Tag Archives: medieval

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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Filed under Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

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 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

The shrine of The Three Kings of Cologne. Picture courtesy of Amoli at pl.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, 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 http://www.nuigalway.ie/imbas/Imbas_2012/imbas2012.html  

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

The Camino Connection

The Cult of Saint James was a popular institution in Ireland during the Middle Ages. Many examples of this popularity can be seen through out the country and include a large number of churches being dedicated to the saint. Another example of the popularity of Saint James is the number of Irish people who undertook the pilgrimage to his shrine in Compostella in Spain. Saint James’s Gate in Dublin, a name now synonymous with Guinness rather than medieval travel, was the site from which many Irish pilgrims left for Santiago de Compostella, travelling by sea to the continental mainland and then by foot or horse to complete the pilgrimage to the Spanish city.

Evidence of Irish pilgrims leaving these shores for Spain is not only seen in written records such as those of hospitals housing pilgrims but also in archaeological investigations of tombs and graves. According to Martin Fitzpatrick, scallop shells (the pilgrim badge and symbol associated with Saint James) have been found on bodies excavated in at medieval sites in towns such as Tuam, Drogheda and Mullingar.

Depictions of Saint James himself can also be found on an assortment of tombs across the country including a selection in Co. Tipperary. The tomb of Edmund Archer and his wife in Thurles, the effigy of Pierce Fitz Oge Butler in Kilcooley Abbey and tombs present in the Rock of Cashel all exhibit representations of the saint dressed in pilgrim garb and displaying the scallop shells.

Image of Saint James on the tomb of Edmund Archer and wife, taken from the Gothic Past: Visual archive of Gothic Architecture and Sculpture in Ireland. http://gothicpast.com/

These depictions not only demonstrate the popularity of Saint James in Ireland but also may prove that those interred within these tombs undertook the pilgrimage to his shrine at some stage in their lives, adding to the list of well-travelled Tipperary natives.

For more images of Saint James and references to pilgrims and pilgrimage on tombs like the one above visit http://gothicpast.com/


Filed under Ireland, Medieval, Pilgrimage

Symon Semeonis – Franciscan Pilgrim

Another well-travelled medieval figure from Co. Tipperary and one that is closer to home for me is the fourteenth century Franciscan friar Symon Semeonis. In the company of Hugo the Illuminator, he left the Franciscan friary in Clonmel, (which still remains in the heart of the town and retains both the original tower and part of the choir wall) on the 16th March 1323, embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This friar’s travels are recorded in the Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Reeram Sanctam and survives in one manuscript, MS 407, the library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Leaving Clonmel, the two friars travelled to Dublin and then continue on to Wales. They travelled extensively throughout England, visiting sites such as Chester, Rochester and Canterbury to name but a few. Symon’s descriptions are detailed and reflect his observational skills. The two friars then travel from Dover to France and from there they journey extensively through Europe, Alexandria and Egypt. In Cairo, however, Symon’s companion Hugo dies and he is forced to continue on his pilgrimage alone. Despite this pilgrim’s attention to detail throughout his travels, we are denied a complete depiction of Symon’s reaction to Jerusalem as the manuscript ends abruptly.

Symon’s account of his travels offers the only detailed description of a pilgrimage from Ireland to the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. It provides important details on the economic and social position of both Europe and also Eastern countries while also providing the personal views of an Anglo-Irish Franciscan friar. His desire to place his pilgrimage within the biblical context, a technique often seen with pilgrims (for example the female pilgrim Egeria who reads her bible in specific locations in the Holy land) is seen in his writing, comparing himself with Abraham and wishing to see the actual landscape where Jesus himself walked.

Two years ago, I attended a play entitled “With my Bare Hands” in the Granary Theatre in Cork, drawn in to its reference to medieval pilgrimage. This play, written by Frances Kay, consisted of one character – Symon. This was my first contact with the friar, despite his Clonmel connections and the fantastic production instilled desire to find out more about this globe-trotting Franciscan.

For more information on this play go to http://www.irishplayography.com/play.aspx?playid=3596


Filed under Medieval, Pilgrimage