At the beginning of my latest novel, Beloved Besieged, Joscelin is a pilgrim who is being punished for a terrible sin by being made to walk to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Not all the pilgrims who travelled to shrines were being punished, however.
Pilgrims came from all levels of society and left home for a variety of reasons. Some were pious and wanted to visit a shrine to give thanks for something or to request a miracle. Some went as a penance, whether self-imposed or as a punishment from their confessors. The more serious the sin, the further away the object of the pilgrimage. Some simply wanted to see the world. Pilgrims could also be of either sex. For most women it was the only way they would manage to see any of the world beyond their own home.
Pilgrimage was very popular in the fourteenth century, having reached its peak around 1300. There were, however, several periods during which English pilgrims had to be satisfied with destinations within England, such as Walsingham, Winchester or Canterbury due to war. There were also local cults which flourished for a short time and then disappeared.
Theological thought about the relics that pilgrims travelled to see or touch was mixed. Many theologians considered that there was no value in the relic of a saint. Tomas Aquinas, however, found a spiritual justification for pilgrimage. He argued that a relic was the physical reminder of a saint. If someone loves someone else, he said, they love what that person leaves behind them when they die, so it was acceptable to love the saint’s relic. The bodily relic of a saint was connected to his or her soul and the Holy Spirit could work through the body of a saint as well as through his or her soul. Since God worked miracles through the saints’ bodies, he showed that he wanted them to be venerated. This argument goes somewhat awry when you realise that most relics were not parts of the bodies of saints, but an article associated with them. Sometimes this was just an image of them, which they had never seen or touched.
Following the sack of Constantinople in 1204 many relics found their way into the west and different churches claimed to have the same relic. There were, for example, at least three heads of John the Baptist. For most people this was of no importance at all. Some, however, questioned how it was possible that there were so many saints who had left four or five arms, or twenty fingers, behind them to be discovered in circumstances which became increasingly questionable.
The three main pilgrimage sites were Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Jerusalem was the most important and the most difficult to get to, for which read dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. If you were English, getting there meant a long overland journey to places such as Marseilles or Venice followed by a lengthy sea journey across the Mediterranean, at risk from pirates and storms. There was a very brief period when it was possible to travel overland to Jerusalem from Europe, but very few could afford to go to Jerusalem.
Going to Rome meant braving the wars in northern Italy that were, in part, responsible for keeping the fourteenth century popes in Avignon.
Compostela was, for most of the time, a much safer option. An English pilgrim could sail to Gascony and cross the Pyrenees and follow a route across northern Spain. If there was peace with France he, or she, might even be able to sail to Calais and cross France, following one of the many established routes which led to the south-west.
For most people, however, a pilgrimage was very much a local affair. Cults were constantly springing up and dying down again, so there would often be a shrine near to home, perhaps within a day or two’s walk.
Pilgrims usually travelled in groups for safety. Although the pope had declared that anyone attacking pilgrims was excommunicate and pilgrims announced themselves as such by carrying a staff and wearing a cross on their tunics, they were still frequently attacked and robbed. There were two types of pilgrim – those who set out carrying all the money they needed for the pilgrimage and those who begged for alms or worked as they travelled. The first group were obviously a target for bandits, but even the second group would occasionally be carrying a large amount of money and bandits could not tell which was which. Pilgrims needed money for offerings to be left at shrines as well as for food and accommodation.
There was a pilgrim ‘uniform’. As well as wearing his long tunic (a sclavein), which bore a cross, and carrying a staff, a pilgrim also carried a scrip. This was a leather pouch tied to his waist and it contained food, a bowl, a mug and money. The staff and scrip would be blessed by the pilgrim’s priest before he set out. Usually a pilgrim also wore a broad-rimmed hat. On the return journey he would proudly wear a trinket or badge that he had purchased at the shrine to prove that he had reached it. Pilgrims who had gone to Santiago de Compostela came back with cockleshells. This eventually became the symbol of pilgrimage, regardless of the shrine visited.
Pilgrims were supposed to be exempt from laws prohibiting begging and from paying tolls, but this prohibition was not always observed. Even pilgrims who had set out with a lot of money could find themselves running out.
The pilgrimage routes were not always the same as those followed by merchants, so they were not necessarily well-provided with inns or other forms of accommodation. Pilgrims could stay at monasteries and hostels set up along the pilgrim routes by monasteries. The Carmelite friary at Aylesford welcomed pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The Pilgrims’ Hall, pictured below, is now the dining-room for visitors to the friary.
Where the pilgrimage was a penance, the pilgrim sought absolution. Some shrines were ‘worth’ more than others in this regard and he had to choose his destination carefully.
Pilgrims expected to witness miracles at shrines. Past miracles were the reason why the shrines were there in the first place. Pilgrims would leave wax offerings at the shrine indicating the kind of miracle they had experienced or hoped for.
Since pilgrimages were a sign of humility, they were supposed to be carried out on foot. Some pilgrims even went so far as to go barefoot or to crawl, if only for part of the way. These were the most highly regarded pilgrims.
A pilgrimage was not undertaken lightly. Even a pilgrimage within England could take someone away from their home for several weeks. Going to Rome or Compostela could take several months. Preparations had to be made in advance. A decision had to be made about who was going to manage any property while the owner was away. It was not unknown for a pilgrim to return and find that his ownership of his estate had been contested in his absence and he had lost the right to it. Some chose to leave their property in the hands of the church, but that could be just as dangerous.
Where the pilgrimage was a punishment, some could pay to avoid embarking on it or pay someone to go on their behalf. This was a good option for the elderly or sick. Many people died on pilgrimage. If they had come to a particular shrine for healing, they might wait there until they were healed or died. Often they expected to die at the shrine which was the goal of their pilgrimage. Even if they did not expect to die they made a will before they left home.
If they did manage to return home, they would always have plenty of stories to entertain their family and friends.