|Today’s selection — from Medieval Christianity by Kevin Madigan. Holy pilgrimages have been central to many religions, from Muslims traveling to Mecca to Hindus traveling to the Ganges. In the middle ages, thousands upon thousands of European Christians traveled to shrines in Rome, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. One observer claimed to have seen sixty thousand on the banks of the River Jordan alone. Most traveled to be healed, with the hope that the closer they were to the shrine the greater their chance for restored health. Some traveled for devotional reasons. Others traveled as penance for crimes:
“Almost all of the aspects of devotion to saints — miracles, cures, relics, shrine accounts — come together in the practice of pilgrimage. Pilgrimages can be considered in terms of graduated distances from the pilgrim’s town to the shrine. Thus we can say that there were local, regional, and international pilgrimage shrines. As always, a pilgrimage could be undertaken to honor and venerate a saint. Yet at local shrines especially, many pilgrims hobbled, stumbled, lurched, or crawled to a saint’s shrine in a quest, often anguished, for the alleviation of agony; others were carried in carts. … The closer to the shrine a pilgrim could get, the better the chances for a cure. …
Christian Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem
“Some pilgrims traveled not because they were ill or even because they wished to do so but to satisfy for a penance imposed by either ecclesiastical or secular authorities. For very serious sins, such as murder, bestiality, or sacrilege, pilgrimage to a distant, international shrine was prescribed as fitting penance. Those guilty of serious crimes could be identified: they were barefoot and fettered with chains. Murderers were required to attach their weapons to their fetters. The very worst crimes were occasionally punished with a sentence of perpetual pilgrimage. Many of these pilgrims simply wandered from shrine to shrine in the hope that a saint full of pity might miraculously break their chains, a sign that a murderer had been forgiven. Usually the chains were left at shrines in gratitude and as a sign of the power of the saint who had secured the forgiveness of God. …
“Pilgrimage caused physical suffering, as much travel does, and the rigors of a long journey were imagined as an imitation of Christ; such rigors were thus thought to bring pilgrims closer to Christ and to have intrinsic religious value. Pilgrims to Jerusalem would interpret the intercessory act of a saint as a fresh beginning to be celebrated ritually by bathing in the Jordan. This was imagined as a second baptism, one that made the twenty-mile walk from Jerusalem to the Jordan well worthwhile. So many travelers to the Holy Land made the walk that one twelfth-century observer claimed to have counted no fewer than sixty thousand pilgrims on the banks of the Jordan. A similar ritual was practiced in a stream near Santiago de Compostela, one of the three great pilgrimage shrines in the Middle Ages.
“The earliest and most meritorious of pilgrimage destinations was of course Jerusalem. … So many pilgrims flooded Jerusalem and environs that it was said, as early as the fifth century, that some two hundred monasteries or hostels were built to accommodate them. … Rome was the most important pilgrimage destination in the West. The reason, of course, has to do with the city’s status as capital of the ancient empire and the church’s unparalleled collection of relics. The bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul were housed in basilicas dedicated to the founding saints of Rome’s church. Their heads rested in the church of St. John Lateran. The remains of more than one hundred martyrs were housed in dozens of churches across the city. The remains had originally been placed in catacombs outside the city walls, but barbarian attacks encouraged Christians to bring them within the walls and to spread them across many churches.”
Medieval Christianity: A New History
Author: Kevin Madigan
Publisher: Yale University Press
Copyright 2015 by Yale University
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