Saturday, 14 September 2013

The business of the pilgrimage

The medieval pilgrimage. Ah, wonderful! When the countryside of England and Wales must have been full of endless parades of folks moving about the country, happily moving from one shrine to the next. Indeed, the whole of Europe was in on this party, and a multi-national pilgrimage business grew up to facilitate to the thronging masses. 

The idea of the pilgrimage being something akin to a bus tour today is probably the best analogy. Lots of people going to see something and having lots of fun along the way. At least, that's how Chaucer would have us see it. In the medieval world, pilgrimages were undertaken out of a deep spiritual zeal, but it is actually a lot more than that. This is because travel in medieval Europe was dangerous. First, the roads weren't always good. Sure, if you were going from London to Canterbury it would be fine, as there were many decent roads, but if you wanted to see the Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham, even if you were going from York, it was actually an arduous trek - the wild places of the north never recovered from the Harrying of 1069-71. Secondly, there were no street signs, and maps were not exactly AA-standard. Instead of a map, though, pilgrims would travel with an itinerary, of places they had to pass through to get to their final destination. These places would be chosen for their safety, and a number of towns grew up on the pilgrim trails, replete with inns and the like, all ready to cater to the pilgrims. However, you didn't know who was about. Outlaws roamed the forests, and were ready to attack anyone who came close enough. To this extent, pilgrims would always go off in large bands. If ever a single person decided to go off on pilgrimage, to atone for a great sin perhaps, this was tantamount to suicide, hence what a huge gesture it would be.

When pilgrims finally got to their destinations, usually they were so excited that they had made it they could be quite raucous. There's a wonderful account of the Bishop of Durham employing guards for the cathedral, to eject anyone who wasn't being exactly pious. But this just goes to reinforce how dangerous the whole enterprise was. To have endured the hardships of the road and the ordeal of travel, an almost fanatical hysteria would break out. Pilgrims behaved a lot more like the modern tourist than would perhaps otherwise be thought. In addition to the feasting and the bawdy singing, lots of souvenir-hunting would take place, with the successful pilgrims buying themselves a Pilgrim Badge, often unique to a particular site (for instance, the hugely famous site Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the shrine to the Apostle St James, was represented by a shell). Some (un)lucky folks may even find themselves a 'true' relic that they could buy...

So let's have a look at some of the workings of the pilgrimage...

The business of pilgrimage was built on the cult of the saints. Christians worship God, of course, and Jesus Christ. Interwoven through this religion are a number of saints, who each had a specific attribute. For instance, St Christopher is widely known even today as the patron saint of travellers. Therefore, you would pray to St Christopher before going on a journey. They do get quite banal, such as St Apollonia is the patron saint of toothache; St Elizabeth of Portugal as the patron saint against adultery, or St Fiacre as the patron saint of haemorrhoid sufferers. I don't really want to get into this here, but I feel that the Christian Church appropriated the culture of saints as a tool to ease the conversion of pagans during its early years. There are a lot of these, anyway, and they still feature quite prominently in Catholic worship today. The idea, anyway, is to pray to a particular saint in order to invoke their intervention in a matter for you. 

However, sometimes prayer wasn't enough. Sometimes you needed a part of that saint to help. This is where the pilgrimage came in. Say, for example, you were the victim of unwanted advances of some nature. Well, who better to pray to than St Winefride? But to really make an impact, why not go on pilgrimage to her shrine in Holywell? Why not, indeed.

St Winefride was beheaded after she spurned the advances of a local prince, and a well sprang up from the spot where her head fell. It didn't take long for the well to become associated with many miraculous cures for a whole host of ailments, and people would come from far and wide. Apparently, James II came with his wife, Mary of Modena, to help facilitate the conception of a male heir. Hardly the sort of act to be associated with a patron saint of unwanted attentions, I'm sure you'll agree. The point is, though, the shrine was a major attraction. To this end, it was 'beautified' as such. The current well-chapel was the work of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, who gave money for the building in the fifteenth century. However, it can be assumed that there was a chapel on the site before that, as the well was 'controlled' from nearby Basingwerk Abbey from 1240. 

^ Beautiful, I'm sure you'll agree!

Basingwerk Abbey is a curious beast, and provides an interesting paradox to the common conception of the medieval monastery as a place of ascetic contemplation "far from the concourse of man". The abbey was founded by Ranulf II, earl of Chester (remember him?) as a Savignac monastery, but it didn't take long for the abbey to be absorbed into the rapidly-expanding Cistercian network of monasteries. While the Cistercians usually preferred to be in the wilds away from the world, Basingwerk was founded close to the Norman castle at Hen Blas. This may have been due to the expediency of security, as this area of Flintshire was in fact part of the original border between Norman England and Wales, so some fortification would have been required. But despite this, Basingwerk soon thrived under Cistercian guidance, and developed into quite the power-house. 

^ general view of the South Transept and Range. 

The reason for this is almost entirely due to the business of pilgrimage. Basingwerk garnered a respectable amount of land as the thirteenth century wore on, until in 1240 Dafydd ap Llywelyn (the son of Llywelyn 'the Great', and the first Prince of Gwynedd to formally claim the title of Prince of Wales) gave the monks the Shrine of St Winefride. Possession of such an important pilgrimage site proved to be a huge boon to the abbey in due course. But the abbey was already located on one of the most important pilgrimage routes in Britain, the route to Holyhead and, ultimately, Ireland, and so as the centuries wore on, Basingwerk took advantage of this to improve the works of the monastery buildings. 

^ The famous Chapter House.

It was around the turn of the sixteenth century that Basingwerk became the monastic powerhouse of North Wales, under the guidance of its abbot, Thomas Pennant. It was while Pennant was in charge that Basingwerk is noted to have had 'new houses for guests who are said to be so numerous they have to be accommodated for meals at two sittings'. While the guest-house is nothing strange in the standard Cistercian monastery - charity towards guests is one of the basic tenets of the Order - the fact that Basingwerk has set up something of a 'pilgrimage hotel' is interesting. We know that St Winefride's Well was a busy old place, so we can assume that the monks of Basingwerk, having control of the site, must have had quite the lucrative business on their hands. 

^ The guest wing.

Because pilgrims didn't just go to these places to pray and then leave. Travel in medieval Europe was a dangerous business, after all, and you didn't undertake such a thing lightly. Pilgrims wandered the roads in bands, for the greater security against robbery etc. They would move about the countryside getting increasingly excited as their destination came within sight, and once there a somewhat carnival-atmosphere ensued. It was almost like a holiday, you could say. Undertaken out of religious devotion, it nevertheless held something of the secular as pilgrims would need to eat and drink (especially after a very long journey), and would like to buy souvenirs of the place they had been to. Yes, pilgrims were the medieval equivalent of tourists, with some roaming the country in pursuit of the collection of pilgrim 'badges' as much as of religious zeal. 

Basingwerk and St Winefride's Well are interesting facets of the pilgrimage business in medieval Britain, but there is perhaps something bigger lurking beneath the surface here. St Winefride's Well is, after all, just a 'holy place'; aside from being the purported place where the decapitated saint's head fell to the ground, it doesn't really have any physical remains - these were removed to Shrewsbury Abbey, as you may remember. But this brings us on to the subject of relics, which is a hot topic where pilgrimages are concerned. 

I've already said that pilgrimages were undertaken out of religious zeal, but another big cause for undertaking a pilgrimage was for health reasons. St Winefride's Well was well-known (pun not intended, sorry) for its curative power, and indeed continues to function in this way. Bathing in the waters of the well is the method by which the sick could be cured here. But at other shrines, where were housed relics of the saints themselves, this could be brought about by physical contact with (or, at the very least, physical proximity to) the relics on show. Medieval England's premier pilgrimage site is often said to be the Shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, which attracted vast numbers of pilgrims from the continent as well as domestically. Other massively popular places that stick out include Durham Cathedral (the Shrine of St Cuthbert, which used to be the preeminent English pilgrimage site until St Thomas' martyrdom), Glastonbury Abbey (the tomb of King Arthur), St Davids Cathedral (first church of St David) and Westminster Abbey (the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor). But these weren't the only religious houses getting in on the relic business. Almost every abbey that desired an income greater than that which could be provided by its flock of sheep had at least one relic to its name. 

Relics are the remnants of saints' lives - the term 'relic' comes from 'reliquus', or 'that which remains'. They can be broadly categorized into two groups - body parts, and associated items. There is also a curious hierarchy among relics - body parts trump associated items; the more 'necessary' the body part, the more important it was, and the more 'holy' the saint, the more important the relic. Where relics are concerned, though, we enter a bizarre world of preserved bodily fluids and withered heads that would be vaguely disturbing at best, if it weren't for the religious overtones involved. Of course, the most important relics are those associated with Jesus himself, and his mother, Mary. Relics of Jesus abound from the famous Turin Shroud, or the Mandylion of Edessa, to fragments of the True Cross (there are a lot of these), phials of Holy Blood, even his milk-teeth and foreskin. In fact, the Holy Prepuce was quite startlingly claimed to be held by several monasteries across Europe, which led to a 'test' being devised whereby physicians would chew on the withered remains to see if it was in fact really human skin. Of course, Jesus' body itself disappeared as part of the Resurrection, so no other body parts could be claimed to exist in the world. His mother has a similar problem, so we have a lot of needlework associated with her, but it is just as weird as regards her 'personal' relics - we range from the afterbirth and umbilical cord to phials of her breast milk. Such phials were exceptionally popular, perhaps stemming from the legend of St Bernard of Clairvaux (the self-same St Bernard who founded the Cistercian Order) who, while praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, is hit by a squirt from the lactating Madonna, in one version in the eye, which cures an eye infection he had. Perhaps this is why all Cistercian monasteries were dedicated to St Mary. At any rate, phials of the liquid swept Europe by storm, with one famously held at Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk, and also reliquaries that contained white powder that was claimed to be the dried milk of St Mary. The French religious reformer and iconoclast John Calvin later famously declared that 'had the Virgin been a cow her whole life, she could not have produced such a quantity'.

Hailes Abbey in Somerset is an example of how the possession of a holy relic could transform the life of an abbey. Founded in 1242, making it one of the latest Cistercian monasteries to be founded in England, it had a rough start until the abbey was presented with a phial of the Holy Blood of Christ in 1270. This presentation necessitated a rebuilding of the abbey church to form a suitable shrine for such a relic, which taxed the already-impoverished monks, but in the long run the abbey was able to recover into one of the major pilgrimage centres in the country.

^ a general view across the cloister.

The guidebook highlights an interesting point about relics. In it, we learn that the phial was bought by Edmund, a son of the abbey's initial benefactor, from the Count of Flanders three years before. Quite the innocuous sentence, hiding the massive trade in relics that boomed across the continent for the majority of the middle ages. Philip II of Spain is famous as being a tremendous relic-collector, building an extensive wing onto the Escurial Palace in which to house his collection. While there are stories such as St Helena, who went to the Holy Land in search of relics and managed to find many of them to bring back to Europe, or even the monks of Shrewsbury Abbey who 'discovered' the bones of St Winefride and brought them to their abbey, these seemingly benign adventures belie the often torrid and certainly sometimes bloody history of relic-hunting that took place from roughly the middle of the twelfth century. Relic merchants would often spring up at well-visited pilgrimage sites, offering to sell the pilgrims more "relics" that would often be nothing more than scraps of cloth they tore up that morning, or sometimes the bones of some poor forgotten corpse they had dug up the night before. Baldrick's charlatanesque behaviour in The Black Adder isn't all that far off the mark. The desire appears to have been to possess a part of a saint to take with you wherever you went, so that it would ward off evil and keep you healthy. 

The abbey at Hailes was rebuilt with a grand chevet-style east-end, thought to have been modelled after Croxden Abbey in Staffordshire. Today, only the imprint remains, but it still looks very interesting, and must have been rather grand when it was finished:

The abbey went through as many ups and downs as any other monastery throughout the medieval period, all while a steady flow of pilgrims came to see the Holy Blood of Hailes. However, when the Dissolution came to this corner of Somerset, one of the main aims was the suppression of all reliquaries and shrines. Thus the Holy Blood was decreed to be fraudulent, the Bishop of Rochester proving it to be nothing more than 'honey clarified and coloured with saffron'. 

We can't be sure just how much truth there lies in this, as the King's ministers were keen to debunk all such cults and superstitions. It would be easy to denounce the relics as fakes in order to justify their iconoclastic actions. But this brings up another subject - does it even matter?

While there is perhaps a moral debate to be had as to the authenticity of relics - and, indeed, of holy places as well - it can be strongly argued that it doesn't really matter. Religion, to a believer, does not need to be proven - faith is, after all, built on belief and not proof. To the faithful, all relics were believed to be real, and therefore worthy of the dangers and delights of the pilgrimage to see them. Relic-peddlers were out to capitalize on this belief, of course, which allows for a degree of cynicism to filter into the view of the medieval pilgrimage. However, the enormous extent to which pilgrimages took place throughout the medieval world is, ultimately, testament to the power of religious belief during this time, something that has largely been lost by today's much more secular society. 

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