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The Importance of a Pilgrimage and Its Spiritual Relevance

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Pilgrimages are a method of showing religious devotion by visiting holy sites, often either the burial place of a saint, the place of death of a religious martyr, or the site of a holy relic. While several different religions utilized this practice, none was as popular or widespread as the religious pilgrimages of the Christians in the Middle Ages. Because of the fact that in the Middle Ages the church encouraged a theology of association, Pilgrims believed that the relics of the saints which were kept at the pilgrimage sites ensured the presence of the saint. They would undertake a pilgrimage to gain better health for themselves or loved ones, promising that if they or their loved ones were cured, they would make a pilgrimage to the saint’s grave as thanks. People also went on pilgrimages as a means of penance, to uphold a vow, to discharge a religious obligation, or to gain protection from enemies (E.M.P.P). While pilgrimages had originally commonly consisted of a lone pilgrim quietly going about his business, as they gained in popularity they quickly became a means of punishment, reconciliation and scandal to name a few.

The garb of a pilgrim in the middle ages resembled the dress of a Dominican monk. It was generally made up of a long smock, over which was worn a hooded cape. They wore low crowned wide brimmed hats to protect from wet weather, tied under the chin by two strings which were long enough that the pilgrim could let the hat hang down their backs when it was not needed. They wore a belt which crossed across their chests and from which their wallets hung. The wallets were meant to be carrying cases for food, money, relics and any other necessities. They also often carried bells in their hands, or “some others pilgrimes will have with them baggepipes; so that every town that they came through, what with the noice of their singing and with the sound of their piping and with the jangling of their Canterburie bells, and with the barking out of dogges after them, that they make more noice then if the King came there away with all his clarions and many other minstrels” (Foxe, ‘Acts and Monuments of the Church’, 493).

They also carried a walking staff, which was made of two sticks bound together, a ‘staff with a broad strap around it, in the way of woodbine wound all about’ (Langland, 325). Due to an incident on St. Richard’s day in 1487, when pilgrims beat each other to death with their staffs to get closer to the tomb of Saint Richard, pilgrims were banned from carrying staffs. They could then only carry banners and crosses (Bede). Another important part of the pilgrims garb was their signs. Pilgrims Signs were badges which were sewn onto their hats or clothes to allow them safe passage, even through hostile territories. The Signs also served to identify where the pilgrim was from, where they were going and where they had been. A pilgrim could purchase signs from the pilgrimage sites to show that they had been there. They were color coded by country and had different designs to identify where the pilgrim was going.

“A bowl and a bag he bore by his side.

A hundred holy water bottles were set on his hat,

Souvenirs of Sinai and shells of Galicia,

And many a cross on his cloak and keys of Rome,

And the vernicle in front so folk should know

By seeing his signs what shrines he’d been to”

(Langland, pg 325, lines 519-524)

Because of the physical severity of a pilgrimage, they were often used as a way to do penance. Mr. Phillip Barker, an archeologist studying the remains of a fifteenth century pilgrim, described the skeletons condition: “More than 500 years after his death, the condition of the pilgrim’s remains . . . shows that a life of arduous walks left him severe arthritis in his legs, toes, spine, ribs, and pelvis. As well as causing him considerable pain, this led to fusion of some bones of the spine, coccyx, ribs, and sternum that would have had a crippling effect”. Pilgrimages which were imposed by the law were called ‘Judicial Pilgrimages’. This allowed for the community to avoid the cost of imprisoning criminals while at the same time being relieved of them. Judicial Pilgrims were required to collect signatures at the sites that they had been ordered to visit to prove that they had been there. The distance they were required to travel was based on the severity of their crime; the more serious it was, the farther away they were imposed to travel. They were often ordered to complete their pilgrimage barefoot, or in extreme cases, completely naked, which is described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in part one of the Parson’s tale:

“Whan a man hath synned openly, of which

Synne the fame is openly spoken in the contree,

and thanne hooly chirche by juggement

Destreyneth hym for to do open penaunce.

Commune penaunce is that preestes enjoynen

Men communly in certeyn caas, as for to goon

Peraventure naked in pilgrimages, or barefoot.”

Judicial Pilgrims usually wore the object of their offence around their neck. For instance, if their crime was murder, they would wear the murder weapon around their neck, or if they were heretics they wore two yellow crosses on their chest and back. Because they were easily identifiable, they did not enjoy the hospitality usually offered to pilgrims. Rather, they were subjected to public scorn and ridicule as part of their punishment (E.M.P.P).

Many people who undertook pilgrimages as penance were completely voluntary, with the purpose of their journey being between them and God alone. They would go on the pilgrimage to repent for whatever crimes they had committed against God to ensure their place in heaven. According to a Canon enacted under King Edgar, “It is a deep penitence that a layman lay aside his weapons and travel far barefoot and nowhere pass a second night and fast and watch much and pray fervently, by day and by night and willingly undergo fatigue and be so squalid that iron come not on hair or on nail” (Thorpe, 411). The difficulties of pilgrimages are described in ‘Syr Isenbras’, an Early English ballad, in which it is said,

“They bare with them no maner of thynge

That was worth a farthynge

Cattell, golde, ne fe;

But mekely they asked theyre meate

Where that they myght it gette.

For Saynct Charyt.”

The Catholic church even drafted ‘Warrants of Reconciliation’, which was a legal document that ensured a persons re-admittance into the Christian fellowship upon the completion of their pilgrimage (Bede).

Another reason for pilgrimages was to relieve restlessness. In the Middle Ages, people were often tied down to specific localities due to familial obligations, work and also because recreational travel was not commonly accepted. Life in the Middle Ages was closely controlled, and people rarely left their village or the surrounding areas. A pilgrimage was a socially acceptable way to get out of the village, get away from spouses, children or parents and see the world. This, however, eventually also produced scandal as domestic duties were neglected in favor of the adventure of traveling. These ‘recreational pilgrims’ were mentioned in ‘Piers Plowman’ as being, “Great long lubbers who don’t like to work” (Langland, pg. 320, line 55). By the fourth century, it is seen in the ‘Peregrinatio Silvi’, groups, mostly clerics, were organizing specified travel packages for pilgrims, complete with a planned itinerary, meals and armed escorts (Bede).

The Indulgence was also a huge part of pilgrimages in the middle ages, and eventually became the subject of disdain by many. The Indulgence was the idea that because Jesus and the saints had done so much good, the church had a treasury of extra merits, or Indulgences. These merits could be given out to people who completed pilgrimages to various shrines, thereby saving them from hell, purgatory, or at least shortening their time in Purgatory. It was believed that if someone went on a pilgrimage to the grave of Saint John in Santiago, their time in Purgatory could be cut in half. In the twelve century, Gerald of Wales collected a hundred years worth of Indulgences in a matter of weeks by traveling to Rome and going to as many pilgrimage sites as possible (E.M.P.P). By the fourteenth century, pilgrimage sites were competing, offering larger Indulgences to attract ‘customers’, much like modern day stores having a sale. Some sites offered as much as hundreds or thousands of years worth of Indulgences. Martin Luther set in motion the Protestant Reformation with his ‘Ninety Five Theses’, which was an argument against the issuing of Indulgences by the church.

It is no surprise that among all of this duplicity, professional pilgrims began to surface, offering their services for a price which ranged from twenty to a hundred marks. Those who were unable to travel because of age or illness could hire a professional pilgrim to go for them. These were called ‘Vicarious Pilgrimages’, and were actually very common.

For security, pilgrims often traveled in groups. This allowed for people to make new friends while staying safe, but also resulted in more scandal as the groups had raucous parties and told bawdy stories. The Canterbury Tales seem to be a perfect example of the storytelling that occurred during these group pilgrimages. At the shrines, as the multitude grew, wine was in abundance and the crowds were noisy. The priests of Santiago de Compostella complained that, “all sorts of noises and languages can be heard together, discordant shouts, barbarous singing in German, English, Greek and every other language under the sun”. Some pilgrims even carved their family name or coat of arms into the sanctuary itself. At Mount Sinai, the name of Ghillebert de Lannoy can still be seen. Because of all of this bad behavior, some sanctuaries hired security to keep order (E.M.P.P). It is not surprising that the public eventually began to grow weary of extending hospitality to pilgrims.

Despite all of this, the church was willing to go to war and fight to protect Pilgrimages into Jerusalem. As pilgrims visited the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb that Jesus was placed in before rising from the dead, they wrote accounts of their travels and of the shrines that they visited. These accounts are called peregrinationes, and they familiarized the Western world with the East. During one of these pilgrimages, the most famous on record because of the fact that it contained nearly 12,000 pilgrims, the group was attacked by an army of Bedouins outside of Caesarea. When the tale of the attack reached Europe, it stirred outrage and consequently began the Crusades of the East (Bede). Of course, there were many other issues also involved, and the timeline goes beyond the Middle Ages alone. However, to put it simply, Christians wanted Jerusalem, and the motivating factor was the Christian relics that Jerusalem contained. Obviously the importance of relics has a direct correlation with pilgrimages.

Besides the Crusades, there were many developments that resulted from pilgrimages in the Middle Ages. Miracle plays had originally been acted out by Pilgrims at the shrines that they were visiting, or on the journey there. Whatever Saint or Martyr’s shrine they were visiting would be the subject of the play (Bede). They would re-enact the miracle or the heroic story of martyrdom for inspiration or to teach the story to those who did not know it. Eventually, the Miracle plays made their way to the West, where they were acted out in the streets of Europe. This served to teach the holy stories to people who could not read the Bible themselves because either they could not read or were unable to understand the Latin verse that it was written in. Many church services were also held in Latin, so the common people could not even learn the stories of the Bible there. When the people were able to discover the stories in a way that they could understand, it brought their religion closer to them, creating a faith that was considerably more personal than the Catholic church had so far allowed. This was the kind of thing that gave credence to the Reformation.

The rise and fall of towns were directly linked to Pilgrimages. If an otherwise obscure town contained an important relic, the inevitable traffic of pilgrims would expand the town. Businesses would open up to accommodate them, and consequently the towns residencies would grow. Such was the case with Canterbury, which grew larger than Winchester at the height of religious pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, but which shrank into relative insignificance after the Reformation when pilgrimages declined (Bede).

As result of pilgrimages, roads were made and a knowledge of geography was gained. The peregrinationes that pilgrims were writing were as good as maps because they gave detailed accounts of their routes and the towns they passed through. Pilgrims literally created roads with their feet as their walking scuffed and beat down paths. In this way, a road was made through the Syrian desert to Jerusalem, and from the coast to Canterbury (Bede). These rough tracks laid the foundation for larger roads which could accommodate wagons and assist commerce. As the roads were frequented more and more, and as pilgrims went through different lands, relations between countries opened up. Before pilgrimages, countries were fairly isolated from each other. At the height of pilgrimages, people even used pilgrims as mailmen, waiting at the door with their letter until a pilgrim passed by, then utilizing the pilgrim to deliver it. Countries also gave foreign pilgrims safe passage through their lands, even during war (Bede). Religious orders were also founded, in large part to protect pilgrims. The most famous of these being the Knights Templar.

Scandals were rampant through the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, with people neglecting their duties at home, pilgrims crude behavior not exactly fitting with a religious mission, relic keepers aggressively marketing the importance of pilgrimages, the church generously giving out Indulgences, and people growing weary of constantly extending hospitality to pilgrims. All of these things, and the onset of the Reformation, greatly reduced religious pilgrimages. However, many good things also resulted from pilgrimages, including the creation of roads which brought the relations of countries closer, the increase in commerce, better knowledge of geography, the education that was brought to the common people through the Miracle Plays, and the personal enrichment that many individuals received from their journey. While pilgrimages as they once were are no more, people still go on them even today. The internet is filled with travel agencies offering an ‘authentic’ pilgrimage experience to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and many other sites in the East, Greece and Rome.

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