By Jeffrey W. Baron
UCSC History Annals, a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Vol.5 (2013-14)
Introduction: By the Late Middle Ages, relics and sites of holiness were scattered across the European continent. For centuries, these developed as places of veneration, attracting travelers from near and far. Whether they were worshipers or wanderers, pilgrims in Western Europe traveled extensively. One destination reigned supreme on the pilgrim’s itinerary: the Holy Land. There were many worthy sites along the way, destinations in themselves, but Jerusalem in particular was unrivaled. It lured pilgrims to face death just to stand upon Mountjoy, that fabled vantage point overlooking the city. But it was not merely the distant memory of Jesus’ presence that brought these travelers to their knees. Their journey was expensive, dangerous, and painfully long. Their arrival was unwelcomed and their presence tolerated only grudgingly. The accounts of the people who chose to embark on such a lengthy adventure are full of complaints. So why did they go?
Pilgrimage, as a practice, provided some very functional benefits to medieval Christians. The first was penitential. Sarah Hopper mentions that purgatory and hell loomed hauntingly in medieval consciousness. This fear of potential punishment after death was generally intended by the Catholic Church to guide Christians into obeying the teachings of the Bible. However, when proper instruction fell short and errors were made, often some form of penitence was needed to correct the blemish on one’s heavenly slate. Sins could often be wiped clean, or at least reduced, by suffering through pilgrimage. This penitential pilgrimage was often sentenced by the Church court, but many faithful worshipers volunteered themselves to relieve their sins. The practice grew to become a common punishment sentence, with possibilities of buying off a pilgrimage or paying for a substitute to make the journey instead. In many ways, this put pilgrims out on the road who had little interest in the spiritual treasures of their destination. However, others continued to make the journey with more pious intentions. They went on behalf of the dead or as a way to deal with personal grief over the death of a loved one.