by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 1987, A.S. XXI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Of all the mass movements of the Middle Ages, none were as persistent or uniquely medieval as the pilgrimage. All were touched by its allure irrespective of state or temperament. From kings to peasants, they all marched down that road seeking spiritual perfection. In a world narrowed by hardships and internal strife, the pilgrimage was a broadening experience. Originally a pilgrim was nothing more then a stranger, a traveler. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Roman Empire that the word acquired its current meaning. Travel was no longer done casually, only for the most pressing needs was it undertaken. For most, that reason was religious. Whether for penance, cure of some malady or religious fervor, thousands braved the danger of the road. Nor did they stop till the coming of the Reformation.

In the beginning, to go on a pilgrimage was an act of penance, an atonement for some sin. And throughout the period many a pilgrimage was imposed as penance. But others soon began to go on pilgrimages as a physical manifestation of a spiritual journey. For others, it was an act of devotion, visiting these holy sites made their faith seem that much more real. As the legends of the saints grew, many took to pilgrimages looking for a miracle cure for whatever ailed them. And eventually came those who went on pilgrimage for the pleasure of traveling. Chaucer’s pilgrims were of the latter sort.

Up until the time of Chaucer, the pilgrim was a rather distinct traveler. The apparel of the well dressed pilgrim consisted of a sober robe, staff and leather wallet. The wallet, or scip, was a sort of knapsack used to carry provisions. The staff, or burden, had an iron point at one end and a knob on the other. This uniform was usually sufficient to obtain shelter and food at little or no cost, as well as provide a form of immunity from the rowdier elements of society. This led, of course, to the inevitable abuses. By the 14th century, only professional “pilgrims” were seen wearing such attire. For everyone else, it had become a holiday, an occasion for their best and gayest raiment.

The premier goal for most pilgrims was Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s crucifixion. It was the center of the world, and only a short distance from the Garden of Eden as attested by period maps. Such travels began in the fourth century and culminated in the Crusades. The Crusades are part and parcel of the general movement of pilgrimages, the difference being their aggressive bent. This explains how the appeal of the Crusade lasted long after they ceased to be militarily effective.

Except for the century after the First Crusade, Jerusalem was in Moslem hands throughout the period. Yet despite this, the flow of pilgrims to the Holy Land was never seriously hindered. By the Thirteenth Century, Venice had a virtual monopoly on transporting pilgrims to Jerusalem, and the trade was highly regulated to maintain the control. This control would collapse with the general economical decline that befell Venice in the 17th century.

Second only to Jerusalem in prominence is Rome. The site of the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, as well as the seat of government for the Christen Church, Rome thrived on pilgrim traffic. Rome was devastated economically during the fourteenth century when the papacy moved to Avignon, taking with it the stream of pilgrims. Such was the importance of the pilgrims, that the Golden Jubilee of 1300 proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII was merely a device to increase that at all important source of money.

Another great pilgrimage center of the Middle Ages, now almost forgotten, is the shrine of St. James’s at Compostella in the northwest corner of Spain. St. James was one of the Apostles, and the first to be martyred. Spanish tradition, now discredited outside of Spain, has him preaching there with his body buried at Compostella. So heavy was the traffic to this shrine that by the Twelfth century a chain of Benedictine priories were set up across Northern Spain to cater to the pilgrims. St. James was quickly recruited into Reconquista, acquiring the epitaph Matamoros, or Moor-slayer. Like the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the journey to Compostella took on the aspects of a Crusade, a successful one at that.

Within the English speaking society, the most famous of all pilgrimages is that to Canterbury and the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. This is of course due to a certain clerk by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. The popularity of this pilgrimage site was mostly confined to the English, and of course, was suppressed in 1539 by Henry VIII. Yet for all its English elements, the “Canterbury Tales”, paints an excellent picture of a group of pilgrims of the late fourteenth century.

These were not only the above stopping points for pilgrims. Every town of any pretentious had its own shrine and Saint. For pilgrims were big business, with all the trappings that can be found with today’s tourist industry, its descendant. Inns and hostels sprang up along pilgrimage routes. In Venice you could buy a package tour to Jerusalem that covered all expenses. Guide books were published detailing the various routes and stopping points. And at the shrines, emblems and badges could be purchased as souvenirs or proof of having made the trip. The well traveled pilgrim could be recognized by the multitude badges that adorned his clothes, a mark of distinction. So lucrative was the market that a flood of bogus relics were manufactured to attract pilgrims.

The Reformation ended the pilgrimage as a mass movement, not because it explicitly opposed it, but because it changed the nature of religious fever. The Protestant religion is an internalized one, the worshiper talking to God on a one-to-one basis, doing away with the need for external acts of piety. Thus devaluing the idea of the pilgrimage. Not that the impulse died away, it was re-animated in the form of the “Grand Tour” of the late 17th century, as a cultural experience. But it was now devoid of the religious flavor that had marked the medieval pilgrimage.



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