The Middle Ages and Pilgrimage: What it Takes


Geoffrey Chaucer is considered to be the greatest poet active during the middle-ages, and is often regarded as the “Father” of Middle English literature. English literature’s foundation during the fourteenth century was based on the popular writings from Geoffrey Chaucer, which further cemented his legacy. Chaucer’s most famous work composed of 17,000 lines is The Canterbury Tales, which was written during the middle-ages considering that his lifetime was during the middle period. Keeping that in mind, The Canterbury Tales depicts the prominent theme of pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, which is the term to describe a religious journey; plays a major role in the context of the aforementioned work from Chaucer.

During the medieval period, religion for argument’s sake; was the most important and most influential concept revolving around the known world. During this time period the concept of religion is what placed the foundation for much that occurred within the world, up to this point in time. Chaucer’s tale involves a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury, both cities within the state of England. Chaucer’s pilgrims embark on this journey in order to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, all while the pilgrims share stories with one another. The importance of story-telling serves a strong purpose regarding the closeness these men and women, (within a pilgrimage) must have with one another. Essentially, in the context of a group of people whether small or large travelling together; often story-telling is shared for various reasons. In reality, this could be as a means of learning more about one another. However, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales features a competition between the pilgrims of who can tell the best story. Unfortunately, this is never fully disclosed due to Chaucer’s death in 1400. Moreover, pilgrimages were essential for those following any sort of religious movement. With that being said, embarking on a pilgrimage is considered to be quite holy, and those who do this are seen as true believers of God. As Chaucer’s tale suggests, the pilgrims prove their devotion to God by making this religious journey.

The Nature of Pilgrimages:

Thomas Becket, prior to his murder was a rather holy man. Becket devoted his life to prayer and writings, and shared his faith with ordinary people. Consequently, this is the reason for the Sainthood of Thomas Becket after his death. Pilgrimages in a world of religion, extract great importance. When considering all that is holy and what it means to be a follower of God, embarking on a pilgrimage proves one's devotion to faith. Something to consider here, is the experience of being a pilgrim during the middle ages. During the middle ages there were a number of limitations regarding spatial mobility. Peasants were forced to stay in one place, such that John M. Theilmann writes in Medieval Pilgrims and the Origins of Tourism:

Medieval England was a society in which spatial mobility was extremely limited… bound peasants to the land, and even free peasants had their nobility circumscribed by law and custom. Yet, the process of taking part in a pilgrimage, often to a saint’s tomb, provided an acceptable means for peasants to leave the local community for a time.(93)

During this time period, there were strict laws. Moreover, people often lived in society while maintaining a position and not much would actually change. Within a social hierarchy, when people were at a certain level, (for instance the peasants), they especially did not have much freedom. With respect of pilgrimages, such a journey allows significant freedom considering there were so many laws and customs that forced people to work and remain in their role of society. People who were in the lower class of society, they did not get the opportunity of genuine agency because they did not have the ability. Being from the lower-class in society, prevented such opportunities. When referring to pilgrimages, not only was this a religious experience which came at a great opportunity, but this gave people the freedom to live the life they wish was possible; even if only possible through the journey to a religious safe haven. As previously stated, the experience of a pilgrimage was to discover a true devotion to religious practice and followings, such that the opportunity to embark on a pilgrimage is quite important. In terms of importance, this allowed incentive for those who were seen as less important due to their lower status in society. Furthermore, the concept of pilgrimage allowed the lower class the ability to prove their devotion to God. Pilgrimages were not just important for religious devotion, but these journeys were also a means of remembering saints and the things they had done during their life time,(which achieved the status of sainthood.) Theilmann writes:

Pilgrimage played an important role in the religious life of medieval England. Throughout the Middle Ages people participated in pilgrimage as means of venerating the memory of saints. (93)

Those whom, after death, achieved the status of being a saint would have had to live a very holy life. For instance, those that become saints after death,(this is a status one can only be elevated do after death) would have to share their faith and devotion with many people; and not just those of a religious status and social hierarchy. However, in order to become a saint after death,the aforementioned individuals would have to share their faith with ordinary people; even the peasants. With that being said, people from every social status could have potentially been granted the opportunity to join a pilgrimage to a saint’s tomb. By a means of remembering people in their sainthood, devotion is universal. Universal devotion, whereby those from all levels of society are given the right and opportunity to have this moment of freedom to prove their commitment to their faith.

The Modernist Son

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