Pilgrims and pilgrimage

Who went on pilgrimage?

People from all levels of the society in which Chaucer lived went on pilgrimage. Many people would have seen pilgrimage towards a particular holy place as mirroring the journey of Christian believers through life towards God and heaven. Some visited churches near to their homes; others travelled long distances within England or even as far as Rome or Jerusalem:

  • Some went on pilgrimage as a specific penance
  • Most went voluntarily, seeking forgiveness, spiritual encouragement or practical benefits such as healing for themselves or others
  • People often went on pilgrimage after an illness or family illness to give thanks for restoration to health (often after praying to a particular saint). St Thomas was often asked to grant healing
  • Women often went on pilgrimage as frequently as men
  • Pilgrimage also offered a chance to escape everyday life and work and see something of the world
  • Pilgrims were sometimes criticised for irresponsibility and un-spiritual behaviour.

The Canterbury Tales includes a variety of characters who vary according to rank, education, holiness and their various strengths and weaknesses. To some extent, they represent the varied society, beliefs, ideas and attitudes of Chaucer's time. Pilgrims going to a shrine were supposed to behave as people on a spiritual journey but pilgrimages could also be treated as holidays and social experiences. The Tabard Inn mentioned in The Tales was a popular starting point for pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury.

More on Thomas Becket:

Thomas was an able man who, in 1154, rose to be Chancellor of England. He was a loyal supporter of his king, Henry II, for eight years. When Henry secured Thomas' appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he expected him to do his bidding in respect of the Church as well. Thomas put his sacred duties as archbishop first, and resigned the Chancellorship, which did not please Henry. Their relations soured as Thomas continued defending the rights of the Church, even when it meant clashing with the King. Their differences became more and more acrimonious.

Thomas Becket's murderThings got so bad that in 1164 Thomas went into exile in France. Henry's anger at Thomas's actions apparently led four knights to believe that the King literally wanted him dead. When Thomas returned to England in 1170, they went to Canterbury and, on Christmas Day, murdered him in the cathedral. There was huge shock throughout the Christian world and Thomas was immediately seen as a martyr. He was declared a saint in 1173 and the practice of making a pilgrimage to his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral soon became established. Before St George became established in the fifteenth century as England's national saint, St Thomas in many ways was the country's national saint.

Among the miracles credited to Thomas were many examples of healing the sick. Sometimes he seemed to heal people from a distance, if they prayed to him, and in such cases it was usual to make the pilgrimage later to the actual shrine, give an offering and give thanks to the saint there. Chaucer's opening lines in the The Canterbury Tales mention that as a motive for his pilgrims' journey.

Pilgrim destinations

Pilgrims travelled to places considered particularly holy. This might be because of:

  • Association with Jesus Christ and his Apostles (such as Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago de Compostela in Spain)
  • Connection with the Virgin Mary (e.g. Walsingham) or a saint
  • The resting places of saints and their relics were believed to be places where heaven and earth intersected, where individuals might come close to God and have their prayers answered
  • Miracles were the most important proof of sainthood. Saints were believed to be most likely to grant miracles at their shrines or in the presence of their relics.
  • Saints were also believed to grant healing from a distance. This was true of St Thomas Becket and the pilgrims in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are said to be travelling to his shrine in Canterbury to give thanks for his help when they were sick.
More on relics: Relics are the remains of a saint, such as a bone, or articles which have been in contact with a saint and in which some of the saint's power is believed to reside. These secondary relics could be articles of clothing, such as the breeches worn by St Thomas Becket which were kept at Canterbury, or dust or chippings from the saint's tomb. It was obviously very difficult to verify the authenticity of such objects, so the scope for fraud was very great.
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