Some time ago I wrote a post about pilgrimage and how many people travelled from their homes to visit shrines. The shrine didn’t have to be far away or even devoted to an important saint, but it had to be a shrine that contained a holy relic of some kind.
Some shrines were huge and the pilgrims could go inside. Others were much smaller. The main thing was that the shrine should contain a holy object. In some places the pilgrims were permitted to see the relic, in others the relic was only displayed on special occasions, if at all. A relic could be a part of a saint’s body, something the saint had touched, something associated with a miracle performed by Jesus or an object associated with him. Most famously these last were parts of the True Cross or the crown of thorns. All these objects were believed to have the power of healing, protection, forgiveness or spiritual guidance depending on the saint involved.
This belief in the powers of relics went back to the first days of Christianity. Since shrines and reliquaries contained objects of power, they also, by association, became objects of power themselves.
One of the outcomes of the second Council of Nicaea in 787 was that every church should have a relic, in or on the alter or beneath it in a crypt. Even small parish churches needed a relic in order to be consecrated.
Much has been made of the vast number of fake relics during the early Middle Ages, as there was easy money to be made from selling them to churches. There were, for example, many heads of John the Baptist. Many people were aware that fake relics were in circulation. They could accept that a particular relic might not be all that was claimed for it, but still believed that it had power because people accepted it as a relic. Others simply believed that relics possessed the power of self-replication.
Most pilgrims brought money to shrines. At some of the larger pilgrimage sites part of the money was spent on souvenirs of the trip in the form of pilgrim badges like the one at the top of the post. These were a proof that the pilgrimage had been completed, which was useful if the pilgrimage was a form of penance ordered by the pilgrim’s priest, or a punishment.
Pilgrims didn’t just buy souvenirs, they also left gifts at the shrine. A gift could be money, but it could also be a precious object. Pilgrims who undertook the journey to thank the saint for a healing miracle, for example, might leave a model of the affected body part made of gold or silver. Sometimes, however, the person giving thanks was not very wealthy and their models were made of wax. Wealthy pilgrims might also give money to the church housing the shrine. Pilgrimage was a commercial proposition from the beginning of the fifth century. Offerings left at the shrine, however, were rarely touched by the church housing the shrine, even in times of great financial need.
Most English shrines were dismantled during the Reformation and the precious metals left by the pilgrims were taken to the royal mint.
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar