European Medieval Pilgrimage Project -  Journey

'There are three acts in a man's life which no one should advise him either to do or not to do. The first is to get married, the second is to go to the wars and the third is to go to the Holy Land. These things are all good in themselves, but they may turn out ill, in which case he who gave the advice will be blamed as if he were the cause of it.' Eberhard of Wurtemburg (adapted from Sumption: 210)

Where to go?

Undertaking a long distance journey in the Middle-Ages was a decision not taken lightly. Much needed to be planned. If the motive for a  pilgrimage was voluntary and not imposed by a priest or a court of law, the first decision that a pilgrim needed to make was: where to go? Lots of factors might influence where the pilgrim chose. The name of saint, the association of a saint with a particular trade or illness, sometimes it was left to chance; in Wales it was common to draw twigs or straws. This last alternative had the advantage of letting fate, or God decide. 

(Below) A map showing the main European pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella and other Holy Sites

Source: Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle MSM editions, France 1999

An important influence on choice of pilgrimage site was changing fashion. Sometimes a site acquired (invented) a new relic or perhaps a new saint might be created (canonized). The most significant canonization in the Middle Ages was that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The French Pilgrim, Hugh Brustins, unfortunately possessed by the Devil, was disappointed to discover on arrival at St. Denis near Paris, that the local French saint had given up curing the sick and that this service was now being provided by St. Thomas 'in order that a new and relatively unknown martyr might make his name.' (Sumption: 150) But what made a site particularly fashionable was news of a significant miracle. When a blind man was healed at Saintes in France by St Eutrope, what had previously been a town passed by on the route to Santiago de Compostella, became a significant pilgrimage site in its own right. News would spread wide and far. We know from the records that news of a miracle at St-Gilles in the south of France travelled as far as Poland and Denmark. 

Churches would also compete to attract pilgrims by using a range of different 'advertising' techniques. Packaging the product was very important, with vast sums spent on the elaborate decoration of shrines and magnificent reliquaries. Pamphlets were written which listed the miracle 'track record' of the saint; jingles and rhymes were composed and preachers were employed to drum up interest around the country. Even primitive 'mail shots' were attempted by the bigger shrines such as Canterbury, which sent out 'flyers' listing St. Thomas's miracles to other religious centres in England and France. The advertising would not only celebrate the benefits of the local site over the long distance major shrines, 'remember you are never far from Fécamp, where the Lord has sent his precious blood for your benefit' but would also be at pains to point out that local miracles had been achieved only after rival saints and shrines had failed. It was not always subtle. One pamphlet reported how a sick Englishman heard a 'voice' at St Peter's at Rome, 'Why are you wasting your time here' it apparently said, 'go back home to England and make your offering at the monastery of St. Egwin at Evesham, for there alone will you be healed.' (Sumption: 152)

(Above) A medieval pilgrim song

Practical Considerations

The first important practical consideration was cost. If a pilgrim wanted to undertake a long distance pilgrimage and expected to travel comfortably, they had to expect a very big bill. Many rich pilgrims needed a year's income and were forced to sell their land to the church. Although the religious authorities recommended that true pilgrimage should be undertaken in poverty and on foot, many richer pilgrims did not. German pilgrims in particular were notorious for travelling in style, as many thieves noted. Poorer pilgrims would have to live on the charity of people who provided alms.

(above) Rich pilgrims on horseback

Before leaving home, a pilgrims would have to clear up all their unsettled business; pay all debts, make a will, settle arguments and apologize to everyone he or she might have offended. Finally, the pilgrim needed to make an appointment to see his priest. In front of the priest the pilgrim would make a vow to complete his journey. In return the priest would give the pilgrim his blessing. Having made the vow the pilgrim had to make the journey or face being excommunicated. But only after having made the vow could he or she put on the uniform of the pilgrim. 

The Pilgrim's Uniform

The origins of the pilgrim's uniform are unknown. Much can be explained by the practical considerations of medieval travel and the need to distinguish yourself clearly as a pilgrim. 

The staff and scrip were the earliest parts of the uniform, and both are very practical. The staff had to be made of strong wood, preferably with a metal tip. Apart from its obvious use to someone walking hundreds of kilometers, the staff could be an important means of self defence against wolves or human attackers. 

The scrip was a soft pouch, usually made of leather and 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 at the same time as the priests began to bless the pilgrims clothes. 

In the later Middle Ages the uniform became more elaborate. After the find of the suit of a pilgrim, worn by pilgrim from Nürnberg during his trip to Jerusalem 1595, we have been able to establish how the uniform of a pilgrim may have looked. They travelled in long (often blue) robes which served as coats and sleeping bags and wore a wide-brimmed hat. They would also carry some sort of bag or sack, often a book bag, carrying with them some sort of religious book. 

(Above) a 17th century statue of Saint James 
as a pilgrim from the church of châtellerault, France.

In the religious ceremony, which very much resembled the 'dubbing' of a knight, the pilgrim would presented with the staff from the altar. This ceremony almost certainly began in imitation of the blessing of the first crusaders (1095-99). In time, the staff, scrip and sclavein were given a religious symbolism:  the staff is used to ward off wolves which symbolize the Devil, the scrip is small symbolizing the poverty of the pilgrim and the sclavein's complete covering represents Christ's love for mankind. 

(Above) The blessing of staff and scrip

On the way home, a pilgrim would wear a lead badge to show where they had been and to prove they had fulfilled their vow. From the Holy Land a pilgrim would wear a palm, from Rome a set of keys and from Santiago de Compostella on the up-turned brim of the hat, they would pin a shell from the St. James’ scallop, which became the symbol most often associated with the pilgrims. 

Most other sites soon started selling souvenir badges which usually represented a famous miracle associated with the patron saint. Some well travelled pilgrims would have hats covered in the badges the many shrines they had visited. The English medieval poet, William Langland (c1332-c1400), wrote of a pilgrim in Piers Plowman who:

An hundreth of ampulles on his hatt seten,
Signes of Synay and the shelles of Galice
And many a cruche on his cloke and keyes of Rome,
And the vernicle bifore; for men shulde knowe
And se bi his signes whom he soughte had.

(Above) A 16th century Pilgrim's mantelet

The distinctiveness of the uniform was important because it entitled the wearer to be treated as a pilgrim. This was supposed to guarantee the safety of the pilgrim along the road and to give them admission to the many shelters and hospices that had sprung up along the bigger roads.

The Experience - Travel overland

Long distance travel whether overland or by sea was very difficult and could be dangerous. If travelling overland you faced the problem of very poor quality paths that were badly signposted, if at all. Where roads were well maintained, the chances are you would be expected to pay a fee or toll for their use. Even an experienced rider on horseback could only expect to cover 50 kilometers a day. The 12th century guidebook The Guide for Pilgrims to Santiago described some of the dangers that the pilgrim faced including thick forests, mosquito infested marshes, wild animals, impassable rivers and undrinkable water. Supplies of water and drink were a constant problem and would be pilgrims were advised not to travel at certain times of year. The food in Gascony, in the south of France was excellent but Spain was different: 'if anyone can eat their fish without being sick, then he must have a stronger constitution than most of us'. (Sumption: 177) 

Although punishments for attacking pilgrims were very harsh, it did not stop pilgrims being attacked by robbers and bandits. In northern Italy the problem was with German robbers, in northern Spain on the routes to Santiago, the bandits tended to be English. 

By far the most dangerous route was the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The overland route became possible in the 11th and 12th century as a result of Christian conversion and conquest in south east Europe and Holy Land. But it was always dangerous. The route from Joppa to Jerusalem was notorious. An English pilgrim who travelled the route in 1102 described how the Arabs 'lay hidden in caves and crevices, waiting day and night for people travelling in small groups or straggling behind their groups. At one moment they are everywhere, the next they are gone.' (Sumption: 184) From the end of the 13th century it became virtually impossible to undertake the overland pilgrimage.

(Above) Wolves attacking pilgrims, 
Museum of Roncevaux

(above) Pilgrims being attacked in the Holy Land

The Experience - Travel by sea

The alternative to the overland route was to travel by sea. Travelling long distances by boat in the Middle Ages was not an easy option. As with the overland route, it was also dangerous, extremely uncomfortable and had the additional inconvenience of being very boring. The journey from Venice to the Holy Land would take six weeks or more. In addition to the obvious threat of shipwreck, there was also the problem of piracy.  Accommodation was basic. Pilgrims were crammed into small boats where they hardly had room enough to turn over in their sleep. The ships were rat and flea infested and the animals stored as the only fresh food, sometimes broke out and trampled on the paying guests. If you had a choice of where to sleep, William Way advised pilgrims to take a place as close to the deck as possible 'for in the lowst under hyt is ryght smoulderyng, hote and stynking'. (Sumption: 185) 

The food was very poor and the water was stale. Experienced pilgrims advised others to take their own food, including laxatives and restoratives such as ginger, figs and cloves. In addition to the problems of hunger and sleeplessness, there was also the boredom. The only organised activity was the daily sermon. Otherwise pilgrims were left to their own devices. Some pilgrims gambled and drank others  played chess and did keep fit. 'But most people' observed Felix Faber 'simply sit about looking blankly, passing their eyes from one group to another, and thence to the open sea'. (Sumption: 186)

(above) 13th century image of pilgrims at sea. 

The Experience - the challenges of travel

Foreigners - Whether the pilgrim travelled by land or by sea, there were certain experiences common to both and familiar to travellers even today. Language was always a major obstacle to be overcome. The medieval guidebooks offered some help with common phrases but even the educated of pilgrims could only speak a few words of any language apart from their own or Latin. Attitudes to the host people along the way reflected at best ignorance but often hostility. The author of the Guide for Pilgrims to Santiago. for example,  wrote of the Basques:

Not only are they badly dressed, but they eat and drink in the most disgusting way... Far from using spoons, they eat with their hands, slobbering over their food like any pig or dog. To hear them speaking, you would think they were a pack of hounds barking, for their language is absolutely barbarous... They have dark, evil, ugly faces...They are like fierce savages, dishonest and untrustworthy, impious, common, cruel and quarrelsome people... They will kill you for a penny. Men and women alike warm themselves by the fire, revealing those parts which are better hidden. (Sumption: 192)

He considered the Basques to be so dreadful as a race that they could have only originated in Scotland. He had little better to say of the Greeks or the Arabs. 
Companions- Even if you set out alone, safety and the need for companionship on the road, usually resulted in pilgrims travelling together. After the 11th century virtually no pilgrims travelled alone. Choosing your travelling companions was an important decision. There were many stories of pilgrims who were robbed or even killed by their companions. On the road south of Saintes in France, down to the Pyrenees professional thieves dressed as pilgrims or even priests in the hope of gaining the friendship and confidence of genuine pilgrims. The  legal expert Beaumanoir warned would be pilgrims: 'Take care, then, not to join up with bad companions, for however pleasant they may appear, you never know what evil will befall thee.'

(Above) A book of the brotherhood of pilgrims

- According to custom, pilgrims were entitled free food and a roof over their head. Providing this service was the responsibility of the Church and, in particular, the monasteries. On the busy pilgrimage routes it became impossible to accommodate everyone in the monasteries, so smaller hospices were built and run by small groups of monks. By the middle of the 12th century so many hospices had been built on the routes to Santiago through France and Spain that one hospice was rarely more than a day's travel from the next. The quality of the hospices did vary considerably. Not all hospices provided food and usually only the very poorest received alms. Beds were a rarity and most pilgrims had to make do with a straw covered floor. For the richer pilgrim, there was always the possibility of staying at an inn. However,  the standard of comfort was usually much lower than a rich pilgrim would be used to. No-one would have a bed to themselves and would be expected to share the room with a number of other paying guests. The innkeepers of the middle ages did not have a good reputation. They were often accused of cheating the pilgrims with high prices for poor quality food and flea infested beds. It didn't help the reputation that in the days before high street banks and the single European currency, it was often the local innkeepers who took responsibility for money exchange. It was useful source of income for them. 


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