‘Stronger than men and braver than knights’: women and the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome in the later middle ages

‘Stronger than men and braver than knights’: women and the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome in the later middle ages

By Leigh Ann Craig

Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 29 (2003)

Abstract: Women who participated in the long-distance pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries faced a variety of economic and social barriers. Based upon the pilgrimage narratives of Margery Kempe, Felix Fabri, and others, this article examines the strategies women used to overcome those barriers both before and during the journey. While resistance to women’s pilgrimages was strong, in part, because they did not fit their quotidian roles as caregivers, it was nevertheless to aspects of those same normative roles that women appealed in order to justify their pilgrimages and shield themselves from censure during their journeys.

Introduction: Whoever builds his house out of willows, and spurs his blind horse over plowed land, and suffers his wife to go seeking shrines, is worthy to be hanged on a gallows!

Pilgrimage, like any other form of travel in the later middle ages, was time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. But by the fourteenth century, the growth of both literacy and lay piety had made pilgrimage a popular form of lay devotion. This was hardly a development greeted with universal approbation. Indeed, many writers commented on the dangers involved when ‘light-minded and inquisitive persons’ went wandering outside of their communities, overindulging their curiosity to the detriment of their souls. This ambivalence about pilgrimage was amplified in the case of women, who earned a specialised kind of frustration and mistrust, as exemplified in the proverb above.

Women’s participation in the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem therefore deserves special scrutiny. Travelling to Jerusalem was the most arduous journey available to western pilgrims, requiring a year’s travel and rigorous financial sacrifice. Furthermore, unlike pilgrimages to localised shrines that sought the externally obvious benefit of miraculous healing, pilgrims to Jerusalem and Rome provided strictly personal and intangible benefits, such as the deepening of personal devotion, or indulgences that would speed their way to heaven. These realities made participation in long-distance pilgrimage an especially challenging goal for women.

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