Beware of nostalgia in primary sources

Nostalgia – a sentimental longing for the past. Many primary source texts and images suggest the past was a better place. But was it really? The word comes from Greek roots: nostos means to return home, aliga/alegein means pain, to care about, longing.   Homesickness is a similar feeling – a longing for home.

Historical sources are often nostalgic, skewing our views of the past. You’ve heard modern references to the halcyon days when people didn’t need to lock the doors of their homes, when neighbors always helped neighbors, when men were brave and chivalrous, women virtuous, and students always did their homework and behaved. In every historical era, references are made to previous golden age. But was a previous era really that good?

Probably not. Every culture throughout time had the good and the bad. Nostalgic primary sources say more about the creators’ views of their own contemporary eras than an idealized past.

Nostalgia in Primary Source Images
late medieval depiction of idealized chivlary
At the 16th century Renaissance kings Henry VIII and Francis I , chivalry was nostalgic for past eras of warfare before the destruction caused by the new weapon – gunpowder.

For example, in the late Middle Ages, (1300s -1400s), the nobility was obsessed with chivalry and elaborate tournaments. At the same time, mounted knights in war were becoming obsolete due to the introduction of gunpowder. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), jousts between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were nostalgic re-enactments of battle, not the reality of 16th century warfare. Times were changing and the past was idealized.

In the late 1800s, more and more Americans were leaving the farm to live and work in towns and cities. At the same time, nostalgic lithograph prints depicting idealized rural farm homes were especially popular. The 1877 lithograph used as a header image for this post is entitled “Home Sweet Home.” A rural family is relaxing on the porch of a perfect home. No references to the hard labor required by men, women, and children on a late 19th century farm.  Many people were yearning for this nostalgic, peaceful life after the economic disaster caused by the Panic of 1873 and a year of the labor unrest, the Great Railroad Strike, Indian Wars, and violence.

Analyzing Primary Sources in the Classroom

Ask your students to consider modern media depictions of the 1950s. The “mid-century” nostalgic trend portrays a time when families were “traditional” – dads worked, moms got to stay at home and loved it, and kids could “play all day outside and didn’t come home until dark” because the world was a much safer place. Historical study of the real 1950s reveals that most people did not live this utopian life. Everyone was not suburban middle class and sexism and racism were prominent features of daily life.

Ask students to consider what broader modern trends cause Americans to yearn for the idealized1950s. Future historians will probably conclude that concerns about job security due to technological change and globalization and changing family patterns are the “real” history of the early 21st century.

Pilgrimage as a Medieval “Vacation”

“What did you do and see on your pilgrimage?” This question was probably the medieval equivalent of “What did you do on your vacation?” If your curriculum includes history of the European Middle Ages, studying medieval pilgrimage can offer insight into the lives pre-industrial people as well as our own modern motivations for travel.

Mixed Motives of Pilgrims

Since pilgrimage is a journey to a religious shrine, we often assume that historical pilgrims had purely religious motivations. But most pilgrims also enjoyed seeing new places, meeting new people, and having new experiences. A twelfth-century French bishop commented on the mixed motives of pilgrims when he said “Some light-minded and inquisitive persons went on pilgrimage to the holy places, not so much out of devotion as out of curiosity and love of novelty, that they might travel to unknown lands, and with great toil . . .might prove the stories which they had heard about the East.”

St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim - a long tunic called a sclavein, a wooden staff, and scrip to carry his belongings at his waist. The broad brimmed hat turned up in the front, commonly depicted on pilgrims by the mid-thirteenth century, has a cockle shell badge, the symbol of his shrine. Bare feet were considered a type of penance, a self-punishment for one’s sins. He is also carrying a knife and a book, not typical for a pilgrim. The book symbolizes James’ status as an apostle; the knife symbolizes his role as Saint James, the Moor Slayer or may refer to the dangers on the pilgrim route. In the background, on the right, a pilgrim is being attacked. This painting is on the outside, left shutter of the three panel triptych entitled The Last Judgement painted in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
St. James as a pilgrim by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516. St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim.

Primary source texts and images give us clues about the motivation of medieval pilgrims. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales met new people and entertained themselves with stories on the journey to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Crusaders, armed knights who took the pilgrim’s vow to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land, were also inspired by the adventure, riches, and exotic sites and experiences in the East.

Medieval pilgrims, just like modern tourists, purchased souvenirs and showed them off to their friends back home. The most common souvenir sold was the pilgrim’s badge. These small tokens, usually metal and stamped with the symbol of the saint, could be worn on the clothing of the pilgrim to show where he or she had visited.

Modern tourists still make pilgrimages to religious and secular sites. The Camino De Santiago, or route to the Shrine of St. James in northwestern Spain, was popular in the Middle Ages, and a popular destination today. An example of a secular  “pilgrimages” are trips to the birthplaces, homes, or graves of presidents or other well-known people from popular culture. Elvis Presley’s home and grave site at Graceland has been visited by over 20 million visitors since it opened in 1982.

Medieval Primary Sources

More ideas and primary sources for teaching about medieval pilgrimage see Chapter 2 in Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Twelfth century quote above by Jacques De Vitry in The History of Jerusalem A.D. 1190, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, UK: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1885), 90. https://archive.org/details/cu31924028534422

Header Image: Medieval pilgrims from the Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1430s) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Note the pilgrim badges on the hat of the pilgrim on the left. The scallop shell was the symbol of St. James. For more detailed images of this work see http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/