International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 09 November 2017  
Unit 1 - Assessment Activity 2 - Medieval Pilgrimage - A Rough Guide
A 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 life behind.


The concept 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.   From 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!

The two types of relic

There are 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 etc.


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.

The relic 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!  There was 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.

Pilgrims 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.




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