For pilgrymes are we alle – Part 1 (Dennis Aubrey)


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.”

Codex Calixtinus

Codex Calixtinus

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.

Église Notre Dame, Châtel-Montagne (Allier)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Notre Dame, Châtel-Montagne (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Statue of Saint James, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint James, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave from tribune, Eglise Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave from tribune, Eglise Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Église Saint Symphorien, Biozat (Allier)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint Symphorien, Biozat (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

7 responses to “For pilgrymes are we alle – Part 1 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. The years go by and some things never change. Enjoyed your photos and the bit of history. Thanks, Dennis and P.J.

    • Right you are–just as there are now (although probably not quite to the same degree) there were hostels lining the roads where pilgrims passed, taverns that sold meals, and of course lots of pardoners and relic-hustlers selling blessings using fake relics. Once a business, always a business!

      • I always seem to learn something from you blog, and love your photos of the great churches. I am travelling, the road to Santiago de Compostela, this time the Via la Plata from Seville, and yes there are plenty of hostels lining the roads, taverns selling meals, and relic-hustlers (both museums and churches alike) who while not hawking blessings, are opening their doors for a price. As a traveller not a pilgrim I am enjoying learning the history of Spain and seeing the great Cathedrals and historic sites. thanks for sharing your work,

  2. Wonderful photos and text as well. As a pilgrim of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I appreciated the origins, the beginnings of what we of the 21st century have picked up and are now participants in.

    Thanks,
    S Lenthall

  3. And, as Murray Bodo, O.F.M. has said, “Then, as now, the pilgrim is the one who dares to set forth…the stay-at-home hesitates on the threshold of his or her safe, familiar world.”

    To stay in the monastery or get out on the road? It sounds like the story of Thomas Merton wanting to be a hermit in Times Square. Although that evidently wasn’t meant to be a compliment, it does speak to where the action is. Where the need is. Where the pigeons are!

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