Pilgrimage: Physical and Spiritual Journeys

Pilgrimage: Physical and Spiritual Journeys

To mark Easter and also as a taster for our forthcoming pilgrimage story and new online exhibits (coming soon!), one of our contributors, Professor Catherine Cubitt, here gives a brief introduction to early Christian pilgrims from Britain and the many perils of their journeys.

Pilgrimage was an ancient part of the spirituality of the early English church. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History recounts healing miracles which took place at the shrines of holy men, such as those of St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne (d. 687) and St Chad, Bishop of Mercia (d. 672) at his monastery at Lastingham, Yorkshire. Visitors to St Chad’s tomb often took dust from the shrine as a precious token of their visit; it was believed to have healing powers. The remains of a ninth-century list of shrines at English churches known as the List of Saints’ Resting Places survives and gives details of their location.

English pilgrims ventured further afield than the British Isles. Rome was a major focus of English devotion: the church of St Peter’s housed the tomb of the holy Apostle, St Peter himself and those of successive popes. St Gregory, the pope who had despatched the mission of St Augustine to Canterbury in 597, had inserted a crypt below the high altar which facilitated the pilgrim flow to St Peter’s tomb. Rome was a city of martyrs; from the sixth century it had promoted the cults of early Christian martyrs whose bodies and other relics were interred in churches across the city. We even know of seventh-ninth-century graffiti in the catacombs made by English. St Boniface, an English monk who travelled from England to Germany to evangelise the ‘pagans’, made a number of visits to Rome and on one of these accompanied a friend, a Kentish nun, in visiting its many shrines. Two centuries later, the itinerary of Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury (d. 994) lists the churches and places he visited there when he went to collect his pallium, the insignia of his archiepiscopal status, from the Pope. Rome therefore had a special place in English devotions through their links to Pope Gregory, their Apostle, responsible for their conversion and for its plenitude of martyr relics.

Rome was not the limit of pilgrims’ aspirations in the eighth century. Jerusalem and the Holy Land also beckoned. A fascinating account describing the pilgrimage of Bishop Willibald of Eichstätt to Jerusalem in the 720s survives through the agency of a nun, Hygeburg of Heidenheim, who transcribed his recollections.

Willibald had set out for Rome with his brother, Wynnebald, in 720 and subsequently decided to continue to Jerusalem on his own. Willebald, Wynnebald and Hygeburg were all part of the mission to the Germany initiated by St Boniface. Willibald’s account gives important insights into the complexities of long distance travel in the eighth century, describing its hardships—cold, ill health and hunger. It details the many stages of his journey—from Rome via Naples and Sicily, onto Monembasa in the Peloponnese to Asia Minor to Cyprus and then to Palestine and Jerusalem. Willibald’s travels and his recollection of them are framed by his religious understanding. His markers of time are liturgical and his descriptions of the stages of his pilgrimage are often most detailed when recording the churches and saintly shrines which he visited. In west Asia, the places he visits are described in terms of their place in the narratives of Scripture:

Willibald depicted in the 11th-century book, Das Pontifikale Gundekarianum. Image from Wikipedia.

A page from the Hodoeporicon (The relating of a voyage) transcribed by Hygeburg of Heidenheim, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 1086, folio 71v. Image from Wikipedia.

…[they] travelled a hundred miles to Damascus, in Syria, where the body of St Ananias rests. They stayed there a week. About two miles distant stands a church on the spot where St Paul was first converted and where our Lord said to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me” etc. After praying in the church, they sent on foot to Galilee, to the place where Gabriel first came to our Lady and said ‘Hail Mary’….

The Hodieporicon of St Willibald, translated in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, ed. C. H. Talbot (London: Sheed and Ward, 1954), p. 163.

While Willibald’s understanding of the landscape may be infused with scriptural significance, he is mindful of political boundaries, noting when he passes from one jurisdiction to another. He moves from Rome to Naples, where he remarks on the fact this is Byzantine territory through which he proceeds until he reaches Cyprus, which ‘lies between the Greeks and Saracens’. Then to Antartus, ‘in the territory of the Saracens’.  This is not surprising, not least because Willibald and his companions were arrested and thrown in prison in Emesa, not long after their entry into Arab territory. They were suspected of being spies  ‘because they were strangers and came without credentials’. Their jail sojourn was alleviated by the good offices of a merchant, presumably a Christian, who although unable to gain their release, provided food, baths and weekly access to church for them. Eventually, they were freed through the intervention of a man from Spain who ‘made careful enquiries about their nationality and homeland’. Through his brother at court, he was successfully able to petition the Caliph for their release. On their return journey, they took care to obtain a letter of safe conduct from the Caliph in Emesa.

The interrogations of Willibald and his fellows and their eventual release highlights issues of trust and identity—in all three episodes concerning their captivity and release the questions focus on the identity of the pilgrims. When they are seized they are described as ‘unknown men’ and their captors did not know from which people they came. In their first interrogation, they are released to go onto the court because their interrogator affirmed that he had frequently seen travellers from their parts and that these were not bad men but rather ‘fulfilling their law’. However, this endorsement did not save them at the court where they were accused of being spies. Their release came through the good offices of the man from Spain who joined forces with the captain of the ship on which they had sailed from Cyprus to vouch for them. Willibald and his companions were saved therefore by those who could vouch for them, their travel plans and their good intentions. Although they lacked political or familial networks on their travels, they were able eventually to rely on Christian bonds seen in the role of the merchant and presumably the man from Spain who took care to help them in their captivity.

Willibald’s travelogue underlines the importance of networks and personal bonds in long distance travel, forged by a variety of bonds—family and religious, for example. As Sindbaek has noted for Viking travellers, social and political networks were forms of cultural capital.[1] Pilgrimage was a pious but perilous business and Willibald was fortunate to have survived his many adventures. Others were not so lucky: although St Boniface enjoyed the company of his friend, the nun Bugga in Rome, he urged the Archbishop of Canterbury to ban nuns and women against making the journey to Rome as too many of them died or ended their days as prostitutes in cities en route.

Professor Catherine Cubitt

For more see our Relics Story and exhibits on Bede [EXH14] and St Cuthbert [EXH10, EXH67]. Our Pilgrimage story will be coming soon with more on the Hodoeporicon of Hygeburg.

[1] S. Sindbaek, ‘The small world of the Vikings: networks in early medieval communication and exchange’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 40 (2007), 59-74