Medieval Pilgrims

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Medieval Pilgrims

Although modern day pilgrims can be found making their way by coach, plane and train to sites of religious significance all over the world, the idea of a pilgrimage is definitely not new.

Pilgrimages were extremely important in medieval times, both as a route to salvation and also as an "excuse' for travel at a time when most traveling was extremely dangerous. Pilgrims traveled recognised and relatively safe routes, stopping off at shrines and cathedrals where relics were venerated and saints worshipped but, most important, they had the protection of the church and the church's soldiers at all times.

In the UK and throughout Europe, visiting the shrine of murdered archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral was a favorite pilgrimage. Canterbury is not far from the coast, so it was popular with visitors from overseas and is not too far from London so it was relatively easy to get to. Thomas Becket's shrine eventually became the most important and most-visited shrine in England.

Medieval pilgrims were representative of all social groups but were mainly from the middle class. Pilgrimages were an expensive business as they involved taking time off work and paying money for food and accommodation. Poor pilgrims had to make the journey on foot but wealthier pilgrims would have chosen, like Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, to ride on horseback.

At first, pilgrims were simply individuals traveling to pay their respects at a particular shrine but this was changed by the church's policies. Priests were instructed to impose pilgrimages upon wrongdoers as a penance for their crimes. The more serious the crime, the longer the pilgrimage.

In the registers of the Inquisition at Carcassone, four places are mentioned as being suitable for "greater' pilgrimages. These were the tomb of the Apostles at Rome, the shrine of St. James at Compostella, the relics of the Three Kings at Cologne and St. Thomas's body at Canterbury.

With ecclesiastic encouragement, pilgrimages quickly became a part of the medieval way of life. Properly organized "companies' of pilgrims would regularly set off from central gathering points complete with armed soldiers as bodyguards. The initiators were often astute clerics who mapped out the route and planned the whole trip providing their services at a price.


A Pilgrim's Pewter badge

The pilgrim was generally seen as being "outside' ordinary life for the duration of their pilgrimage. Special laws allowed pilgrims to pass unmolested through districts that were in the throes of war.

Facilities were granted for strangers to visit the shrines of their own saints in other lands and although they were a target for criminals, pilgrims were allowed free movement between countries.

Just like today, guidebooks were written telling pilgrims all about the countryside they were passing, which roads were safest, where inns and hospitals could be found, where money could be changed and which hostelries would give them the best value. These were on sale at the major starting places such as London and Dover.

Definition of PILGRIMAGE (Mid. Eng., pilgrime, Old Fr., pelegrin, derived from Lat. peregrinum, supposed origin, per and ager-with idea of wandering over a distance).

Pilgrimages may be defined as journeys made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.

The Shrine of Edward the Confessor at YorkRight


Pilgrims depicted in a stained glass window

Many pilgrims wore the accepted pilgrim uniform of broad-brimmed hat and russet-coloured gown drawn in above the waist with a belt, rope or rosary. Most pilgrims would also have carried a satchel or "scrip' to hold their holy relics. They would have carried a stout stick or staff. Many would have decorated their hats and clothing with shells like those mentioned by contemporaneous writers.

"Give me my scallop-shell of quiet.
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of Salvation,
My gown of glory (hope's true gage),
And then I'll take my pilgrimage."
(Sir Walter Raleigh)

"A bolle and a bagge<
He bar by his syde
And hundred ampulles
On his hat seten
Signes of Synay,
And Shelles of Galice,
And many a conche
On his cloke,
And keys of Rome,
And the Vernycle bi-fore
For men sholde knowe
And se bi hise signes
Whom he sought hadde"
(Piers Plowman)

Although they were not always made particularly welcome, Pilgrims made a substantial contribution to the economy of towns and villages along their route. Inns and hostels were provided for their accommodation whilst some traders made their living selling souvenirs to the pilgrims.

To prove they had visited a particular shrine, pilgrims bought lead or pewter souvenir badges. Two-handled miniature lead pilgrim flasks (ampullae) for holy water or oil could be sewn onto hats or clothes, worn round the neck, or the contents sprinkled on fields to guarantee a good harvest.

Small ampullae purchased at Canterbury contained drops of water that were reputedly mixed with an essence obtained from the blood and brains of the murdered archbishop. This mixture was supplied to Canterbury pilgrims until 1538.

Many traders protested at their loss of income from the manufacture and sale of these souvenirs when Henry VIII eventually abolished pilgrimages as part of the English reformation.

As pilgrimages became more regularised, roads were created to make their route easier. Funding the upkeep of pilgrim routes was seen as a way to shorten the benefactor's time in purgatory so frequent bequests and gifts were made to pay for the road straightening and re-surfacing.

Pilgrims from overseas wore a new path from the sea-coast at Dover all the way to Canterbury.

Pilgrimages became so common that armed religious Orders were founded to look after the pilgrims. Some of these became extremely well known and included The Knights Hospitallers, or Knights of St. John, the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights Templars whose seal represented a knight rescuing a helpless pilgrim.

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