By Danièle Cybulskie
Although religion in the Middle Ages was much more nuanced than modern popular culture might imply, Christianity was a pivotal part of medieval society in Europe, and people’s everyday lives were saturated with it, from the way time was measured to the meals they ate.
For medieval people, faith was more than just an abstract idea, it was tangible in the works they made (such as the great cathedrals) to glorify God, and the relics they could see with their own eyes. An integral part of this tangible form of faith was the pilgrimage: a spiritual journey to visit a holy site.
People made pilgrimages for a variety of reasons. Many holy sites were purported to have a healing powers, such as Walsingham, in Norfolk. Pilgrims who had an ailing loved one could seek divine help at a place like this, along with people who were ailing themselves (sometimes carried by friends), and people who had recovered from illnesses could also come to give their thanks to God.
Penitents would also undertake pilgrimages in order to gain forgiveness for their sins, or to shorten time in purgatory for themselves or for others. When he was dying, Henry the Young King (son of Henry II) asked William Marshal to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in his place in remembrance of his sins in life (Marshal did so). Sometimes, people went on pilgrimages to pray for fertility or safe delivery, too. Basically, as a pilgrimage was a journey of faith, anything a person felt they needed God’s help for could be motivation for the journey.
Rome was an important site for pilgrimage because of the many ties to Christianity the city had (and still has). For the English, and other northern Europeans, Canterbury was hugely popular as the site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Becket (this is the place where Chaucer’s pilgrims are headed in The Canterbury Tales). Another popular shrine was that of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, still a UNESCO site, established to honour St. James.
Pilgrims also flocked to Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land, as they still do today. Pilgrim routes were well known and passed on to other pilgrims, so businesses like inns were built up along the routes to accommodate travelers, and clergy ensured that their own holy relics and sites were made available along the way. You could spot a pilgrim by their distinctive robes, hats, and staves, or by the pilgrims’ badges they wore as symbols of the journey (like scallop shells from Santiago de Compostela).
For medieval people, relics could be pieces of a Christian story, such as the bones of a martyr or saint, or pieces of Jesus’ life, such as the tears or breast milk of Mary, or pieces of the True Cross. Of course, a relic that has gained a huge amount of popularity in modern consciousness, from Arthurian legend to Indiana Jones, is the ever-elusive Sangreal: the Holy Grail. Naturally, not all of these relics were true relics, but pretending they were could gain a swindler quite a lot of money. In The Canterbury Tales, the immoral Pardoner trades in fake relics like “pigges bones” for which he charges two months’ salary (see this article by Robyn Malo for more on the Pardoner’s relics). For Chaucer to have added such a detail implies that there was a definite market for relics, real or fake, and that it was taken advantage of by con artists.
In fact, pilgrimages were big business, from the money spent on food and accommodation, to the selling of pilgrims’ badges as souvenirs, status symbols, or earnest reminders of the journey. Because there were no ATMs, pilgrims carried their wealth on their person, making them susceptible to thieves. The Knights Templar were created in part to protect pilgrims, although their role changed over time.
Following medieval pilgrims’ routes is still big business today for history buffs and the devout, allowing modern people to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps. You can check out one of these routes on the UNESCO site for Santiago de Compostela. For more on criminal behaviour by pilgrims (always an interesting topic), click here, and for the story of one who went on several pilgrimages, have a look at The Book of Margery Kempe. Also see this interesting collection from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist