Rough Guide to Medieval Pilgrimage
Why did people go on pilgrimages?
People would undertake a pilgrimage for many different
reasons. Firstly, people desired to see and touch places
and objects that were considered holy. This might
involve travelling to view places associated with Jesus
or it might be to view relics of a favourite saint.
Secondly, people visited holy sites to be pardoned for
having committed sin. By doing a pilgrimage as a
penance, they hoped for forgiveness. The pilgrimage may
have been voluntary or forced. Finally, people went on a
pilgrimage for the simple pleasure of travelling. In a
world that offered precious few opportunities to
experience the world beyond the horizon, pilgrimage was
an exciting, challenging opportunity to leave village
of penance is central to pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.
If you do something wrong in the eyes of God you commit
sin. In order to be forgiven and to avoid going to Hell,
you must confess your sins and do a penance. Undertaking
a pilgrimage as a penance would be compulsory and where
you went would be decided for you. The more serious the
sin, the further away you were sent. The pilgrims might
hope to save their souls from eternal damnation in Hell
or shorten or entirely escape purgatory.
the 13th century, pilgrimage was also used as a
punishment for crimes. Pilgrimages imposed by the law
are called judicial pilgrimages. If you committed
murder, it was common to have the murder weapon hung
around your neck throughout the pilgrimage. You would
also be expected to collect signatures at all the
shrines you visited, to prove you had been there. In
particularly serious cases you might also be expected to
undertake the pilgrimage barefoot or even naked!
types of relic
two types of relic. The first kind were called
brandea and were the most common kind of early
Christian relic in the centuries immediately following
the death of Christ. These were often ordinary objects
which had become holy by coming into contact with holy
people or places. These might include, for
example, pieces of tomb, a handkerchief of a saint or
dust from the Holy Land. The advantage for pilgrims was
that they could and did make their own brandea;
by rubbing a piece of cloth against a holy tomb or
by filling a small flask (ampulla) with holy water, they
could take the holiness home with them. The second kind
of relic which became common after the 7th
century were bodily relics, these were actual pieces of
the body of the saint: a bone, a piece of hair, the head
In 1215, the
Church decided that to prevent theft, all relics should
be stored and displayed in a special box, a 'reliquary'.
Pilgrims expected to be impressed by the quality of the
reliquary. If a reliquary was beautifully made by the
finest craftsmen, out of the most precious materials, it
meant that lots of previous pilgrims must have left
gifts of thanks for the miracles performed.
business: faking and thieving
Since it was
extremely hard to check the authenticity of the relics
(there were no DNA-tests or carbon-14 tests in the
Middle Ages!) the trade of relics made lots of money for
fakers and forgers. The only way to be sure of having a
‘real’ relic was to steal one. The theft was easily
justified. If the saint allowed itself to be taken
without punishing the thieves and if the saint continued
to produce miracles, then clearly he or she was happy in
their new home!
only really a problem for the Church when two shrines
claimed to have the same relic (in the 11th century,
there were at least three heads of John the Baptist).
This was particularly the case with bodily relics of
Christ. His adult body was, of course, resurrected to
heaven, leaving no bones for collectors to hoard. But
there were parts of his body separated from his body
that did remain on earth. There were multiple copies of
everything imaginable, from umbilical cords, to milk
teeth, all over Europe.
Before the journey
Going on a long distance journey in the Middle Ages was
very difficult. Much had to be planned. The first
decision to make was where to go? A pilgrim might wish
to visit a saint connected with a particular trade or
illness. Sometimes pilgrims let God decide by ‘drawing
straws’. Before leaving home, a pilgrim would have to
pay all debts, settle arguments and apologize to
everyone they had upset. Finally, in front of the
priest, the pilgrim would make a promise to complete his
journey. In return the priest would give the pilgrim his
blessing. Then the pilgrim could put on his uniform. In
the religious ceremony, which very much-resembled the
'dubbing' of a knight, the pilgrim would be presented
with the staff from the altar.
The pilgrim’s uniform
Looking like a pilgrim was important. Pilgrims had a
right to the protection and help of the church on their
journey. The uniform was a bit like a passport. The
staff had to be made of strong wood with a metal tip.
The staff could be an important means of self-defence
against wolves or human attackers. The scrip was a soft
pouch tied to the pilgrim's waist. The scrip was used to
store all the essential belongings: food, money,
documents etc. The long tunic or sclavein became part of
the pilgrim uniform in the 11th century.
travelled in long (often blue) robes which served as
coats and sleeping bags and wore a wide-brimmed hat. In
time, the staff, scrip and sclavein were given a
symbolic significance: the staff is used to frighten
off wolves which symbolize the Devil, the scrip is
small, symbolizing that the pilgrim is poor and the
warmth and protection of the sclavein represents
Christ's love for mankind.
The roads were bad and not signposted. There were few
reliable maps. A 12th century guidebook described some
of the dangers that the pilgrim faced including ‘thick
forests, mosquito infested marshes, wild animals,
impassable rivers and undrinkable water’. Pilgrims might
also be attacked by robbers. Language was also a problem
with very few pilgrims able to speak a foreign language.
According to custom, pilgrims were entitled free food
and a bed. On the busy pilgrimage routes it became
impossible to accommodate everyone in the churches, so
smaller hospices were built and run by small groups of
monks. Not all hospices provided food and usually only
the very poorest pilgrims received alms. Beds were a
rarity; flea infested and had to be shared. Most
pilgrims had to make do with a straw covered floor.
There would be a big crowd at the pilgrimage site.
Amongst the fellow pilgrims, there would be
entertainers, market stalls, pickpockets and beggars.
There were primitive postcards and souvenir
pilgrim-badges to buy. Pilgrims could buy spices, wines
and silks, not available at home. Many pilgrims also
indulged in a little bit of 'duty free', hiding their
purchases from the customs men.