My pilgrimage has taken me into books. I am lucky enough to use Lucy Cavendish College Library and was introduced to the Erasmus Room in the basement. This contains a legacy from Dr Peter Newman Brooks, former lecturer in Divinity. The walls are completely covered with books on Christianity and the Reformation, with a large red leather chair in which to read them. But where to start! I tried to stay focussed on pilgrims, pilgrimage, and Bury St Edmunds in particular, but it was easy to be distracted.
Most of the books focussed on the Church rather than the pilgrims in medieval England, however I found a book by Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars, which described in some detail the laity’s relationship to saints and pilgrimage, and is well-referenced.
Duffy states the main purpose of pilgrimage was to seek the holy, as embodied in a sacred place, relic, or privileged image (such as a statue). This, however, ignores the journey itself, which is also influential. The fact that the holy place is away from your own locality is relevant to the change of thinking which occurs from “stepping out” of normal circumstances. This has been described as a “liminal space” of transition and transformation. The pilgrim leaves behind his or her routine world to enter a “sacred space”.
Duffy suggests an element of hardship was valued as giving profane men and women insight into monastic life with renunciation, discipline and penitence. Pilgrimage may have been done as a penance:
who sekyth saints for Crystes sake –
And namely such as pains to take
On fote to punyshe thy frayle body-
Shall therby meryte more hyely
Then by any thynge done by man. John Heywood 1533
The symbolic nature of a journey as a consecration of a whole life’s journey towards the sacred was recognised, as referred to by John Lydgate in 1426. Thus both the journey and the arrival are important as metaphor.
Seeking pardon and gaining “indulgences” for oneself and also through bequests for surrogate pilgrims were sited in wills. Bequests were designed to gain merit by paying for “diverse pilgrimages to holly seyntes” or paying by deputy indulgences. Margery Kempe from Kings Lynn describes her attendance at the Porticuncula Indulgence at Assisi in 1414 for herself and for her friends and enemies and all the souls in Purgatory. For this Margery was given money by neighbours and strangers. Thus a belief in the Afterlife, including Purgatory, was a necessary part of practise.
Seeking healing from holy sites, relics and icons was a common motive, with transfers of allegiance depending on the success of the miracles which occurred there. Pilgrim numbers can be estimated from pilgrim badges. Sites became competitive, with scope for fraud and abuse.
But what of Bury St Edmunds? The librarian wanted to lock the library, and I will need to return.
reference: The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 by Eamon Duffy ISBN 978-0-300-10828-6 Chapter 5 Pilgrimage