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

2 responses to “Romancing the Early Pilgrims

  1. Love the extension of the topic in terms of context and literature, which in turn emphasise the continuities that we bring with us.
    This is a great way of keeping track of your ideas.

  2. Thanks Ann. I’m attempting to keep a record of thoughts for myself and hopefully others might find them useful. Or they could think I’m mad. Either way its a good way to getting some writing done.

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