The 31st Annual Canadian Conference of Medieval Art Historians
How To Use a Medieval Pilgrimage Shrine: Pilgrims’ Interaction with Architecture and its Furnishings
Unlike many of their contemporary epigones, medieval pilgrims were not principally concerned with getting from point A (their home) to point B (a pilgrimage site). When they got there, they made interactive use of the pilgrimage church, its furnishings and its immediate surroundings, not just to ensure their salvation but for varied thaumaturgical aid: to provoke miraculous cures, to give thanks for miraculous release from imprisonment, to seek miraculous aid for the well-being of their crops and livestock or for the security of their community. Yet, most of what has been written about medieval pilgrimage shrines treats pilgrims as essentially passive: they heard Mass and were herded through ambulatories so as not to disturb monks, canons or services. As I will show, pilgrims also interacted with the pilgrimage environment more proactively. Although this activity is not well documented, it both existed and materially conditioned the design and function of pilgrimage churches and their furnishings. This paper explores some of the diversity of interactive pilgrimage practice and offers some methodological reflections on its study.
Pilgrimage was based heavily on the liturgical calendar, for example, Thomas Becket’s Feast Day (December 29th) was a very intense period of visitation for pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral. Pilgrims often slept in the church, especially during night vigils. This was looked on as liturgically beneficial, however, incubation (the practice of sleeping in a sacred area in order to experience a divinely inspired dream or cure) was considered better than simply sleeping anywhere in the church.
Pilgrimage and relics were infused with many folk superstitions. Young mothers would take their infants to springs where they would float their shirts on top of the water to see how long their children’s lives would be based on how long the shirt stayed afloat. Nursing mothers would wash their breasts in sacred wells or springs thinking that this would help with milk production. These activities bordered on pagan folk magic and were initially frowned upon by the Church.
Wells and springs were often on the outskirts of towns and villages and were processed to in order to burn candles, pray and wash ailing parts of the body believing the water had healing powers. This was much along the lines of Becket’s blood dripping into the water at Canterbury and people believing it had healing properties so they drank the water. Pilgrims often left items and articles of clothing behind at these sites.
Prior to this, during the early middle ages, relics were kept in crypts in the tombs of the church. In the later middle ages, the relics emerged and were brought into the church and processed. Relics were often placed on the altar or above it. Most pilgrims were content to just be in the presence of the relics but some would reach up and try to touch them. There were also statues on either side of the relics that pilgrims prayed to and touched for healing. Often, these statues have been worn down smooth from years of pilgrims touching them. There are even cases of pilgrims taking the relic and wearing it on their heads. The point was to get as close to them as possible to get the aura of power from the tomb of the saint.