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The small world of pilgrimage

12 October 2018

In a new book, Nicholas Orme reappraises medieval pilgrimage and modern parochialism


Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims set out in an illustration by Walter Appleton Clark (1876-1906)

Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims set out in an illustration by Walter Appleton Clark (1876-1906)

“WHEN April comes,” Chaucer sang, “then longen folk to go on pilgrimages” —especially, he added, to Canterbury. Well, up to a point, Dan Geoffrey. In the days when pilgrimage was a common and approved activity, before the Reformation, it was not by any means confined to the early spring, and took place to some extent all the year round.

And it was not especially made to Canterbury. The Canterbury pilgrimages accounted for only a small percentage of those that took place, and the same was true of Walsingham and other famous pilgrimage destinations.

We have come to assume that pilgrimages must be long journeys. In the Middle Ages, some people, indeed, went to Compostela, Rome, and Jerusalem, as they do now to Lourdes or Fatima. But travel of this kind, even today, is expensive in time and money. This was far more of a problem for our ancestors, who travelled by horse or cart. Most people could not afford to take weeks away from their work, nor to pay the costs of such transport.

Long pilgrimages, like safari treks today, were for the affluent. Most of Chaucer’s imagined pilgrims came into that category: knight, prioress, monk, merchant, franklin, and Wife of Bath. They owned horses, and could pay to stay at inns. The main shrines in medieval England — such as Canterbury, Walsingham, and Hailes (near Cheltenham) — would have chiefly attracted pilgrims of that rank. Such poor people as came would have lived mostly in the neighbourhood, with only a rare devotee from further afield.

IT FOLLOWS, then, that most pilgrimages in England before the Reformation were local ones. To hazard a guess, perhaps nine-tenths of those undertaking such a venture were bound for destinations very close to home.

Shrines and images competed to entice visitors. By the 13th century, England alone had more than 1000 religious houses, 10,000 parish churches, and perhaps 30,000 chapels — not to mention holy wells, whose numbers are incalculable. All of them welcomed pilgrims.

Some had the tomb of a saint, especially in Cornwall and Wales, where there were huge numbers of local saints, often unique to a single place. England had fewer, but they were still significant: Alban at St Albans, Swithun at Winchester, William at York, and many others. Those three were historical figures, but others cannot even be identified, and may well have been inventions: White at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset, or Jordan in a chapel near Bristol Cathedral.

Many churches had important relics of Christ and the saints: bones of Peter, Margaret, and Katherine. Girdles of the Virgin Mary were legion, and were lent out to women giving birth.

The problem with relics was that the supply ran out by about 1200. It was hard to renew, because the popes had now made canonisation into a legal process under their control, and they were, at first, sparing in making new saints. Only half a dozen were sanctioned in England during the next 300 years. Instead, churches and chapels turned their attention to images, which were easier to acquire.

Every church had several, in the form of statues or wall-paintings. While it was not straightforward to use an image to attract visitors, many came to possess a reputation for the answering of prayers. Those who visited the image prayed, made an offering, and hoped for a response.

Such images came to be known by their locations. People referred to them as “the Holy Cross of Bromholm”, “the Holy Cross of St Paul’s”, “Our Lady of Willesden”, “Our Lady of Crome”. In this way, universal objects of devotion such as the cross and the Virgin Mary became highly localised, and were credited with answering prayers in one place rather than another.

BUT pilgrimages were not made only to places of special repute. Every parish church had its own festivities once or twice a year. One was the feast of the patron saint (the patronal festival), another commemorated the day when the church had been dedicated (the dedication festival). On such days, people from neighbouring churches would come on what could be called a pilgrimage, because it was not a routine activity. There would probably be secular activities as well: drinking, and items for sale.

The Cornish writer Richard Carew described the remnants of these pilgrimages in 1602, when they still survived in his county, albeit now largely secularised. “The saint’s feast is kept upon the dedication day by each householder of the parish, within his own doors, each entertaining such foreign [i.e. out-of-parish] acquaintance as will not fail, when their like turn cometh about, to requite him with the like kindness.”

A coming and going between parishes was also manifest on the three Rogation days that preceded Ascension Day. Some parish communities went in procession to their boundaries and met their neighbours at a chapel for mass or a sermon, followed by a picnic. This kind of interchange was lost at the Reformation, which brought rigidity to parochial life.

THE Reformation made the parish more insulated. It left only the parish church, and cleared away the competing monasteries and chapels. Parishes were given new responsibilities — poor-relief and highway maintenance — which made them more conscious of their boundaries. Although Rogation processions continued under Elizabeth I, they became — more than they had been formerly — boundary patrols, marking in everyone’s memory the exact limits of the parish rather than trying to move beyond it.

This parochialism is still with us, but it has been softened by the taking away of secular responsibilities, and by the union of parishes into benefices. Church communities are more likely now to hold activities in common, or visit each other’s churches.

In doing so, we are recovering a habit of our ancestors. It is not necessary to go to a famous shrine — although doing so will have something special and out of the ordinary about it. There is also a virtue in making a spiritual journey to a church or chapel, well or hill, near by: relating oneself to one’s own landscape, and to one’s immediate neighbours.

Professor Nicholas Orme’s book Medieval Pilgrimages is published by Impress Books at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50).

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