Faded image showing a map of Chaucer's Pilgrimage

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A pilgrimage is a journey to a distant sacred goal. A study of the great religions of the world reveals that pilgrimage is sacred in all of them. So what is this sacred goal? How does the pilgrim reach it? Pilgrimage can be described as a journey both outwards to holy places and inwards to spiritual improvement. People make pilgrimages to express penance for past evils, or to search for future good. Sometimes a pilgrim seeks a miracle through the medium of God or a saint. Thus, when thinking of how to describe a pilgrim, the logical answer would be pilgrims are those who strive to obtain salvation of their soul through a physical journey undertaken for love of God. Reading Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” however, shows that a band of pilgrims could be a motley crew indeed.

In many ways, pilgrimage was a suspect event. Medieval pilgrims might travel simply out of curiosity like today’s tourists. In the twelfth century, Honorius of Autun spoke out against pilgrimage. For example, the pupil in the Elucidarium asks, “Is there any merit in going to Jerusalem or visiting other holy places?” To which the master replies, “It is better to give to the poor the money required for the journey.” For Honorius, pilgrimage only made sense when it was undertaken for a penance for serious sin. Any reason beyond that was merely one of vanity. As the master in the Elucidarium goes 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.”

Etching of Santiago de Compostela
Etching of Santiago de Compostela

One of the greatest medieval sites of pilgrimage was Santiago de Compostela in Spain. During the reign of Alfonso II of Asturias (792-842) the tomb of the apostle James was supposedly discovered near Finisterre. James was believed to have been the evangelist of Spain. Through the energetic work of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (1100-1140) - Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage.

To find more of the history and legends surrounding the shrine, visit http://www.red2000.com/spain/santiago/history.html.
A fascinating virtual pilgrimage to the shrine, created by John Dagenais of UCLA, can be found at http://www.humnet.ucla.edu/santiago/iagohome.html.

Thomas A. Beckett, Archbishop of Cantebury punishing someone in his religious court.

Thomas à Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury punishing someone of a crime in his own religious court.

The shrine that was close to Chaucer’s heart was that of Thomas à Becket of Canterbury. In 1162, Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury. At that time, the Church reserved the right to try clerical crimes in their own religious courts of justice and not those of the crown. King Henry II wished to end this custom. Henry’s great opportunity arose in 1163. A church court acquitted a canon accused of murder. King Henry tried to change the laws to extend his courts’ jurisdiction over the clergy. Although Becket stood against Henry at first he was forced to flee the country.

Six years later on November 30 of 1170, Becket crossed the Channel returning to his post at Canterbury. Unfortunately, the feud between Becket and the king continued until the afternoon of December 29 when knights of the king slew Becket at the alter of Canterbury cathdral.

Soon after Becket's death, several miracles were said to have occurred. This helped bring forward Becket's canonization, the creation of the tomb, and the beginning of the great pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Portrait of King Henry IIPortrait of King Henry II..






Virtual Medieval Church and Its Writings
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Pilgrimage and Pilgrims: Illustration of a Motley crew of Pilgrims