The Apothecary’s Tale – Blisters, Boots and Becket’s Blood.

With us ther was a DOCTOUR OF PHISYK, In al this world ne was ther noon him lyk To speke of phisik and of surgerye; For he was grounded in astronomye.

Geoffrey Chaucer – The Physician’s Tale

Canterbury pilgrims

One of the principal concerns of a modern day pilgrim is probably the avoidance of blisters. Having just walked the best part of a 1,000 miles without getting so much as a single blister, I must admit to feeling ever so slightly smug. This is in stark contrast with every other long distance walk which I have embarked on in the past when I have been plagued by blisters. It really begs the question, what did I do differently this time that may have enabled me to avoid every walker’s worst nightmare?

Meindl Mid Respond GTX Boot

The first thing I did differently this time was go to an outdoors shop (Cotswold Outdoors in Salisbury) and get a pair of boots properly fitted. That might seem blindingly obvious, but for some reason I had assumed that my previous pair of Meindl boots had been correctly fitted. It came as a huge surprise when the chap in Cotswold Outdoor revealed that the Meindl boots I’d worn previously (which had caused blisters and led to my toe nails going black and dropping off) had been half a size too small!

I opted for the lightest weight Meindl boots with ankle support that I could find. The Meindl Respond Mid GTX boots that I ended up purchasing weighed 605g each. In contrast my previous pair of Meindl boots weighed a tad more at 635g each. The key difference was the the Respond Mid GTX boots had Goretex uppers which allowed my feet to breathe more, while my previous Meindl’s were all leather.

The Meindl Respond Mid GTX boots were pretty knackered by the end of the first stage of the walk from St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke to Bourg St Pierre. Including practice walks I estimate I must have walked around 1,700 km in them.

Boots after 1,700 km.

The second thing I did differently from previous walks was buy a pair of Injinji toe socks as an ‘inner layer’ and a pair of wool outer socks.

Toe socks and boots!

I took a spare pair with me and changed them on a daily basis. I think the Injinji socks combo were definitely blister busters!

Injinji toe sock liner + wool outer

Whenever possible I tried to wash and wear a fresh pair of socks every day. More often than not my socks hadn’t dried overnight, so I often dried them on my backpack during the day.

Wash night in the pilgrim hostel at Brienne le Château

I greased up my feet every morning and evening initially with vaseline and then with a tube of ‘Akileine’ anti-blister (protection centre les ampoules) ointment which Georges, a French pilgrim I walked with between Brienne le Chateau and Langres, recommended to me. Manufactured in Monaco all the top runners in France use the stuff apparently. You can buy the tubes in the UK for £5 which seems like a bargain if you ask me!

40 years ago when I walked Offa’s Dyke for the first time I remember using deer tallow (Hirsch Talg) on my feet. It didn’t seem to do much good, but they still seem to sell the stuff in Germany, so I guess there are still some people who swear by it!

Deer tallow cream

I also made sure I rested my feet as much as I could. I took 5 rest days (Arras x 2, Chalons en Champagne, Reims and Besançon) and tried to give my feet at least 15 hours rest every day. The lightweight Birkenstock Honolulu EVA beach sandals I took with me worked like a charm!

Birkenstock Honolulu EVA beach sandals

I also tried to keep my backpack weight as light as possible to ease the strain on my feet. I ended up carrying around 12kg of weight when my water bottles were full. By ditching the tent,sleeping mat, digital camera , maps and guidebook I could have trimmed my weight by 4 kg.

Lightweight kit

With my sunhat, thumb stick and fanny pack I might have been recognized as a fellow pilgrim in the middle ages!

If I’d been setting off on pilgrimage along the Via Francigena from Canterbury 800 years ago I might well have been carrying ‘ The Water of St Thomas ‘ (a vial of diluted Becket’s Blood to wash in or drink) that was sold at the cathedral.

In 1170, the monks of Christ Church collected some of Thomas Becket’s blood from the scene of his murder in Canterbury Cathedral and this was quickly believed to deliver miraculous cures.

The ‘Water’, which might be carried in an ampulla, a small two handled tin flask, might be rubbed on to a body part which needed healing or consumed on the spot, or the ampulla and its contents might be taken home for future use. The flask could be given to family members or to a local church. The seal on the container meant the flask might have to be sliced open to allow access to the water, but sometimes the ampulla and its contents were kept intact as a talisman.

Becket ampulla

Detailed scenes of pilgrims using St. Thomas’s Water are depicted on some of Canterbury Cathedral’s stained glass windows, called “miracle windows,” made in the early 1200s. The series of 12 windows once surrounded Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel. Becket’s shrine no longer exists, but seven of the windows do and show the miracles that  occurred in the three years after he died. 

5th Miracle window from Canterbury Cathedral

At the top of the 5th Miracle window, in the left-hand teardrop, Ralph de Longeville sits next to Becket’s tomb, where an attendant bathes his legs in St. Thomas’s Water, after which he is cured of leprosy. 

In this detail on the fifth “miracle window” at Canterbury Cathedral, Ralph de Longeville sits in front of Becket’s tomb, while he’s being bathed in St. Thomas’s Water in the hope to cure his leprosy.

One 10th century Christian physician called Ibn-Lūqā, recommends pilgrims have various kinds of foot massage (except hard rubbing, which is only good for thick-skinned or idle people who have eaten too much) which are “useful for someone who has been walking much or standing still frequently”.

Medieval pharmacy

Ibn- Lūqā also discusses the prevention of parasites such as roundworms, a prophylactic against snakes, and the treatment of snakebites and the stings of other vermin. Moreover, he writes about curing eye- and earaches caused by fluctuating temperatures and the dusty desert wind. Most of these ailments can be prevented by a turban, if worn correctly. Yet, in case one suffers from earache caused by the heat, dripping one of various substances into the ear will prove effective: lukewarm egg-white or lamb-gall mixed with rose oil, for instance, or olive oil in which earthworms or molluscs in their shells have been cooked (though honey and almond-oil will work equally well)!

A snake attack

As for boots and blisters, judging from the knee length leather boots of a fifteenth century pilgrim that were excavated in Worcester Cathedral in 1987, I’m pretty sure we have it a lot easier nowadays than the medieval pilgrim ever did!

15th century pilgrim boots excavated in Worcester Cathedral.

Raise the Roof Appeal Update

Yesterday we had some great news – St Peter’s has been awarded a £3,000 grant from the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust to help repair the roof. Together with the £8,000 that has been raised by my walk to Rome, we should now be able to start work on repairing the leaking church roof next year.

If you’d like to make a donation to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ to help renovate the roof at St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke, you can do so by following this link:

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