European Medieval Pilgrimage Project -  The Power and Importance of the Medieval Church
We cannot begin to understand medieval pilgrimage without first appreciating the importance of the medieval Church. All churches were Christian and Catholic. The word 'Catholic' actually means 'all-embracing'; everyone and everything is both protected and constrained by the embracing arms of the Church.

In the Middle Ages, religion and politics were closely interlinked. Rulers ruled and people obeyed, because God willed it to be so. Kings were appointed by God; they were kings by 'God's grace' who had a 'divine right' to rule. In return for this spiritual support, the kings protected the Church. All power, both the worldly one with its kings and lords, and the spiritual one, with its leader the Pope in Rome,  its bishops and priests, came from God. 

(Above) Inside the cathedral, Santiago de Compostella

There were also strong economic ties between the Church and the people. All land that did not already belong to the Church was taxed for the benefit of the Church. One tenth (a tithe) of everything produced on this land was given to the Church. In addition, the Church itself did not pay taxes on anything donated to it. Pilgrims who expected a saint to produce a miracle, were expected to make an offering to the saint's church. As a consequence, the Church became very rich. By the end of the middle ages, the Church owned approximately one third of all the farmed land in Catholic Europe! 

The Church also strictly controlled people's everyday life.  Everyone belonged to their local parish. From managing the important civic ceremonies of birth, marriage and death, to organizing the festivals associated with Holy days, the Church was responsible for all aspects of village social life. Most importantly, the parishioner attended a weekly Sunday ceremony (Mass) and regularly told the priest all their most personal secrets (Confession). 

Politically, economically and socially, the Church exercised an all-embracing 'Catholic' influence but it was the cultural influence that was most important of all. By controlling the minds of medieval men and women, by influencing how people explained what happened to them, the Church had no need to physically force people to do things. 

Medieval people were fatalists. They believed that everything that happened because God wanted it to happen. Nothing happened naturally, everything happened because of 'divine intervention' (God's actions). When good things happened people were being rewarded by God and they thanked him. When bad things happened, they were being punished for something doing something sinful. Medieval people were constantly on the lookout for signs or omens of God's moods. For the people of Paris, a red sky at night three times in a row, was an sign of war; the appearance of Halley's comet in 1066 was shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, as an omen of the great upheavals to come.

Life for medieval people was a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil. They believed that good and evil actually existed in objects all around them (pantheism) The reason for this predates the Christian faith. In particular, the Devil was to be found all around, tempting people away from good Christian behaviour. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny in the the 12th century collected stories about the Devil and listed over 1000 different forms that the Devil may take, including spider, vulture, bear and black pig. For St. Bruno the Devil actually existed, invisible in the air around us: 'a breath of wind, a turbulence in the air, the gust that blows men to the ground and harms their crops, these are the whistlings of the Devil'

But it was with illness or in the face of death that medieval minds became most obsessed with good and evil. Only the priest could save the individual soul from eternal damnation and purgatory.  Hell was a possibility that filled people’s minds with horror and dread. Richard Alkerton a preacher in 1406, described the eternal nature of Hell that would have been familiar to medieval people:

'boiled in fire and brimstone without end. Venomous worms...shall gnaw all the members unceasingly, and the worms of conscience shall gnaw the soul... Now ye shall have everlasting bitterness... This fire that tormenteth you shall never be quenched, and they that tormenteth you shall never be weary neither die.'  

(above) A medieval vision of Hell

In the absence of scientific explanation Illness in general was seen as an invasion of the body by the Devil. Gregory of Tours claimed that the Devil could be vomited up. Common 'cures' such as bleeding and drilling holes in the head were similar attempts to persuade the Devil to leave the body. To be in the presence of something holy, the relic of a saint for example, would hopefully bring about a miraculous cure. This was probably the main reason (motive) for people undertaking a pilgrimage. As Chaucer explains in the Canterbury Tales:

'The Holy blisful for to seke
That them hath holpen whan that they were sick.'

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