Image: a picture of Jerusalem from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

The explosion of virtual reality (VR) technology is transforming how we think about travel, says Dr Matthew Coneys. With a VR headset and the right app you can enjoy a risk-free ascent of Everest, or visit the Australian outback without the inconvenience of flying halfway around the globe. As futuristic as this all seems, virtual travel has actually been around for a long time.

For most medieval Europeans it was a lifetime ambition to travel on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Prayerful devotion in the world’s holiest city would earn visitors valuable time off purgatory, yet the cost of long-distance travel made such a journey affordable for only a fraction of the population. For women in enclosed monastic orders, who had vowed to spend their life isolated from the outside world, travelling to the Holy Land in person was impossible. Instead, they became virtual pilgrims.

Without access to modern technology, nuns had to use more creative means to travel to Jerusalem in their imaginations. They traced their journeys on maps, listened to passages from pilgrimage accounts and touched or kissed illustrations of the holy places. Some physically walked around their convents, identifying different rooms as important churches or imagining their peers as figures from biblical history – a medieval version of augmented reality. They said the same prayers as real pilgrims, and in return were granted the same spiritual benefits.

By the middle of the 15th century, virtual pilgrimage had become so widespread that those returning from the Holy Land began writing guides specifically for this kind of use. Gabriele Capodilista, a nobleman who travelled to Jerusalem in 1458, donated a beautifully illuminated manuscript account of his journey to the convent of San Bernardino in Padua. It opens with a dedication in which Gabriele states that he has decided to share his experience:

… so that hearing how the voyage is undertaken and of that most sacred place, you might attribute this commemoration to personal visitation and through this achieve priceless spiritual fruits.

With a map of the Holy Land, an illustration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and decorative crosses marking all the must-see sites, the book was a complete guide for virtual pilgrimage. It must have been gratefully received by the nuns at San Bernardino, and Gabriele himself could rest assured that he would be rewarded in heaven for this devout act.

Today, pilgrims of all faiths and cultures are donning VR headsets to travel to Mecca, Jerusalem or the banks of the Ganges. Technology may have changed, but spiritual motivations remain the same: in 2013, Pope Francis issued a decree offering a plenary indulgence to anyone undertaking a virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes. Just like their medieval predecessors, the virtual travellers of the twenty-first century are experiencing the holy sites as if they were really there.

Dr Matthew Coneys is postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. He works on late medieval travel (both real and imagined) and is a member of the Book and Print Initiative, a new research cluster at SAS (further details to be announced soon). To find out more about Dr Coneys’ work on virtual pilgrimage see his forthcoming article ‘“Pensa bene, anima intellectiva”: Real and Virtual Pilgrims and the Italian Book of John Mandeville’, Viator 49.1 (2018).

Further information

  • A short musical exploration of the Sionpilger, a virtual pilgrimage guide from fifteenth-century Germany, produced by Dr Kathryne Beebe (University of Texas at Arlington)
  • Blog for the Leverhulme International Network ‘Pilgrim Libraries: Books and Reading on the Medieval Routes to Rome and Jerusalem’