Throughout man’s history with the Christian and Many other )religions, there have been pilgrimage sites visited where men and women have been martyred for the “cause”. Those sites are considered holy even to this day. Up and down the European coastline and along trade routes can be found little chapels or larger abbeys where pilgrims on this quest or that can go see the venerated remains of the martyred souls: who, though long dead allegedly work miracles for the faithful.
The burial sites of martyrs were the first destinations for pilgrimage in the Christian West, reports of healings contributed fame to such sites. In the 4th century, Rome became a major pilgrimage as it was considered Holy due to the tombs of the Apostles, martyrs, and the catacombs themselves where it is said that the followers of Christ would preach the word after his death.
In the early middle ages, pilgrimage was mainly focused on the veneration of relics which were contained in the major centers of the Christian world- Rome, compostella, Canterbury, cologne, and Mount-Saint-Michael. Almost every diocese had a place of pilgrimage to honor a patron Saint, Wales was no different. Going on Pilgrimage was considered to be a holy quest and was taken very seriously. One did not make a vow to go on pilgrimage lightly, as the consequence of not going meant excommunication from the church. Excommunication was the worst thing that could happen to one of Christian faith.
The normal rules of society did not apply to those on pilgrimage, as most pilgrims took up the pledge to renounce possession of material goods and only live on charity.
Tens of thousands of men and women set off on pilgrimage to the shrines of saints and sites of miracles during the middle ages. As they traveled along well established routes in hopes of cures or blessings; to fulfill vows or just to see new places.
The most effective way to receive the miracle from a saint was to make a pilgrimage to their shrine, although there are accounts of those that received the blessings by drinking the holy water from the well from someone who did the pilgrimage for them.
The word pilgrimage is from the old French pelegrinage or the Latin peregrination- meaning a journey undertaken in a devotional spirit to some sacred place.
Relics formed the real wealth of the medieval church and the demand for some form of miracle working relic was due in a larger measure to a decree of the second Nicene Council (AD787) by which Bishops were threatened with deprivations of office should they consecrate churches without relics, a decree that no longer stands solid in the Roman Catholic church in this day and age.
Much documentation has been lost on the traveling of women on pilgrimage, the travel diaries of women count for less than 1/3 of the extant sources still available, but go on pilgrimage they did. Women on pilgrimage joined with larger groups going along the same route, rather like Tour Groups to this day. Groups of pious women, sometimes members of tertiary orders, and ofttimes widows would meet privately in a member’s home for the ritual purification before going to the church to receive the blessings to go on pilgrimage.
Travel diaries, written accounts of pilgrimages told the readers what to expect on the road, what kinds of inns and hostels were available, the experiences to be expected when onboard ships (if going to the holy land) and the wonders of the shrines and the miracles to be found there. At the heyday of the Middle Ages it was uncommon to find many people who had traveled more than a day’s journey from their original place of birth. To travel distances greater than about 15 – 20 miles involved finding somewhere to stay overnight, or finding a safe place to make camp, which was always either expensive or dangerous and sometimes both. Undertaking a journey of several weeks, (pilgrims traveled on foot if they were undergoing severe or special penance or by ass, or on horseback) represented a major commitment of time, effort and of course, adventure. Therefore people would often travel in groups with other pilgrims for safety’s sake, as well as companionship.
The small villages along the routes would often have hospices set up for travelers and each was built in pretty much the same pattern the world over. One would find a large main room with straw heaped up thick upon the pavement for them to bed down upon. Occasionally there would be musical entertainment from traveling musicians and jongleurs. There would be a single meal, shared in the main room and then in the morning the pilgrims would be on their way.
Writers of the time gave also a comical look into what a woman would wear while on pilgrimage. Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Wife of Bath” gave a description of her veil and wimple.
“Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sunday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe. Ywpmpled wel,
and on hir heed an hat as brood as is a bokeler or a targe;”
She was evidently well and colorfully dressed and loved a large hat. Who doesn’t like a big hat?
According to Alexander Neckam,
“A pilgrim dressed to travel. He carried a wallet (escrepe) around his neck, and a staff (bordon) of ashwood. Like many travelers he wore a hat with a brim somewhat wider than usual, similar to what a peasant might wear in the fields. He also had a cape (chape) with a hood. The wallet and the staff were tokens that identified his purpose to passers by.”
What do you need to do BEFORE the rigorous journey as a pilgrim.
There was a short but important list of things one had to do before going on Pilgrimage.
- A pilgrim had to pay his debts, make a will, settle all arguments and apologize to all they had offended.
- A pilgrim had to see his priest and take a vow to complete his journey; the priest would then bless his journey and give the pilgrim a script and walking staff that had been blessed by the abbot or bishop of the church.
- A pilgrim’s final task was to then take that journey or face excommunication.
Only after taking the vows and blessing of the church could the pilgrim take up the uniform of the pilgrim.
People would choose to visit shrines for several reasons:
- to offer their lives in service to God
- to atone for some wrong thing(SIN) they had done
- to give thanks to God for healing for themselves or a family member
- to pray for healing for themselves or a family member
- to join themselves to the spiritual world by seeking a special place where it was thought possible to draw closer to God
What the well dressed pilgrim wore:
- Broad rimmed leather or felted wool hat
- Coif under the hat, should the hat be lost they must still have a covering for their head representing humility before god. (It doesn’t hurt that the hat and coif combination keeps your head warm and dry.)
- Mantle and Cloak- Both come in handy as they keep the pilgrim warm on their travels as the vow of poverty kept them from leaving with an entourage and baggage wain.
- Sclaven-the ankle length tunic or dress which in symbolism represented Hope. Often made of horsehair if the pilgrim were truly going on pilgrimage to atone for a great sin.
- Script- the essential pouch with shoulder strap used for storing essential items, representing Charity
- Food, Bowl
- Money, Rosary
- Book of Holy Scriptures
- Water bottle
- Staff- representing faith: also good for protecting oneself from bandits and wild animals.
- Boots/sandals; for protecting ones feet if not on a pilgrimage that demanded bare feet.
(You’ll note that all of the clothing on the list is just about the same thing one would wear on a regular basis in the Middle Ages. Depending on status, your clothes would be higher or lower quality. )
Hey! Now that you are equipped to go on pilgrimage, ble rwyt ti’n mynd? Where are you going? Of course one did not have to travel far from home in the Welsh country to find a shrine or holy well to visit for home grown miracles. A little bit about Wales: The country of Wales is a small space of land between Britain and the Irish Sea, 175 miles long and 55miles wide. Its population during the Middle Ages was estimated at 150,000 which doubled to 300,000 until taken down by a third by the black plague. In Modern Wales the population has finally swelled to just over three(3) million. (Several different eras found the men and boys of Wales going off to war thus impacting the population of Wales at different times)
When going on Pilgrimage in Wales there are shrines, abbeys and holy wells to consider into your route; Wales in fact, still has over seventeen holy wells, and hundreds of still visited shrines to saints and martyrs. The route through Wales is a near spiral of shrines, wells and churches that should pilgrimage be desired, will get you out after the planting is done and back before the first harvest. Now that is convenient!
In the Middle Ages, there were many factions of the Church out there in the Welsh country that were there to minister to the people and bring in revenue to keep their parishes thriving; Cistercians, Franciscans and Benedictines to name a few. Each with it’s holy wells and relics waiting for pilgrims to visit and be blessed. When you went on pilgrimage you would receive a token or badge to prove you had been to a particular holy place, often if you just went to the holy well you would receive a vial of water from the well or spring. That vial would not only prove you had been to the holy site; but would according to faith, heal whichever ailment the saint was known to heal.
From there you would journey home with the vials of water and possibly a badge or two sewn to your hat to show you had been there. Upon return you would clean yourself up and present yourself to the head of your local church so that he could witness your return and bless the little vials of water.
You would then attend Mass, and the vials of water would be given to whomever you went on pilgrimage for, or you would donate them to the church who could then keep them for a truly needy person. After Mass you would go back to your life, your goods intact and your lands cared for in your absence, or at least you would hope that this was the case. I could not find documentation of the Church having confiscated lands and goods while a pilgrim was away, but if it happened I would hope it did so rarely.
On searching for medieval pilgrims routes I found instead more modern pilgrim routes through Wales called “Ways” which are now well tended walking paths.
- The Cistercian Way
- St. Illtyd’s Way
- Coed Morgannwg Way
- The Tenby Knight’s Way
These “ways” have linked up the counties, cities and back country of Wales along the walking pathways, bicycle paths and bridle paths. They range from 36 miles to the whopping 650 of the circular Cistercian. They can be walked in as little as 10 hours on up to several days. The joys of most of the pilgrimage sites along these routes are the scenic views of Bronze Age ruins and Medieval churches and Holy Wells. The Holy Wells in many of the sites are still visited by pilgrims seeking cures and remission of their sins according to their faith. This revival of the pilgrims ways in Wales comes full circle from the Ages of Saints and the Reformation when it became forbidden to those of the Christian faith to worship saints and go on pilgrimage. A new Age of Saints and Pilgrimages is building itself back up from the rubble of the past and blooming anew the need to go to a holy place and find part of your soul.
We in the Society for Creative Anachronism are one of the few societies that perform yearly pilgrimage all over the known world. Don’t believe me? Yes, I am speaking of the events that we travel to in order to enact our particular historical hysteria. These events can be looked at in a unique manner as well. A way to gather together new pilgrimage badges to sew to your pouches. Pilgrims badges?? No…Those are site tokens you say…Yes, Pilgrims badges I say.
These tokens are not just the pilgrims way of showing they paid in full to attend the event, they are badges that show you took the time to travel far and wide to join in with other pilgrims to go to a particular event for a particular reason…That is all it takes to be a pilgrim. A pilgrimage need not be religious, nope.
Of course the definition is thus:
- a journey to a shrine or other sacred place
- a journey or long search made for exalted or sentimental reasons
to make a pilgrimage
So, technically even though we are not on a religious journey to find a sacred place; we can surely say that we make a journey made for exalted (War) or sentimental (kingdom A&S) reasons. Therefore, we are pilgrims and we carry our badges with pride!
- Pilgrim life in the Middle Ages-Sydney Heath 1911
- A History of Private Life-Editors Philippe Aries and Georges Duby 1988
- Pilgrimages and Shrines: A Recognition Long Delayed-Thomas A. Thompson, SM
- Daily Living in the 12th Century: Based on the observations of Alexander Neckam in London & Paris; Urban Tigner Holmes Jr. FSA, University of Wisconsin Press 1952.
- The Cistercian Way: http://cistercian-way.newport.ac.uk/route.asp?RouteID=Index02