Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Macbeth Act 2, scene 2, 54–60
Today April 23, this is the annual post for the birthday of William Shakespeare. The quote is from Macbeth, where he finds his guilt at the regicide of Duncan unbearable, the blood from his hands will not wash off but will turn the green sea red. Lady Macbeth herself suffered guilt as well for the crime, sleepwalking and trying to wash imagined bloodstains from her hands.
Surely the Middle Ages (as close to Shakespeare in his days as the Civil War to ours) was familiar with the concept of guilt. The whole basis of pilgrimage was a journey to a holy site for the expiation of sin. Pilgrimage has always been with us as a journey of moral significance, but it was the advent of medieval Christianity that made remorse for sin a key part of the equation. The greater the sin, the greater the pilgrimage. There were hundreds of local pilgrimages for saints in every region of Christian Europe. A great pilgrimage in France might be made to the Blessed Virgin in Chartres or Rocamadour, Sainte Foy in Conques, Saint Martin in Tours, Mary Magdelene in Vezelay, or Saint Hilaire in Poitiers. A greater pilgrimage might be made to Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of Saint James, or to Rome and the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul, the companions of Christ, or the journey to Jerusalem itself, where Jesus walked the earth. Jerusalem was the ultimate pilgrimage, the sign of the ultimate commitment to faith or the greatest sin to be forgiven.
Foulque Nerra, the Black Count of Anjou and the founder of Angevin power, made four pilgrimages to the Holy Land between 1002-1037. Considering that the trip by land was 2800 miles and by land and sea it was almost 2000 miles, the trip would take several months at least. Foulque had significant sins to repent, including burning his wife alive in her wedding dress after finding her in bed with another man.
The Middle Ages were full of pilgrims and an entire infrastructure was developed to care for them in their travels. Monasteries would host them, hostels would shelter them, hospices would heal their wounds, and orders of religious knights would protect them from predators. In France, the Chemins de Saint Jacques, the four pilgrimage roads leading to Santiago de Compostella, were filled with great pilgrimage churches replete with sacred relics. Thousands would walk these paths from one end of Europe to the other in order to free their souls from the sin, and its attendant guilt, and replace it with a state of grace that might ease their path into heaven. In a world of humanity that believed as fervently as it did, this state of grace was a physical reality, perceptible and tangible.
We live in a world where science has explained much of what once was a mystery, but at the center of it all, in the heart of darkness, science is at a loss. The genius of religion is that it binds our behavior into the very fabric of the universe. What we do and what we believe matters. We should repent our transgressions, we should feel shame and guilt.
Today’s world says that there is no moral standard, only a legal one. Remorse is not important. What does it matter if our Wall Street barons rob their flocks as brutally and ruthlessly as Foulque Nerra did a thousand years ago? Since the law cannot or will not touch them, won’t they at least walk the paths of pilgrimage in public expiation of their sins? Can’t they mount the 197 stone steps of Rocamadour on their knees, as did Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England, Blanche of Castille, Louis IX, Charles IV, and Louis XI of France? Are they too proud to prostrate themselves, as mere barons, where Kings and Queens have preceded them? Or do they simply feel no shame or guilt?
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