The Medieval Review 11.02.18

Davey, Francis. The Itineraries of William Wey. Oxford: The Bodelian Library, 2010. Pp. 272. $39 ISBN 978-1-85124-304-4. .

Reviewed by:

Diana Webb
King's College, London
homobonus@btinternet.com

Francis Davey's introduction to his translation of the pilgrimage narratives written by William Wey, Fellow of Eton College in the mid-fifteenth century, introduces us not only to Wey and his writings but to Davey himself. It reveals an enthusiastic personal engagement with the work which has borne fruit in the physical following of Wey's footsteps and the ferreting out of the less celebrated places and often things which he saw. It is by no means commonplace in scholarly literature for a writer to refer to his or her area of study as a "hobby," and it comes as a welcome reminder that the stuff of history is not just the possession of a narrowly confined academic profession.

To publish a translation or an edition of an historic text is to institute a kind of interpretative square dance, in which the original author and the target audience of his time are brought into a relationship with both the present-day translator or editor and his or her intended public. Each party has a somewhat different angle on the proceedings. We may perhaps presume that both the author and his modern interpreter begin from a position of superior knowledge in relation to their respective audiences. Wey made his pilgrimages and (perhaps) hoped to enlighten some who had not. Francis Davey may hope to reach readers who could not read Wey's original text even if they had access to it, and possibly also others whose interest has been piqued by the modern pilgrimage renaissance and have little specific background knowledge of the period or environment in which Wey wrote. The former may conceivably be baffled by "Holy Places to Flum Jordan" (39), if they are unaware of the Latin "flumen" for "river."

This latter-day readership, nurtured in the bosom of a print culture which is taken for granted even as it is electronically challenged, may think it the most natural thing in the world that a man who went to Rome, Compostela and Jerusalem should have written about it. After all, large numbers of modern "pilgrims" have found publishers for reminiscences of very variable value and interest. Exactly why William Wey, or indeed any other pilgrim, thought it worthwhile to record their experiences in a pre-print epoch in which the term "publication" could not have its modern meaning, and what audience he expected to reach, are questions worth asking.

Wey's account of his first Jerusalem journey begins with a chapter which enumerates currencies and their values, and both his Jerusalem narratives includes numerous items of useful information for the traveller. While laying in stores at Venice, for example, one should invest in a chamber pot, to provide for the all too likely contingency that one might be ill on the ship and unable to get up to the upper deck. Such counsel is a typical feature of pilgrim accounts and may well suggest to us that the author had a practical purpose and was targeting intending pilgrims; much else in the work however implies rather a desire to record his experiences, spiritual and touristic. This mixture of the factual and the subjective, we may reflect, is not infrequently to be found in modern guidebooks; but it may also be noted that Wey does not offer practical advice in the Rome or Compostela sections of his work, which are relatively cursory. The Holy Land pilgrimage was self-evidently a greater undertaking.

Wherever he goes, Wey refers constantly to a religious culture shared by the educated few who were likely to see the book, whether or not they had either made the same pilgrimages or planned to do so. How many such readers he had in his own time is unknowable. Francis Davey describes the manuscript of the work, now in the Bodleian, which formed the basis of the 1857 Roxburghe Club transcription he has used for his translation. We cannot know how many other copies (if any) ever existed. It should also be remembered that Wey was not only writing but reading in an environment as yet uninvaded by the printed book. When Davey speculates that he was using an "earlier edition" of, say, St Jerome's letters or the Golden Legend (earlier, that is, than the first printed editions) the modern reader needs to ponder the applicability of the word "edition" to manuscript culture.

This was a culture which changed slowly as it experienced fresh accretions, but change it did. Among the relatively recent accretions with which Wey and many of his fellow-countrymen were familiar were the "Revelations" of an indefatigable pilgrim of the previous century, Birgitta of Sweden, which offered a way of interpreting and evaluating the pilgrim experience, vindicating the worth of indulgences but stressing their character as an instrument of God's love. Indulgences tend to get in the way of the modern understanding of late medieval pilgrimage. The pilgrimage experience itself, its practitioners and the way it was described were not in the fifteenth century what they had been two or three hundred years earlier, and the modern reader should treat with caution a view which still surfaces here and there in the literature, that (largely because of the availability of indulgences) pilgrimage in this period was simply a decadent commercialised version of some golden-age (that is, eleventh or twelfth-century) prototype. We simply do not have twelfth-century accounts that are comparable with Wey's, and we certainly do not have anything to compare with the accounts left by Florentine laymen of their journeys to Jerusalem or to Compostela in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. The pilgrim narrative is one index among many of late medieval cultural change.

Wey seems to have swallowed whole the Compostela indulgences which were implausibly attributed to Pope Calixtus II, repeating without comment the threats of excommunication that would be visited on anyone sceptical of their value. It is scarcely surprising that indulgences bulk large in his account of Rome, given that a major element in what might term the marketing strategy of late medieval Rome was the insistence that it was quite unnecessary to go anywhere else (not Jerusalem, not Compostela) if indulgences were what you wanted. Wey, like other pilgrims, was naturally aware of the indulgences to be had in the Holy Land; but one cannot read his, or indeed other accounts, of the Jerusalem journey, without being convinced that there must always have been some other reason for going to all that trouble, given that lavish indulgences were to be had much nearer home. The much greater bulk of his Holy Land narratives reflects an awareness of the unique value and interest-- to himself and potentially to others--of what he had seen and done in the eastern Mediterranean.

A couple of elements in the presentation are worthy of comment. The solitary map is a sad disappointment: a muddy double-page spread in which Wey's routes are superimposed on a map of Europe which is barely legible at the inner edges and to all intents and purposes useless. Sectional sketch-maps, even if more schematic, would have been better; would they have been more expensive? The text, divided into chapters, is set out in a rather cumbersome tripartite form. First comes a very brief synopsis; then the translation (with the corresponding page numbers of the Roxburghe edition); and finally a "Commentary." The commentaries are of mixed value. Where they draw the reader's attention to issues of substance or unravel textual difficulties, they do a useful job; but where they simply recapitulate, sometimes with verbatim quotation, what has just been read, they seem redundant. A single "commentary," either before or after the text, absorbing the synopsis, and rigorously devoted to explaining what is not self- evident, might have been a more elegant solution.

It would however be churlish to dwell on these defects in a work which is in every sense a labour of love. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the appendix devoted to the quest that Davey and his wife undertook to discover the present whereabouts of the icon of Our Lady of Philerimos, mentioned by Wey in his brief account of Rhodes. His notes, too, are full of the gleanings of his personal travels in Wey's footsteps. It is also worthy of remark that for purposes of comparison Davey has made use of a recently discovered account of a Holy Land pilgrimage undertaken just before Wey went for the first time. Now in the Wellcome Institute, where the present reviewer had the all too brief pleasure of inspecting it for the purposes of a BBC radio broadcast shortly after its acquisition in 2002, it is attributed to one Richard of Lincoln. A facsimile of it can be read on-line at http:/wellcome.ac.uk/resources/etexts/ms8004.