Travelling to holy places in the early modern period

By Sandra Toffolo |

From the first pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the fourth century, people wrote books about these sacred journeys. Even over the course of the early modern period, when pilgrimages ceased to be a mass phenomenon, these travel accounts still continued to be written. Hundreds have been handed down to us from the medieval and early modern periods, sometimes in many different copies.

In 1556 the Antwerp printer Symon Cock published Den wech na Romen van mile[n] tot milen ende wat ghelde onder weghen goet ende van noode is. Item oock den wech na Venegien toe. […] Item oock den wech na Jerusalem toe […]. (USTC 408996). Written in Dutch, this book is an example of an early modern pilgrim’s account. The University of Ghent, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books library partners, holds a rare copy of this book (BHSL.RES.0509/2). This 16 leaf octavo volume contains information about all three major Christian pilgrimages of the early modern period: to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela.

The author of the text diligently lists all places that travelers will pass through between Antwerp and these respective destinations. He often accompanies this with the precise distances from one place to the next, although he informs the reader that he cannot give precise measurements for the entire journey: miles were not calculated in the same way everywhere. The author also included another type of information that pilgrims would have considered very practical: the indulgences that could be obtained in Rome in certain churches and on certain feast days. In addition, he tells his readers the history of the foundation of Rome and describes several churches in the city. The last page of the book contains a woodcut depicting Christ standing next to the cross.

Ghent, Den wech na Romen - woodcut
Woodcut from the final page. University of Ghent, BHSL.RES.0509/2. USTC 408996.

Authors of pilgrims’ accounts tended to copy information, phrases, or even entire passages from other books. Some of them even included descriptions of places that they had not visited themselves, in order to make their work more complete. For this reason, these travel accounts – especially certain parts – can show a certain homogeneity, in part because they could address two audiences: future pilgrims, who could use them as guides, as well as people who never made the pilgrimage themselves. They could contain information on matters such as which holy places to visit and how many indulgences could be obtained (like our 1556 book at the University of Ghent), as well as on cities that could be visited, the habits of foreign people, and sometimes even foreign currencies. As is the case also with Den wech na Romen van milen tot milen ende wat ghelde onder weghen goet ende van noode is, they thus could appeal to a variety of audiences.


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Sandra Toffolo is a postdoctoral researcher for Preserving the World’s Rarest Books at the University of St Andrews. Her current research focuses on early modern pilgrimage and on geographical descriptions of Venice and the Venetian mainland state. You can follow her on


Images: courtesy of Universiteitsbibliotheek Gent.

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