The Dialogue of Faith – Pilgrimage in Late Medieval England

So here’s something a bit different! Bit of a longer, semi-formal essay that touches on medieval history, theology, and literature, all whilst exploring how different ideas about pilgrimage changed in the later Middle Ages and why. I tried to keep it as readable as possible for a more general audience, but I hope medievalist nerds like myself will find it enjoyable as well.


Changing Perceptions of Pilgrimage in Late Medieval England

Popular perceptions of the medieval period see it as an age dominated by the Catholic Church in Rome, where clergymen could dictate how individuals were to act, think, and behave. According to this mindset, the Middle Ages were an age of darkness and ignorance, before civilization was rescued by the coming liberalism, rationality, and free-thinking of the Modern period. This view is problematic and overly simplistic, and represents vague generalizations and a basic knowledge of history that is presented mostly through modern pop-culture and literature. In reality, medieval people could define their own religious identities, at least to a degree, and indeed helped shape the faith that was an undercurrent in their lives – Christianity. Medieval Latin Christianity evolved greatly from the earliest Church Fathers to Luther in the early 16th century, and it evolved as a dialogue between believers and institutions like the Church, not simply as a top-down, institutionally controlled faith. While the Roman Church held an enormous degree of power and influence, to ignore the role of individual believers in the development of the faith and the degree to which individual beliefs shaped their lives is to ignore one of the most important aspects of the Medieval period.

Pilgrimage is a particularly telling example of not only religious individualism but also grass-roots change in religion. In late fourteenth century England, there was a profound change in how people thought about pilgrimage. Throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrimage had been one of the most popular and physical forms of devotion, and by the fourteenth century had well established practices, infrastructures, and accoutrement. In addition to the traditional “place pilgrimages”, whereby an individual or group would travel from their home to a shrine or other holy place to benefit from the proximity to the divine at that location, there was another form of pilgrimage: internal pilgrimage. This was the journey of the soul closer to God and to Heaven, and was achieved entirely within the individual’s heart; no physical journey was necessary. For a place pilgrimage to be “correct” this spiritual journey must also take place, and indeed place pilgrimage was imagined as a metaphor for the soul’s journey. However, it became more common to place the emphasis entirely on the spiritual journey, the internal pilgrimage, leaving place pilgrimage aside. English Christians began to criticise place pilgrimage and support internal pilgrimage; the heretical Lollard’s as well as the literature of the day testify to this. But why was place pilgrimage rather suddenly condemned and internal pilgrimage exalted? Both practices and ideas continued to exist side by side as they always had, but writers, thinkers, and believers increasingly favoured internal pilgrimage. This was a bottom-up change, one of countless such changes throughout the evolution of Christianity in its pre-Modern days. The influence of individual Christians upon the shape of their faith is especially noticeable when dealing with attitudes towards, and ideas about, pilgrimage; the medieval-brand of Christianity, though pervasive in society, was not always a top-down affair. Through careful, multidisciplinary examination of historical and literary evidence, this essay will shed some light on this particular problem of piety, firstly by showing the clear change in perceptions and secondly by examining why those perceptions changed during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

pilgrims - 1

Internal vs. Place Pilgrimage

A clearer explanation of pilgrimage itself may be an important starting point. Place pilgrimage relies on the assumption that certain places have more spiritual benefit than others. Jerusalem was more holy than Warwick because Jesus had walked in the former, and God had repeatedly intervened there; Rome was more holy than Chester because it contained the relics of important saints. Complex theology informed ideas of place pilgrimage, but so did the general desire for travel amongst the laity, a motivation especially important for local or regional shrines, such as Our Lady of Walsingham or Canterbury in England. Leaving the complex rationales aside, it is sufficient to stress that the essential act of place pilgrimage was a physical journey of travelling, either near or far; it was immensely popular among all classes. When the development of indulgences gave pilgrims a tangible, quantifiable spiritual benefit to undertake place pilgrimage, it grew even more popular. While it existed hand in hand with internal pilgrimage throughout Christian history, place pilgrimage would be increasingly challenged by dissenters and proto-protestant groups who favoured the idea and practice of internal pilgrimage.

Internal pilgrimage nearly always existed in Christian thought. A strict reading of the Bible holds that God is omnipresent, and thus physical travel to the divine was unnecessary. Many early Christians preferred internal pilgrimage; early monks and ascetics are perhaps the best demonstration of this. A desire to become closer to God resulted in individuals completely withdrawing from the world to the literal and figurative desert, becoming the manifestation of internal pilgrims. The two ideas became fused as time went on: pilgrims could travel from Chester to Jerusalem in order to assist their soul’s journey to heaven inside themselves, but the latter was the important act. The pilgrim could stay in Chester and receive the same spiritual benefit, as it was argued. These competing and complimentary ideas of pilgrimage were also reflective of the larger debate between the mundane and the sacred in medieval Christian thought, perhaps best seen in the struggles between Church and dualist heretics. The Church was happy to support place pilgrimage while many would increasingly argue that it was unnecessary or evil: it was a battle between institutional decision making and grass-roots decision making. Pilgrimage in general is best seen as one of the medieval Christian’s chief acts to transcend from the profane and ordinary world to the sacred, a key human desire, and who would determine its direction and practice was key. When place pilgrimage became popular amongst Christians, the Church saw the benefits of it in terms of not only increased revenue, but also patronage and popularity.[1]

Lollards and Pilgrimage

One heretical group in England, the Lollards, argued strongly against place pilgrimage, as they connected it with idolatry. This criticism was an admittedly minor Lollard tenet, and their doctrine as a whole was an attempt to reform the Church of what they saw of its worst ills, corruption, worldliness, simony, and the clerical monopoly on preaching and on performing the sacraments.[2] Lollardy was ostensibly the result of John Wycliffe’s dissenting religious opinions in the 1370’s and 1380’s while he was a Doctor of Divinity at Oxford. A realist philosopher and preacher to the laity, he harshly criticized ecclesiastical privilege and corruption. He stressed that the Bible was the ultimate source of Christian knowledge, and criticised aspects of Christian devotion not present in the Bible, including indulgences and pilgrimage. Wycliffe promoted the idea not only of preaching to the laity in English, a radical idea, but also of giving the laity access to the Bible in the vernacular, a heretical idea. He completed the English translation of the Bible in 1384. His ideas were decried as heretical in 1382, but these ideas would soon spread from a strictly academic heresy to a popular one.[3] As it was embraced by commoners and those outside the universities it became something else: Lollardy. A broader challenge to the existing Church order in England, Lollard ideas differed from Wycliffe’s original teaching in some ways, and should be seen as a distinct and broader movement than purely academic Wycliffism.[4] Lollardy was essentially synonymous with heresy in 14th and 15th century England; “Lollard” simultaneously meant anyone who followed Wycliffe’s specific theology, which many scholars specify as “Wycliffism”, and also as heretics in general, usually prescribing to many but not all of the same ideas as Wycliffites.[5] Lollard ideas found support not only in the lower classes and in some university circles, but also in Richard II’s court, with several powerful patrons who disseminated Wycliffe’s writings in the vernacular.[6] One noted Lollard noblemen, Sir Richard Oldcastle, even plotted an uprising after his connections with Lollards were discovered by the authorities in 1414.[7] Lollardy declined in England after this failed uprising, although its influence touched Hus and the Hussites in Bohemia and can be associated with later protestant groups in England.[8]

Lollards criticised pilgrimage as an act that was ultimately not Christian. Court records clearly show that Lollards detested place pilgrimage and veneration of images or other “idols”, which they associated with pilgrimage.[9] One Lollard decries that “you should show no more honour to the images in a church…that you’d show to the gallows your brother had been hanged on”.[10] The connection between idols and pilgrimage was explicit – most pilgrims travelled to venerate an image, statue, or shrine (such as that of “Mary of Falsingham”, a pun on the popular site of Walsingham), and thus place pilgrimage was an act of idolatry. It was pointed out that “in the old testament God commanded that no man should make any image or likeness of him”.[11] Images that depicted God and the saints, moreover, were heretical because they depicted these holy figures like ordinary men.[12] Offering to these images was also wrong, a common practice of pilgrims.[13] Pilgrimage was also associated with “gluttony, drunkenness…and worldly vanities”.[14] Lollards believed that “men should not go on Pilgrimages”; true pilgrims were those that were “travelling towards the bliss of heaven” rather than to a physical place.[15] This is an explicit reference to the fact that internal pilgrimage is desirable, it is only place pilgrimage that is heretical – after all, “God dwells by grace in good men’s souls”, and therefore there is no need to travel to get closer to God.[16]

Lollards clearly thus felt an antipathy towards place pilgrimage, due in part to its association with “idol-worship” and also because of its mundane-ness. Pilgrimage was not only idolatrous, it was unnecessary because no place exhibited greater sanctity than another, and true salvation was within. Moreover, place pilgrimage was fraught with earthly sins like drunkenness and was too easily distracted from its spiritual goals (look no further than the Miller in The Canterbury Tales). There is no question then that Lollards preferred ideas of internal pilgrimage, where the Christian journeyed towards Heaven/salvation through a pious life, devotion to God, and true faith.

Because Lollardy was not a “pure” heresy in itself, but rather a general term for “heretic”, it is difficult to discern the origin of many Lollard tenets. The attitudes towards place pilgrimage that are presented in Lollard writings and records may seem radical, but because of the synthetic and chaotic nature of Lollardy it is not clear if these ideas are Lollard innovations or borrowed from other times and places.

Illuinated Chaucer

Pilgrimage in Literature

Literature may provide the key to this puzzle of origin. Literature is a source which illuminates historical people’s presuppositions, opinions, thoughts, and attitudes, and thus particularly helpful for exploring mentalité. Relatively few texts deal explicitly with pilgrimage, though the uses of pilgrimage in other works reveal how people thought about pilgrimage in general; more secular works, such as courtly literature, are crucial because they aim at a lay audience rather than an ecclesiastical one.

Place pilgrimage does feature in works of medieval English literature, albeit fairly moderately. The Canterbury Tales and The Book of Margery Kempe are the most recognizable, but others contain aspects or elements of place pilgrimage. Any text dealing with place pilgrimage also has internal pilgrimage as a key theme, however. Place pilgrimage in these texts is viewed generally with suspicion (as is most Middle English literature),[17] and indeed pure place pilgrimage is presented as only half the equation: pilgrims must not only travel to a particular location, they must internally spiritually improve themselves along the way. Canterbury Tales, the most direct place pilgrimage text, is thus interesting because most of the characters do in fact only travel to a particular location – spiritual growth is not obvious in characters like the Pardoner or the Wife of Bath. Margery Kempe does embrace the spiritual aspects of pilgrimage on her physical journey in her Book, by contrast, underscoring the need for both physical and spiritual journeying in pilgrimage. Pearl can be seen as a tale of place pilgrimage, as the Dreamer does indeed visit “New Jerusalem” or paradise, but it fits in better with internal pilgrimage because it is in the context of a dream: the Dreamer reaches paradise in his own mind whilst dreaming and reflecting on life, death, and faith. This further demonstrates that the pilgrim must ultimately reach salvation through spiritual journey, and while a physical journey may assist or complement this, it is not necessary for divine salvation.

The Canterbury Tales presents, largely, a criticism of place pilgrimage. This can be seen in veiled critiques like the non-spiritual, social aspects of pilgrimage, especially noticeable in the General Prologue; the pilgrims seem to be going for the adventure as much as anything. Some pilgrims have even more cynical motivations. It is implied that the Wife of Bath travels on pilgrimages across Christendom to find new husbands, and the Pardoner is only there to sell fake relics and indulgences. The tales themselves contain relatively few spiritual elements, and there are as many bawdy tales of sex, love, and humour as there are of spiritual matters. The Host tells the pilgrims explicitly not to preach, criticising the laymen’s moral tales.[18] The Host frequently demands tales of “mirth and game”, rather than dwelling on serious topics and chastising those pilgrims that do excessively moralize, further underscoring the leisurely aspects of pilgrimage for this group: there is little to no spiritual journeying on this physical journey, and the question can be asked then, is this a real pilgrimage? Lollards would certainly answer no.

Margery Kempe represents the other major example of place pilgrimage in medieval literature, but spiritual development and internal pilgrimage is much more apparent in her journey. She is obviously a very spiritual character, frequently breaking down in weeping fits and communicating directly with the heavens, in classic “mystic” fashion. This communicating with the divine directly, while placed firmly in a physical place and not in, say, a dream like Pearl, still represents spiritual journeying and aspects of internal pilgrimage.[19] Dyas points out that Kempe, in her intense piety, combines “three chief modes of pilgrimage….interior, moral, and place”.[20] Place pilgrimage then is only one aspect of her spiritual growth, while the intense spiritual nature of her journey takes pride of place. While she does travel, it is her spiritual journey that is the real pilgrimage; Kempe thus represents an internal pilgrim, first and foremost. This demonstrates that relatively lower class secular people like Margery believed internal pilgrimage was the path to salvation.

Place pilgrimage is thus apparent in a minor role in medieval English literature, but is viewed generally with scepticism. Chaucer criticises the spiritual growth of pilgrims on place pilgrimage, and both Pearl and Kempe emphasise the need for internal pilgrimage, even if outwardly the pilgrim is on a physical journey. Place pilgrimage thus takes second place to internal pilgrimage, echoing Lollard ideas about pilgrimage. These writers had very similar ideas to the Lollards then, even if they did not say as much. Clearly then, these ideas were somewhat common, and not strictly the purview of the radical heretics.

Some literary sources deal more explicitly with internal pilgrimage, a theme presented somewhat between the lines by Chaucer and Kempe. In relatively secular literature such as the romances Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight internal pilgrimage is a motif that can still be observed. Piers Plowman and Pearl offer more direct admonitions of place pilgrimage and admirations of internal pilgrimage. Ultimately, the prevalence of the internal pilgrimage motif, combined with the previously discussed criticisms of place pilgrimage, indicates that attitudes towards pilgrimage either predate, or existed outside of, the Lollard heresy. Considering that ideas about pilgrimage existed outside of Lollardy, one can see an evolution of faith taking place at the ground level, and these changing ideas would only come to the foreground at the outbreak of a larger challenger to church doctrine, the Lollard “heresy”.

Piers Plowman offers the clearest criticism of place pilgrimage. It instructs its readers “ye that seke seynte James and seintes of Rome/Seketh seynth treuth, for he may saue yow alle”.[21] Truth, obviously, cannot be walked to. Piers the plough-man is the only one that knows the way to Truth, implying that the pilgrims and clergy do not.[22] Truth subsequently pardons Piers, telling him to “holde hym at home and eryen his leyes…sette or to sowe”; in other words, to labour for salvation.[23] Piers, representing the commons, is to partake in his necessary function (i.e. labouring) to achieve salvation: place pilgrimage, even to Truth, is not necessary. This is obviously a bold statement regarding pilgrimage.

Pearl likewise features “inner pilgrimage…[as] the supreme motivation for the pursuit of pilgrimage of life”.[24] Containing an air of place pilgrimage, the poem still sees the Dreamer emphasise the necessity of internal pilgrimage. The Pearl Maiden says to him that “Neither time nor place his grace confine”,[25] thus rendering physical pilgrimage pointless; this idea that proximity is not important to salvation is common in Lollard belief, as demonstrated above.[26] Pearl also compares Christ to a pilgrim, and thus connects the Christian life to a pilgrimage.[27] This is a common metaphor. Grace also comes to those who are “guilty, contrite, and penitent”, which does not necessitate place pilgrimage.[28] Additionally, the Pearl Maidens “bear this pearl on each breast”, a reference to pilgrims badges.[29] This interpretation clearly makes the Maidens pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem (which is synonymous with heaven)[30] through their own spiritual merit, and not through a physical journey. Pilgrims would frequently acquire badges as tokens of their journey, and the common badge of Jerusalem was a palm frond; the pearl, as a symbol of purity, may represent the badge for pilgrims to Heaven.[31] The internal pilgrimage metaphor, in the “similitude of a dream”, is thus present in both Piers Plowman and Pearl, emphasising spiritual development over physical journeying.

The internal pilgrimage motif is also present in the romances Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo. It is less noticeable and less direct than in other works, and neither text is explicitly religious; however, both Sir Gawain and Sir Orfeo can be seen to undergo an internal pilgrimage through their quests. In addition to their mostly secular content, they probably both predate Wycliffe, which is key.

Sir Orfeo has to withdraw to the wilderness to find his wife after she is abducted by the fairy king, echoing the Greek classic tale of Orpheus, descending to Hades to rescue his bride. Orfeo is clearly identified as an exile (it should be noted that there was a strong connection between exiles and pilgrims in the medieval mindset – perigrinatio can mean both “foreigner” and “pilgrim”) and takes only two things with him when he abandons his crown, a harp and a pilgrim’s mantle.[32] This pilgrim’s mantle (“sclavin”) clearly represents Orfeo’s change from king to a pilgrim. He then undergoes a long journey of transition, living ten years in the wild searching for his bride. After ten years in the wilderness, labouring to survive, he finally finds her only when he stops looking for her, and then goes about rescuing her from the Fairy World, which resembles Hell. This represents the completion of his penance. His journey is indicative of a penitential pilgrimage: he failed to protect his wife (the sin) and cannot begin to find her again until he goes through his ordeals in the wilderness (the penance), and then journeys to the fairy ‘other-world’ to rescue his wife (representing his absolution). While Orfeo’s journey is a physical one, the fact that he spiritually develops and becomes absolved of his sin suggests that the tale is indicative of internal pilgrimage. Sir Orfeo thus contains aspects of internal pilgrimage, albeit in a subtle and rather mundane way. The way in which Orfeo changes from beginning to end demonstrates that he has undergone an internal pilgrimage throughout the tale.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight similarly presents internal pilgrimage as a fairly subtle motif, with the hero likewise undergoing a penitential pilgrimage on his quest. Sir Gawain’s quest dramatically changes him: the whole trial forces him to question and reject his identity. Gawain travels from his previous life of relative safety and comfort in Camelot to first The Lord’s castle, where he is forced to reject his identity (including his sexual prowess – an interesting take on humility) to prevent committing adultery with the lady of the castle.[33] His identity is further questioned and tried at the Green Chapel, when he fails to keep his word to The Lord by keeping the magic belt to save his own life. The Lord/Green Knight absolves him in a very religious way: “you have clearly confessed yourself, admitted your fault,/ and done honest penance on the edge of my blade/I declare you absolved”.[34] Gawain’s quest, like Orfeo’s, can thus be seen as a pilgrimage of self-discovery and self-improvement, with strong elements of penance and absolution. Gawain, like Orfeo, is a changed man at the end of his quest. These internal pilgrimage aspects in secular, courtly romances are particularly important because they reveal how lay audiences thought about internal pilgrimage.

Internal pilgrimage thus clearly is a major motif in medieval English literature, in both direct and indirect ways. The extraordinary amount of works that criticise place pilgrimage and praise internal pilgrimage reflect the fact that these attitudes existed separately from Lollardy initially and predated Wycliffe’s heresy. Especially apparent in the mostly secular works of Gawain and Orfeo, the idea of internal pilgrimage as a quest for salvation and self-improvement is a major motif in the literature of this time, reflecting what a majority of lay people would have thought. Place pilgrimage without internal pilgrimage was not true pilgrimage, and indeed internal pilgrimage without physical journeying was possible and preferable. The diverse nature of the literature considered, from courtly romances to sermonizing allegory to personal religious devotion shows that these attitudes towards pilgrimage were widespread in England, among a wide variety of authors and audiences. Lollardy, as it grew, subsumed this thought as part of a wider challenge to Church authority and structure; place pilgrimage was just another thing that the Catholic Church was wrong about. It is likely that individuals who would later become Lollards and Wycliffites were already critical of place pilgrimage, as it seems many individuals were. One could even connect mystic thought at this time (cf. Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, et al) which stressed the importance of inner contemplation of God, as reflective of the religious climate of the time which is apparent in literature. These sources reveal how a large section of the English religious community thought about pilgrimage at this time.


Why the Change? The Declining Late Medieval Church

It is thus explicitly clear that many people in England in the late 14th and early 15th centuries favoured internal pilgrimage over place pilgrimage. But the crux of the problem remains discovering why they held this view, while previously place pilgrimage had proved, and continued to prove, so popular for so many. The virtues of internal pilgrimage were certainly not a new idea, though the idea became more popular at this time. Several factors combine in this, though the primary motivation was the desire for individual religiosity and salvation through “grace alone”. The Church was no longer an acceptable intercessor between Christian and God.

The Catholic Church of the late 14th century was in a bad spot, and increasingly individual believers were interested in reaching heaven on their own without the possible corrupting influence of the Church over their soul’s eternal fate. There were many factors that led individual Christians to question or challenge Roman hegemony of belief, but the problems plaguing the Papacy from c. 1307-1418 were the most damaging to Catholic legitimacy. From 1309-77 the Papal Curia was based in Avignon rather than its traditional home in Rome. The effects of this on Catholic domination were crucial: many Christians saw this as the “Babylonian captivity” of the Papacy, and rejected the legitimacy of the Avignon papacy. With no Peter, was the Roman Church to be followed at all? To make matters worse for the church, between 1377 and 1418 there were two and then three rival popes vying for control of the Church. This schism severely affected the spiritual legitimacy of the Church, because it effectually meant that nearly half of Latin Christendom may be following the wrong pope, and thus may go to hell. Many worried that sacraments performed on them were illegitimate, because their pope/bishop/priest was not legitimate: for ordinary people, their very souls were at stake. Surely the effect of this was to force individual Christians to desire a more personal religiosity without the interference of a clergy that may not have any inkling of divine power.

The clergy’s legitimacy had been questioned before, for instance by the Waldensians and the Cathars, both similarly in response to the moral failings of the clergy and the Church; it is only natural that similar anti-clerical groups would arise at this time of papal decline. Part of defining one’s own religiosity would naturally extend to the area of pilgrimage, and the critics of place pilgrimage both become more vocal and multiplied, eventually becoming lumped in or subsumed within the Lollard “movement”.

One of the outcomes of the Avignon period and then the Western Schism was the need for Church financial reform, leading to both increased simony and the rise of indulgences, both criticised by many Christians across Europe. The theory that spiritual services were equal to labour services, both requiring financial compensation, drastically undermined Church authority.[35] Many Christians in the Avignon period criticized the Church for not only the “Babylonian Captivity” itself, but also the financial systems, worldliness, greed, corruption, and an increased political role that went with the Avignon Papacy; combined, these paved the way for Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther.[36] In England, not only individual Christians, but also royal officials were displeased with the Avignon papacy, seeing the increased financial burdens the Church placed upon the English and the competing systems of law (canon vs. common) as a major problem.[37] A growing sense of nationalism was also a factor, as those countries politically in conflict with France were not happy about a French pope residing in France. Flick calls simony the “corroding cancer” and notes the greed and corruption that characterized the Schism papacies served to “greatly injure the power and respect of the Church”.[38] The formal development of the idea of purgatory in the late 13th century led to the selling of indulgences, which further isolated many Christians, unhappy with what they perceived as the temporal and corrupt activity of the Church. The Church did not exactly develop the idea of purgatory, but they exploited it when in financial need by selling indulgences. Many critics and reformers point directly to ideas new to the later 14th century Church, saying that the Church was moving too far away from the original teachings of Christ and the Church Fathers. Reforming and “heretical” movements, like Lollardy, can thus be seen as the result of the failings of the Church to speak to individual spiritual needs. Place pilgrimage was a frequent cause of complaint, and many of those Christians seeking individual spiritual needs turned increasingly to internal pilgrimage as a way to better understand God without the necessity of clerical intercession.


Religious Individualism and Heresy

Religious individualism can be observed in a plethora of sources, though Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich are perhaps the most striking near-Lollard Christians with unique ideas and highly individual faiths. Both women remained within the acceptable bounds of Church doctrine while expressing unique and even dissenting opinions; they both share similar opinions about feminine aspects of the divine, Julian even positing the idea of “God the Mother”.[39] They are representations of the opportunity for religious individualism allowed within the acceptable bounds of medieval Christianity, and spoke to the desire for it.

There is a connection between heresy and literacy, probably first obvious in the Cathar heresy of the 12th century.[40] The Cathar perfecti were interested in securing books for themselves to read, often in the vernacular, and like many anti-clerical heresies, supported the idea of lay preaching. One hundred years later in northern France, around the same time as the Lollard crisis in England, it can be concluded that the lack of theological texts available to the laity in the vernacular left believers little defence to heretical ideas.[41] Similarly in England, education and literacy seems to have fostered heretical ideas. Lollard court documents suggest that many Lollards were indeed literate and fairly well educated, as best demonstrated in the case of Walter Brut.[42] With growing literacy and education levels, especially by the late 14th century, the desire for religious individualism was more prevalent and possible than ever. Those who sought for a religious identity free from the yolk of what they saw as a corrupt Church could use literacy to form their own ideas. They saw the motif of internal pilgrimage as a crucial part of their religious self-definition – the internal pilgrimage was the most individual part of anyone’s spiritual life; a quest for the believer themselves. Those seeking an individual religious identity, generally the educated of society, thus saw the internal pilgrimage as a major part of life, and absorbed its ideas into their own spiritual lives.

Conclusion and Reflections

During this time of dissension, the old ideas of internal pilgrimage were adopted by those seeking independent and individual religious identities, eventually recognizing that only those Christians who, alone, sought and found Heaven in themselves were true pilgrims. Those that travelled to distant shores to venerate the saints and seek truth were not only misguided, but idolaters, their ignorance causing their downfall. The change in attitudes towards pilgrimage, from place pilgrimage to internal pilgrimage, may seem a trivial matter, but when it is explored it is clear that attitudes towards pilgrimage speak to dozens of factors influencing medieval Christian mentalite. In attempting to understand these important cultural and intellectual shifts we touch upon some of the major themes in Medieval history, notably individual agency, dissension, heresy, and orthodoxy, and a sense of change and continuing progress through the period.

It is clear than both that attitudes changed, but I have also posited reasons why those attitudes changed. Additionally, the importance of these suggestions are clear: religious thought evolved as a dialogue between believers and institutions, not simply as a tyrannical, top-down approach as is frequently depicted in our collective cultural memory. Medieval ideas constantly shifted and were shaped by a variety of factors, as shown in the common-theory of pilgrimage c. 1400.


[1] On the financial aspects of pilgrimage, see Adrian R. Bell and Richard S. Dale, “The Medieval Pilgrimage Business”. Enterprise and Society 12.3 (2011): 601-627. On the patronage benefits of the cult of the saints more generally, see Peter Brown. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[2] The “12 Conclusions of the Lollards” represents some of their general beliefs, though the ideas espoused by Lollards were many and the “movement” was scarcely that.

[3] Peter Biller, “Wycliffe, John” in Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Edited by André Vauchez. (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 2005).

[4] Andrew Cole. Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Pp 47-8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter Biller, “Lollardy” in Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Edited by André Vauchez. (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 2005).

[7] Peter Biller, “Oldcastle, Sir John” in Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Edited by André Vauchez. (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 2005).

[8] Biller, “Lollardy”.

[9] “Heresy and Orthodoxy in an English Town”, in Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500: A Reader. Ed. by John Shinners. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006). 241-3.

[10] Ibid, 239.

[11] “Images and Pilgrimages”, in Selections From English Wycliffite Writings. Ed. Anne Hudson., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1978). 83.

[12] Hudson (ed.), 84.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hudson (ed.), 86.

[15] Benson, L.D. “Lollard Beliefs on Pilgrimages”. Geoffrey Chaucer. 2006.

[16] Hudson (ed.), 84.

[17] Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Ltierature, 700-1500. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001). 238.

[18] One instance of this is found in the  Reeve’s Prologue: “whan that oure hoost hadde herd this sermonyng…he seide, “What amounteth al this wit?/What, shul we speke al day of hooly writ?”. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Reeve’s Prologue”, in The Canterbury Tales, Ed. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor. (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012). P. 109, lines 3899 and 3901-2.

[19] Dyas, 222.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Langland, William. Piers the Plowman. Ed. Rev. Walter W. Skeat. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923). P. 45, passus V, lines 56-7.

[22] Langland, p. 63, passus V, line 563.

[23] Langland, p. 79, passus VI, lines 5-6.

[24] Dyas, 231.

[25] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Trans. J.R.R. Tolkien. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975). 102, verse 42.

[26] See Hudson (ed.), 84.

[27] Tolkien (trans.), p. 102, verse 40.

[28] Tolkien (trans.), p. 107, verse 56.

[29] Tolkien (trans.) p. 112, verse 72.

[30] See Tolkien (trans.) p. 112 verse 70; “In hell, in earth, and Jerusalem”.

[31] The idea that the Pearl Maidens bore pearls as pilgrims badges is not without problems – firstly because the idea seems to be absent from current scholarship, and secondly because it would imply that Jerusalem and Heaven are not the same place (because they require two different badges). This topic of criticism requires more examination.

[32] “Sir Orfeo”, in Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Black et al. (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2009). 240, lines 227-31.

[33] “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, in Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Black et al. (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2009). 291, verse 1242: “I be not now he that ye of speken”, in reply to the Lady’s description of him.

[34] Black et al. (ed). “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, 320, lines 2391-2393.

[35] Alexander Flick, The Decline of the Medieval Church, Volume One. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1930). 179.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Flick, 226.

[38] Flick, 324-6.

[39] Julian of Norwich, “A Revelation of Love” in Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume 1: The Medieval Period, ed. Joseph Black et al. (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2009).

[40] See Peter Biller “The Cathars of Languedoc and Written Materials” in Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530. Ed. Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[41] Genevieve Hasenohr “Religious Reading Amongst the Laity in France in the Fifteenth Century” in ” in Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530. Ed. Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 221.

[42] The case of Brut is dealt with thoroughly in Anne Hudson “’Laicus litteratus’: The Paradox of Lollardy” in “Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530. Ed. Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).


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