Tag Archives: pilgrim

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

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 http://borderlinesxvii.wordpress.com/call-for-papers/ 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 http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/sgas34int.htm


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

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.


Filed under Medieval, Pilgrimage

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

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