The Medieval Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage during Medieval Times

In the Medieval Pilgrimage, the Church-sponsored pilgrimages to special holy places known as shrines during the Middle Ages. It was thought that if you worshipped at these shrines, you would be forgiven for your sins and have a better chance of entering heaven. Others went to shrines in the hopes of being cured of a disease they were suffering from.

Medieval Pilgrimage
Medieval Pilgrimage

A significant shrine was located in Walsingham, Norfolk, where a sealed glass jar was claimed to contain the Virgin Mary’s milk. People travelled to other shrines to witness the teeth, bones, shoes, combs, and other items purported to have once belonged to great Christian saints. The most common relics found at these shrines were nails and bits of wood that the shrine’s keepers said originated from the cross used to crucify Jesus.

When visitors arrived at the shrine, they would pay a fee to view the sacred relics. In the medieval pilgrimage, pilgrims were even allowed to touch and kiss them in rare situations. The caretaker of the shrine would also offer the pilgrim a metal badge imprinted with the shrine’s insignia. These badges were then attached to the pilgrim’s hat, letting others know they had visited the temple.

Some members went on foreign pilgrimages. In Palestine, for example, it was possible to visit a cave that was said to contain Adam and Eve’s beds, as well as a salt pillar that had formerly been Lot’s wife.

Travelling large distances was a risky pastime in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims frequently travelled in groups to protect themselves from bandits.

The Medieval Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages

The Church-sponsored pilgrimages to special holy places known as shrines during the Middle Ages. It was thought that if you worshipped at these shrines, you would be forgiven for your sins and have a better chance of entering heaven. Others went to shrines in the hopes of being cured of a disease they were suffering from.

The tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral was the most visited shrine in England. Locals were able to collect bits of fabric soaked with Becket’s blood after he was assassinated. People were cured of blindness, epilepsy, and leprosy when they were touched by this cloth, according to rumours.

It wasn’t long before the monks at Canterbury Cathedral began selling little glass vials of Becket’s blood to pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Another significant shrine was in Walsingham, Norfolk, where a sealed glass jar was claimed to contain the Virgin Mary’s milk. Erasmus visited Walsingham and described the shrine as “encircled on all sides with diamonds, gold, and silver.” He also stated that the water from the Walsingham spring was “effective in healing headaches and stomach troubles.”

People travelled to other shrines to see the teeth, bones, shoes, combs, and other items that were supposed to have once belonged to great Christian saints. The most common relics found at these shrines were nails and bits of wood that the shrine’s keepers said originated from the cross used to crucify Jesus.

St. Winifred's Well
St. Winifred’s Well

In the Middle Ages, important shrines included those at St. Winifred’s Well, Lindisfarne, Glastonbury, Bromholm, and St. Albans. When visitors arrived at the shrine, they would pay a fee to view the sacred relics. Pilgrims were even allowed to touch and kiss them in rare situations. The caretaker of the shrine would also offer the pilgrim a metal badge imprinted with the shrine’s insignia. These badges were then attached to the pilgrim’s hat, letting others know they had visited the temple.

Some members went on foreign pilgrimages. In Palestine, for example, it was possible to visit a cave that was said to contain Adam and Eve’s beds, as well as a salt pillar that had formerly been Lot’s wife.

Travelling large distances was a risky pastime in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims frequently travelled in groups to protect themselves from bandits. Wealthy people may sometimes prefer to hire someone else to go on a pilgrimage for them. In 1352, for example, a London businessman gave a man £20 to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII dispatched a team of officials to investigate what was going on in the monasteries in August 1535. After reading their findings, Henry decided to dissolve 376 monasteries. Monastery land was confiscated and cheaply sold to aristocrats and businessmen. In turn, they sold some of the lands to smaller farmers. As a result of this process, a huge number of individuals had excellent reason to support the closure of the monasteries.

Circa 1540, Portrait of Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). Reigned 1509-47. Executed three wives and Thomas More, made the union of England and Wales. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Throughout 1538, Henry focused on holy shrines in England. Pilgrims had visited shrines containing precious religious treasures for hundreds of years. Wealthy travelers frequently presented valuable jewels and ornaments to the monks who cared for these shrines. Henry decreed that the shrines are closed and the wealth amassed by them be transferred to the crown.

When the Pope and the Catholic Church in Rome learned that Henry had destroyed St. Thomas Becket’s Shrine, they were shocked. The Pope proclaimed to the Christian world on December 17, 1538, that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic church.

The Medieval Pilgrimage In Europe

The early Christian pilgrims desired to visit the locations where Jesus and the apostles lived on Earth. This entailed traveling to the Holy Land, which was a pretty simple task in the fourth century when the Roman Empire still ruled the Mediterranean. Major theologians of the time, such as Saints Jerome and Augustine, advocated spiritual travel as a way to escape from worldly worries. In this sense, they associated pilgrimage with the monastic way of life, which pilgrims occasionally adopted after completing their treks.

Sacred architecture complimented visitors’ inward reflections at the locations of Christ’s earthly mission. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, built opulent palaces in numerous areas that had already become renowned pilgrimage destinations in the 320s and 330s. These churches frequently included a round or centrally designed feature, a shape linked with graves and martyr shrines.

In Jerusalem, Constantine constructed a basilica and a rotunda around the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection; in later European ivory representing the holy women on Easter morning (1993.19), his tomb appears as a round structure, echoing the church there. When Paula visited Bethlehem, she caught a view of it via a hole in the floor of a highly decorated octagonal edifice likely adorned with depictions of the Nativity.

These constructions’ distinguishing elements were widely imitated in churches, tombs, and baptisteries throughout Europe, often with specific references to the Holy Land. Octagonal glass bottles created as pilgrim souvenirs likewise mirror the forms of Constantine’s buildings in the Holy Land—and indicate the market for such items among Jewish and Christian religious travellers.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

The city of Rome also became a popular pilgrimage destination. Rome, which was easier for European pilgrims to reach than the Holy Land, had also been the home of many saintly martyrs, including the apostle’s Peter and Paul, and the places where they were buried drew religious travellers from a very early date.

Pilgrims visited the major basilicas built over the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as other buildings associated with miraculous events built by Constantine. The presence of sacred relics, corporeal artefacts like the bones or robes of the saints, was thought to pull the faithful closer to saintliness.

This mosaic above the Bronze Doors, which leads from St Peter's Square into the Apostolic Palace, shows Ss Peter and Paul flanking the Virgin and Child. Today, 18 November, is the anniversary of the dedication of the basilicas of St Peter & St Paul in Rome.
This mosaic above the Bronze Doors, which leads from St Peter’s Square into the Apostolic Palace, shows Ss Peter and Paul flanking the Virgin and Child. Today, 18 November, is the anniversary of the dedication of the basilicas of St Peter & St Paul in Rome.

Rome was particularly rich in relics, but as the Middle Ages proceeded, other locations gained significant relics and became sites of pilgrimage in their own right. Huge crowds of pilgrims travelled to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, where the relics of the apostle Saint James the Greater were thought to have been unearthed around 830.

Canterbury was a renowned pilgrimage destination for English pilgrims who came to see the miracle-working relics of Thomas Becket, the sainted archbishop of Canterbury who was slain by knights of King Henry II in 1170 and canonized shortly afterward. Local saints’ relics brought people from further afield to sites such as Saint Frideswide in Oxford and San Nicola Peregrino in Trani.

Celebration of the Move of Relics

The movement of relics from one location to another, whether within a church or across a large distance, was a cause for celebration and was frequently depicted in art. Objects ranging from simple badges to sophisticated miniature reliquaries were created by artists to allow pilgrims to memorialize their journey. Pilgrims were expected to send donations to the shrines they visited, and many of these were works of art as well: expensive liturgical vessels, complex priestly vestments, and other valuable things enhanced the coffers of every pilgrimage church.

Before leaving, the pilgrim would generally receive a blessing from the local bishop and make a complete confession if the journey was to be used as penance. The pilgrim wore a long, coarse gown and carried a staff and a little purse to indicate his unique vocation—Saint James is frequently represented with this distinctive gear, as well as a broad-brimmed hat and the shell-shaped insignia awarded to those who reached his shrine at Compostela. Serious pilgrims kept up continual devotions while on the road, and some carried prayer books or portable altars to help them.

Hospitality

Monasteries along the pilgrimage routes provided food and accommodation, as well as masses and prayers. Some monastic churches also contained their relics, and these frequently included an inner hallway known as an ambulatory, which allowed pilgrims to circulate and worship the relics without interfering with the monks’ regular forms of prayer. Many churches had extensive restorations to accommodate higher numbers of pilgrims, such as Saint-Denis, which was dramatically remodeled under Abbott Suger in the early twelfth century.

Saint-Denis
Saint-Denis

The concept and experience of pilgrimage were so powerful in medieval Europe that they sparked the imagination of the age and set the tone for all types of travel. Many of the expeditions pursued by knights in life and mythology were seen as a type of pilgrimage, as were the Crusades, armed battles mounted to gain control of the Holy Land. The concept of pilgrimage is central to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which feature a diverse band of pilgrims telling vibrant popular stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, which describes the author’s transformational trip through the regions of hell and purgatory to the heights of heaven, is similarly built around the concept of the sacred voyage.

Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s vision of heaven and hell.
Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s vision of heaven and hell. 

The visual arts were also influenced by medieval pilgrimage traditions. An ivory carving made around 1120, for example, represents the risen Christ with the two disciples who met him on the road to Emmaus; they are depicted as modern pilgrims, with walking sticks, a vessel for water, and a purse marked with a cross. The ivory depicts Santiago de Compostela’s popularity at the time, and it differs dramatically from another depiction of the same subject in ninth-century ivory, in which the visitors wear modified classical clothing and pursue their goalless zealously.

Another biblical voyage, that of the Magi on their way to adore the infant Jesus, is depicted in a portion of a painting by Sassetta; the kings are beautifully dressed, mounted on horseback, and surrounded by a bustling company, like wealthy pilgrims journeying in the state.

Pilgrims frequently travelled in the later Middle Ages to obtain indulgences, which are the Church’s promises to intercede with God for the remission of temporal punishment for confessed and forgiven sins, a request that will be heard because of the Church’s holiness. Pope Boniface VIII designated 1300 to be a jubilee year, during which pilgrims to Rome might get a plenary indulgence, which is a guarantee of the Church’s prayer for absolution from the temporal penalty for sins pardoned over a lifetime.

Purists and reformers saw such attractions as less laudable than earlier pilgrims’ heartfelt goals, and preaching friars like the Franciscans and Dominicans urged a return to devotional exercises like those Paula had practised: whether in a place sanctified by a sacred event—and the preaching orders came to control the holy places at Bethlehem and Jerusalem—or in the quiet of one’s own home, the individual was exhorted to imagine sacred events

This form of spiritual exercise may be linked to the rise of humanity and naturalism in religious art at this time. A work like Giotto’s The Adoration of the Magi, for example, appears to disclose the reality of the event that it represents, allowing the audience access to a sacred story, while in the Merode Altarpiece, the donor is shown as a witness to the Annunciation, which he sees through an open door.

Basilica di San Francesco, Lower Church, Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Adoration of the Magi, fresco Adorazione dei Magi
Basilica di San Francesco, Lower Church, Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Adoration of the Magi, fresco
Adorazione dei Magi

Conclusion The Medieval Pilgrimage

According to the foundational doctrines of Christianity, no place is more holy than another: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, KJV). Throughout the Middle Ages, however, Christians attempted to bridge the gap between themselves and God by embarking on physical journeys in pursuit of a spiritual objective. Pilgrimages could be undertaken to fulfill a promise, atone for a crime, seek a miracle cure, or simply strengthen one’s faith.

Although none of these purposes is unique to Christian pilgrimage (the concept of the sacred journey is shared by many religions), the pilgrimage had become a recognized expression of Christian piety by the fourth century A.D. Religious pilgrimages were taken by people from all walks of life, with far-reaching consequences for society and culture as a whole.

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