Medieval Traditions on the Pilgrimage

Pilgrims to Rome received a pair of crossed keys, St. Peter's symbol.
... George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Pilgrimage was a major social and religious movement in the Middle Ages. Medieval people went on pilgrimage to see the places where Jesus lived, and to see holy relics, as an act of penance, for a miraculous cure or simply to deepen their faith. As with most holy journeys, pilgrimages were shrouded in tradition and ritual to reinforce the sense of a sacred undertaking. The three most popular medieval pilgrimage sites were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

1 Before the Journey

Going on pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was not a decision to be taken lightly and required preparation. Aside from saving money, before they left, pilgrims were required to pay all their debts, write a will, make apologies and settle arguments. If one was undertaking the journey as an act penance, she had to make a full confession before departure. Finally, she needed the blessing of a local priest. In front of the priest, a person would vow to complete her journey or face excommunication. The priest would then bless her and her pilgrimage accoutrements.

2 Clothing

Medieval pilgrims had a uniform they wore to identify themselves as pilgrims. This was important because being a pilgrim gave you, theoretically anyway, right of passage, allowed you to sleep and eat in monasteries for free and protected you from being robbed or attacked. Of course, this wasn't always the case, but nevertheless, all pilgrims donned an identifiable pilgrim's outfit that was blessed by the priest before they departed. This included a wide-brimmed hat, a staff, a scrip or purse to carry money and food and a robe called a sclavein.

3 On the Journey

During the course of the journey, aside from stopping at monasteries or hostels to eat, pray and spend the night, pilgrims would also stop at smaller shrines to make prayers, view relics and receive blessings. Particularly devout or serious pilgrims undertook constant prayers as they walked "The Way," as the route to Santiago de Compostela was called, referencing specific prayer books for this purpose and carrying portable altars.

4 At the Shrine

Once the pilgrim reached his destination shrine, the design of the cathedral itself dictated how he would worship and what he would do. Pilgrims walked along the aisles to an ambulatory, or pathway that circled the perimeter of the church, which was lined with chapels that the pilgrim would stop and pray at before honoring the central relic. This was so the pilgrims didn't disturb regular services. Before leaving, the pilgrim received a small, cheap lead badge to prove he had completed his journey. From Jerusalem, he would received a palm; from Rome, a set of keys; and from Santiago de Compostela, a shell. The last was pinned on the pilgrim's hat as he set off for home.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.