Thursday, 16 May 2013

Book Review - Pilgrimage by Jonathan Sumption

Pilgrimage : an image of mediaeval religion by Jonathan Sumption

London : Faber and Faber, 1975 (2002)        ISBN 057121293X

A well written and interesting book, Pilgrimage gives us a view of the medieval Church that is as eye-opening as it is informative. It is worth quoting Sumption from early in this work - "But to make an assessment of mediaeval religion solely on the basis of the last hundred and fifty years of its history is a seriously misleading procedure...".  Indeed based on current life, and even current Church practice, medieval religious practices seem bizarre and almost fraudulent at times. Based on the logic of the times though, they begin to make sense.

Sumption uses the early part of his work to explore and discuss the base that the Medieval Church was working from, which drove the huge pilgrimage activity of the times. He first talks about relics - how changes in the laws of the church in the early Middle Ages, which decreed that every Church had to have a relic in order to be consecrated, and that allowed relics to be "parted out" - whole bodies of Saints could be dismembered into parts - created the conditions for fraudulent relics to be peddled, and for Churches to compete with each other for the "best" or "authentic" relics which would put them higher in the pecking order for pilgrimages. Sumption also notes that many ecclesiastics were well aware of the problems in the requirement for and trade of relics, but felt that the tangible and human face that Saints and relics brought to the liturgy was worth the risk. The tangible nature of relics, and the enthusiastic espousal of the miracles they brought about, helped the Church keep and gather believers in what was an age of completely uneducated masses.  The miracles for which they were responsible were also quite different from today, although it could be argued they had the same basis - some unexplained benefit to the recipient. Before the Renaissance there was much that was unexplained and unknown about the World, so that many things that were then portrayed as miracles can now be explained as natural, with our increased knowledge. Sumption points out that even things such as diet led to miracles being declared, with malnutrition common in Winter, which a pilgrimage to a shrine that might have more food, or even waiting until Spring would alleviate, with the result being laid at the feet of the appropriate Saint. Even the more sophisticated people of the time who could reason out some of these things still could go along with a miraculous explanation, as philosophically everyone believed that all things came from God, therefore all good things were down to him, and not natural or man-made forces.

Pilgrimage was also used in the Middle Ages as a punishment, both self-inflicted and imposed. Many people who had sinned believed that they could only be freed from sin by visiting a pilgrimage site, and in fact sometimes visited many until they got it right. France in particular had a history of sending offenders on a pilgrimage in payment for their crimes, although this morphed over time into something that could be avoided by payment of a fine.

What of the sites of pilgrimage? Sumption counters what might be our modern interpretation of why a Church or Abbey sought to be a site of pilgrimage - there actually wasn't a lot of money in it initially. Elaborately be-jewelled reliquaries were often melted down, as the Church used the gold and jewels as its "savings account" and often had to access it to pay ransoms or debts. The Churches requirement to look after pilgrims often meant that perversely the more pilgrims, the bigger the cost - the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury actually lost more money in jubilee years than other years. Even the ability to issue indulgences didn't help much, as Rome took a lot of that revenue. Why do it then? - in a word, prestige. Churches moved up the hierarchy of importance depending on the "power" of their relics and the number of pilgrims and miracles they had. Sumption point out that Santiago became a Metropolitan Church purely on the basis of its power as the resting place of St. James.

In what might be the medieval equivalent of Flash Mobs, many sites of pilgrimage bloomed, flowered all to briefly and died - some only lasted a matter of weeks. Even major shrines such as that of Thomas at Canterbury saw large ebbs and flows in the number of pilgrims attending the shrine. Sometimes the decline of a pilgrimage site had little to do with the Church itself - St. Gilles in Provence declined once pilgrims, owing to war and banditry, no longer passed it on the way to the larger pilgrimage destination of Santiago.

Sumption explains the journey that pilgrims undertook, where they were routinely fleeced of their gold and sometimes lost their life, and how saintliness and sobriety were not necessarily in the front of pilgrim's minds. The business that grew out of pilgrimage gathered speed up until the 1300s, which was the great age of pilgrims. Venetian entrepreneurs organised fleets to take pilgrims to the Holy Land, which sometimes ended in ruin for the organisers, owing to the changing nature of taxation in the Middle East. Rome, the other bastion of early Christianity, did its best to usurp Jerusalem's place as the centre of pilgrimage, with an ever increasing array of indulgences to be gained by visiting the Eternal City and the appropriate Churches. The claims for the powers of various Churches grew and grew, and these were often driven by forces external to the hierarchy of the Church, as each place tried to grab a piece of what (by the 1300s) was become a more lucrative pie.

The final section of the book moves into the corruption of the ideal of pilgrimage - the actual journey became almost a touristic event, and the explosion of indulgences offered turned pilgrims into people who were ticking off locations and events to increase their stocks in Heaven, rather than making a true penitential journey. As successive Popes used the power of granting indulgences to make money, the pilgrimage moved from the sublime to the ridiculous, with thousands of years of remission available to the astute pilgrim. This was the beginning of the end for the great era of pilgrimage, as the next logical step was the ability to purchase the indulgence without going on the journey. Combined with the increasingly fragile political situation in both Europe and the Middle East, the great pilgrimages became a less attractive option.

This led to the great explosion in Marian pilgrimages, an upwelling driven by the poorer sections of society. These people, who couldn't afford to go to a major shrine, would travel locally to a miraculous statue of Mary. Many of these local shrines were frowned on by the Church, but that didn't stop their popularity.

The Reformation dealt a death blow to the pilgrimage in Northern Europe, which lasted until a revival in the seventeenth century, which is beyond this book's scope.

Pilgrimage is a fascinating insight into Medieval society and the Church - well worth a read if you're interested in that sort of stuff.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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