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The practice of pilgrimage during medieval times Essay

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Examine and Comment on the practice of pilgrimage during medieval times and its significance in the medieval church

As pilgrimage in medieval times is a very large topic to explore, I have decided to use Canterbury as my focus. Canterbury was and is still seen as a very important place for pilgrimage and was the main reason why pilgrims from other parts of England, Europe and all over the world have come to venerate St Thomas Becket. I want to examine how pilgrimage at Canterbury developed and evolved from Becket’s death in 1170 to the Reformation in the 1500s.

What kind of an effect did this have on the Cathedral’s revenue; surely the Cathedral saw a large profit? Even though people had been visiting Canterbury for centuries in small groups so that they could respect and honour saints like Augustine, Dunstan and Alphege, however, was it pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop, which made most the money for Canterbury?Did pilgrimage to his shrine help to make a very wide impact on pilgrimage in England as it brung the majority of pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral? During the medieval ages Canterbury Cathedral saw its peak years in terms of the number of visitors and revenue generated as well as its downfalls which I would like to explore along with the common criticisms of pilgrimage.

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R.Finucane begins his book ‘Miracles and Pilgrims’ by asking why pilgrims in the early middle ages would be drawn to the ‘mouldering remains’ of a saint. The answer is most likely to be because they wanted a cure for their illnesses. Finucane describes ‘cripples writhing on the floor of Becket’s simple tomb’1Thomas Becket’s death in 1170 had a massive effect on the number of pilgrims that came to Canterbury. After he died in 1170 news of miracles spread almost immediately, not just in Canterbury but in other places around England. For example two days after the killing ‘a Gloucester girl was cured of a head complaint after praying to the martyr’2 A monk called Benedict who was responsible for the relics recorded the first set of miracles. The following year another Canterbury monk, William recorded 483 miracles. Between the two monks the total which was recorded was 703 miracles in the first ten years after the Archbishop’s death.

From these results we can see that William recorded a larger number of miracles than Benedict which shows that the news of miracles at Canterbury had spread widely even between the early years of 1171 and 11723. Sarah Hopper also tells us that it is estimate that almost a third of visitors to the shrine were foreign and it is also interesting to note that his shrinew received more foreign pilgrims than any other. This large number of miracles that occurred would have encouraged more pilgrims to gradually come to worship at the shrine of St Thomas Becket and when pilgrims first started to visit the Cathedral to venerate Thomas Becket their experience would be a very ordered process. When they got there, there would be welcomed by a monk who would act as their guide and lead them on a tour which was very well structured. Monks would lead the pilgrims to the North transept which was the first pilgrimage station where Becket was murdered. From here the pilgrim would see a column removed and an altar in it place to mark the spot, they would see two broken pieces of steel that had shattered Richard le Bret’s swords.

This reminds pilgrim’s of the ‘horrendous nature’ of Becket’s’ death. However what was achieved by Becket’s martyrdom was a better understanding and appreciation of what Becket suffered for his beliefs. Some pilgrims might also go up the stairs, on their knees if they wished to the high altar where Becket’s body was left the night of his murder. Ascending this path towards the shrine would have been very symbolic for the pilgrim. The quality of the shrine’s location was of a very high quality as it was at the highest end of Canterbury Cathedral. This was because by following this course the pilgrims would be enacting not only the last steps taken by Thomas Becket but they would be also on a spiritual journey themselves. The next station they may visit is the crypt where the atmosphere was very different, more sombre and still.

There they would see Beckets tomb raised and there would be two oval holes where pilgrims placed their heads or their hand against the stone coffin. In John Adair’s book ‘The Pilgrims Way’ he notes that a foreign pilgrim once wrote that ‘church seemed to be piled on church, a new temple entered as soon as one ended’4. This implies that the Cathedral was slightly overwhelming for many pilgrims going from station to station, all of which having their own significance. When they had seen scenes of Beckets miracles in the stained glass windows this would encourage many to filled their lead ampullae at the Wall of St Thomas.

This water which could be brought at Canterbury was said to contain some of the saint’s blood. When Becket died the monks used cloth to salvage some of the blood from the saint. This water was also given to many churches in England. This would also see the spreading of the message about Becket’s divine healing power. Was this water effective in miraculously curing diseases? Adair also mentions John who was a chaplain to the Archdeacon of Salop was bothered by an unlpeasant polypus in his nose. It started to cause paralysis he described the sensation of the water as ‘cold as ice, chasing the disease through his body and almost freezing his brain’5 after a large sneeze he came across a cherry stone in his mouth. He was healed and walked home and he would not leave the cherry-stone behind as it was his evidence of a ‘divine intervention’

On 21st Febraury 1172, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III which brought a larger number of pilgrims to Canterbury. By making someone a saint this would increase their popularity and make them better known. The cult of Thomas Becket had now officially began and thus leading to more people wanting to make their pilgrimage to Canterbury.One can only assume that Pope Alexander heard about Thomas Becket through news of him spreading because of pilgrims.

Pilgrims also came to Canterbury to seek penance from St Thomas Becket. Penace was a common reason for many pilgrims to go on a pilgrimage. This was the idea that if you commited a sin you would carry out a pilgrimage to beg forgiveness at the shrine of a saint such as Thomas Becket. Chaucer (c1340 -1400) described,

‘when a man has sinned openly, of which sin the fame is openly spoken in the country…Common penance is that priests enjoin men commonly in certain cases, as for to go, peradventue, naked in pilgrimages or barefoot’

One example of a pilgrim who walked in a sackcloth among pilgrims and also barefoot was Henry II, who was also the most famous pilgrim who sought forgiveness

Furthermore he was also the most famous royal pilgrim who sought redemption at Becket’s shrine after his men murdered the Archbishop. He walked barefoot from the West gate of the city to Becket’s tomb. He allowed himself here to be scourged. This was not an unknown act amongst pilgrims. It was a frequent practice and seen as a punishment for those who were making a penance at Canterbury. The pilgrims would be beaten with rods by the clergy. Pilgrimage can also be seen as a spiritual journey as Langland describes that ‘You must travel , both men and women, through Humility, until you arrive at Conscience: there Christ may know for certain that you love God above all else’6. So, this highlights the religious importance behind doing a penance as well.

It was mainly local people who would come to visit Beckets tomb up to 1220 when his bones were translated to the new Trinity Chapel which stood on the site of the old Trinity Chapel. However, why did they choose to move his body there? a Canterbury monk explains that it stands on the site of the old Trinity Chapel,

‘ where he celebrated his first mass, where he was wont to prostrate himself with tears and prayers, under whose crypt for so many years he was buried, where God for his merits had performed so many miracles, where poor and rich, kings and princes, had worshipped him, and whence the sound of his praises had gone forth into all lands’7.

These associations with the Archbishop was why they chose to translate his body to the new Trinity Chapel

Festivals Celebrated at Canterbury

Festivals celebrated at Canterbury would also attract more pilgrims to Canterbury. People would crowd around the doors outside the Cathedral on the vigils of the Translation and of saint’s Martyrdom. Here pilgrims may spend the night. Examples of activities that pilgrims would do include prayers, devotions, games and music. However, this would also give the opportunity for many thieves to steal from the pilgrims as they would often wander around the large crowds. Becket’s translation led to the annual Canterbury fair on the 7th July which was The Feast of the Translation. Many booths and stalls would be opened making a lot of money from visitors. As the Feast of the Translation was set in the summer and not the winter like The Feast of St Thomas of Canterbury has attracted a larger number of pilgrims from further away. It is said that the first jubilee in 1220 gained a sum of �1,142 5s 8. This sum was mainly made up of the offering to the saint’s shrine and also the site of the martyrdom

There were also other factors which affected the revenue which were of a more social and political nature. For example when the Cathedral hosted the Black Prince’s funeral in 1376 and the crowning of King George and Queen Isabella in Canterbury Cathedral this saw extremely high amounts in these years.

The Customary and revenue at Canterbury

It was very important for the shrine to be well guarded every day and night because they had many important tasks to carry out. There was a guide of the custodians duties called the Customary which was written by two monks. There were two guards in the Trinity Chapel one was temporal and the other spiritual. In the summer they would get up at five and it would be six in the winter. They would celebrate a daily Mass in honour of Becket at his shrine and the spiritual guard was responsible for this as well as ringing a bell to gather the pilgrims .

These guards also had to ensure that the pilgrims were well looked after because many would be exhausted so they would be offered food and refreshments. Before the Feast of the Translation they had to prepare the shrine for the festivities which were about to take place. The Customary also lists the expenditures from the coins that were offered at the shrine. We assume that because of the many people that visited the shrine the Cathedral generated a great amount of revenue. However, Woodruff calculate that even though there were large some of money received by the Cathedral on both of its own Jubilee years of 1320 and 1370 the cellarer’s expenditures were extremely large and the accounts show an unfavourable balance9. In other words, this emans that more money had been spent than generated at Canterbury Cathedral at this time.

The Corona

Beyond the Trinity Chapel at the very eastern end of the Cathedral a special unique chapel was added to protect the Corona or ‘Becket’s Crown’ which was a thin saucer of bone that had been sliced from the Saint’s skull. This would have also brought more pilgrims because it was a holy relic. Pilgrims would venerate the segment of skull that had been set in a golden likeness of his head encrusted with gold.

The Black Death (1349 -51) in the fourteenth century also had its impact on the practice of pilgrimage in Canterbury. The potbreak in 1348-9 led to the shrine of St Thomas Becket benfiting finacialy through generous offerings. Around this time many may have gone to Canterbury in the hope that they would be healed. At this time when the Black Death was at its worse St Thomas saw some very generous offerings as well as St Mary who was in the undercroft

However, in the 1400s how did the practice of pilgrimage develop? Offerings from pilgrims would add up to �700 at the shrine alone itself. Was the practice of pilgrimage at Canterbury any different at all from its earlier stages ? It wasn’t an ordered process anymore. It would be a much noisier atmosphere compared to the early stages of pilgrimage at Canterbury. Many pilgrims would visit Becket’s shrine at the apex of steps and altars. For a few coins pilgrims had the opportunity to see the canopy of Becket’s shrine raised up and this would reveal gold and silver ornaments and gems and rubies. After the pilgrims had seen the sights at Canterbury and spent a night perhaps at Eastbridge Hospital they would leave the next day with phials of Canterbury water. This was their proof to their neighbours that they had seen he famous tomb of Thomas Becket.

However criticisms of pilgrimage to Canterbury soon developed and it is becoming more and more evident that people were lavishly spending their money on souvenirs. William Thorpe was charged with heresy by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1407 because he expressed his views of how he believed that it was a disservice to God by wasting money and forming rleations with lascivious women in places such as Canterbury as well as Walsingham10 . Did the medieval pilgrims actually abuse pilgrimage or was their behaviour natural because of society at the time. This is certainly the reason as People in medieval times were eager to travel to new places and were probably overwhelmed by the sights and wanted to purchase items as proof that they had seen the famous tomb.

However, the more people that came to Canterbury Cathedral the more revenue that was gained Diana Webb notes that in 1370 Simon Sudbury, bishop of London told a group of pilgrims that were on their way to Canterbury for the Jubilee indulgence that they would receive no benefit from it11. The group of pilgrims who had heard this accused the bishop of criticising the merits of Thomas Becket. They prophesised that the bishop would meet an evil end and he was killed by the rebels from Watt Tyler’s rebellion in 1381.It was also commonly believed that as saints were able to leave their graves so a man didn’t have to come in contact with a relic to invoke them or even punished by them. Then when a woman called Aliza heard that a woman had lost their sight after visiting Becket’s tomb she

‘burst out laughing, saying, ‘Others whom the Martyr receives in sickness, he sends back healed, you, however, went there well, and now return blind. While dissolved in laughter, Aliza was suddenly blinded, and eventually only partially cured’12.

Others may citicise motive such as going on pilgrimage for casual sexual experiences and some may use the journey in order to commit adultery. Is there any evidence however that pilgrimage was abused in this manner? Sarah hopper tells us that most of Chaucer’s pilgrims show to a certain degree their lack of moral values and spiritual discipline. This

In 1500 a Venetian described how he saw the shrine

‘the magnificence of the tomb of St Thomas the martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, is which surpasses all belief’13. This was certainly the case until the Reformation where it is written that twenty -six wagons were required to transport all the trasures away from Becket’s shrine when Henry VIII destroyed it. After 1538 when Henry VIII destroyed Becket’s shrine and his bones there was no longer the amazing shrine for pilgrims to see.

However, pilgrimage had again changed before Henry VIII destroyed the shrine . In 1532 there was evidence in a decrease of revenue. In one of the sacristy’s books a note that the combined offerings at the cathedral added up to � 13 13s 3d and this about thirty times less than received at the shrine when pilgrimage activity at Canterbury was at its highest. After the Reformation, Canterbury saw a significant decrease in pilgrims visiting the Cathedral. In 1538 when Henry VIII destroyed Becket’s shrine and his bones there was no longer the amazing shrine for pilgrims to see.

Overall, pilgrimage to Canterbury had developed greatly in medieval times from Becket’s martyrdom in 1170 to the Reformation in 1538. Early key episodes such as Becket’s murder in 1170, his canonization in 1173 and his translation have seen a significant increase in pilgrims coming to Canterbury. The main motive seems to be in order to get healed because it is was news of his miracles spreading further that more people visited the tomb and then the shrine. Its most significant increase as suggested my most scholars such as Dianan Webb, was in 1220 when his bones were translated because of what medieval life was like this would have been a breathtaking and an amazing sight to behold.

As time goes on motives may have been more based on seeing and just as an opportunity to travel. There are criticisms that have developed and even though we assume because of the large number of pilgrims that visited Canterbury and even though large sums were offered, it seems that because of large expenditures this did not make the cathedral much of a profit. When Henry VIII destroyed the shrine this meant that there wasn’t much for people to see anymore seeing what seemed to be an end to pilgrimage at Canterbury. Overall, I believe it was Thomas Becket who William Langland describes ‘a symbol of resistance to oppression of the Church by the secular power of his day14’ which was the main reson that pilgrims ventured to Canterbury.

1 R. Finucane – Miracles and Pilgrims- Introduction page 9

2 William Purcell- Pilgrim’s England Chapter 7 Canterbury and St Thomas p.167

3 Sarah Hopper- To be a Pilgrim The Medieval Pilgrimage Experience Chapter 5 p.60

4 The Pilgrims Way- John Adair page 68

5 The Pilgrim’s Way- John Adair page 40

6 Piers Plowman- William Langland passus V page 61

7 The Pilgrim’s Way- John Adair page 68

8 To be a pilgrim- God’s Magic Shrines and Miracles – Sarah Hopper p.127

9 European Pilgrimage- Indulgences and Jubilees pg 73

10 To be a Pilgrim – chapter ‘Oppositions to Pilgrimage’- Sarah Hopper page 162

11 Pilgrims and Pilgrimage – Diana Webb- page 72

12 R. Finucane – Miracles and Pilgrims- p.34-5

13 Pilgrim’s England – Chapter 7 ‘Canterbury and Thomas’ William Purcell page183

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