The ancient ritual of pilgrimage

By Sr Vivienne Keely, 25 July 2018
A scallop shell marker for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Image: Sr Vivienne Keely.


July 25 is the feast of St James the Greater, patron of pilgrims and Spain.


Building the Idea of Pilgrimage

The first article sets out the building blocks of pilgrimage in the Christian Western world. A second article on 1 August will look at pilgrimage as a journey of transformation in religious and secular contexts across different cultures and geographical regions.

Major Medieval Destinations

The three most popular Christian European pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela (Way of St James or Camino) in Spain. By the fourth century, Jerusalem was established as the pilgrimage destination par excellence.

The holy woman, Egeria c.380, provided one of the earliest contributions to travel literature in her account of her journey to Jerusalem, her description of the places associated with the life of Jesus and the detailed account of the religious ceremonies which took place during Lent, Good Friday and Easter. In literature, Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale was a veteran of the long-distance pilgrimage having undertaken pilgrimages to Rome, Compostela, and no fewer than three pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

Pilgrims could meet danger on the route. St Ursula, a French princess, is alleged to have been murdered in Germany along with her large retinue on their return journey from Rome. On the other hand, some ninth-century monks in Ireland were tired of the whole business of pilgrimage to Rome asserting that “to go to Rome, much labour, little profit.”

St Peter’s Basilica. Image: Sr Vivienne Keely.

National and Local Destinations

Pilgrims did not have to leave their own shores. National shrines of importance included Canterbury in England, Croagh Patrick, a mountain in Ireland, and the Marian shrines of Walsingham in England and Chartres in France. The presence of shrines and relics of many local saints, often in cathedrals and churches, meant that most Christians in medieval times did not have to travel far to make a pilgrimage to a shrine.

On the Way: Stages and Rituals               

For major pilgrimages, rituals marked the departure and arrival of pilgrims. Pilgrims were seen off with a blessing in which the whole community participated. The pilgrim’s staff and purse was also blessed.

On the way, pilgrims carried items which designated them as pilgrims: a staff, and scrip (pilrgim’s bag or purse). This marked them as deserving of assistance and support on the route. A statue on the ‘Triumphal Way’ in the Rhineland cathedral city of Speyer shows a pilgrim in pilgrimage apparel having just embarked on the route to Compostela from Speyer Cathedral.

Monasteries offered hospitality and pilgrim hostels were opened along the route to Santiago de Compostela. Similar arrangements are in place today: a few euro gives the pilgrim a bed, breakfast, use of a laundry and drying room and nearby eateries offer a pilgrim meal, with a local vintage. A shell on a door, the pilgrimage symbol, means that a pilgrim may expect help from the household.

The statue of the pilgrim near Speyer Cathedral. Image: Sr Vivienne Keely.

On the way to their destination, pilgrims passed through villages and towns and were to be edified by the religious art adorning the exterior and interior of churches and cathedrals. Over the main door of many cathedrals is a sculpture of The Last Judgement, with serenely ordered ranks of the saved and a deliberately chaotic arrangement of the damned shuffling off to be fed into the maw of hell.

Rituals of approach and arrival were also practised. About 3 kilometres outside Compostela, pilgrims washed themselves at the stream. On arrival they greeted the statue of St James inside the Cathedral, venerated the relics, and presented an offering at the shrine. More elaborate rituals took place on 25 July, the feast of St James.

Conflict on the Way

Yes, even on this spiritual journey, conflict was not absent. In medieval times the body of a saint or parts of it were of paramount importance in attracting pilgrims to the site. Notorious was the fracas which occurred over the body of St Martin of Tours who died at Candes a small town near Tours in France. Martin was the bishop of Tours but he had also been a monk near the city of Poitiers. A ferocious dispute erupted between the men of the two cities. In the dead of night, the Turonians passed Martin’s body through a window and rowed him down the river, back to Tours where his body remains to this day.

Miracles and Economics

Hosting the body of a saint or relics was very important for the economic life of the town, especially if miracles occurred at the saint’s shrine. Pilgrims needed food, drink, somewhere to sleep, attention for a physical ailment, repairs to walking shoes and boots. They also had spiritual needs.

The local people derived much of their livelihood from those arriving on pilgrimage even down to the souvenir industry surrounding pilgrim badges which announced the completion of the pilgrimage. In France, badges diversified into luxury models made of precious metals and worth quite a considerable sum.

As with any commodity with a ready market, there were unauthorised imitation badges, which caused quite a few local squabbles. Equally there were problems when the manufacture of badges was a monopoly and tensions gave rise to open hostilities. Extreme measures such as excommunication – always intended to be temporary in medieval times – were taken.

Towards a Journey of Transformation

There was no expectation that Christians would go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Indeed some early influential Christian writers counseled the faithful against the Jerusalem pilgrimage. In customary caustic tone, St Jerome wrote to St Paulinus of Nola “access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem.”  A timely reminder that pilgrimage is as much about internal journey as it is about the physical journey to a destination.

This is what we will explore next time, in our next article on pilgrimage to be published on 1 August.



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