Medieval pilmgrimage – tourists of penance, pleasure and punishment

We recognise modern tourist impulses and experiences in Medieval pilgrims.

Our prevailing image of Medieval Europe is a static, narrow world in which most people never left their home village.

But, in fact, high numbers of people regularly travelled both short and long distances.

Many travellers sought religious salvation and “indulgences” by visiting certain religious places.

Indulgences were extra merits available to whoever underwent a pilgrimage to a certain destination.

A general belief was that if you undertook a pilgrimage to the grave of St. James the Apostle in Santiago, your time in purgatory would be halved.

In the 12th century, Gerald of Wales undertook a pilgrimage to Rome and rushed around as many sites as possible, to accumulate as many indulgences as he could.

Having calculated that he had collected 92 years of indulgences, he undertook another religious act in order to round-up his indulgences to 100 years!

But not all pilgrims travelled for pious motivations.

A pilgrimage might cloak political and economic agendas, curiousity or even be imposed as a judicial punishment.

The pilgrimages of the Angevin kings of England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries consisted of a :

“near ceaseless round of campaigning, hunting expeditions, crown-wearings, solemn entries and local

Go a pilgrim, return a whore

Most of the surviving evidence focuses on elite travellers – kings, counts, bishops.

But travel, and pilgrimage, in particular, was also undertaken by the very poorest.

Monastic rules outlined their monks’ duty to offer free hospitality to travellers.

One poverty-stricken man from southern Italy financed visits to the Holy Sepulchre and the shrine of St Cataldus at Taranto primarily by begging.

Imagine the plight of the female pilgrim who turned to prostitution to survive. This was common enough to give rise to the saying :

“Go a pilgrim, return a whore”

The package holiday and Medieval Pilgrimage


On arrival at the pilgrimage destination, pilgrims would often face a scene not too different to the modern day package holiday.

Chances are they would be met on the roads outside the town by boys sent by hotel owners and innkeepers offering accommodation.

Advertising billboards for accommodation could be found in surrounding villages.

Texts similar to travel brochures would promote one entombed saint over another.

An 1100 treatise by The city of Benevento tried to attract pilgrims to its own shrines and away from the popular St Nicholas’ at Bari.

It claimed Bari was a :

“merciless land, without water, wine and bread”

In 1205 in Toulouse, France, the authorities had to warn the hotel owners to stop physically dragging pilgrims in off the street!

If you had the money, you could hire your own local guide and translator.

At the sanctuary itself, particularly the famous ones, pilgrims would be met by a large noisy crowd.

Medieval Souvenirs

In a city like Trondheim (the grave of St. Olav), there were buskers and entertainers, market stalls and pickpockets, beggars and prostitutes.

Primitive postcards and souvenir pilgrim-badges were for sale. Pilgrims were fascinated by exotic products, spices, wines and silks, not available at home.

Many pilgrims indulged in a little bit of medieval ‘duty-free’, hiding their purchases from the customs men or bribing the appropriate officials to turn a blind eye.

At Santiago de Compostella, the priests complained of unruly travellers:

‘all sorts of noises and languages can be heard together, discordant shouts, barbarous singing in German, English, Greek and every other language under the sun’.

The behaviour was such that many sanctuaries, such as Durham in England, employed the equivalent of ‘bouncers’ to keep order and eject those who behaviour was considered too ‘rude’.

Some pilgrims even decided to leave their mark by carving their name or their family coat of arms in the sanctuary itself.

Ghillebert de Lannoy’s graffiti at Mount Sinai, can still be seen today.

Shipboard and the Medieval Pilgrimage

Medieval Ship

In 1480, a seasoned pilgrim, known as Frater Felix Fabri, complained that the sea-captain who’d brought them to Jerusalem tried to charge them for a donkey excursion which the pilgrims insisted was included as part of the ‘package’ they’d already paid for.

Unfortunately, they were forced to pay up when the captain threatened to leave them behind in the Holy Land.

On board ship, as part of the package, captains were supposed to provide two hot meals a day including a sweet pudding and cake, an aperitif such as malvoisie, and as much wine you could drink with the meal.

But pilgrims frequently complained of the wine being watered and the food being poor so they had to take their own supplementary supplies.

They also had to provide their own mattresses, blankets and sheets.

The misery really began once the ship set sail.

When the four trumpets sounded for meals, the pilgrims had to ‘run with utmost haste’ to get a place at one of the tables in the poop, otherwise, they were forced to eat outside in the wind or rain.

They were under strict instructions not to touch ropes, or sit anywhere that a block might fall on them. They were warned not to sit on the galley-slaves’ rowing benches for fear of being beaten up by the rowers or robbed.

In fact, they were advised not to sit anywhere on deck unless they wanted to get tar on clothes. So the pilgrims had little to do for six weeks but get drunk, gamble and quarrel.

Each pilgrim was only allotted a width of one and half feet in the communal cabin in which to live and sleep, which led to furious arguments at night as everyone tried to undress and make up their beds at once.

Little wonder then that King Richard I, in an attempt to try to control the rowdy behaviour of pilgrims, drew up statutes to curb their behaviour.

Penalties were severe – if you killed a fellow pilgrim you would be bound to his corpse and flung into the sea.

If you injured another pilgrim and drew blood, your right hand was chopped off and if you slapped another pilgrim without drawing blood, you would be dunked in the sea three times.

But even assuming you escaped injury or death at the hands of your fellow passengers, you still had to face the hazards of pirates, violent storms, hidden rocks, contracting a deadly fever or dying of thirst.

Punishment and the Medieval Pilgrimage


Pilgrimages were sometimes used as punishments by city governments. The distance travelled was based on the seriousness of the crime.

As proof they had completed their punishment, criminals had to request a letter and / or a stamp of the seal of the authority or city in question.

The wealthier people tended to buy out their punishment, opting to pay to NOT have to go.

In 1319, Roger de Bonito was sent to Rome, Santiago and Jerusalem for the murder of a bishop.

A male offender could be sentenced to walk naked; a female offender would walk clad in white.

A murderer could be shackled with manacles forged from the metal of his murder weapon.

Today, Belgium continues the medieval custom of ordering criminals to walk the Camino de Santiago!

Accompanied by a warden, the criminals -about 500 a year – must be 23 or younger, serving a sentence of no more than three years.

They must perform the pilgrimage during the Winter.

Not an easy task, it’s 1708km and long would take 14 days and 7 hours to walk straight through.

At the end of the walk, pilgrims still receive the “Compostela,” a Latin certificate stating the person has traveled at least 60 miles of the Camino on foot or horseback or 120 miles by bicycle.

To prove you are a true pilgrim and not just a weekend stroller, you need the “credencial,” a pilgrim’s passport stamped with the colorful seals of the towns along the route.

Permission and the Medieval Pilgrimage

Early Medieval peasant farmers were encouraged by the church to embark on pilgrimages to holy shrines.

Serfdom until its decline in the 14th and 15th centuries bound peasants to the land and even free peasants had their freedom circumcised by law and custom.

Serfs could receive permission from officials to leave the village for a time to fulfil these religious devotions.

They had to pay a fine to do so, a “chevage”.

Women could travel alone or in groups of friends, particularly if they were widows.

If married, the female pilgrim would need their husband’s permission.

A pilgrimage journey would often be dangerous, uncomfortable and boring, but it did give people the opportunity to be something they rarely were, strangers.

The word ‘pilgrim’ literally means ‘stranger’.

Peasents and the Medieval pilgrimage

A pilgrimage did not necessarily need to be ” far “.

A noble such as Fulk was expected to make a good pilgrimage because he was a noble but a ” peasant ” was not asked to go to the Holy Land or Santiago de Compostela.

A pilgrimage could be made to the next village over.

Pilgrims could add a ” little difficulty ” such as walking the last 500 meters on their knees.

In fact, the vast, vast majority of “pilgrimage” in medieval Europe was local.

The Canterbury Tales is a group of travelers crossing part of England.

The people of one town might form a Corpus Christi feast day procession to the church in an outlying village that had a miraculous bleeding Host (communion wafer).

Curiosity and the Medieval Pilgrimage


Towards the end of the middle ages, the church began to reject the notion of pilgrimage for fear that its spiritual benefits did not outweigh its spiritual risks.

One 15th century writer complained that the main motive of pilgrims was to break away from convention and authority. Pilgrims he suggested, were driven by a

‘curiosity to see new places and experience new things, [it was] impatience of the servant with the master, of children with their parents, or wives with their husbands.’

Christian K. Zacher has plenty to say on this idea of ‘curiositas’ as a risk of pilgrimage, referring to any excessive and curious interest in observing the world.

Essentially, ‘curiositas’ on pilgrimage is the worry that those on pilgrimage might be so dazzled by the exoticism of the physical world that they might lose sight of the spiritual – that a pilgrim might begin to see their journey as a holiday!

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