THOSE who have been deprived over the past 12 months of the opportunity to undertake a pilgrimage might invoke the precedent of the medieval faithful. “Virtual pilgrimage” is not an invention of our contemporary, travel-restricted age. Listeners to In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) were entertained by the story of a German nun, c.1240, whose ambition to travel to the Holy Land was thwarted by a dodgy knee. In recompense, she intoned 100 paternosters for every day she had expected to be on the road; and, as her reward, her knee was cured.
There is much in the history of medieval pilgrimage to support the post-Reformation suspicion that Christians in those days were completely bonkers. Either that or, as in the Canterbury Tales, hypocrites and debauchees. Melvyn Bragg’s guests happily maintained a balance between the ridiculous and the sublime, reminding us that the theological foundation of pilgrimage was the Word made Flesh.
Physical manifestations of faith take as their inspiration the first and supreme incarnation. The whole panoply of relics and shrines — of which there were thousands in England by the Reformation — is an expression of this very particular cosmography.
So, can you really claim to have been on a pilgrimage if you send a picture of yourself to Compostela or pray in front of painted impressions from Jerusalem? The question lay beyond the remit of Bragg’s experts, but has some pertinence in our current circumstances.
The Mardi Gras in New Orleans is just one of the hundreds of secular pilgrimages that have gone virtual this year. This made Betsy Shepherd’s documentary for the World Service strand In the Studio (Tuesday of last week) somewhat more difficult to produce. Intended as an account of the year-long preparations undertaken by Krewe of Rex — one of the oldest parade organisations in the city — it turned out as a reflective piece on the history of Mardi Gras and the virtuosic artistry invested in it. We met Henri Schindler, designer and curator of a treasure-trove of memorabilia, who prioritises visual spectacle over what he regards as ephemeral decoration.
And yet there is a charming pragmatism about the work, which entails the annual recycling of materials for the next year’s show. Thus, an image of Edgar Allan Poe has been repainted and transformed into that of the Pope. And what then will become of the Pope? We shall have to wait and see.
With a fifth season launched last week, your conscientious reviewer could no long ignore a podcast that has regularly topped the BBC Sounds listening charts since it launched in 2019. The eponymous talent at the heart of That Peter Crouch Podcast is an unlikely radio celebrity. Even his nickname, “Crouchy”, suggests that effort has gone into lending him a personality. And yet the banter is amiable enough; and last week was enriched by some disarming honesty as the presenter admitted to having achieved, at the age of 40, all his dreams. “I haven’t really got a goal.” Never mind; having a top-rated podcast might offer some consolation at a time of mid-life crisis.