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About this book

Medieval pilgrimage was, above all, an expression of religious faith, but this was not its only aspect. Men and women of all classes went on pilgrimage for a variety of reasons, sometimes by choice, sometimes involuntarily. They made both long and short journeys: to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago on the one hand; to innumerable local shrines on the other. The routes that they followed by land and water made up a complex web which covered the face of Europe, and their travels required a range of support services, including the protection of rulers (who were themselves often pilgrims). Pilgrimage left its mark not only on the landscape but also on the art and literature of Europe.

Diana Webb's engaging book offers the reader a fresh introduction to the history of European Christian pilgrimage in the twelve hundred years between the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. As well as exploring this multi-faceted activity, it considers both the geography of pilgrimage and its significant cultural legacy.

Table of Contents

1. Medieval Pilgrimage: an Outline

Abstract
Scattered testimonies suggest that Christians may have been paying religiously motivated visits to Palestine before 300, or even 200, but there has been debate as to whether their motives identify them as pilgrims in the sense familiar later.1 Eusebius transcribes a letter from Melito of Sardis (d. c.190), who had taken the opportunity of a visit to the Holy Land to compile an authoritative list of the books of the Old Testament for a friend. To Melito this was the place where the biblical events had taken place and the ‘truth’ had been revealed. Any attempt to disentangle ‘devotional’ motives from the more academic quest for information on the part of such visitors may be doomed to frustration. Why, after all, were Christians interested in the scriptures if not for devotional reasons? When describing Holy Land topography Eusebius repeatedly uses language which implies that biblical sites were ‘shown’ to visitors. Clearly the long process of identifying them had begun by the early fourth century.
Diana Webb

2. Motives for Pilgrimage

Abstract
The famous opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales repay repetition when we ponder the question of pilgrim motivation. Here the poet is rooting the human impulse to pilgrimage in a context of nature and season. The sap is rising, crops and creatures are astir, and Chaucer’s characters, because they are Christians, express their participation in the general ferment by going on pilgrimage. Because they are also English, many of them choose to go to Canterbury, but others seek out distant shrines, and for these ‘palmers’ the very ‘strangeness’ of such places is important. The only specific pretext for domestic pilgrimage to which Chaucer refers is the desire to give thanks for delivery from sickness; he assumes that the saint’s ‘help’ has already been received.
Diana Webb

3. Varieties of Pilgrim

Abstract
No class of medieval society was entirely excluded from the practice of pilgrimage. Although it is obvious that wealth and high status facilitated the making of long journeys, it is also possible to glimpse people who spent much of their lives in what was effectively a condition of vagrancy lightly coloured as pilgrimage, but who were of such lowly standing that their existence attracted little attention from the authorities. Some scraped a living going on pilgrimages on behalf of others both alive and dead; humble people sought refuge from their troubles in real or alleged pilgrimage. Even the unfree were not totally debarred from access to pilgrimage, and they were not alone in having to seek permission from higher authority to go; almost all pilgrims, of whatever social rank, lay or clerical, were theoretically supposed to do that.
Diana Webb

4. The Geography of Pilgrimage

Abstract
Pilgrims were not the only travellers on the highways and waterways of medieval Europe and, as we have seen, they were not alone in shaping routes and the provision of services along them. As road-users merchants and pilgrims alike built on the foundations laid by innumerable generations of previous travellers. Shrines and roads existed in a complex symbiosis. The fact that a city was of major importance or enjoyed an advantageous situation did not of itself guarantee that it would be comparably important for pilgrims, except perhaps as a convenient halt. Conversely, while shrines often derived additional custom from their position on a well-frequented road, that was not normally the sole reason for the appearance of a shrine of major importance. The goals of pilgrimage were set in a variety of historical circumstances and sometimes in curious places. In their efforts to reach them, pilgrims had good practical reasons to try to make their journeys as easy and secure as it was possible for them to be in pre-modern conditions. Wherever they could, they adopted roads which were already viable and offered the best available security and amenities; at the same time, the increased traffic created by pilgrimage sharpened both commercial and charitable incentives to provide and improve support services along those roads, as well as to create, or at least promote, shrines along or within reach of them.
Diana Webb

5. Pilgrimage in Medieval Culture

Abstract
Pilgrimage did not lose its power over the imagination even when and where the Protestant Reformation brought its actual practice to an end. The opening lines of a poem once attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh can be quoted in evidence of this:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope’s true gage; And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
These lines reveal an interesting duality. First there is the marvellous fitness of the pilgrimage journey as a metaphor for the progress of man’s bodily life from birth to death and of his spiritual life from earth to heaven. Later still in Protestant England, John Bunyan famously so used it in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Secondly, there is the panoply of visual emblems. The scallop-shell was specifically associated with the pilgrimage to Compostela, but was often used as a symbol of pilgrimage in general. The ‘scrip’ or satchel contained the pilgrim’s necessaries; the staff was his indispensable prop (and perhaps even weapon) and the water-bottle was equally indispensable. The poem points us to two areas in which pilgrimage left a mark on European culture, the visual and the literary. The following discussion will consider examples in both these categories, but it does not present anything like a complete inventory of the cultural reflections of medieval pilgrimage.
Diana Webb
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