people go on pilgrimages?
People would undertake a
pilgrimage for many different reasons. The motivation for most would be a
combination of three closely interrelated 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. The purpose of this pilgrimage
was to attempt to make the object of faith more real. Secondly,
people visited holy sites to make amends for having committed sin. By doing
a pilgrimage as a penance, they
for forgiveness. These pilgrimages might have been for private
reasons or for public reasons. They may have been voluntary or they
may have been forced. Finally,
people went on a pilgrimage for the simple
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.
(Above) A medieval
Pilgrims on the way to Santiago
(i) The need to see and
The earliest pilgrimages of
the fourth century to the Holy Land were based on a desire to see the places
made famous by Bible stories. We might describe these as 'empathetic'
pilgrimages, because the pilgrims literally wanted 'to walk in the footsteps
of the Master'. At the end of the fourth century Paulinus of Nola explained
|'No other sentiment draws
men to Jerusalem then the desire to see and touch the places where Christ
was physically present... Theirs is a truly spiritual desire to see the
places where Christ suffered, rose from the dead, and ascended into
heaven... The manger of His birth, the river of His baptism, the garden of
His betrayal...the thorns of His crowning, the wood of His crucifixion, the
stone of His burial: all these things recall God's former presence on earth
and demonstrate the ancient basis of our modern beliefs'
(Above) The reliquary at
St. Sernin. Toulouse
containing a piece of the 'True Cross'
The desire to make the
Christian faith more 'real', is something that all pilgrimages shared in
common. To actually be in the presence of something 'holy'; to see, or
better still, touch something connected to a 'holy' event (the site of a
miracle or the relic of a saint for example) made
the believing much easier. The pagan religions that existed before the
Christian conversion, had 'God' existing in natural physical objects that
could be seen and touched: trees, rocks, water etc. (pantheism) In a sense,
pilgrimage satisfied this traditional desire.
(ii) Penance: public
and private motivation
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. In Languedoc
in France, pilgrimages were classified as minor, major or overseas.
the 13th century, pilgrimage was also used as a punishment for crimes,
particularly for scandalous crimes by the powerful and famous. Pilgrimages
imposed by the law are called judicial pilgrimages. They were quite
convenient, because the community got rid of the criminal without the cost of
imprisonment. In 1319, Roger de Bonito was sent to Rome, Santiago and
Jerusalem for the murder of a bishop. If
you committed murder, it was common to have the murder weapon hung around
your neck throughout the pilgrimage. If you were guilty of heresy, you might
be expected to wear two yellow crosses on your front and back. As a
consequence, you were not treated like other pilgrims but instead would be publicly
humiliated. You would also be expected to collect signatures at all the
shrines you visited, to prove you had been there. In particularly scandalous
cases you might also be expected to undertake the pilgrimage barefoot or
As the English poet Chaucer ((c1340-1400) described:
when a man has sinned
openly, of which sin the fame is openly spoken in the country... Common
penance is that priests enjoin men commonly in certain cases, as for to go,
peradventure, naked in pilgrimages or barefoot.
For many pilgrims their
motivation was very personal and completely voluntary. They might still be
motivated by the need to do a penance, but the sin committed might be
something only God would know about. The people would also go on pilgrimages
to attain better health, for themselves or
for their loved ones; for protection from enemies or to honour a vow. They wandered with the strong conviction that the
relics or pictures of the
saints kept at the place of miracle, would guarantee the presence of the
saint itself. Pilgrims believed that the saints would perform miracles and cure
diseases. They would pray to
God or to a saint, promising that if the sick person recovered, they would
make a pilgrimage to the grave of the saint afterwards to honour the vow, in praise.
You could even go on pilgrimage to release a dead person from purgatory.
Eventually the pilgrimages became more regulated, connected to
and motivated by the idea of the indulgence. According to this notion, the
church held a treasury of extra 'merits' because Jesus and the saints had done
so many good deeds. These extra merits would be given to whoever underwent a
pilgrimage to a certain destination. The sins of the pilgrim could be
forgiven to whatever extent the church desired. The pilgrims might
hope to save their souls from eternal damnation in Hell or shorten or entirely
escape purgatory. One general belief was that if you undertook a
pilgrimage to the grave of St. James the Apostle in Santiago, your time in
purgatory would be halved.
||In the 12th century, Gerald of Wales undertook a
pilgrimage to Rome and rushed around as many sites as possible, to accumulate
as many indulgences as he could. Having calculated that he had collected 92
years of indulgences, he undertook another religious act in order to round-up his indulgences to 100 years!
By the 14th century indulgences became a
serious problem, as each holy site competed to attract pilgrims by offering a
greater indulgence than a rival site. Some sites were offering hundreds or
even thousands of years of indulgences. This was one of the major causes of
the decline in the number of long distance pilgrimages.
(Above) A modern artist's
of Gerald of Wales (source)
Another cause of decline of Pilgrimage was the appearance of professional
pilgrims. In the case of illness or old
age, it had always been possible to have somebody do the pilgrimage for you.
These are called vicarious pilgrimages. Roger the clerk was too ill to
travel to Canterbury, so he sent his candle instead. As soon as his candle
was lit, he recovered. Eventually, it became possible for
anyone to pay for a pilgrimage to be done and as consequence 'professional
pilgrims' began to appear. At the Baltic port of Lübeck, a group of
professional pilgrims would compete to be your Jerusalem pilgrim with fees
ranging from 20 to 100 marks.
A sort medieval tourism - 'been there, done that'.
no man go to the Holy Land just to see the world. Or simply to boast "I
have been there" and "I have seen that", and so win the
admiration of his friends'. Santo Brasca 15th century pilgrim.
we have seen, (see Church) medieval life for most was monotonous and strictly controlled. Most people never travelled outside of the county
in which they were born. Therefore, despite the criticisms of people like Santo Brasca, a pilgrimage
was often the only chance people had to travel. A pilgrimage
journey would often be dangerous,
uncomfortable and boring, but it did give people the opportunity to be something
they rarely were, strangers. (The word 'pilgrim' literally means 'stranger') In
medieval villages everyone knew everyone else's business. There was very
little privacy. One 15th century writer complained that the main motive of
pilgrims was to break away from convention and authority. Pilgrims he
driven by a 'curiosity
to see new places and experience new things, [it was] impatience of the servant
with the master, of children with their parents, or wives with their
husbands.' (Sumption: 13)
reasons of safety, Pilgrims tended to do the journey in groups. As well as
providing opportunities to make new friends, it also meant there were plenty
of parties or 'making merry'. If travelling to the Holy Land by sea, the
travel merchants of Venice could offer you a complete package tour including
travel, food, accommodation and guided tours of Jerusalem and special
excursions to the river Jordan.
(above) English Pilgrims
travel in a group for safety
on arrival at the destination,
pilgrims would often encounter a scene not too dissimilar to the modern day
package holiday. Chances are they would be met on the roads outside the town
by boys sent by hotel owners and innkeepers offering accommodation. Advertising billboards for accommodation could be found in surrounding
villages, often many miles from the final destination. Sometimes the
innkeepers went too far. In 1205 in Toulouse, France, the authorities had
to warn the hotel owners to stop physically dragging pilgrims in off the
street! There were tourist guidebooks to read, such as the famous 'Mirabilia
Urbis Romae' which listed and described the 'wonderful' sites of Rome
that the visitor might like to explore. If you had the money, then you might
hire your own local guide and translator. At
the sanctuary itself, particularly the famous ones, pilgrims would be met by
a large noisy crowd.
In a city like Trondheim, where many pilgrims
wandered to visit the grave of
St. Olav, there were many people making money
from the pilgrims.
Amongst the fellow pilgrims, there would be buskers and
entertainers, market stalls and pickpockets, beggars and prostitutes. There were primitive postcards
and souvenir pilgrim-badges to buy from licensed traders.
Pilgrims showed particular interest in the exotic products, 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 or bribing the appropriate officials to turn a blind eye.
the sanctuary, things were little quieter. As the day progressed, crowds
grew and the wine flowed freely. At Santiago de
Compostella, the priests despaired that 'all sorts of noises and languages
can be heard together, discordant shouts, barbarous singing in German,
English, Greek and every other language under the sun'. (Sumption: 213) The
behaviour was such that many sanctuaries, such as Durham in England,
employed the equivalent of 'bouncers' to keep order and eject those who
behaviour was considered too 'rude'. Some pilgrims even decided to leave
their mark by carving their name or their family coat of arms in the
sanctuary itself. Ghillebert de Lannoy's graffiti at Mount Sinai, can still
be seen today.