Tag Archives: relics

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

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