Crossing the Alps with Nothing but a Cloak, Staff, and Sandals

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The people of the Middle Ages were not fond of mountains. It takes a leisured class with energy to waste and life to spend to appreciate inaccessible rocks where nothing grows, places where it is always cold and snowy and things can fall upon you unawares and smash you. Frequent lightning, the creaks and groans of glaciers, the crashing of falling rock, icy-cold gushing rivers: these were unnerving to a people who weren’t likely to reach 40 years of age even staying on the farm.

Even mountain valleys were dark, forbidding places for all but the most hearty of Swiss shepherds. Adam of Usk famously asked to be blindfolded during his 1402 crossing of St. Gotthard’s Pass. Our own cultural fondness for mountains only dates back to the Romantic search for the sublime, sometime around 1800. It helped that by this time there were lots of big, dirty cities to flee from.

So how did Luther manage to go over a 7000 foot pass in December? Well, first of all, he had no choice. If you wanted to cross the Alps, you had to go over a tall pass. Septimer (or Sempter) pass was far from the most traveled pass of the time. The Great San Bernard Pass to the west and the Brenner Pass to the east saw much more traffic. But Septimer was the most direct route from southern Germany to Milan.

Still, it couldn’t have been fun to cross the Alps in winter. The psychological advantage was that Luther was used to (a) being terrified and (b) discomfort. In 1510, Luther feared the judgment of God to such a degree that it seems unlikely that a trifling geographical feature like the Alps could raise his alarm.

He was also used to being extremely cold. Authorized garb for an Augustinian hermit was minimal: linen undergarments, white woolen stockings, shirt, and tunic; black scapular, white cowl and cope; topped with a black cotta with cowl, cinched with a leather belt. Granted, travelers were permitted an additional fur cloak, and we can only hope something extra for the feet.

But walking along at a good pace (26 miles a day, we should remember) would have kept him and his companion quite toasty, I think, even as they crossed a tall pass in winter. Luther had already slept through several winters in an unheated cell with nothing but two thin woolen blankets. Later in years, Luther never mentioned being cold on his trip, but he did complain of nearly freezing while standing in the choir of his own priory.

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