We all love to travel overseas, whether it be to visit relatives or to experience cultures or sites that have captured our imagination. Medieval people travelled for similar reasons but also to undertake religious pilgrimage. There were many reasons to endure the long and often arduous journeys – to obtain a miracle cure, to keep a vow, to seek forgiveness or simply to deepen or fully explore one’s faith.
Pilgrimages were not specific to any one religion and were a feature in many belief systems, but Christian pilgrimages were particularly popular during the late 14th century and were seen as a deep expression of piety.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales features a diverse band of pilgrims telling lively stories as they travelled together. The concept of the sacred journey also structures Dante’s Divine Comedy, which recounts the author’s own transformative course through the realms of hell and purgatory to the heights of heaven.
Pilgrims often travelled in groups (it was safer) and sought accommodation on route, much as we do today. However, there were far few places to stay, with monasteries being the popular choice. During the middle to late medieval period the ‘inn’ began to emerge to fulfill a growing need for travellers seeking reasonable accommodation and meals.
The destination was often chosen for its significance to the pilgrim or for its prominence at that time, e.g. Rocamadour in southern France, according to legend, is named after the founder of the ancient sanctuary, Saint Amator, believed to be Zacheus, the tax collector of Jericho the husband of Saint Veronice, who wiped Jesus’ face on the way to Calvary. Pilgrims would flock to the Chapel of Our Lady of Rocamadour in the heart of the city and pray to the statue of the Black Virgin who, by 1173, was said to be responsible for at least 126 miracles.
Rich or poor, pilgrims loved to purchase sovereigns or ‘relics’. There are two types of relics. Brandea were the most common and were ordinary objects which had become holy by coming into contact with holy people or places – items such as a piece of tomb or dust from the Holy Land. Body relics made up the second type and were actual pieces of the body of the saint; a bone, a tooth or scrap of hair. Body relics were far more important to a pilgrim as they believed the spirit or essence of the saint remained within the relic and would, therefore transpose to them.
Of course, there were many unscrupulous persons found along the pilgrim’s route who would manufacture and sell counterfeits e.g. the tooth of Saint Michael being nothing more than a child’s milk tooth and, as today, there were many sufficiently gullible customers to make the fake relic business very profitable.
A pilgrimage could last many weeks, months or even years, depending on how long you wished to worship at the holy site and the depth of your pockets, for places of pilgrimage were extremely busy and, during the summer months, were crowded with demanding visitors all searching for good food and a roof over their heads.
Returning home with a relic secured to your person or hidden under your cloak, the pilgrim would often be welcomed as a hero and encouraged to recount tales of his/her travels, particularly if they had been witness to a miracle. The church encouraged such behaviour as it fostered interest within the community and allowed others to believe that they, too, could undertake their own pilgrimage, much like glossy travel brochures do today.