387 and 1400.  The tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.

It was one of the early seminal works of English literature in its use of the vernacular – the common language and dialects. It was written at a time when the Church was encouraging people to make pilgrimages to holy places and shrines. In the “Canterbury Tales” the pilgrims were traveling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury cathedral but many pilgrims traveled greater distances to Santiago de Compostella to visit the tomb of St.James, to Rome to visit the tomb of St.Peter, and to Jerusalem to visit the holy lands.

The Via Francigena, Canterbury to Rome was one of the great medieval pilgrimages. Around 990 AD, Archbishop Sigeric journeyed from Canterbury to Rome and then back again but only documented his itinerary on the return journey. Sigeric’s return journey consisted of 80 stages averaging about 20 km (12 mi) a day, for a total of some 2000 km (1,200 mi).

The following two extracts are taken from Veronica Ortenburg’s 1990 paper “Archbishop Sigeric’s journey to Rome in 990” –

“Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, the popularity of the Roman pilgrimage is evident from a large variety of sources, and has been commented on by scholars such as W.J. Moore, R. Cramp, C. H. Lawrence, R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, M. Deanesly and W. Levison. Fifty-four names of known pilgrims are included by Moore in his list, from the first pilgrims Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid to those of the late eighth century, drawn there by the desire to learn ‘correct’, i.e. Roman, liturgical practices and to obtain books and relics to bring back home to England. Above all, however, the reason for the popularity of the pilgrimage must be sought in the English veneration for St Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and also that for Gregory the Great, who had instigated the conversion of England. Rome was first and foremost the city of St Peter: he was felt to be physically present in this city, which belonged to him. The pope himself was revered because he was perceived to be the physical heir of St Peter, a view shared by Sigeric, who used the common but significant word dominus when recounting his midday meal with John XV. This word was often used for saints, and when applied to the pope, it was done so not on account of the latter’s personal sanctity, but because the pope personified the Apostle himself. St Peter was not only the most powerful lord that one could serve, but also the ‘keeper of the keys of heaven’, and therefore responsible for admission into it. For that reason, simple pilgrims as well as kings went to Rome to die at the ‘threshold of the Apostle'”

“Although the journey to Rome in order to obtain the. pallium was becoming usual for archbishops in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the importance of the pilgrimage in itself must have been considerable, since various archbishops, Sigeric amongst them, were ready to face a great many dangers for its sake. In the first place, the late tenth century was a difficult period in England, where such internal problems as the succession of King Edgar and the new wave of Scandinavian invasions occupied the mind. To these problems at home, one must add the difficulties of the journey itself. In addition to unsafe roads and the perilous crossing of the Alps, a journey to Rome no longer meant crossing the relatively safe Carolingian Empire, as it had done in the eighth and ninth centuries, but rather traversing a multitude of small ‘states’ under the local authority of counts and petty lords, particularly in the north and east of France. Sigeric’s trip was contemporary with the reign of Hugh, the first Capetian king. Other dangers awaited the pilgrims in the Alps, which the Imperial armies of Emperor Otto regularly traversed. At least, Sigeric would not have met any Saracen bands on the Alpine passes, since they had virtually disappeared after having been evicted in 972-5 from their stronghold of La Garde Freinet in Provence, even if they were still active in Italy itself.”

Most modern-day pilgrims follow Sigeric’s documented route in the reverse order, i.e. from Canterbury to Rome, and so would journey from Canterbury to the English coast before crossing the Channel to Sumeran (now called Sombres) landing at the point where the seaside village of Wissant now lies. From there the modern-day pilgrim must travel to the places Sigeric knew as “Gisne”, “Teranburh”, “Bruaei”, “Atherats”, before continuing on to Reims, Châlons-sur-Marne, Bar-sur-Aube, Langres, Besançon, Pontarlier, Lausanne and Saint-Maurice. From Saint-Maurice they must traverse the Great St. Bernard Pass to Aosta and from Aosta they must pass through Ivrea, Vercelli, Pavia, Fidenza, Pontremoli, Filattiera, Aulla, Luni, Lucca, San Gimignano, Poggibonsi, Siena, San Quirico d’Orcia, Bolsena, Viterbo and Sutri before finally reaching the city of Rome.