John is the pupil of the famous philosopher Roger Bacon, trained in the arts of linguistics, medicine and a variety of other sciences. Evidently worried about being accused of heresy, Bacon entrusts a book containing all known knowledge at the time to the young man and secretly sets him off on a pilgrimage to the Pope to demonstrate his master’s knowledge, accompanied by two other fledgling friars he vaguely knows. On this eventful trip he gets to know his two companions, is repeatedly robbed, is tempted, attempts (somewhat unsuccessfully) to keep his cohorts from the lures of the outside world and finds useful applications for his studies.
John’s slow discovery about the outside world is charming to witness, and his encounters with various well-known people along the way place him neatly into historical record. A meeting at the end of his journey is particularly poignant, as his eyes are opened and he discovers exactly what gift Bacon has given him, and how most other people at the time are blind to it.
The story is presented as a collection of diary extracts, transcribed and annotated by a somewhat serious antiquarian who has also added his own thoughts and historical references. Some vague allusions to the collector who has commissioned the work are made, and there is the hint that perhaps their interests in the manuscript are not wholly in sync. Each day starts with a short description of the saint whom the day commemorates, which certainly opened my eyes to a variety of odd saints and their various accomplishments and violent deaths. The document itself feels well researched, bringing the feudal world to life, complete with its rigid social structure and pastoral landscape.
It’s a short historical story with a pace that doesn’t let up, as the three friars move from problem to tavern and tavern to problem, barely avoiding temptation and misfortune. It is also interesting to see who the antiquarian believes John to be, giving a couple of different possible outcomes, each obviously taking different messages from the journey and following them to very different careers and lives.