Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

A Way of Life: Historic Journeys to Sacred Places


In a world of touchscreens and instant knowledge, going on a journey for the good of the soul might seem weird. But pilgrimage—spiritual tourism—has witnessed a huge resurgence. Why is this? We’ll study the global pilgrimage through its long history, studying routes to some of the world's most sacred places to consider this important form of spiritual and personal expression. From all points to Rome or Mecca, Japan, Tibet, and Ethiopia, to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, California’s El Camino Real, and prehistoric Glastonbury to Stonehenge, these often spectacular routes inspire, test, exhaust, and reward travelers. 

But who travels on these routes and how do they travel? What motivates these journeys and how did travelers access the spaces they wanted to see? What hardships are encountered and what communities are formed along the way? And what happens once pilgrims get to where they’re going? How do they leave their mark and what do they bring home with them; indeed, we’ll consider (appropriately enough in an age of global lockdown) what happens if we never leave home at all, but instead move through time and space imaginatively or through cyber-travel. Working with individuals’ accounts, with online maps and depictions of place, with literary texts on walking and on personal growth, we’ll emphasize these questions as we study some of the most well-trodden paths in global history.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Elaine Treharne

"I’m a Professor of Humanities and English and I study medieval culture and the history of handwriting and textual production. In my work, I ask what it means to engage with the past. This has become increasingly important to me as I live here in Stanford, 5000 miles from my homeland of Wales. I find I am intellectually energised by medieval things--churches, books, art, poetry--and my work with medieval manuscripts makes me think constantly about how earlier peoples conceived of and interacted with the world around them. This encourages me to ask how we can connect with those who came before us, and what, then, can the past teach us? Many of my publications have focused on medieval objects, and I am struck by how much each one reveals about its producers, users, and abusers. I’ve sought to experience as much as possible about the culture of people a thousand years ago, partly by close analysis of texts and artefacts, but also by walking and staying along pilgrimage routes in Europe. I'm particularly interested in the cults of sacred people and places and it will be great to investigate with you the huge rise right now in the popularity of spiritual practices. Our seminar will be a fantastic chance to explore how people interact with the past in the present, and to understand how significant the traces of the past are, especially for social identity and personal formation in the present day."