Pilgrimage in literature

The idea of pilgrimage

If you have also been studying Chaucer as part of your course you will be familiar with the idea of pilgrimage:

  • Pilgrimage – a journey undertaken for religious reasons, usually to visit a shrine or other holy place – was popular in the Middle Ages

  • In The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), Chaucer depicts a varied group of people assembling to journey to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury

  • The pilgrims can be seen as a representative group of people from the society with which Chaucer was familiar, exhibiting all humanity's virtues and vices

  • In social terms pilgrimages offered a rare opportunity to travel

  • In spiritual terms they symbolised the stumbling life-long journey of imperfect people towards death; sinning and failing but also praying and journeying in faith.

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, 1678

Bunyan, who was a dissenter from the structure and practices of the Church of England, wrote this book while imprisoned for his religious beliefs:

  • It tells the story of Christian, who sets out from his home in search of the City of God and the promise of salvation

  • On the way he encounters a number of characters who either help him or try to hinder him or divert him from his journey

  • It is written in very clear and direct language, which draws heavily on the Bible (most editions give biblical references in the margin)

  • It became one of the most popular books in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and was regarded by many Christians – especially those in the nonconformist sects - as one of the few books other than the Bible that it was acceptable for the faithful to read

  • It was thought suitable for children, because it tells an exciting story and contains many vividly drawn characters with memorable names like Greatheart, Giant Despair and Mr. Worldly-Wise

  • Although it is a religious allegory its action takes place in a social world that Bunyan's readers would have been able to identify with their own

  • In this respect, it was a great influence on the development of the realist novel

  • Bunyan's book describes one of the most common narrative structures, that of the journey

  • It became one of the most important models for nineteenth-century fiction: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), for instance, follows Bunyan's structure.
  • Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) has many references to pilgrims. Tess herself has been seen as a 'secular pilgrim’. Other Hardy novels also find their main unifying structure in terms of pilgrimage, as Jude the Obscure (1894).

Bible roots

Most of the world’s religions have a strong sense of pilgrimages and of religious devotees being pilgrims, at least, during some part of their lives. In Islam, this is called the Haj, and is to Mecca, the holy city in Arabia. In Hinduism and Buddhism, there are many holy shrines which attract thousands of pilgrims each year. Even to-day, Christian shrines in Europe, such as the one at Compostela in northern Spain, attract thousands of pilgrims, some religious, some secular. In England, Walsingham in Norfolk is still visited by Catholic and Anglican pilgrims.

Chaucer and Bunyan derived their concept of pilgrimage from the Bible. In Chaucer’s case, this was indirect, as the Catholic church sanctioned, and indeed encouraged, pilgrimages. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath made a career out of them, having been as far as Jerusalem, so she claims. So in Chaucer’s case, he was picking up on a cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, its roots were justified biblically.

In Bunyan’s case, he was a Protestant, and had thus rejected the literal use of pilgrimages encouraged by the Catholic church. But because he was a Bible student, the biblical idea of pilgrimage hit him directly with great imaginative force.

Bunyan derived his inspiration both from the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Once the promised land had been settled by the Israelites, a number of shrines were set up. At certain religious festivals, people were expected to go to these shrines to worship and offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 1:3; Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Later, these shrines became centralised in the holy city of Jerusalem. In the times of Jesus, these pilgrimages were still going on regularly (Luke 2:41-42; Acts 8:27). A certain sub-genre of the Psalms was devoted to the hymns that the pilgrims would sing going to the holy city, the so-called ‘Songs of Ascent’ in Psalms 120-134. See Big ideas from the Bible: Ascent and descent. Jerusalem is set on the top of a group of hills, hence the ‘ascent’.

In the New Testament, believers were seen metaphorically as pilgrims. The destination of their pilgrimage was the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24). The Christian life was seen as permanent pilgrimage, they being wanderers through an alien land (this world, as in 1 Peter 1:1).

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