A Traveler’s Thanks-Giving
For the celebration of Thanksgiving, I offer a true story, from the point of view of a Pilgrim. In this case, the pilgrimage concerns the devoted study of medieval manuscripts in person. Way before the development of the internet and its promulgation of online digital facsimiles. Travel was an essential, and integral, part of the process.
Years ago, after college in the United States, I embarked on postgraduate research on early medieval manuscripts in, from, or inspired by, the British Isles — conveniently called ‘Insular Manuscripts’, without having to give preference to cases from, or perhaps from, Anglo-Saxon England, Pictland (now Scotland), Wales, or Ireland. My quest centered upon examination of the original sources, as much as possible in the presence of the objects themselves. The real thing, really and truly. This research progressed for years while I was based in London, first for the M.A. and then the Ph.D. Long story, from which this story happily emerges.
Each academic holiday offered the occasion, usually with travel grants, to examine manuscripts and other materials on site in selected centers throughout the British Isles or on the European Continent. One Eastertime, in the 1970s, I prepared to journey by car to Switzerland to examine, with permission, and to photograph (ditto), some early medieval manuscripts, first at the Burgerbibliothek in Bern and then at the Abbey Library of Saint Gall. (Now their manuscript collections are viewable online here and here.)
The journey included a few side trips along the way for other sights (museum, churches, mostly), especially at Wintertur, Müstair, and Chur. Great stops, they were, with late-spring snows bringing special light at different times of day. The preparation for the journey had covered the applications for permission for the research, for specific days, specified manuscripts, and photographic work. But not the places to stay, apart from in Bern and Saint Gall. For the rest I was – or rather, we (my ‘partner’ included) were – on our own. After all, the chance to travel by car offered the opportunity for flexibility and, it may be, serendipity.
Fast forward to Wintertur, after a glorious day’s exploration of the Museum Oskar Reinhart, on the way from Bern. Back in the car, a well-travelled Volkswagen Beetle, we were headed toward the St.Gallerstraße and Sankt Gallen, for my next morning’s appointment with the manuscripts in the renowned Abbey Library. It was rush hour. Snowy slush in the dark air and on the roads. At one of the roundabouts (‘traffic circles’ in American), there stood two teen-age girls, seeking to hitch a ride. In earlier years with my ‘partner’ (later a first ‘husband’), I had stood firm for the position that I would choose which, if any, of the would-be-hitchhikers we might provide a ride. As a long-term hitchhiker himself, he regularly wished to give rides to any and all. For some years already, there would be none to whom I would agree. This time, looking them over, I said yes.
Settling into the back seat, the two girls asked where we were heading, spoke swiftly between themselves in Schwiezerdeutsch (part of which I could follow), came to a decision, and declared that, please, we should take one of them to her family’s home, and then the other to hers. And so it was decided. That is, they had decided. And we readily obeyed.
At the first house, which turned out to be the pastor’s, we were given the repast of Abendbrot. A fine tradition, and welcome to us pilgrims on a single student’s budget (the partner was a regular tag-along). Then, leaving the first traveler with her family, we progressed to the next house, which turned out to be the leather-worker’s. He expertly made luggage, backpacks, that kind of thing. There, we were encouraged to listen to the son’s drumming, in a big room in the basement. And then, to my surprise, we were informed, politely, and firmly, that we would spend the night there, before leaving for the next day’s study.
I gently protested that it would be necessary to leave very early in order to reach the Abbey Library of Saint Gall in time for the expected 9 a.m. arrival, but it had already been settled. Remember the discussions between our two hitch-hikers in the back seat when we received them? It turns out that everything had then been arranged.
And so, and lo, we were directed to a gabled room at the top of the house, with blonde-white wooden paneling and bright, white, airy feather quilts: ‘duvets’ of the highest order, lightest, airy, appertaining to the angels. Utterly refreshing. As it had been sort of planned (Not!), perhaps we might otherwise have tried to sleep in the car, as not for the first or last time on my manuscript travels. (Did I mention that it was not a spacious car?) The night’s sleep here seemed as unexpectedly sumptuous as it was welcome.
The family woke us at 5 a.m., as pre-arranged, so that we could set out in good time for my appointment. It emerged that they had risen at 4, to prepare the morning repast for us, as well as a picnic basket of vittles for our journey As we sat at breakfast, I stumbled in my expressions of amazement and appreciation for their generous and thoughtful offerings to sustain us on our journey, not only within their walls but also on our next stages.
The answer was clear, resonant, and eternal. I paraphrase, but the terms are accurate. ‘We recognize that you are traveling to study the manuscripts at Saint Gall. The early missionaries who traveled with Saint Gall, crossing the European Continent with him from Ireland, had to find food and shelter along their way. They depended upon the people who lived there. We honor this tradition, and stand part of it, by helping you, coming to us in your journey to study the manuscripts which come from those missionaries and their legacy there. We seek to participate in a tradition, across the centuries, of helping pilgrims who must, in their journeys, depend upon the people who dwell along their paths.’
It may be that, across the years, I forget some of the details of their reply. However, their message remains clear across time, and so, in a collective spirit of thanksgiving, I give thanks for their generous hospitality for a stranger in transit in the quest for knowledge.
Mildred Budny is Director of the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence.