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.

Tabard InnThe 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?

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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