Criminal Behaviour by Pilgrims in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

Pilgrim on the Way of St. James (Jakobsweg) - 16th century imageCriminal Behaviour by Pilgrims in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

Zoran Ladić

At the Edge of the Law: Socially Unacceptable and Illegal Behaviour in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, (Krems, 2012)


The concept of ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘pilgrim’ in the works of medieval and early modern authors In order to understand clearly the forms of criminal behaviour by pilgrims in the medieval and the early modern periods it is first necessary to present the standpoints of the medieval authors, especially theologians, who associated the terms ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘pilgrim’ entirely or at least partially with positive moral and ethic connotations, or interpreted them purely within theological categories. Thus, for example, the term peregrinatio was considered in great detail in the works of some Christian theologians as early as the fourth and fifth centuries, at a time when the praxis of pilgrimage to Christian holy places had not yet attained the momentum that it had in the later medieval period. Gregory the Great (540-604) thus emphasised that Christians are only passing pilgrims on earth (viator ac peregrinus). Saint Augustine in his The City of God (De civitate Dei) wrote extensively about the problem, meaning, and context of the term peregrinatio in everyday Christian life.


Speaking in general, Augustine argued that the term peregrina defines the city of God on earth, while its inhabitants are consequently peregrini. The main goal of Christian living in this material world, in which the believer is only a temporarily settled stranger or drifter, was, according to Augustine, peregrinari ad Dominum. Still, Augustine believed that, while on earth, every peregrinus Christianus must abide by the worldly laws common to the civitas terrena in which he lived. Augustine’s view was accepted by numerous later Christian theologians. Such standpoints affected the dual understandings of pilgrimage in the late antique, medieval, Renais- sance, and even modern Christian world. From the early Christian period up to today, Christian pilgrimage has been considered to be a lifestyle following Christian morals and the principles that were, for instance, called vita evangelica et apostolica or vita perfecta in the hagiographic literature.

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