Around the 12th century the representation of the shell came to symbolize Christian pilgrims, or the pilgrimage itself within Europe to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Not being a scholar in these matters, I can only point to others’ research on medieval pilgrims and interesting theories speculating how they came to be.
It was in Autun, France, where a sculpture at the cathedral marks the shell’s first appearance in art, or so it is said. I saw Autun last month, and also Vezelay, where pilgrimages to Spain tended to begin for the people who then inhabited or passed through France. Today in Vezelay, the home of what are purported to be the remains of Mary Magdalene, shiny casts of the shell embedded in the road mark the way to Spain.
Pilgrims, and crusaders, were some of the earliest tourists. One can make a case for the 15th century Iberian navigators being their descendants, even if their voyages seemed to be guided more overtly by an economic motive. They were claiming New World lands for king and God probably in that order. The truth is medieval pilgrimages were also conflict-prone economic activities from the beginning: collections were forcibly taken to fund journeys; industries arose to sustain or exploit the travellers along the routes; destinations benefited by raised prices from the influx of common and noble folk. Towns became so dependent on pilgrimages that wars were even fought over the real and ersatz holy relics that attracted worshippers. Massive cathedrals were built to house the relics, the construction of which also generated income for decades.
And here we are in 2008 in the era of mass tourism, of which I am a guilty more-than-willing participant. It has only been possible because of leisure time, big airplanes and cheap energy. In 2007, tourism was a $856 billion global industry.
Instead of being attracted by sacred relics to purify our souls, we are drawn to experiences that will transform our earthly lives. They are secular pilgrimages but for some of us no less a calling .