Are We There Yet? Realities of medieval travel in The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage and Sea-Sickness

At this time of year, people usually start planning their summer holidays, asking themselves what type of holiday they would prefer, where they would like to go and, of course, how they will get there. These choices, though commonplace for us, would have been a luxury for the miserable travellers found in The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage and Sea-Sickness. This fifteenth century poem, written in Middle English during the reign of Henry VI, provides the reader with the harsh realities of medieval sea travel, referring specifically to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In contrast to the pilgrim guides which I have discussed in previous posts, it offers little information on what the travellers were to expect once they reached their destinations such as indulgences, shrines en-route etc. It does, however, provide us with a more social perspective to the experiences of the pilgrim and an insight into the true nature of the journey.

From the very start of this work, we realise that this is going not to be a promotional poem, advertising the wonderful experiences of medieval pilgrimage. The first line has a feeling of “abandon hope…”  as it states “Men may leue gamys, that saylen to seynt Jamys”. In other words, you should forget attempting to have any fun because you’re now on a pilgrimage!  Sea travel was a dangerous method of transport with ships sometimes lost en-route but it was necessary for those who wished to travel to mainland Europe from Ireland and England. According to Wendy R Childs in her chapter from Pilgrimage Explored, there were three routes which could be taken to Santiago. The first being one from Dover to Calais and from here they could travel through France and into Spain. The second was to Bordeaux from here travel into Pyrenees  and the third was a direct voyage to Spain. The terrible experiences of such a voyage would have been common knowledge among those who sought to go on pilgrimage and this is reflected when the narrator states that, on seeing the ships which would take them across the sea, “Theyr hertes begyn to fayle” (8). One comfort. however, was the fact that the danger and the hardship of this journey would, without doubt, have fed into the notion of it being, as Ian Friel acknowledges, “a test of faith” (183); suffering in this life will be rewarded in the next.

It is not just the dangers of the sea which the pilgrims of this poem have to contend with but also the mockery which they were exposed to from the sailors who see their passengers as a hindrance who constantly get in their way. One could easily see Chaucer’s hard-drinking Shipman, dressed in his coarse cloth, among these seafarers. The difficult, physical work of the sailors is described in detail and one could even agree with the disdain which they exhibit for the pilgrims’ inability to cope with just the mere task of eating and drinking. The pilgrims cannot manage anything substantial, “neyther sode ne rost”, boiled nor roasted. They have instead “saltyd tost”. The sailors, on the other hand, have no such problems with a “pot of bere” being called for once they have set sail, while the instructions are sent to the cook to “make redy anoon our mete” (26). Ridicule can be seen in the following sentence where it’s stated that “Our pylgryms haue no lust to ete, I pray god yeue hem rest!” (27-28), implying a very sarcastic “Oh dear,the poor pilgrims! More for us then” attitude. The physical labour of the sailors also contrasts with the activities of the lethargic pilgrims who spend their time reading. From this, the pilgrims develop headaches resulting in self-pitying statements such as, “Allas! myne hede wolle cleue on thre!” (55).

The pilgrims’ ordeal in this work is not limited to sea-sickness or bearing the brunt of the sailors’ derision but also includes having to endure poor living conditions. No straw is provided to sleep on and many “must lyg theym in theyr hood” (66). The filthy conditions of the entire journey on this ship are summed up in the final sentences where the vileness of the smell on-board is described:

For when that we shall go to bedde,

The pumpe was nygh oure beddes hede,

A man were as good to be dede

As smell therof the stynk. (67-72)

The pilgrims of The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage and Sea-Sickness, despite their often annoying frailty, provide us with a glimpse into the horrors endured while participating in a pilgrimage which required a journey by sea. It did not deter people from going, however, as thousands crossed to achieve their pilgrimage goal. The choice of ports given at the start of this poem displays the popularity and demand for such travel as do the numbers of licences during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which were granted to ship-owners to carry pilgrims to their destinations. This poem, though humorous in some aspects of its depictions of pilgrims, may have also served as a warning to those who were willing to undertake a journey for less than pious reasons by highlighting the worst possible experiences which one may encounter. Come to think of it, poor seating, poor food and being treated like garbage sounds like a few present day modes of transport. I wonder how much hand luggage they were permitted?

Medieval illumination showing a mariner consulting a compass aboard a ship. It is the first known depiction of the use of compass on board a ship. The illustration is from a 1403 manuscript copy of Jehan de Mandeville (John Mandeville), Le livre des merveilles (originally published c.1355-57). The 1403 manuscript is held by the Bibliotheque national de France in Paris, B MS fr 2810, fol.188v.

Medieval ship and compass

Works Cited

Furnivall, Frederick James. The Stacions of Rome: And the Pilgrims Sea Voyage: With Clene Maydenhod ; A Supplement to ‘Political Religious and Love Poems’ New York: Greenwood, 1969. Print.

Gorski, Richard. Roles of the Sea in Medieval England. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2012. Print.

Sobecki, Sebastian I. The Sea and Medieval English Literature. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Print.

Stopford, J. Pilgrimage Explored. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval, 1999. Print.

Webb, Diana. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999. Print.


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Medieval Tour Guides and The Stations of Jerusalem

A very belated Happy New Year to you all. After a very busy, post-Christmas few weeks, I am finally getting around to fulfilling one of my New Year’s blogging resolutions: continuing with a second installment of Middle English pilgrimage guides. The Stations of Jerusalem, a fifteenth century work written in the vernacular at the height of the popularity of journeys in search of shrines and sacred places, displays what George Shuffleton refers to as “the standardization of the Jerusalem pilgrimage”. The undertaking of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land remained a dangerous affair but now structures were in place, with the presence of prescribed routes and copious amounts of guidebooks with more detail than today’s satnavs.

The Stations of Jerusalem begins with a list of shrines that one will meet on their outward journey, a list so detailed that the voyage resembles one undertaken by an island hopping relic hunter rather than a pilgrim. The list of saints’ body parts include legs, thighs, kneecaps, teeth and arms. Accompanying these descriptions of the presence of body parts and dismembered limbs, are descriptions of the types of indulgences which can be attained in their presence. For example, in the case of the relics of Saint Christopher in Venice:

For ther is the whyrl-bon of hys kne

And his toth closyd in crystall to se,

Twyse in the yere who theder com

To vyset this cor-seynts in that plas,

He shall have plene remyssyon (33-37)

Miracles associated with the relics visited en route are not ignored. On the Island of Rhodes, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns blooms every Good Friday and “a feyr merakylle it is to se” (54).

Though written in the first person, The Stations of Jerusalem offers no personal experiences during the early stages of the voyage such as encounters with other pilgrims or thoughts on the journey but introduces new shrines and churches by offering generic statements such as “we fond” or “we saw” confirming what Shuffleton describes  as “the product of someone who had no direct experience of the Holy Land at all”, a merging biblical narratives and quotes with another’s account of the pilgrimage. On arriving at Jerusalem, however, a more personal description evolves with the writer expressing joy on the first sight of the city walls and their encounter with a Muslim guard the Temple of the Holy Sepulcher. A sense of the writer’s curiosity can also be seen in the visit to this temple as he emphasises that they got the opportunity to pass through the middle of the world, reflecting his interest in such a topic as the medieval concept of Jerusalem being the centre of the earth :

And thus we passyd by

the mydys of the mundye;

Ther is wroute withouten doute,

The mydys of the werlde ronde aboute. (133-136)

Psalter Mappa Mundi

Along with this interest, we can also see that the author is also attentive to the presence of other cultures in Jerusalem including those carried out by the Indian and Greek Orthodox priests in Jerusalem providing descriptions of their religious practices, comparing them with the practices of what he describes as “prestys of owre [faith]” (227).

Passion imagery is prevalent in this work and it provides a step-by-step account of the movements of Jesus within Jerusalem while the extensive use of biblical narrative forms the basis of the description of Mount Calvary in this guide. This continues for much of the rest of the narrative, a feature which, no doubt, allowed the medieval audience to complete an imagined pilgrimage/tour of the sacred sites of the Holy Land without ever having to leave their home.

Modern Day Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives

There is another reason why I’m particularly interested in The Stations of Jerusalem. I have, over the last year, explored the themes found within the manuscript Ashmole 61, from which this version of the guidebook is taken. My examination of this manuscript is ongoing but once I have a coherent blog post or even an abstract for an upcoming conference based on my findings, I will be sure to post. This is not the last we’ll see of The Stations of Jerusalem!

Thanks for reading!

For the excellent introduction and version of The Stations of Jerusalem, referred to in this post and edited by George Shuffleton,  please refer


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The Three Kings of Cologne and their literary presence

The countdown to Christmas has officially begun! In less than a week,  amongst the mounds of wrapping paper and stacks of Christmas cards, we will find ravaged boxes and tins of sweets and the kitchen cupboards will be laden down with bottles of wine and other festive drinks. These items are not usually bought by ourselves but are gifts from visitors, dropping by over the holiday period. These presents and tokens are a far cry from the very first bout of festive gift-giving in Bethlehem but their appearance in our homes at this time of the year puts me in mind of the role of the first Christmas visitors; The Three Wise Men, their gifts and their presence in the literature of the Middle Ages.

The Three Kings of Cologne, a Middle English translation of the Historia Trium Regum by John of Hildesheim gives us a narrative full of information about this trio of travellers. It combines, as the introduction to the Middle English translation states, biblical narrative including descriptions of the Holy Land and information provided by the Church Fathers with “common traditions and well-known facts” (xiv).  These elements are also enhanced by the inclusion of “lore of the Far East” (Morey: 227); fantastical descriptions of the exotic lands from which these three men come from and which are reminiscent of the descriptions often found in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

“and there be also grete waters and wildirnesses ful of wilde and perlous beestis and horribil serpynts , and there growe also Reedys so high and so grete that men make therof  hows and schippys” (The Three Kings of Cologne:40).

The wonders and miracles surrounding the Nativity are balanced with the wonders surrounding the “foreign” in this substantial works, a description of both the sacred and the secular. This reflected the unavoidable tendency of readers and also pilgrims during the Middle Ages to desire a search for both the holy and the exotic in this world.

The description of each of the Magi’s respective journeys towards the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem in this work, even though unattainable, could be a viewed as the perfect form of pilgrimage as they do not stop for food or rest but travel constantly for almost two weeks until they reach their destination, facing few obstacles while following the star. This, as Dee Dyas notes, “made them the ideal role models for pilgrims” (131), figures whose commitment to their travels should be commended and emulated.

The bodies of these “ideal role models” became objects of veneration and a centre for pilgrimage themselves during the Middle Ages after being moved from Constantinople to Milan in 344 and then from Milan to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa in 1164. The Three Kings of Cologne does not stop its narrative after their arrival in Bethlehem but ensures to recount their lives afterwards and, following their deaths, the travels of their relics, emphasising that in Cologne “ther thie be kept and worschipped of alle maner of naciouns in to this day” (138).  Their ornate shrine was completed in 1225 and can be seen in Cologne Cathedral to this day, attracting many pilgrims and visitors.


Amoli at pl.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The shrine of The Three Kings of Cologne. Picture courtesy of Amoli at pl.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons


Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading!


Works Cited

Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700-1500. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2001. Print.

Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2000. Print.

Of Hildesheim, John. The Three Kings of Cologne. Ed. Carl Horstmann. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society by N. Trübner &, 1886. Print.

“Shrine of the Three Kings.” Shrine of the Three Kings. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.






Filed under Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

The Knight, His Daughters and His Book (Part II)

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of presenting at the fantastic Imbas conference in Galway. Other commitments meant that I was unable to attend the whole thing but from all reports it was a resounding success. The paper I gave was based on my research on  medieval courtesy literature and the presence of pilgrimage in such texts; in other words, an extension of my previous post on The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry. I also included an analysis of a selection of other short exemplary tales in this paper that I will return to in a future post but for now I will provide a condensed version of the section relating to Geoffroy de La Tour-Landry thus killing two blogging birds with the one stone by providing a concluding part to the previous post The Knight and His Daughters and His Book.

Geoffrey is attentive to the role of true intentions in his book. He emphasises the importance of correct intentions when attending services or going on pilgrimage.  Chapter XXVIII gives an example of “them that usen to clatre, speke, and iangle atte the masse, in whiche thei shuld haue herde the deuyne seruice of God” (40). Geoffroy explains that a holy hermit had a chapel to which many people came on pilgrimage. They did not, however, act in the appropriate manner but talked and “jangled” together. This is again another example of the negative image of pilgrimage at this time, a social occasion where all religious aspects are forgotten or ignored. The outcome of this story, like that of the women who attend jousts and feasts is one which is intended not only to educate but also to frighten the intended audience as demons appear beside those who misbehaved during the service.

The idea of wandering without purpose or with a malicious intention such as gossip or adultery is a concern of the knight’s and, of course, the society in which he lived. A wandering woman is a liminal figure, on the peripheries of society, who was able to upset prescribed gender expectations. According to Sarah Salih, “the opposition between the good woman in the household and the bad woman in the street continues to inform medieval texts of all genres, which write gendered morality in spatial terms” (125). A wandering woman is without intent or purpose and can sometimes be construed as a threat to society, returning once again to the issue of curiositas. Their desire to travel and explore the world resulted in the theory of wandering women who “violated or threatened to violate, the spatial boundaries that defined behaviour appropriate to their gender” (Craig, 23). Therefore, it is no accident that in his book, Geoffroy places two examples of women going on pilgrimage one after another, both with very different intentions. Chapter XXXIII provides “an ensaumple of a countesse that euery day wolde here thre masses” (46). The knight emphasises the true nature and intent of this women in comparison with those who do not attend the prescribed amount of masses. Her dedication to God is reflected in her attendance of three services each day and so neither narrator nor audience feel the need to question or criticise her motives for going on pilgrimage. Going on pilgrimage is almost the cause of her missing one of her three services as her chaplain falls from his horse but God, in response to her devout nature, provides her with the opportunity to meet a saint as she continues with her journey who will say a mass for her. Geoffroy continues to emphasise the humble and sincere character of this women who immediately gives thanks to God for this miracle. She is not a false pilgrim who travels with insincere intentions but rather one who is rewarded directly from God for her devoutness. His daughters have been given the example of a true and worthy pilgrim who does not take advantage of the activity for her own worldly gains.

Chapter XXXIV, however, does not paint pilgrimage or women in such a positive light. It is “an ensaumple of a yong lady that had her herte moch on the worlde” (47). The knight explains that she is married but is in fact in love with a squire. To be with her squire she “made her husbonde to understond that she had uowed in diuerse pilgrimages”. The knight not only reverts to describing pilgrimage as an increasingly more secular activity but it is now also an outlet where the sin of adultery can be easily committed. Geoffroy ensures that the purely secular, worldly motives for this travel in the story are clearly seen. Both the squire and the young lady do not participate in the religious elements of the pilgrimage to a shrine to Our Lady but “they might haue her foly speche and communicacion togedre, in whiche they delited hem more thane to saie praieres or seuice to God, or to hav ani deucion in her pilgrimage” (47). They attend the services associated with pilgrimage but spend the entire time making signs at each other and talking. This behaviour does not escape the attention of God and he strikes down the young lady with a sickness, reflecting the attitude of society as a whole towards adulterous women. She does not leave the place of pilgrimage but begins her path to redemption there. She receives visions which are then interpreted for her by a holy man. This pious figure shares and reinforces the knight’s concern with true intent as he says:

Alle thei that gone on pilgrimage to a place for foule plesaunce more thane deucion of the place that thei go to, and couerithe thaire goinge with seuice of God, fowlithe and scornithe God and oure lady, and the place that their goo to, as ded the squire whanne he come to that place, and that he hadde more plesaunce in hym thane he hadde of the plesaunce of God, or on the pilgrimage that he hede to (50).

The young wife of this tale becomes a good woman, pious and devoted to both her husband and God after this experience and is not tempted by the corrupting force of the squire again. This lady has exemplified the fear of the free and mobile woman. She has used pilgrimage as an excuse to lie to her husband and leave the confines of her domestic duty to commit adultery and put her moral and spiritual welfare in danger. The knight does not portray pilgrimage as the corrupting influence but as the means to commit sin. Pilgrimage is corrupted by those who go without true intent and the statement which Geoffroy attaches to the end of his story serves as a warning to those who wish to go on pilgrimage:

And therefor here is an example that no body shulde go in holy pilgrimages forto fulfelle no foly, plesaunce, nor the worlde, nor flesshely delite. But thei shulde go enterly with herte to serue God; and also that it is good to praie for fader and moder, […] for thie impetrithe grace for hem that be alyue. (51).

This story, which the knight has recounted for his daughters, portrays pilgrimage as a force which can have negative effects on marriage and the family if undertaken for the wrong reasons. Pilgrimages occur outside of the safety of the domestic environs, in the liminal space outside of society’s boundaries and Geoffroy uses the diversity of pilgrimage as a literary device to emphasise the dangers and temptations of this particular space especially for women.

For anyone interested in the great postgraduate conference, Imbas and the speakers who presented this year, please click on this link  

Works Cited        

Craig, Leigh Ann. Wandering Women and Holy Matrons: Women As Pilgrims in the Later Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Print.

Salih, Sarah. “At Home; out of the House.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. Ed. Caroline Dinshaw and David Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. N. pag. Print.


Filed under Conference, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

Ghosts of Pilgrims Past

While snuggled up on the couch a few nights ago watching one of my favourite films for this time of year (Sleepy Hollow), I began to think of ghostly apparitions in the Middle Ages and wonder if any pilgrims, real or literary were exposed to such visions while on their journey. I did a little bit of research and came across a medieval ghost story of a pilgrim’s encounter with a spirit while on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

In this tale, translated from a Latin collection which was compiled by a monk in the abbey of Byland early in the 15th century,  Richard Rowntree from Cleveland sets out on a pilgrimage to Spain. His wife, who he has left at home in England, gives birth to a still-born baby.  While on lookout one night for the group of pilgrims he is travelling with, Richard observes a ghostly parade. Behind this parade a small child follows, wrapped too tightly to even walk upright (in some translations he is wrapped in a sock and is forced to roll on the ground).  This ghostly child explains to Richard that he is his son who has been buried in secret without being baptised. Richard immediately gives his shirt to the child and also a name, allowing the child to not only to walk upright but also cross over to the afterlife while his father can continue on with his pilgrimage. In one translation Richard brings home the stocking in which the child was wrapped in. When only one stocking is found at home he produces the one which he has brought with him and uses it to question the midwives and the truth about the burial of his son is revealed.

The child’s unfinished business which includes burial without baptism and the resulting lack of name and identity result in his ghostly condition, unable to walk upright and also leave the earthly realm. It is his father’s clothing and the provision of a name which offers him the chance to cross over. Richard is also shown to be virtuous man, capable of charity and compassion. But this tale also reflects the sinful characteristics of human nature including the deceitfulness of the midwives. Richard being his own son’s godfather is commented on in this tale and serves as a warning to others who would undertake such an impious act.

The ghostly child is a common motif even to this day in films such as The Others and The Ring but these figures are not often as benign as Richard Rowntree’s son so enjoy the scares that will undoubtedly come with such movies over the coming days and of course have a very Happy Halloween!

For more reading on the tale of Richard Rowntree please refer to the works cited below.

Works Cited

James, M. R. “Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories.” The English Historical Review XXXVII.CXLVII (1922): 413-22. Print.

O’Connor, Anne. The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005. Print.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.

Shinners, John. Medieval Popular Religion: 1000-1500 : A Reader. Peterborough: Broadview, 1997. Print.


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The Knight, His Daughters and His Book (Part I)

Ah yes, that time of year is upon us again. A chill in the air, leaves rustling along the path, happy new students rushing about campus with their new books and of course the feelings of absolute fear and dread that accompanies the realisation that you are now one year into your research. Now que the terror that maybe you could have done more over the year, made more groundbreaking discoveries etc. Yes, this bleak place is where I now find myself, overwhelmed by the year to come and underwhelmed by my own work in the year gone by. Maybe a quick post taken from a small section of my earliest work on family and  pilgrimage in courtesy literature will help or maybe send me further into the doubtfulness associated with the second year blues. The following piece is based on my research on The Book of the Knight of La-Tour Landry. It is a short introduction to the courtesy text and I will hopefully add two follow-up posts containing more of my findings on the text. It has its problems, but any thoughts or suggestions regarding this piece would be greatly appreciated.

Written in French in the time between 1371 and 1372 by Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, the Livre du chevalier de la Tour-Landry was no exception to this ever-growing interest in moral, social and spiritual instruction within the family and domestic environment and bears some similarities to The Goodman of Paris. It was a popular text and more than twenty versions exist in different manuscripts. Though William Caxton translated and printed an edition of this text in 1484, which he called The Book of the Knight of the Tower, I am more interested in the anonymous Middle English translation, The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry which was completed during the reign of Henry VI. I will not, however, ignore Caxton’s text entirely but will use it as a comparison tool from time to time. The translation that is central to my research on courtesy literature, pilgrimage and the family is The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry. This is found in a manuscript in the Harleian collection, MS 1764, in the British Library and though the editor of the printed translation I am using, Thomas Wright, is writing from a nineteenth century perspective, he does identify that this particular version “displays much more freedom, and is more correct [than Caxton’s translation]”. (xiv). Even though this may be true and Caxton’s translation is overly “literal”, Wright also brings our attention to the fact that this “superior” text is from an imperfect manuscript, meaning that Caxton’s text cannot be overlooked.

Geoffry’s warnings extend to the anxiety of the patriarchal system at the time: the mobility of women. The domestic boundaries were beginning to break down during the Middle Ages with women becoming increasingly active in the public domain through the running of businesses, attending public events and of course travelling and going on pilgrimages. This, however, proved a problem for those possessing the belief that women should not leave the confines of their home without a good reason, for example to attend mass. The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry follows this belief to a certain degree but does not explicitly say “women should never leave the home”. Geoffroy dedicates chapter XXV to “ladies who go to justs and pilgrimages”. Pilgrimage, though only mentioned in the title of this section is linked to jousts and feasting, secular activities of purely entertainment value. Pilgrimage in some respects had descended into a form of entertainment by the time Geoffroy had written his book of instruction. It had become merely another social occasion where his daughters’ names could be compromised and necessitated a warning.  He does not command his daughters to stay at home. He does, however, use examples of women possessing poor discretion at such occasions to frighten them but also gives them advice on what to do if they find themselves in a position where they have to attend social gatherings. In his translation of this text Caxton does not make any reference to pilgrimage in this chapter title. The advice provided is almost identical to that of the anonymous text but the missing reference to pilgrimage here may demonstrate how religious travel had declined in the public’s opinion in Caxton’s time.




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Romancing the Early Pilgrims

From that first day I began researching the concept of medieval pilgrimage for my Masters thesis all those many years ago (3 and a half to be exact), references to the Irish as pilgrims cropped up again and again. The influence of those who travelled not in search of shrines, indulgences or curiosity but in search of an ascetic life and a oneness with the divine could not be ignored. I am aware that it is a topic which has been written on extensively but I feel that within the context of my own work I need to acknowledge the journeys made by these earliest pilgrims.

The theme of being cast adrift in a rudderless boat is one which has appeared again and again in my recent research into romance narratives, and this theme has brought me back full circle to those early pilgrims I had once read about in my initial studies, referenced once or twice and pushed to the back of my mind. For these pilgrim monks, the idea of becoming peregrini or strangers by leaving their homes, families and all that was familiar to them for distant lands allowed them the opportunity to enter into the spiritual life for peregrinatio pro amore dei (pilgrimage for the love of God). The desire for the ascetic life also reflected the teachings of the bible regarding the desert and wandering in the wilderness which are found in the Book of Exodus. These reasons behind the earliest pilgrimage show us the popularity of the concept that life was  a pilgrimage toward the Heavenly Jerusalem, a concept which retained its popularity in both the historic and literary pilgrimage well into the Middle Ages and later (and one which I will hopefully address in greater detail later in my studies).

Following in the footsteps of those who sought the ascetic life in the desert, Irish monks sought such a life in places of equal desolation and isolation. Areas off the western Irish coast, for example Scarriff Island and Skellig Michael (both in Kerry), offered such an environment.

Irish Monastic Settlement

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also describes the arrival of three Irishmen in Cornwall whose chosen method of transport was a boat which did not have oars and provisions to last for a week, demonstrating their total dependence and devotion to God.

The Navigatio Sancti Brendani is one of the most famous narratives regarding Irish peregrini at sea. In this work, Saint Brendan’s search for the ‘Island Promised to the Saints’ unearths many other islands, many of them fantastical and in some cases miraculous.

Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis germanicae

The works which recently put me in mind of  these early Irish pilgrims of the sea are Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale and Emaré where the female protagonists of both of these romance narratives are exiled by casting them out to sea in rudderless boats. The prayers and devotion made by these characters reflect a sense of peregrinatio. Chaucer’s Constance, in her “ship al steerelees” (439) prays to the Cross:

Victorious tree, proteccioun of trewe,

That oonly worthy were for to bere

The Kyng of Hevene with his woundes newe,

The white Lamb, that hurt was with a spere,

Flemere of feendes out of hym and here

On which thy lymes feithfully extended,

Me kepe, and yif me myght my lyf t’amenden. (456-462)

This is a theme I will return to repeatedly and will hopefully be able to develop a more comprehensive analysis of this similarity between the women of these romance narratives and the Irish peregrini.





Filed under Ireland, Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

Medieval Tour Guides and The Stacions of Rome

Pilgrimage was an activity documented  through a variety of different mediums in the Middle Ages including itineraries and personal accounts like that of Symon Semeonis which I have previously discussed. These types of works have received some attention and literary merit in recent years but the often neglected area of the medieval guidebook is where I turn now my attention to . These particular works and their literary significance have been largely ignored by Middle English scholars due in part to the belief that many are copied from another similar text and are often just lists of place names. This leads to the understanding that these are impersonal texts of little or no literary value.

My own interest in the literary pilgrimage of Middle English texts means that I do not share this opinion but find such texts invaluable when researching the contextual place of pilgrimage in society. These guidebooks must have certainly played a part in the creation of the pilgrimages found in the literary works of the era, especially if their authors had not been to certain sites themselves. They provided and still provide useful insights into the world of medieval travel while also sometimes allowing us a glimpse of their authors’ thoughts and opinions.

The first of these works I wish to discuss is the guidebook The Stacions of Rome found in the Vernon MS. At the first glimpse of this work you might think that this just what I described above as being just a mere list of places to see while on pilgrimage in the city of Rome but on closer inspection we see that it provides so much more than place-names. While explaining to the reader about the 29 steps at Saint Peter’s, the guide’s author (who from this point onwards I will refer to as a he as it was more than likely a man who compiled such a text) explains that for each step taken seven years of pardon are given, highlighting that pilgrimages to Rome were undoubtedly intended to be ones of penance. The interesting part of this description however is the fact that the author emphasises that this is a mixed gender area where ” mon or wommon” (24)  may partake in this particular exercise of seeking indulgences. This hint that there may exist pilgrimage sites where women are not welcome is confirmed when the author, while describing the history of the seven chief altars, explains that at the altar of the Holy Cross “no wommon schal comen” (45), displaying the gender differences that existed even when pilgrims were supposed to be liminal figures, beyond the confines of strict, societal boundaries.

It is also interesting to note that varying indulgences which were given to pilgrims, depending on the distance which they travelled. In the case of the displaying of the vernicle, pardons range from 3000 years for those live in the city, 9000 for those who live nearby and 12000 for those who travel over the sea, reflecting that enduring the hardships of long-distance travel did pay off. This could also be viewed as a great way to entice people to the city and its churches, thus bringing money in the form of donations.

The competitive nature between medieval pilgrimage destinations is reinforced in this guidebook when the author, after providing the details of the amount of years of pardon one would receive for completing the 4 miles to Saint Paul’s, explains that ” thou shalt haue as muche pardoun as thou to seint Jame went and com (91-92). Even Pope Boniface, the author explains, advocates the pilgrimage to Rome above others saying:

  if men wuste grete and smale the pardoun that is at grete Rome,

thei wolde tellen in heore dome hit we

Hit were no neod to mon in cristiante

To passe in to the holy lond ouer the séé

To Jerusalem ne to kateryn

To bringe monnes soule out of pyne

For pardoun ther is with-outen ende (286-293)

The use of other pilgrimage destinations to promote your own site can also be seen in this text as it directs those who wish to gain the prayers of those pilgrims who have travelled to the Holy Land to provide alms within the church of Saint Thomas.

Pilgrimage came under fire in the later Middle Ages as it became an opportunity to seek out curiosities and sometimes to commit more sins including adultery and theft rather than to further one’s spirituality and unity with the divine. The author of this guidebook would have been aware of the name pilgrimage it was earning for itself and endeavours to emphasis the importance of true repentance while undertaking such a journey when he states that “men that ben schriven and verrey contrit of alle heore synnes god maketh heom quit” (101-102).Following on from this, the author ensures that forgiveness can still be sought even though oaths and penances are broken or unfulfilled and explains that they should seek such forgiveness from Saint Sylvester.

At the underground chapel where 44 martyred popes lived, the author explains that a full plenary remission of all sins can be attained here. The description of this particular site is almost mysterious as he explains that he has personally heard from clerks that “if thow dye thiderward heuen blisse schal ben thi part” (191-192), emphasising that not only has he travelled to this place himself but also has received, through word of mouth, information regarding such an important indulgence.

A full description of the relics associated with Jesus are provided alongside their associated pardons. Included in this catalogue are items such as the sponge and vinegar that were offered to Christ along with a splinter of wood from the penitent thief’s cross. These relics are housed in the Holy Rood church in which a chapel was built by Constantine. This association with items from Christ’s own life  and especially his crucifixion housed in Rome uphold Boniface’s idea that there might not be necessary to travel all the way to the Holy Land to encounter relics of such significance.

The author ends the guide with a final endorsement of Rome as a pilgrimage destination based on the many opportunities to seek pardons which exist there stating that:

In Rome is muche pardoun more

the have told here bifore

or telle schulde with al my miht

thouh I weore here bothe dat and niht (727-730).

It is almost like one last “come experience it all for yourself” sales pitch by a medieval travel agent.

Even though this is only a short and simple examination of the world of medieval pilgrimage guides, I hope that it has argued their importance within the corpus of Middle English literature and maybe even encouraged some to go and explore other such guides. It is definitely a genre which I myself will return to again and again.

Works Cited:

Furnivall, Frederick James, and William Michael Rossetti. The Stacions of Rome … and the Pilgrims Sea-voyage … with Clene Maydenhod … A Supplement to “Political, Religious, and Love Poems,” and “Hali Meidenhad, ” (… 1866). London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society, by N. Trübner &, 1867. Print.

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Filed under Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

The Two Saints Way

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a fellow pilgrimage enthusiast and long distance walker, David Pott who is the project leader of the Two Saints Way. This is a project which will hopefully signal the revival of other, mostly forgotten pilgrimage routes. David’s work links together the cathedral cities of Chester and Lichfield along a pilgrimage path based on a story trail relating to the legend of the founding of Stone. This legend possesses references to both Saint Chad whose shrine can be found in Lichfield and Saint Werburgh whose shrine can found Chester (hence the name of the pathway). This pathway offers an authentic pilgrimage experience incorporating not only the spiritual elements but also the social aspects of such a journey including story-telling. Another feature of the pilgrimage is the revival of “Whacky Customs” including bringing stones to Stone, foot washing at Lichfield cathedral and the marking of the forearm with a cross.

I am both envious of and delighted by the work which David and the rest of the Two Saints Way organisers have done. This is an amazing achievement by people dedicated not only to reviving physical pilgrimages centred on spiritual healing but also drawing attention to the historical importance of  pilgrimages in the middle ages.

I would encourage anybody who has an interest in walking pilgrimage routes, be they modern or medieval, to consider the Two Saints Way. Please click on the link here to find out more about this fantastic project!


Filed under Medieval, Pilgrimage

Positively Deviant!

Just a quick update on my first conference last week. It was an incredibly positive experience. I don’t know what I was expecting really. If I slipped up reading my paper, mispronounced something, would people  start throwing rotten vegetables at me? If I wasn’t able to answer a question, would I have been heckled to death? Funny things go through the nerve-wracked mind. The conference itself was conducted in a fantastic way, with live tweeting, live blogging and lovely herbal teas at the breaks. Interesting papers were given by all and I would like to thank the Bookends team again for a great experience (even though I didn’t get to the after-conference party).

Instead of posting the entire piece (all 2500 words of it), check out this  link to the Bookends live blogging page from my paper “Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy”: Incest and its consequences in Middle English Exempla.

Shocking and most certainly deviant!

Here’s hoping my next conference will be as positive as this!


Filed under Conference, Medieval, Middle English Literature