Pity the Pilgrim: the medieval tourist trade

ImageIf you are packing your bags for a summer holiday, spare a thought for the medieval pilgrim. In most cases, the modern holiday from hell amounts to little more than a long queue at the airport or a hotel resembling Fawlty Towers. If you fall sick there will be pharmacists, doctors and hospitals on hand to treat you.

If your car breaks down or you lose your camera, you will be covered by insurance and receive a replacement. However fraught your holiday, you can usually expect to return home safely after a relatively short period of discomfort.

To fund your holiday, you probably saved a little every month over a year. Even if all goes wrong, your trip is a disaster, your hotel is half-built and you cannot claim compensation, you would probably not expect to lose everything you own. Not so the medieval pilgrim.

In the Middle Ages, some pilgrims would sell everything they had to fund a trip to a holy place. Why? In some cases, the trip was prescribed by the church as penance for a crime. In others, pilgrims were motivated by piety or, in the case of wealthier travellers, by a desire to see the world.

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is described as a wealthy widow “five times at church door had she been”. The wealth accumulated from her various marriages obviously funded her love of travel. We are told that “Thrice at Jerusalem had this dame been … And she had gone to Rome and to Boulogne, To Saint James in Galicia, and Cologne …”.

The travels of this fictitious character are, in some degree, mirrored by those of the 15th century mystic Margery Kempe. Born into a Norfolk merchant’s family, Margery married a local tradesman and, for a while, ran her own businesses of brewing and milling.

However, Margery’s religious visions prompted her to make numerous pilgrimages. Her first trip abroad lasted two years (1413 – 1415) and reveals a staggering itinerary which took in the Holy Land, including Jerusalem and Calvary; Constance; Venice; Assisi and Rome.

Two years later, Margery was off again to visit the shrine of St James of Compostella in Spain. At a later date, she accompanied her daughter to Danzig and was blown off course to Norway. When she finally reached Germany, Margery visited sites with holy relics at Wilsnack in Brandenburg and Aachen, returning home via Calais to London.

While Margery is said to have lived off alms on her trip to the Holy Land, it is doubtful that such a wealthy woman was deprived of all of life’s comforts. Perhaps, like the Wife of Bath, she travelled on horse-back at least part of the way.

However, life was very different for poorer pilgrims who were obliged to travel on foot. Unlike the wife of Bath who wore fine clothes, including red stockings and soft leather shoes, they would have worn what amounted to the pilgrim’s uniform: a hat with a broad brim; a long, rough woollen tunic called a sclavein; a leather pouch or scrip in which they carried their money and a heavy staff tipped with metal for protection against attacks from wild animals or robbers.

The only kind of insurance that these travellers had was a blessing from their priest before setting out. If they were sensible, they would have travelled in a large group and, if possible, spent the night under cover. Monasteries were supposed to offer free board and lodging to travellers (only the wealthy could afford inns) and beds were shared. But such Spartan hospitality was not always available at the end of the day.

Sickness, bad weather or treacherous roads could easily slow a journey and pilgrims would have had to rely on the kindness of local people for shelter. A hay-barn would have seemed like luxury compared to a damp bed under a hedge or a tree dripping with rain. Then, of course, there were robbers and bandits who stalked the woods and countryside and who even infiltrated unsuspecting groups of pilgrims, waiting for a chance to ambush them on the open road.

Even when they reached their final destination, pilgrims would have had to endure further physical discomfort, suffering fatigue, hunger and extremes of cold or heat as they waited in long queues to visit a popular saint’s shrine which they may have approached up a flight of steps on their knees.

Yet, in some ways, medieval pilgrims resembled their modern counterparts. They, too, had an insatiable taste for trinkets and souvenirs. The seasoned pilgrim would decorate his broad-brimmed hat with small metal tokens. Each badge had a design which signified a particular shrine, for instance: a scallop shell for Compostella, a palm for the Holy Land, a set of keys for Rome.

Shrines in England also had their own distinctive tokens, for example: a depiction of Becket’s shrine (Canterbury); a portrait of St Bridget (Syon Abbey); St George fighting the Dragon (Windsor).

And, for the folks back home, holy water could be transported in small pewter flasks called ampullae.

In their desire to see the world, to experience different cultures and to collect keepsakes, medieval pilgrims were not so different from us. However, the hardships endured on their travels were far greater. If your holiday does not quite live up to expectations, just be thankful. Your discomfort is only likely to last two weeks. Theirs could last for two years!

Additional information

William of Perth, a hapless pilgrim who became Rochester’s patron saint, was the inspiration for ‘The Baker’s Boy’, one of the short stories in my new collection Barley Bread and Cheese. For more information, click here

For information about my novel The Devil Dancers and other writing, please click here to visit my website

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