A history of pilgrimages

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There are many mentions of pilgrimages in the pages of medieval literature. Chaucer who wrote Canterbury Tales from 1388 to 1400 relates the stories of a group of pilgrims on their way from the Tabard Inn in London to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The pilgrims are a motley crew from all walks of life and of every moral complexion. Canterbury Tales is a metaphor for the society in which Chaucer lived (or any society since) with saints, sinners, monks and merchants travelling together towards God. Sir Walter Raleigh, in an Elizabethan poem attributed to him, prepares himself for death, with his pilgrimage to heaven:
Give me my scallop shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope's true gage,

And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

Later, John Bunyon used the image of pilgrimage in the allegorical novel entitled The Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84).
However, before we go on further we need to state what we mean by pilgrimage. The dictionary defines a pilgrimage as a journey to a holy place as an act of devotion; any long journey; a life's journey. In this presentation, I intend to concentrate upon the former definition. Why do people go on pilgrimages? There are a number of reasons:

  • As a penance – one of the most famous penitents was King Henry !! who went to Canterbury after the murder of St Thomas Becket.

In fulfilment of a vow – the knights involved in the murder of Becket made a vow to go to the Holy Land. The Oberammergau Passion Play is held every 10 years as a result of a vow made in the mid 1600s.

To seek a cure – many sick people are drawn to shrines for the purpose of healing, both physically and spiritually.

To spend time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
From earliest times, all religions have held certain places sacred. From Stonehenge and other pre-historic monuments to the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the sacred and the divine have always been with us. The ancient Jews held places such as The tombs of the Patriarchs at Hebron sacred (and still do) as well as healing wells and, of course, the Temple in Jerusalem. In commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, the Passover was a time of pilgrimage and celebration every year. The Gospel tells us of the 12 year old Jesus getting separated from Mary and Joseph and being found in the Temple 3 days later with the teachers and the scribes. Acts relates the story of the Ethiopian official on his way home after the Passover, being baptised by the apostle Philip.
Christianity did not become a separate religion from Judaism until after the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The new faith moved to Rome, the centre of the Empire, where SS Peter and Paul were executed in the Neronian persecution (mid 60s). Although the Roman Empire's excellent communications enabled early apostles to travel on missionary journeys – Barnabas and Paul covered large distances in what is now Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Italy, Christianity was an underground religion for the first 300 years, suffering sporadic and often violent persecutions. It was not until the reign of Constantine that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she “found” some relics of Christ and commissioned churches to be built one of these was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christians were doing nothing new then in visiting the Holy Land and they began to go in greater numbers to see for themselves the sites connected with Jesus Christ, the founder of their faith. An account of one such journey was written by Egeria, a Spanish nun who spent Holy Week in Jerusalem in 380 AD. St Jerome came to the Holy Land in 385 AD and never left! Only in the Holy Land could one walk in the footsteps of Christ but Rome could boast the tombs of the Peter and Paul as well as Peter's living successor, the Pope. Rome became a popular destination for English and Irish pilgrims in the early Middle Ages – King Ine of Wessex founded a church and a hospice for Anglo Saxon pilgrims close to the Vatican. St Benedict Biscop who founded the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow ( where St Bede the Venerable later worked) made 5 visits to Rome.

However, nothing stays the same … In the late 600s there arose a another faith in the deserts of Arabia whose followers spread out across Southern Europe and North Africa. This vibrant and energetic Faith we refer to as Islam. No longer was it possible to visit the Holy Land safely – times don't seem to have changed much! People began to look closer to home. From the ninth century, the Shrine of St James at Compostella became a popular venue - St James was the brother of John but how his relics came to Spain no one seems to know.
However, the shrine of St Winifred (St Winifred's Well ) at Holywell, only about an hour's drive from here, has been a site of pilgrimage since the 7th century and is mentioned in the Papal Archives in the 8th century. The story goes that Winifred refused the advances of a neighbouring prince and in his fury he struck off her head. A spring arose where the head fell.. Her uncle, Bueno restored Winifred to life and the water continued to flow and was found to have curative powers. To jump ahead somewhat, it is well worth noting that St Winifred's Well was the only shrine in England and Wales not to be suppressed at the Reformation by Henry V111. This may have had something to do with the fact that Henry's grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort was a great supporter – he could not afford to upset Grandma! It is recorded that pilgrimages to the Welsh shrine continued during the recusancy period – 14,000 Catholics visiting the Well in 1629.
Richeldis de Faverches, a rich lady of the manor of Walsingham in Norfolk, had a vision or dream in 1061 in which the Blessed Virgin Mary showed her the house in Nazareth where the Angel Gabriel had announced the birth of the Saviour. Richeldis realised that she should build a replica of the Holy House and this soon attracted pilgrims to the little village not far from the North Norfolk coast. A large Church was built around the Holy House, the gable end of which still stands and the Slipper Chapel was erected about a mile way, so that pilgrims could remove their shoes and walk the last mile barefoot. Pilgrim hostels were also built. Walsingham became the foremost Marian shrine in Europe. As with many shrines in England, Walsingham was destroyed at the time of the Reformation and was derelict for many centuries. However, in the late 19th century and the early 20th centuries, the shrines have been rebuilt. The Anglican shrine is in the village and the Roman Catholic shrine is part of the Slipper Chapel complex. It needs to be emphasised that both shrines now work very closely together. Last year, over 300,000 pilgrims went to Walsingham.
Pilgrimages to saints' tombs were very common in Anglo Saxon England - examples include St Winifred in Chester, St Chad in Lichfield and St Cuthbert in Durham. But the greatest centre of pilgrimage In England came about after the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket in 1170. Within days of the Archbishop's murder, miraculous cures were reported and a large shrine chapel was built some 4 years' later. As with Walsingham, the shrine was suppressed during the Reformation and the relics burnt. All that remains is a plaque in the floor of Canterbury Cathedral. It was here that Pope John Paul II and the then Archbishop of Canterbury prayed together in 1982.
Medieval pilgrims brought back home souvenirs of shrines they had visited - palm branches were brought back from the Holy Land, scallop shells from Compostella, badges from Canterbury depicting an image of St Thomas, a goose for St Winifred. These, together with a cloak, a staff, scrip (a provisions bag) and a water bottle made up the uniform of a pilgrim, as described in the poem by Raleigh.
So far we have been concerned with medieval shrines but that is not the end of the story. In the last 150 or so years, there have been a number of “new” shrines, most of whom are dedicated to Our Lady. Probably the most famous is Lourdes in the Pyrenees' area of France. In 1858, Our Lady ( the Blessed Virgin Mary) appeared 18 times to a young peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous. After a fair period of disbelief, the Church decreed that the Apparitions were in fact true and pilgrims began to arrive in the little town. They still come in their millions, including the last 2 Popes. Whilst very crowded with loads of people seeking all kinds of help, the atmosphere in the Domain where the main basilicas are set is most reverential. To take part in the Torchlight Procession held every evening is a truly wonderful occasion. An inspirational time.
Other Marian shrines are to be found in Mexico – Our Lady of Guadalupe, Fatima in Portugal, Knock in Ireland and Medjugorje in Bosnia, although this later shrine has not yet received full Church recognition.
Of course, for Muslims pilgrimages to the holy places connected with Mohammed are very important – the annual Hajj to Mecca ias one of the 5 pillars of Islam. Every Muslim must go to Mecca at least once in his lifetime. Jerusalem is also an important site for a pilgrimage.
It seems that as we are now in the third Millennium that many more people are discovering pilgrimages, whether they be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or of any religion. The ancient tradition of Pilgrimage has a healthy future for as Vatican II declared, Christians are always “on pilgrimage towards the heavenly city”.

Ann Alexander

U3A Philosophy and Anthropology
April 2012

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