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.
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.