I skirted through the obituary of the French Historian Jacques Le Goff today. Not because I’d read his books or even heard his name before. I read obituaries, that’s my thing.
Anyway Jacques Le Goff’s specialism was the Middle Ages. A dark and murky time, certainly. But out of the brutality and the filth, he somehow saw chinks of light. Signifiers of times to come.
Retrospect is a strange thing. It allows us enlightened people to see what the people of the Middle Age may not have seen. The Surf, working in slavery: surely he must have been aware of the ideas that were afoot in Castles and Monasteries, close to where he worked.
Maybe the person whose life was ended because he stole some bread to feed his family; maybe he was aware that the age he had briefly passed through, was simply a precursor of modern times.
Nobody, not even those with wealth and power, could see into the future. They simply lived. They had a moral compass, but it was not the one we have. Or rather it was not the one, some of us have.
The Middle Ages, the feudalism, the ducking-stool, and the saintly relic: are European. What was happening in Asia, Africa, and the Americas; was different. There were trade routes, but travelling in those times was difficult. Most people stayed in their locality. From birth to death, they knew one place. One church. One Lord. Or the son of that Lord. It was a small existence.
A minority, travelled. Travel was not a leisure pursuit: it required the sort of fortitude that is found in the ‘so called’ explorers of Antarctica. The Lewis and Clarks, the Stanley and Livingston’s; the Buzz Aldrin’s and the Neil Armstrong’s. Travel often involved a search, normally an economic search. But also curiosity was certainly part of the mix.
The bones and graves of dead travellers must be scattered about the earth. They must lie deep in the ocean, or rest on a rivers bed. Postcards I suppose, of journeys that were made and not completed.
Inside my head there is a voice saying – get to the point. So here it is:
Pilgrims travelled during the Middle Ages. They risked life and limb to visit holy places. They had purpose, and reason. They were not empty headed hedonists, or ignorant consumers. They believed the places on the map of their pilgrimage were transformative.
The parallel in modern times is a visit to Mecca or Lourdes. But because we live in modern times, something is lost. The modern day pilgrim has the confusion of technology; the rampant monetization; the chattels of civilization to deal with. They lack a certain purity.
The Middle Ages were simple, brutal and short times. Birth, life and death, often happened in the blink of an eye.
I see a tourist being led from a plane, dressed in flip-flops and shorts. He lost control on a flight and banged on the cockpit door. He was visiting his wife, crossing a continent, to visit his wife.
I see boys travelling to Syria to make war.
I see armies massing on Ukraine borders.
I have a world view, so different from someone living in Thirteenth Century France. I’ve lived a long life. I’ve travelled. Had many jobs, many wives, and many homes. But am I happier; is this better than a life without air-travel, the internet and modern medical advances.
I really do not know.
I think if you want to be a person, then you should be that person.
I can’t choose to be Medieval Pilgrim. But I can choose a life with substance.