The pilgrims then and now
The medieval pilgrims were very different from the modern ones, with different clothes, equipment and motivations. Anyway, these versions are both iconic: when we see the illustration of a medieval pilgrim we recognise him immediately, just like we recognise a modern pilgrim when we meet one.
The modern traveller is really far from the time when, before the journey started, people used to make a will, to confess and to receive at the altar the staff and the haversack, two essential items to face a long and difficult journey. In fact, the medieval pilgrim had to be immediately recognisable, in order to be hosted and helped by the religious orders along the way.
The way’s symbols
In the Dark Ages, faith had to be proved and to be showed: therefore, when a pilgrim started his journey, he had to dress in a certain manner and to bring with him unmistakable signs, which defined and characterised him. Pinned on the hat or on the cape, the symbols changed according to the pilgrimage’s destination: Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela.
The symbols of the pilgrimage to Rome, for example, were badges depicting St. Peter and St. Paul or a pair of crossed keys, the St. Peter’s symbol. In the Holy Land, the symbols were little crosses or olive branches. The symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was the scallop’s shell, whose presence is still marking the path to the St. James’ Cathedral.
Beyond the symbols, is the way that matters
Faith, spirituality and need of redemption are without doubt what moved, and keeps moving, old and new pilgrims along the Via Francigena. But, compared to the one made during the Dark Ages, today’s travels can be also secular: many people walk down the Via Francigena just to trek or to stay in touch with nature.
Today, Via Francigena has a different and more comprehensive meaning and is walked by both who loves to explore and trek and by who is moved by faith. What is still unchanged is the idea of the journey as rebirth, as exterior and interior experience, as evolution and personal route through the world.