For pilgrymes are we alle.
William Langland, Piers Plowman
In the early part of the 12th Century, the Almoravid Emir Ali ibn Yusuf journeyed to Santiago de Compostela to meet Doña Urraca, the queen who ruled the kingdoms of León and Castile. Astonished by the throngs of pilgrims on the road, the devout Muslim Ali asked, “Who is this character so great and famous that Christians come to pray to him from the Pyrenees and even further away? The multitude of those coming and going is so great that hardly any space is left open on the road in the direction of the west.”
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same can be said for the road to Santiago Compostela and the other pilgrimage sites. We have written often of the institution of pilgrimage and the relics that motivated the journeys. We have not written about the pilgrims themselves.
The medieval church encouraged the pilgrimage as a way of increasing the devotion of the faithful. Individually, people made the journeys for almost any spiritual or earthly reason – the forgiveness of sin that was the burden of all humankind, hoping for miraculous cures of illness in themselves and others, for relief from drought or poor harvests, for love. Nobles might pray for victory in war or to give thanks for battles won. The cloistered monks or nuns might make the trip for more mystical reasons, to achieve an ecstatic union with their Saviour.
Before departing on the journey, the pilgrim sought blessing from the local bishop and made a full confession to his priest. The pilgrim donned a long, coarse garment, a broad-brimmed hat and carried a staff. On the hat was a badge unique to the destination of the pilgrimage. For a journey to Santiago Compostela, the pilgrim badge was scallop shell, usually made of pewter or some other inexpensive alloy. But for whatever reason and however attired, hundreds of thousands of peasants, merchants, nobles and monks undertook hardship-filled, yearlong pilgrimages through bandit infested territories and foreign lands.
On their journey, the pilgrims visited many churches and shrines containing sacred relics for their veneration. They hoped that by their prayers they could induce the shrine’s saint to intercede with Christ, Mary, or other saints on their behalf. As more and more pilgrims visited the shrines, stories of miracles began to abound. As word spread, extraordinary numbers of pilgrims would visit the shrines, often as many as 10,000 in a single day.
But as the pilgrimages proliferated, abuses did as well. The credulous were taken advantage of at every turn as pardoners and relic-mongers foisted their wares mercilessly. Pilgrims were often forced to travel in groups to protect themselves against brigands. In fact, bands of outlaws would prey on the bands of travelers. Various orders of knights were created to protect the travelers on their journeys. The dangers were significant enough that wealthy people sometimes preferred to pay others to go on a journey for them. It became so common that, for example, in 1352 a London merchant paid a man £20 to take his place on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.
Indulgences originated as blessings for acts of charity and social justice. As these blessings became available for cash gifts instead of for acts of Christian charity, the sale of indulgences turned into a blight on the Church. Such indulgences eventually eliminated the need for pilgrimage completely – one could simply make a payment that represented the cost of the pilgrimage. This practice even allowed would-be Crusaders to send substitutes to fight in their place and still gain the plenary indulgence.
Such abuse of indulgences would eventually lead to the decline of the great pilgrimage age and the fracture of the church itself.