Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Pilgrimage

~ Scott Higginbotham

The ideal of the medieval pilgrimage is nothing new, for it is a spiritual and physical journey that has deeper roots.  The physical site itself may be the object of veneration, because it may be where a saint was martyred or where certain relics are contained.  What better place to go than the very spot where history was made by way of a martyr’s death?
Along those same lines, there may have been reports that the site is a hub of spiritual blessings or the miraculous, thus drawing the throngs.  Or, the act may be the fulfillment of penance or perhaps a vow made to secure divine favor. 

There were perceptions that spiritual blessings would only be conferred within a set of physical boundaries, which hearkens back to the gods being localized – think of river gods having power only in a certain area.  “For pilgrimages properly so called are made to the places where the gods or heroes were born or wrought some great action or died, or to the shrines where the deity had already signified it to be his pleasure to work wonders. Once theophanies are localized, pilgrimages necessarily follow.” [1]   

Whatever the motivations, pilgrimages and wandering hermits were popular, so much so, that they appeared in the works of medieval writers. William Langland writes in the Prologue to Piers Plowman:

In a summer season when the sun was mild
I clad myself in clothes as I'd become a sheep;
In the habit of a hermit unholy of works,
Walked wide in this world, watching for wonders.

An early English balled from Sir Isumbras gives readers a unique insight into the difficulties faced by wayfaring pilgrims, having nothing in their purse and having to beg for their food:

For they bare with hem nothynge
That longed to here spendynge,
   Nother golde nor fee,
But for to begge here mete
Where they myghte ony gete,

   For love of seynt charyté. [2]

Geoffrey Chaucer popularized and parodied the ideal of a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales and, it is through him that many have become familiar with pilgrimages.  The shrine of Canterbury was England’s most popular pilgrimage site, owing to Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in the northwest transept on December 29th, 1170.  Reports of healing miracles brought throngs of pilgrims, happy to share the contents of their purses. This surge in income allowed for many upgrades and improvements to the cathedral, but only to have Henry VIII enter the scene and confiscate its treasures.

Canterbury Cathedral - Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons
But is it only just the physical destination that draws pilgrims of old and even modern ones?  Or is it the physical act, the journey itself, which has the appeal?  Perhaps both?  Imagine the mystique and adventure of packing a few belongings, tying up loose ends, and grabbing a wooden staff for a long trek of self-discovery.  Spiritual journeys such as these are oftentimes turning points for real and imagined characters. 

Henry II was stricken with anguish over his ill-spoken words that resulted in Becket’s death - so much so that he made his own pilgrimage to the shrine and did his best to set affairs aright.  Simon de Montfort made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was overcome with emotion at his first view of Jerusalem’s sandstone walls.  These notables are what make the study of history and historical novels such a gem to read, for their deepest desires for redemption make them so much like us.

I made my own pilgrimage and received a Pilgrim’s Certificate at the conclusion of a tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  I wore no floppy hat, nor held a weathered wooden staff in my hand; in fact, I was clean shaven in a military fashion.  But the moment I saw those same walls that countless others have gazed upon, I had the distinct sense that the raw emotion and overwhelming sense of belonging to some small part of history, as a result of pilgrimage, would never be forgotten.  History, historical novels, and even pilgrimages allow us travel to another time and place, but they also allow us to bring something back.

Jerusalem from the Garden of Gethsemane - by Scott Higginbotham
A Soul’s Ransom
Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.


  1. This was an enjoyable post. My husband and I are planning part of the Camino to Santiago de Compostelo one day. We travel to Galicia frequently, and we always see pilgrims on the road, no matter what the season.

  2. I hadn't thought how important the journey must have been to a lot of people to leave what they knew and travel forth. Very interesting subject.

  3. Speaking of Comostela, Saint James is of course named after Jacob the Patriarch, who, when asked his age, said: "The years of my pilgrimage are ...".

    Life is the pilgrimage.

  4. Galicia, mentioned by Elizabeth Varadan, is important in a number of ways. Santiago de Compostela is linked quite personally to many of us who have never been there, because we have descents from the Bretons who claimed Saint James the Greater as an ancestor. Another ancestor was the Emperor Magnus Flavius Clemens Maximus, born in Galicia on the estates of Count Theodosius (father of the Emperor Theodosius).

    Magnus founded Brittany in AD 383, by bringing many troops from south-west Britain to establish a base in Armorica, in case things went badly. He established another such base in his native Galicia.

    Together, these two small states were instrumental in preserving and defending western European civilisation. At the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, elite Armorican archers twice inflicted such losses that Attila the Hun and his Ostrogoth allies were prevented from advancing into the Roman, Alan, Frank and Visigoth lines, resulting in Attila's defeat.

    After the Moors conquered most of Spain, they invaded France as well. At Tours and Poitiers, the Armoricans joined with the Franks to defeat them. The Moors attempted an assault on Galicia, but were severely defeated and Galicia commenced the Reconquista, which cautiously and persistently liberated Leon, Asturias, Castile and Aragon, leading eventually to the unification of all Spain.

    None of this would have been possible without Saint James's legacy and progeny, Magnus's foresight, and Galicia's (and Armorica's) courage to stay the course.


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