A different kind of tourism

It is often said that the origins of modern tourism go back to the medieval European pilgrimage. Many people travelled in the Middle Ages, but out of all the eligible categories, the pilgrim is often singled out as the ancestor of the tourist and holidaymaker. Not the warrior, not the merchant, not the itinerant student, nor the preaching friar, though they often travelled long distances and for long periods of time. The merchants and friars, not pilgrims, ended up in Asia. Marco Polo was no pilgrim, and neither was William of Rubruck, the Franciscan friar who travelled to Karakorum to see the Great Kahn. Perhaps no other Europeans toured the known world more than these two people, and yet they, and other members of their group, are never counted among the early tourists.

Travelling was not among the essential features of a merchant or friar, even though many did travel. And travelling is not everything to a tourist, even though tourism as a concept comes from the activity of touring or travelling.

Just like a merchant, a soldier or a friar on a diplomatic mission like William, the medieval pilgrim travelled to get somewhere. The point of a pilgrimage was and still is devotional, the desire to reach a sacred place, to accomplish a vow, to do penance, or immerse oneself in the reality of a transcendental past or reality.

The first and last motivations still characterise many tourist projects today. When upper-class northern European men and women embarked on what was to become the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th centuries, they also wanted to partake of the sacrality of Florence and Rome, even if for them the illustrious ancient past was enough grounds for revering those places with a devotion similar to that of a medieval pilgrim on her way to Rome or Jerusalem.

Maps, sights to see, places to stay at, things to know were common features of pilgrim guides and early-modern grand-tour travelbooks just as they are permanent fixtures of our Michelin and Lonely Planet travel guide books. The fridge magnet, hacky as it may be, is a distant relative of the pilgrim badge, perhaps as hacky then, which pilgrims brought back from the places they visited.

The medieval pilgrim in you or me may not be too hard to find next time we go to an exotic location and we marvel before a ruin, a statue, a building or even a landscape. Unlike the medieval pilgrim however, we wouldn’t think it’s ok to die on the way and to accomplish the journey in the afterlife. After all, we need that selfie, don’t we?

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