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Medieval Pilgrimage: With a survey of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Bristol , by Nicholas Orme

25 January 2019

Most cults stayed local, Gabriel Byng reads

PITY poor St Juthware, victim, like so many great heroines, of a wicked stepmother.

It was the latter who recommended that she apply two soft cheeses to her breasts as an aid to bereavement while telling her son, Bana, that she was pregnant by a love affair. Bana felt inside his stepsister’s underclothes, found them milky, and promptly decapitated her. The sixth-century villagers of Halstock, Dorset, were about to bury the body of a new saint: Juthware immediately picked up her head and carried it to their church.

Juthware would transcend her local fame when her remains were poached by a great abbey, Sherborne, already home to two important saints’ relics. But, as Nicholas Orme points out in this fascinating guide to medieval pilgrimage, most cults stayed local.

His scholarly but readable survey of surviving West Country pilgrimage sites such as Halstock includes more than 80 entries, only a fraction of the medieval total, but of these just two or three were of national significance. This book is an important nudge towards conceiving of pilgrimage in these local, everyday ways, moving attention away from the minority who reached Canterbury, Rome, or Jerusalem.

Orme demonstrates just how remarkably varied these shrines were, in abbeys and parish churches, in woods and caves, on bridges and roads. Some were relics, that is, body parts of saints, but many were images or statues, or even trees, wells, or springs, and were themselves surrounded by little votive offerings left in thanks: painted limbs, animals, and ships.

Saints’ cults were important money-earners — although nowhere in the West Country received the vast sums donated at great shrines such as Canterbury. Exeter Cathedral was not alone in paying for advertising, making 700 copies of an indulgence for pilgrims which were to be distributed throughout the diocese in 1329.

Pilgrimage was, of course, socially and economically divided: serfs needed the permission of their lords, and wives that of their husbands. Orme points out that even the medieval stereotype, a man with cloak, bag, and staff, festooned in scallop shells and badges, omitted the many women and children who made their way to shrines. But their number also included kings and nobles, accompanied by retainers and servants, as well as beggars and peasants, pregnant women and monks, flirts and tourists. Others paid subs to go for them.

This useful and succinct introduction to medieval pilgrimage, covering its history, practice, and sudden end in the Reformation, will be a useful guide for all who want to chart their own religious journeys around the west of England.

Dr Gabriel Byng is a research fellow and director of studies at Clare Hall, Cambridge.

Medieval Pilgrimage: With a survey of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Bristol
Nicholas Orme
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