Literature, Pilgrimage and Religious Tourism

Rita Capurro (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)

The connections between literature, pilgrimage and religious tourism can be read from different points of view, which can be summarised in two lines: the first (1) considers how in literary tourism, very often, the terms pilgrimage, worship, and relic are used so much that the experience of literary tourism is also called literary pilgrimage, while the second (2) is focused on different forms of pilgrimage, religious tourism and cultural tourism made on the footsteps of the sacred texts or literary texts on pilgrimages.

(1) The first line is interlinked with anthropological, historical, and political issues and constitutes a very specific case where characteristics of a devotional practice are reflected in tourism practice. The relevance of the sacred and the identification of the experience of the sacred in pilgrimages, the collection of relics, and the practice of different forms of devotional rituals are common ground in the human experience in different cultures (Ries, 2008). The birth of literary tourism coincides with the transposition of these elements, pertaining to the sphere of the sacred, to the experience of visiting places linked to writers and literature. This phenomenon is, on one hand, a kind of natural transposition of characteristics of the sacred to personalities who are interpreted as eminent, singular, and worthy of admiration, on the other hand, something driven and encouraged to strengthen the national culture and the secular cult of national prominent personalities in different countries, particularly in the 19th century (Dovic & Helgason 2017). The first aspect evidences the relationship between the literary tourists, readers and literature lovers, looking for tangible aspects of their reading experience, mostly related to the writer, his life, and objects linked with the writing experience. According to Watson (2020: 12), these specific objects are seen as a kind of relic and, in particular: “The value of a literary relic increases if it can be identified as having a parallel existence within that writer’s works, or within writings that describe that writer”.

The presentation of the writer's house as a sacred place has very old origins. For instance, in the first half of the 19th century, in the visitor’s book of Petrarch’s house at Arquà, you could read: “Thou who with pious footsteps lovest to trace/ The honour’d precints of this sacred place,/ Where still th’immortal spirit hovers near,/ Of him who left his fleshly burden here,/ Inscribe thy name, thy country, and impart/ The new emotions that expand thy hearth” (translated in English by Roscoe, 1830: 177).

The destinations of these cultural pilgrimages are various; among them: houses, rooms, graves, and public monuments. Regarding writers’ houses, the secular pilgrimage is made to a place that can tell something of the writer’s life. Among many examples, the Brontë Parsonage, musealized since 1928, represents one of the most well-known literary shrines in Britain; according with Alexander: “what is enshrined here is the myth of three famous writing sisters [...] isolated in a stone house” (2008: 93).

From the point of view of the cult of national culture, the most relevant example is given by the celebration of places related to William Shakespeare, since his Jubilee in 1767 (Dobson, 1992; Hendrix, 2008: 7; Babcock, 1931) and, thereafter, throughout the following century (Davidházi, 1998). Among the examples, another noteworthy case of the creation of a national myth worthy of worship is represented by Goethe’s Weimar house, which, towards the end of the 19th century, was turned into a holy place full of relics, a proper “national shrine” (Plachta, 2008: 53). The literary tourism experienced as a secular pilgrimage is, for some countries, an element of the rhetoric in building the national culture. For example, in The U.S.A., the expression “literary pilgrimage” is commonly used between the 19th and the 20th centuries to describe this kind of tourism (Barnett, 2013).

(2) In tourism studies, it is also relevant to point out that there are tourism experiences that, regardless of religious motivations, are in sites of religious interest and are based on texts that are linked to the sacred experience. The case is particularly evident in the Christian pilgrimage, and, specifically, in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Indeed, the importance of the sacred texts as an original guide to the experience of pilgrimage is fundamental in this tradition and grew over the years with the addition of many texts that recounted the experiences of pilgrims and saints, which, in turn, became important references for the journey. In particular, an old tradition of texts, in the forms of letters and itineraries (Drijvers, 2018), constitutes in the Christian pilgrimage the rich repertoire of literary sources that have inspired and guided the journeys of many pilgrims and travellers.

Suppose the use of sacred texts for believers in pilgrimages in their sacred dimension cannot be adequately defined as a type of literary tourism. In that case, there are forms of contemporary tourism which are increasingly interested in knowing and discovering sacred places with a personal interest, not solely religiously motivated (Mazza, 2007). It is a contemporary form of tourism that falls under the general category of religious tourism. In these cases, the literary tours can be inspired by specific characters (e.g., John the Baptist’s places) or different stories (e.g., Egeria’s route).

How to cite this dictionary entry: Capurro, R. (2023). Literature, Pilgrimage and Religious Tourism. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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