The Itineraries of William Wey.
Reviewed by Sheila McGuirk

The Itineraries of William Wey. Edited and Translated by Francis Davey.
The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2010-08-07 ISBN 978 I 85124 304 4

William Wey was a priest from Devon, a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford and from 1441 till his retirement to the Monastery of Edington in 1467 a Fellow and periodically Bursar of the newly founded Eton College. In 1456 he undertook the pilgrimage to the shrine of James the Apostle in Compostella and over the following six years travelled twice to Jerusalem by way of Venice, on the first occasion also going to Rome.

By the time William Wey (1407-1476) was travelling in the 15tth century Chaucer (1340?-1400) had written The Canterbury Tales and two of the greatest modern travellers, Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) and Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) had already published accounts of their long journeys. In leaving his own country to go on pilgrimage Wey was a more modest and traditional traveller. But as Francis Davey points out, the fact that Wey could get away from his job as a cleric and bursar of Eton College no less than three times for periods as long as nine months suggests he may have had reasons for his journeys connected with the turbulent political climate in France and England during the Wars of the Roses.

Pilgrimage would have been a useful cover for spying. As a priest Wey’s pilgrimages were genuinely devout observances. But he was canny, practical, self-effacing and sharp-eyed at the same time. Even if he wanted to answer the questions he raised on his second visit to Jerusalem it does seem unusual that just four years after his 1458 journey Wey set off on almost the identical trip. He was also circumspect in making no mention of the troubles in his own country. This was not through ignorance since he was prepared to remark that “the City of Jerusalem was taken by the Saracens because of the divisions among the Christians there over the election of a king” (Chapter 11). Nor does he comment on his own role in life (except in referring in the third person to the sermons he preached occasionally during his journeys).

Pilgrimage would have been a useful cover for spying. As a priest Wey’s pilgrimages were genuinely devout observances. But he was canny, practical, self-effacing and sharp-eyed at the same time. Even if he wanted to answer the questions he raised on his second visit to Jerusalem it does seem unusual that just four years after his 1458 journey Wey set off on almost the identical trip. He was also circumspect in making no mention of the troubles in his own country. This was not through ignorance since he was prepared to remark that “the City of Jerusalem was taken by the Saracens because of the divisions among the Christians there over the election of a king” (Chapter 11). Nor does he comment on his own role in life (except in referring in the third person to the sermons he preached occasionally during his journeys).both as a traveller and pilgrim was that his account of his journeys was not merely diverting and informative but evidently intended to help the English traveller (prone to traveller’s tummy!) who might wish to follow in his footsteps. So Davey feels that Wey’s account is a fore-runner of the modern travel guide, from Baedeker to Michelin.

Since Wey cited all the reasons why travellers should go to the Holy Land, it was entirely reasonable that he should help them to accomplish this goal. For example, he tackled the important practical question of currency exchange and values, including the names of coins in use between Venice and Jaffa. Chapter 8 lists every town along the route to Venice of Wey’s 1458 pilgrimage and the distances between them. Wey’s estimate of distances and travel times in Europe, once adjusted by the editor for the different continental measurements, was quite accurate (Chapter 8). He gave detailed information on what relics were to be found in which towns along the route. He attempted (with mixed results) a lexicon of 90 Greek words and phrases which he thought would be useful to the traveller (Chapter 13) and a gazetteer of all the place names from a map of the Holy Land (which he probably owned as it was listed among his bequests to Edington Priory (Chapter 12)).

Chapter 2 is about travelling comfort, how to negotiate with the galley master, and what provisions and equipment to take. (Most of the information on these arrangements is repeated in delightful detail in Chapter 9, which describes Wey’s second trip to the Holy Land.) Here are some tips which could have come straight out of a modern “Rough Guide”: ‘When you come to harbour towns you can buy eggs. Provided you get ashore quickly you can get them good and cheap.’ ‘The Saracens will walk with you, talking and being friendly, but they will rob you of anything you have which they can manage to steal.’Wey travelled between Venice and Jaffa by galley, stopping en route in Pula, various ports and islands on the Dalmatian coast, Corfu, Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus. The description of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside is entirely in terms of places relating to the life and death of Christ, Mary, various saints and Old Testament prophets. One can almost imagine a fifteenth century dragoman parroting the litany of events and associated places which the pilgrim (tourist) expected to tick off his “must see” list. Chapter 4 itemises the places to be visited and the sequence in which the pilgrim will make his tour of the Holy Land after disembarking at Jaffa and how long to stay in each place.

Wey needed to keep as brief a journal as possible while actually on the way, a difficulty faced by many travellers; so he created a mnemonic . When he wrote his account some years later, consulting manuscripts which were available in England, he expanded his notes, often re-capping the same information in greater detail in successive chapters. It seems that in the first 1500 years after Christ Jerusalem changed much less that in the next 500. But some things haven’t changed – Wey’s list of ‘the twelve sects in the Lord’s Temple’ has a familiar ring: Latins, Greeks, Armenians, Indians, Jacobites, Gorgians, Syrians, Maronites, Nestorians, Aridians, Abbatians and Pessines’. So does his comment on Syria – “As we entered boys threw stones at us.”

Along his route Wey would have received hospitality in various Franciscan monasteries, and in particular in Jerusalem, where the Franciscans had made it their business to look after pilgrims since the 1330s. But it was still a hazardous and arduous (and expensive) undertaking, and not just because of the restrictions imposed by the ‘Saracens’. For example in Chapter 7 Wey reports “A French priest died that night and was buried halfway along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.” On his 1462 crossing of Europe Wey was forced to deviate from the more traditional route due to wars between city states and religious factions. But he later wrote a wonderful report on the history, customs and splendours of Venice (Chapter 9), including a description of the funeral of the Doge and the election and installation of his successor.

For Astene members the final two chapters of Wey’s account, dealing with his pilgrimages to Rome (mainly listing churches and their associated indulgences) and Compostella, may be of less immediate interest. But they fill out the picture of Wey himself, his personality and his enthusiasms. Wey’s book would not be as accessible as it is to today’s reader without the meticulous and learned commentary provided by Francis Davey, including information from the accounts of other pilgrim travellers to Jerusalem such as Richard of Lincoln, who went to Jerusalem in 1454, four years before Wey’s first Eastern trip in 1458. (In an appendix Davey explains the problems caused by the different interests of the Venetians and the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes vis-a-vis the Turks).

The book is very much sui generis, and not for a ‘popular’ audience. But it covers a range of Astene areas: travel in the Middle Ages; Jerusalem and Palestine after the Muslim re-conquest; myth and legend; geography; cartography; religious ephemera; linguistics. It is a reminder that long before the time of the travellers more familiar to Astene, a man such as William Wey could endure all the perils of Near Eastern travel under Saracen rule and return to recount it with clarity and sang-froid for the benefit of others. He does this without ostentation or expectation that people should marvel at his achievement.

Francis Davey wears his erudition equally lightly. Davey and his wife have tried to visit every site on Wey’s route so like Wey he writes from direct personal experience (though obviously Wey related historical anecdotes which he could not verify). Davey’s detailed notes are a history and guidebook in themselves, particularly on the myriad myths, legends and biblical references in Wey’s text which are no longer familiar. The commentary and notes comprise a good half of the book and are as significant an achievement as Wey’s own Itineraries.

Sheila McGuirk