Saturday, February 14, 2015

Pilgrimage as Punishment: The Judicial Use of Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages

By Mark Patton

Think of a Medieval pilgrimage, and the chances are that Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims will be the first that come to mind. A mixed bunch, perhaps, but, on the whole, congenial company for a ten day round trip (I made the pilgrimage myself a few years ago, with a similarly mixed group). Chaucer's pilgrims, however, are all English. If a Scotsman had turned up at the Tabard Inn, the inn-keeper, Harry Bailey, would probably have thrown him out, knowing that he was likely to be a cut-throat or a rapist who was not making the pilgrimage voluntarily.

Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, woodcut of 1484.

Medieval justice was not always as brutal as is sometimes imagined (though it certainly could be). Scottish courts in the 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries often imposed a pilgrimage as a judicial sentence, which would involve the offender walking into, or through, England. In 1164, for example, a Scottish murderer presented himself at the shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham, wearing an iron girdle made from the sword with which he had slain his victim.

12th Century wall-painting of
St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral.

Another Scotsman was fettered by the arm, waist and neck, and had already visited Jerusalem and the shrine of St Martial at Limoges before arriving in Durham, presumably on his way home. At each place, explained the chronicler, Reginald of Durham, part of this load had broken away, showing that "St Cuthbert can free the body from its chains, just as he frees the soul from the bonds of sin."

Scottish courts were by no means unique in their use of pilgrimage as a judicial penalty, but it was not without controversy. As early as 789 AD, the Emperor Charlemagne had sought to suppress the practice, both because he doubted that it would succeed in reforming the sinner, and because he did not want to see dangerous criminals roaming the roads of Europe, potentially preying on genuine (and voluntary) pilgrims.

The monogram of Charlemagne.

In the 13th Century, Jacques de Vitry complained about the hordes of "wicked, impious, sacrilegious, thieves, robbers, murderers, parricides, perjurers, adulterers, traitors, corsairs, pirates, whoremongers, drunkards, minstrels, jugglers and actors unleashed on the Holy Land by the courts of Europe".

Not everyone shared this pessimism, however. The judicial imposition of pilgrimage (sometimes multiple pilgrimages) was consistent with the teachings of the Church and allowed those sitting in judgement to exercise the Christian virtues of mercy and forgiveness whilst banishing offenders from their territories (far easier and cheaper than imprisoning them) for substantial periods of time. They were expected to obtain testimonials from the clergy at the shrines they visited, and present these on their return as proof that the pilgrimage had, indeed, been completed.

Pilgrims were not always welcome in the
communities through which they travelled,
as shown by this picture of peasants attacking
a pilgrim (Marten Van Cleve, 1527-77)

Even Bernard Gui, the Dominican inquisitor of Languedoc, a man who frequently ordered torture and execution, was capable of showing mercy when he thought it appropriate. In 1312, he imposed a pilgrimage on Johanna of Proualt. "We have spared you, Johanna," he told her, "from a greater and more shameful penance, for reason of the age you were then" (she had been a child when her supposed heresy had been committed). Gui's inquisition classified pilgrimages as either minor (within France), major (to Canterbury, Compostella, Cologne or Rome) or overseas (to Jerusalem).

It was not only public courts that could impose the obligation of a pilgrimage on a sinner. Thomas Aquinas inveighed against "ignorant parish priests" doing so without consulting a higher authority within the church, but, in 1448, the University of Louvain sent Jan Vogel van der Elst, a servant of the city's mayor who "had conceived a violent hatred of the university" on a pilgrimage to Milan Cathedral. In the Low Countries, even trade guilds, such as the Armourers and Drapers of Mechelen could send offending members barefooted and fasting on bread and water to the shrines of Battel and Rocamadour.

The City Hall of Mechelen, Belgium.
Photo: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons
(reproduced with permission).

The practice of judicially imposed pilgrimage came to an end amid the religious and political upheavals of the 16th Century. In 1592, Mansfeld, Philip II's lieutenant in the low countries, was surprised and disturbed to find that convicts were still being sent to Rocamadour and Santiago in spite of the civil wars that were then raging across France. It seems never to have been much used by English courts, but for many a criminal in Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, it must have offered a welcome alternative to the scaffold.


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. Fascinating, Mark - I hadn't realised this.

  2. Scotland, of course, had a different legal system to that of England, using civil law, as opposed to common law.

  3. Scotland, of course, had a different legal system to that of England, using civil law, as opposed to common law.

  4. Fascinating! I had heard of people deciding to go on pilgrimage as a penance, but not that it was imposed by a court. Thanks for the information!

  5. Very interesting. What was Johanna's childish blasphemy?

  6. Johanna seems to have withheld something from her confessor. From the context, it was probably something that would have incriminated her parents, as having been present with her at a gathering of "heretics" (Albigensian "parfaits").

    1. Goodness, the poor kid! So, she had to go on this pilgrimage alone?

  7. Thank you for writing that. I can imagine a pilgrimage being a thoughtful punishment, giving plenty of time for reflection and a degree of suffering (to the feet, if nowhere else).

    I remember seeing an article about the 'Walking Woman' last year. ( I don't know if she would have been just one of many in the time of punishment pilgrimages, but there seemed to be something very powerful about seeing a woman walking, and walking on.

    Best wishes

  8. What an interesting post. I always learn so much from your posts. I never would have dreamed that pilgrimages would have been imposed as an alternative to incarceration and other more dire punishments.

  9. Prior to the 17th Century, incarceration was generally used only as a holding option (the few exceptions, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, were almost invariably royal or noble). The alternative to these judicially imposed pilgrimages was almost always the scaffold, and there are recorded cases of convicts who left town but travelled only a few miles before settling down - when caught they were executed.

  10. The idea of the woman walking on and on, Elaine, is used to brilliant effect in Aki Ollikainen's novella, "White Hunger" (Peirene 2015). His Marja is walking for a very different reason (I won't spoil the plot), but inspires similar sentiments in those around her.

  11. After his father's assassination, James IV wore an iron belt as penance and also went on pilgrimages to Whithorn, Loretto & Tain. but I never knew the pilgrimage punishment included having to travel through England! Very interesting post, Mark. Thanks.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.