Bartered Bodies: Medieval Pilgrims and the Tissue of Faith
By George D. Greenia
International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, Vol.7:1 (2019)
Introduction: Medieval Christian pilgrims were nothing without their bodies. All the sacred debris that they ferried and fondled – all the gifts they carried outbound, the relics and souvenirs they clutched upon their return – were mere accessories. The human form that set out on a sacred journey was accessorized to take on a new identity.
The journey disciplined and dirtied the body, exposed the travellers to danger and death, and denied their normal comforts. To sustain their worthiness, pilgrims scrupulously cleansed their bodies before entering sacred precincts, and emblazoned themselves with badges and even tattoos for the return home. Fleshly forms were tabernacles of devotion, a traveller’s best offering on arrival, and body transformed into relic upon return.
This article surveys generalized themes over a broad landscape of medieval cultural practices and changing situations. It seeks to identify some of the background commonalities one might ascribe to devout sojourners in distinction from vagabonds, itinerant mercenaries, monastics making the rounds of their abbeys, the messengers and scouts of nobles and kings, herdsmen moving flocks over long distances, ordinary merchants, and the many other travellers who shared the same roadways and sought shelter in the same taverns and way stations when night overtook them. Not all were pilgrims.
Top Image: Medieval pilgrim badge – image by Portable Antiquities Scheme / Wikimedia Commons