Medieval Pilgrimage and the Devotion to Shrines

The medieval period in Europe is sometimes dubbed the Age of Faith. Religion was central to medieval man, and the most important aspect of religion was devotion to the shrines that commemorated the Christian saints and holy men. People were attracted to the shrines predominantly because of the relics they contained.

They undertook pilgrimages to the shrines in the hope that saints would intercede on their behalf on the Day of Judgment, as well as effect miraculous healing and otherwise answer their prayers. This was the popular version of religion, and many churchmen opposed these ways as deviating from core Christian doctrine. The cult of relics nevertheless found apologists in such notables as St Jerome, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation was fundamentally against such cults, whose onslaughts, as well as the general demise of religion, spelt a demise to the fixity on shrines and relics.

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Even though many pilgrimages to those same sites are still undertaken, the fervor has greatly diminished, or has been transformed. The modern devout may suppose himself to have overcome the narrow superstitions of a previous age, but Patrick Geary paints a different picture in his book Living With the Dead in the Middle Ages. In the introduction to the book he suggests that modern society is singularly unwilling to deal with death. We are wrapped up in our endeavor for personal fulfillment, to establish ourselves in the natural world, in which scheme death is an alien intruder, and appears something unnatural, says Geary.

The perception is that “[d]eath is the ultimate evil, the supreme indictment of our inability to control the universe or even ourselves.” He states that the purpose of his book is “to demonstrate the inner logic and reasonableness of this past.”[1] He goes on to demonstrate that the medieval devout was in possession of a complete worldview, one that considered both life and death, the here as well as the hereafter. The modern, therefore, regresses from the wholesome worldview of the medievals, for he denies death, thinking that he is rejecting superstition.

 The eschatological element of the medieval veneration of saints and their relics is highly characteristic. In this sense the heritage of the Romans is significant. Roman religion was centered on ancestor worship. The gens was considered to be the spirit of the household, and therefore the genius was passed on from father to son.

The Roman household was strictly patriarchal, where the father held absolute authority. Not only was he the role model, but also the priest who led the worship of the hearth gods. These were the particular gods and goddesses, representative of the particular genius of the family. Through such practices the Roman was observing pietas, which meant that he was following the ancestral ways, and respecting the ancestors.

This is important because Christian piety is ultimately deriving from Roman pietas. Christendom was established on the ruins of the Roman Empire, from which circumstance comes the many Roman and pagan elements in Christianity. From the Roman worship of ancestors comes the distinctly eschatogical element in medieval Christianity. But instead of the ancestors it was the saints who were venerated, and especially through their relics.

 The process of assimilating the Roman and pagan heritage is distinctly visible in the missionary efforts of the early churchmen. In the second century Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was considered a martyr, and the Christians in Asia Minor “took up his bones which are more valuable than refined gold and laid them in a suitable place where, the Lord willing, …

we may gather together in gladness and celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom.”[2] By the fourth century such practices had become a norm with the people, which the purists in religion began to condemn as pagan. Such was the basis for the celebrated dispute between Vigilantius and St Jerome, the latter defending the popular innovations. Thomas Aquinas, who was also an apologist for such practices, gives an elaborate account of this debate in his Summa Theologiae.

Vigilantius maintained that to worship the physical remains of the saint amounted to idolatry and therefore was unchristian. But Jerome argued that the body remains were not the focus or worship, but instead was a means by which the martyrs were being venerated, and the ultimate focus of worship was God. The bodily remains of the saint were not to be ignored, because they once served as the chosen vessel of God to establish the faith.[3]A contemporary of Jerome, St Augustine of Hippo, had to struggle with himself long before settling his opinions.

Only towards the end of his life was be able to overcome his suspicions that the worship of relics amounted to paganism. “But, nevertheless, we do not build temples, and ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God,”[4] he reasoned. He asks us to imagine how a child would feel towards the ring, or apparel, that used to belong to its father passed away. If it recalled its father with love and affection, then the child would attach to the ring a proportionate amount of the same.

He then likens the physical bodies of the saints to their clothes, but worn even more closely and intimately. “[T]he bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied;” he avers, “least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Ghost as His organs and instruments for all good works.”[5]The cult of relics soon became an integral part of the faith. It became so that any church of sufficient size of clout was expected to hold a relic.

If they were lucky, it was a body part of deceased saint carefully preserved, or else part of the belongings, usually clothing. The relics were kept in reliquaries, which were ornate boxes, usually gem-studded and intricately carved. They were placed under the altar of the church. Due to its presence the altars were viewed as figurative tombs of the saints, and, through their association, that of Christ.

It is recorded the St Ambrose, in the fourth century, took the remains of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius and placed them in a grave under the altar of the church in Milan. The inspiration behind this act was a passage from Book of Revelation (6:9): “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” Edicts were soon announced requiring all churches to have relics under their altars. The altars thus came to be viewed as a point of contact between Heaven and earth.

[6] The presence of the saint was felt to be palpable, even though the soul was residing in Heaven. This presence was made manifest by the miracles that took place in the church and in the vicinity of the altar.To expel the taint of sorcery that such feats invited, St Augustine sought a natural explanation of miracles. “Miracles do not happen in contradiction to nature, but only in contradiction to that which is known to us of nature,”[7] he posited.

The magicians are evil, he suggests, because they are deliberately bent on defying nature. That which is effected by the grace of God cannot be in defiance of nature, even though it may seem to be so when one encounters miracle. Magic is evil, whereas miracle is the preserve of virtue. Indeed, the Latin word ‘virtue’ came through a significant Christian transformation.

To the Romans it was of enormous significance; it sublimated all that a Roman strived for. Its Christian connotations centered on the saints. The same word ‘virtus’ came to be applied to the godly deeds of the saints, as well as the miracles they effected after death, through the relics.Here again it is important to consider the Roman connection.

To the Romans virtue meant the qualities of the patriarch of the family, and that which he had acquired through the genius of his family, coming from his ancestors. In the translation to Christianity virtue becomes a heritage acquired through the saints, and here too the natural and supernatural elements were fused. The good examples of the saints and the miracles they wrought, both were compounded in the Christian concept of virtue. The Romans had venerated a material ancestry, but in the case of the Christians it becomes a spiritual ancestry.

It was as if the saints were intermediating a heritage from heaven. The early saints were thus viewed as patriarchs of the faith, in the same way as the ancestors were the patriarchs of the Roman household.[8] Each church was said to have a patron saint, being the saint whose relic was held under the altar. Everyone associated with the church were part of the “family” headed by the patron.

They included the monks and prelates that oversaw community affairs, the landowning nobles who donated land to the community, the serfs and peasants who tilled the land, as well as the pilgrims come from afar. As it was perceived, the patron saint took care of the community in a fatherly fashion. The devout paid their obeisance at the foot of the altar. In return the patron saint was expected to intercede on behalf of the devout on Judgment Day, thereby taking care of the souls of his ‘children’.

Apart from the eternal hereafter he also took care of the mundane existence of the devout, and this through the miracles wrought while in the presences of the altar.In order to understand the cult of saints and their relics it is advisable to view Christianity as a process of transformation of Roman and pagan Europe rather than an alien imposition. The missionary efforts of the early churchmen clearly demonstrate that the faith was spread by wholesale adoption of native culture and severe compromise. Edward Gibbon puts a negative gloss on this historical process when he says, “The most respectable bishops had persuaded themselves that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism if they found some resemblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity.

”[9] The most potent instrument in this missionary drive proved to be the cult of relics, because it was possible to find in it elements common with the idolatry and sorcery practiced by the pagans. The latter were prone to find sacredness in many inanimate objects. They imagined spirits to reside in various natural objects or locations such as trees, streams, hills, and so on. Even such mundane objects as doors and gold coins had particular deities attached to them.

Taking note of this pantheism the church elders calculated that the pagans would be attracted to Christianity if it could be demonstrated to them that the powers of Christ were superior to those of their traditional gods. The arguments in favor of the afterlife were therefore postponed, and stress was laid on miracle instead. In his Ecclesiastical History (V, 11) the Venerable Bede relates the missionary exploits of Willibrord in Germany. After securing the permission of the local Prince of Frisia to preach among his subjects, he made it his first task to return to Rome and procure some relics.

His intention was to place the relics in place of the pagan idols, after they had been demolished and removed. Everything else was to be left intact, both ritual and structure. With the presence of the relic the temple could then be sanctified for the sake of Christ, and in the name of saint whose relic in contained.[10]The conversion of Britain was accomplished with a similar approach.

Pope Gregory had dispatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Britain with the instruction to destroy the idols, but taking care not to damage the temples themselves. They are to be consecrated with holy water, and there should be altars set up in which the relic are to be enclosed:For we ought to take advantage of well built temples by purifying them from devil worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God. In this way, I hope the people, seeing their temples are not destroyed will leave their idolatry and yet continue to frequent the places as formerly.[11]This was the policy for only selected places like Britain and Germany, where it was felt that the native culture was able to accommodate Christianity with superficial changes.

For more distant and unaccommodating cultures the policy was different, as expressed in the decree of Nantes in 658 AD: “Bishops and their servants should dig up and remove and hide to places where they cannot be found, those stones which in remote and woody places are still worshipped.”[12] A continuing theme in the spread of Christianity is that of pagan magic being overcome with Christian miracle. Hagiographic literature provides examples of miracles wrought by the saints in the process of spreading the Word. These miracles were rarely of a peaceful nature, but were more commonly applied strategically in the war against paganism and magic.

The biblical support for such endeavors was the episode where Moses is described as excelling over the magi of the Pharaoh, where he annuls their magic with miracle. St Peter’s confrontation with the magician Simon Magus was also legendary. Christian writers in their accounts of the exploits of the saints try to impress us with miracle at the same time as they are busy denouncing magic, so much so that it seems as if they are merely replacing one mythology with another. Sulpicius Severus, in his account of the life of St Martin, who preached among the Celts, gives a thrilling account of the saint being tied to a spot where a giant fir tree was about to fall.

[13] Certain trees were held sacred by the Celts, and the tree in question was identified with the god Jupiter. St Martin’s ploy was to fell such trees with theatrical demonstration, and on this occasion he stood in the path of a falling tree with a crowd of pagans looking on. Severus relates that, by the invocation of prayer, St Martin makes the falling tree deviate away at the last moment. St Stephen, who preached among the Permians in Russia, was more severe in his tactics.

He demonstrably defied the threats of the pagan magicians to effect widespread devastation on the pagan idols. He calculated that “the pagans lose faith in their gods when these gods prove unable to defend themselves.”[14] Therefore we have found that the cult of relics was result of cultivation of common ground between paganism and Christianity. Indeed, without this common ground the spread of Christianity amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire becomes problematic.

According to the nineteenth century English historian James Anthony Froude, the pagan mythologies were swept away so easily because the cult of saints and their relics was itself “a singular mythology”, and was “every bit as remarkable as any of the pagan mythologies”.[15] Edward Gibbon had a similar concept is mind when he describes the cult as a symptom of the Empire’s decline. The purists however had always objected to the cult on the same grounds, even though they were helpless to stop its advance and assimilation into Church doctrine. This was partly due to the successful defenses put up by the likes Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome.

Augustine tried to point out that there was a fundamental difference between the deification of Hercules and the veneration of a Christian saint. Hercules becomes a god and enters the Greek pantheon, whereas such would never be possible with the Christian saints, he avers.Nor yet are the miracles which they maintain to have been done by means of their temples at all comparable to those which are done by the tombs of our martyrs. If they seem similar, their gods have been defeated by our martyrs as Pharaoh’s magi were by Moses.

[16]God effected the miracles in the presence of the relics, and were in response to Christian prayer, and therefore were different from pagan magic, he stressed.;As the saints began to multiply there arose the necessity of producing authentic and canonical lists, as well as a specific liturgy for the veneration of each. It was usually popular sentiment that determined sainthood, and the Church intervened only after the event, and had little more than hearsay to judge by. “In these matters,” Guibert, the bishop of Nogent, suggested, “the only method for calling a person a saint which should be considered authentic is one which relies not on opinion, but on timeworn tradition or the evidence of trustworthy writers.

”[17] Regards liturgy, each saint was allocated a feast day, which was usually the death anniversary. It was celebrated because it marked birth into eternal life for the saint. Observance varied according to the saint’s importance. Sometimes only martyrologies were read, which was a list of martyrs that fell on a given day.

For the most venerated saints there were elaborate processions, sometimes bearing the relics, and augmented with readings based on the life of the saints. Local saints were celebrated with the most fanfare.;Pilgrimage to the shrines of the saints became more and more common as the Christian era advanced. Following the ninth century discovery of the relics of St James in Compostella in Spain, the site began to attract pilgrims in large scales.

Christian pilgrimage began in earnest after the Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Once pilgrimage to the Holy Land was made secure, other alternative sites sprang up where pilgrims began to flock. Canterbury Cathedral in England was one such site, whose patron saint was Thomas Beckett, famously embroiled with King Henry II, and murdered in the Cathedral, a martyr to the cause of ecclesiastical self-determination. Pilgrimage to Canterbury in April was a time honored event by the time by the time Geoffrey Chaucer came to compose the famous Canterbury Tales, a collection of tales in rhymes, purportedly told by the pilgrims to amuse themselves while on the road.

Chaucer’s poem paints a picture of buoyant intimacy between the pilgrims, who came from almost every walk of life.;In due course the focus of the pilgrims began to waver, and illicit motives began to creep in. Many simply had tourism in mind when they set out in motley groups to faraway destinations. Honorius of Autun in the twelfth century did not have a high opinion of pilgrims.

Instead of spending time and money on these ventures he thought it more worthwhile to give the money to the poor. He admitted that there were genuine pilgrims, but most of them were only there for vanity purposes, he opined, going on to say, “the only profit which they draw from it [pilgrimage] is that of having seen pleasant places or fine buildings, or of winning the fine name they desired.”[18] There were most likely a few fraudsters among the group too, and one or two of Chaucer’s group of pilgrims are clearly suspect. We are told about the “pygges’ bones” in the pardoner’s possession, which he parades as holy relics.

;Opposition to the cult always persisted, with the result of sporadic outbursts of iconoclastic activity. The period from 726 until 843 is called the time of iconoclastic controversy, when the purist element in the Byzantine East tried its utmost to eradicate the cult, partly by questioning the authenticity of the relics. Fraud and corruption did in fact increase in the later medieval period, and the resultant controversies meant that later church founders tended to avoid the saints, and they dedicated the new institutions instead to Christ, or to the Virgin Mary. The reaction eventually succeeded in the form of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

It was essentially iconoclasm on a massive scale. Not only did the reformers reject the intercession of the saints, but in fact they rejected the body of the Church as a whole, claiming that there was no mediation between the believer and God. The faith of the believer was sufficient justification, said Luther. It was faith in Jesus Christ as the savior, and in the Bible as God’s word.

;Luther railed against the Catholic hierarchy, yet could not imagine Christianity completely free from the trappings of sacrament. Complete severance from the Catholic past was effected by Calvin, who constructed and elaborate theology based on transcendence. In contrast the cult of relics was based on a theology of immanence. Eire provides an evocative picture of the Christianity which prevailed just before the Reformation:Heaven was never too far from earth.

The sacred was diffused in the profane, the spiritual in the material. Divine power, embodied in the Church and its sacraments, reached down through innumerable points of contact to make itself felt: to forgive or punish, to protect against the ravages of nature, to heal, to sooth and to work all sorts of wonders.[19]The revolt turned this world on its head. The above is a picture of Christendom when Calvin was born, in 1509.

By the time he was commencing his studies in the University of Paris Heaven had receded a long way from earth. Instead of expecting wonders from the relics, a typical mob from a Protestant district was ready to desecrate or smash them. The nature or religiosity has met a sea change. “The religion of immanence was replaced by a religion of transcendence;” says Eire.

“Reformers and their congregations exulted in the beauty of a newly stripped, white-washed cathedral.”[20];The Protestant Reformation in effect spelt the end of the cult. Though saints and their relics continued to be venerated in Catholic areas, it was more a sentimental adherence to tradition only. The fervency was gone, that which once made Christians flock to the altars and shrines, genuinely concerned about their well-being in the here and the hereafter.

Luther and Calvin has taught them to beware of the world, and instead to seek salvation in their inner selves. In this endeavor inherent faith, in Jesus Christ, and in the Bible, was all that they required.;;;;;;;Bibliography;Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae.

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1990.Augustine. The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods.

New York: Modern Library.Bede, Judith McClure, Roger Collins. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Bertram Colgrave, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Edwards, Paul. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1967.Eire, Carlos M.

War against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Fergusson, James. Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries, Their Age and Uses.

Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.Geary, Patrick J. Living With the Dead in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Hayward, Paul Anthony. “De-mystifying the role of sanctity.” The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Howard-Johnston, J.

D. (Ed.) Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.Hippolytus; Alistair Stewart-Sykes.

On the Apostolic Tradition. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2001.Kaspersen, Søren; Ulla Haastrup. Images of Cult and Devotion: Function and Reception in Christian Images.

Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2004.Lindahl, Carl; John McNamara; John Lindow. Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs from Western Folklore. Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.Pryce, Richard M.

“The holy man and Christianization.” The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Howard-Johnston, J. D.

(Ed.) Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.Whitlock, Ralph. In Search of Lost Gods: A Guide to British Folklore.

London: Phaidon, 1979.     [1] Patrick J Geary, Living With the Dead in the Middle Ages, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 3.[2] SUNY Oneonta Alumni, “The Cult of the Relics”; available from: http://employees.; Internet.[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 3a.

25-6, p. 200.[4] Augustine, The City of God, Translated by Marcus Dods, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p. 278.

[5] Ibid.[6] Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, John Lindow, Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs from Western Folklore, Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 2000, p. 816.[7] Augustine, qtd in Paul Edwards, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Macmillan, 1967, p.

348.[8] Hippolytus, Alistair Stewart-Sykes, On the Apostolic Tradition, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2001, p. 41.[9] Edward Gibbon, qtd.

in Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 133.[10] Bede, Judith McClure, Roger Collins, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Bertram Colgrave, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 251.

[11] Pope Gregory, qtd. in Ralph Whitlock, In Search of Lost Gods: A Guide to British Folklore, London: Phaidon, 1979, p. 102.[12] James Fergusson, Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries, Their Age and Uses, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p.

24.[13] Richard M Pryce, “The holy man and Christianization,” The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Ed. J. D.

Howard-Johnston, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 223.[14] Ibid, p. 229.

[15] James Anthony Froude, qtd. in Paul Anthony Hayward, “De-mystifying the role of sanctity,” The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Ed. J. D.

Howard-Johnston, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 119.[16] Augustine, City of God, p. 500.

[17] Lindahl et al, Medieval Folklore, p. 818.[18] Virtual Medieval Church and Its Writings, “Pilgrimage and Pilgrims,” University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, MN; available from: http://courseweb.stthomas.

edu/medieval/chaucer/pilgrim.htm.[19] Carlos M Eire, War against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus toCalvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.

1.[20] Ibid p. 2.

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