Iter pro peregrinis ad Compostellam
River crossings were among the many challenges facing the medieval pilgrim, as graphically evoked in the Poitevin monk Aymeric Picaud’s Iter pro peregrinis ad Compostellam, written in the mid-12th century. A practical guide for pilgrims, it is often described as the earliest tourist guide book. Pausanias and Dionysius Periegetes might disagree.
Dividing the journey in to 13 stages, Picaud describes relics and shrines, promoting some and trashing others as bogus, and includes colourful descriptions of the local inhabitants. His fellow Poitevins come out of this well, and the general message to pilgrims is that the further they travel, the more barbarous are the people they will encounter. If the author’s idea was to promote the pilgrimage, he does not make it sound all that inviting.
Saint-Jean-de-Sorde, near the confluence of the Gave de Pau and Gave d’Oloron, was a hazardous crossing. The boatmen extort a coin whether you can afford it or not, four if you have a horse. The boat is small, made from a single tree, not suitable for horses, and you can easily end up in the water. The best option is to take the horse by the bridle and let it swim behind the boat. The boatmen have been known to collect the fares, fill the boat so full it capsizes, and steal the possessions of the drowned pilgrims. A toll bridge was erected in 1289.
Poitou. Brave warriors, experts with bows and arrows and spears who won’t take a backward step in battle. Athletic, good looking men who know how to dress well and talk sense. Generous and hospitable.
The Landes. A desolate region without supplies or springs. Villages are rare, although there is honey, grain and wild boar. In summer, protect your face from the huge flies that infest the place. Watch your step, or you’ll sink to your knees in quicksand.
Gascony. Garrulous, loathsome, lascivious, poorly-dressed, greedy drunks. Skilled warriors, good hospitality to the poor. All drink from one cup, then sprawl out together on rotten straw. White bread and the best and reddest wine. Forests, streams, meadows and healthy fountains.
The Basque Country. Forest savages whose hard faces and strange language strike terror into the heart. They come at pilgrims with weapons, demand an exorbitant fee and beat those who refuse.
Beyond the Pyrenees worse was in store. The Navarrese waited beside a poisonous river sharpening their knives to skin the pilgrims’ dead horses. They despised the French, and like the Basques, would kill them for a mess of pottage.
Navarre. Malicious, dark, hostile-looking, crooked, perverse, treacherous, corrupt, untrustworthy, sex-obsessed, drunk, violent, wild, savage, damned, horrible, argumentative. Disgusting eating and drinking habits. All feed with their hands from one pot and swill from one cup, like pigs or dogs. Their language sounds like a dog barking. Men and women expose themselves to each other. The Navarrese have sex with farm animals, and put a lock on the backsides of their mules and horses.