The Christian practice of spiritual pilgrimage reached its height during the Middle Ages, when millions of Christians across Europe set out on foot to reach sites of religious significance. Many of the sites held holy relics, objects associated with religious figures. The pilgrims visited these places because they believed that contact with the objects or simply being in the physical space that a saint once occupied would endow them with greater spiritual clarity and grace. They also used pilgrimages as a form of penance to atone for sins. The journey itself was significant, usually being long and arduous, both a test and a testimony to one's faith.
Palestine and Rome: the Original Pilgrimage Sites
Palestine has the longest standing and most significant pull for Christians, being the birthplace of Jesus. During the 4th century A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine the Great erected several structures at locations significant in Jesus' life, such as his birthplace in Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem the site of his crucifixion and the sepulcher of his burial and resurrection. As the seat of the pope, Rome itself was also a very significant pilgrimage site, holding many holy relics and the tombs of saints Peter and Paul. In a practical sense, in the late Roman period it was also easy to get to, as the center of economic, political and religious power in Europe; both Rome and the Holy Land had established road networks that allowed pilgrims access.
Though Jerusalem and Rome continued to draw pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages, two factors affected their popularity: Muslim conquests that prevented passage to Jerusalem, and the popes' evacuation from Rome. Pilgrims began turning to other sites for spiritual sustenance. Compostela in northern Spain, the site of a shrine to St. James, was overwhelmingly the most popular pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, with tens of thousands of pilgrims following four main routes to the site, the supposed location of the saint's tomb. So popular was the destination that along these routes, churches were expanded and monasteries established to cater to the constant flow of the faithful.
Canterbury, in England's southeastern county of Kent, was also a popular destination for pilgrims. It held appeal as a pilgrimage site for the shrine of Augustine of Canterbury, a monk sent from Rome by the pope in the late 6th century to convert Anglo-Saxon pagans. But it was most popular as the location of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, a 12th-century archbishop of Canterbury. The popularity of visiting the shrine of St. Thomas inspired the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer to write the Canterbury Tales, which related stories told by a group of pilgrims traveling to the site.
The city of Cologne in Germany was also a popular pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, with its gargantuan Gothic cathedral that held purported relics of the Three Magi and other Christian figures. As a powerful archbishopric it was also a seat of Catholic religious authority during the Middle Ages. The western German city of Aachen, also known as Aix-la-Chapelle, drew crowds of pilgrims because of its impressive collection of relics, including the baby Jesus' swaddling clothes, the loincloth Jesus wore when he was crucified and the virgin Mary's cloak among others.
Nidaros in Norway, now Trondheim, was one of the most popular pilgrim destinations for Northern Europeans during the Middle Ages because of the Nidaros Cathedral. The church was built over the grave of St. Olav, a king who converted Norway to Christianity. After he was killed in battle in 1030, reports spread of miracles experienced by those in contact with his body.
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