The Via Francigena gave a new dimension to pilgrimage in the medieval period. It was a historical route from Canterbury to Rome mostly used by pilgrims who wanted to travel to Rome. During the 11th century, people traveled to Europe in search of a ‘lost heavenly home.’ The routes that people took stands as a witness and strengthen the fact that pilgrimage existed even in the medieval period.
Pilgrims traveled mostly on foot and covered about 20-25 km per day. The pilgrimage was undertaken solely on a devotional reason, to visit the Holy Sites of Christianity. The pilgrims usually visited three main attractions during their journey. The first one was Rome, site of the martyrdom of Saint Paul and Saint Peter, Santiago de Compostela, apostle Saint James chose this place to rest in peace, and Jerusalem, the Holy Land.
Pilgrims traveled in groups. They also carried travel emblems such as the shell for Santiago de Compostela, the cross that symbolized Jerusalem and a key that stood for Saint Peter in Rome. The route also had immense trade activities going on at this time and also the armies moving about frequently took this route for their movements.
The first documentation of Via Francigena was in 990 by Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric. He had recorded the places he had passed through when he was returning to Canterbury after receiving pallium and cope from the Pope, a white band of wool with pendants that were worn by archbishops over the chasuble. The roads that he took came to be known as the Via Francigena. From then on, people used these routes for traveling for business, pilgrimage and even military requirements. The route was mostly frequented by merchants, soldiers, pilgrims and prelates who traveled back and forth from Europe to Rome. The pilgrims usually traveled on foot, on horsebacks or even on mules. Carts were less popular since the roads were not in good condition.
The local lords built and maintained the roads. The roads were not built with great care because they were not built with the idea of connecting places of great importance. The roads were actually a series of trails and paths with varying widths and made of different materials as well. The roads also linked villages, mountain passes, ferry boats, and bridges. The roads had two notable characteristics. One was that the travelers could easily find shelter for the night if traveling further was difficult. The other, that there was danger involved in this long distance travel. Wild animals, thieves, difficult terrain and sometimes health problems made it difficult for them to travel.
Since the travel involved several unseen dangers, it was required that the pilgrims follow certain procedures before leaving for the pilgrimage. It was men who mostly undertook these pilgrimages rather than women largely due to the dangers involved in the travel. The person undertaking the pilgrimage had to pay off his debts and prepare a will. He should also receive a pilgrim dress from his local clergy and also ask for forgiveness in general for any offense that he might have committed. He had to also say goodbye to everyone before he leaves because the chances of his returning were unpredictable.
The will prepared by the pilgrim had many details. He had to specify his heirs, purpose of his trip, how much time he would be away and the places he would visit during his travel.
Once he is dressed and blessed by the local bishop, he would automatically enter into the ‘Order’ of the pilgrims. He wore a kind of dress that had a rough texture and is dark in color, had a leather bag he could use to store his money and food. He even carried a stout stick with a metal point, the pilgrim’s staff.
The dress symbolized of various things. The dress, staff and the bag symbolized Hope, Faith, and Charity. It also meant that he was blessed against all temptations and evils. If he did not return for a certain period of time, his properties would be distributed among his heirs. If successful, the traveler would bring back souvenirs to prove his visits to the places. The souvenirs included a shell from Santiago, palm leaf from Jericho or little figures of patron saints of the visited places.
Via Francigena in Tuscany meets at the Cisa Pass in a place called Lunigiana that is to the north of Pontremoli. It heads towards the south to Aquapendente in Latium and passes through Siena and Lucca. Travelers can still follow the ancient path mentioned by Sigeric to find refuge in the villages. The Via Francigena is certainly worth a trip. The roads pass through some of the country sides, areas with botanical species that are new to local inhabitants, along hills and forests. People still travel to Rome on foot, bicycle or horsebacks. Only that the number of travelers is comparatively less. The facilities available today are of different nature. The accommodation is expensive when compared to the ancient days. More than just a road connecting different cities, towns and countries, the Via Francigena is often considered as a cultural route between nations.