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Miracles, Wax Limbs, and Coins: Understanding Pilgrimage in England and N. France, 11th–13th Century

In his ‘Liber Miraculorum Sancte Fidis’, 11th century churchman and sceptic, Bernard of Angers reported hearing of strange miracles, and an even stranger saint located in the Duchy of Languedoc. As such, in c.1013, Bernard decided to undertake an investigation and pilgrimage to the shrine of Sainte Foi, also known as Saint Faith, to find the truth behind certain miracles and those who worship the saint. Bernard’s scepticism for saints is demonstrated when he passes through Aurillac and comes upon the shrine and statue of Saint Gerald, resplendent in gold. Unimpressed by the shrine, Bernard believes the practice of saint worship is “perverse and most contrary to Christian law” and that the holy cross was the only true image for Christian worship.[1] Despite this idolatry, he continued to the shrine of Saint Faith at Conque whereby he discovered the golden girl. The reliquary, which still survives to the present day, shows a golden gilded Saint Faith, enthroned, and encrusted with jewels and gems which reportedly glistened in the sunlight. Bernard mocked the false idol and compared it to the golden bull featured in the Hebrew Bible.[2]

Bernard, however, would soon become enthralled in the shrine and captivated by its cult as he began to encounter and familiarise himself with Saint Faith’s pilgrims, and those who had experienced her miracles. Bernard provides us with a remarkable description which encapsulates the incredible importance and connection between saint and pilgrim. He learnt that far from idolatry, the relic and remains of the young girl connected heaven to earth; that the beauty of the statue reflected the glory of heaven and allowed the everyday person to focus their prayer and access divinity. Bernard even goes as far as to state that the shrine and saint were more precious to the local region than the Arc of the Covenant was to the Israelites.[3] This story, and the description of saint worship provided by Bernard, perfectly encapsulates the focal point of this essay.

Through the use of various pieces of hagiographical literature, shrine account records, and legal documents amongst other general sources, this essay aims to decode pilgrimage to understand pilgrims; the culture and traditions underpinning pilgrimage and worship; and the interconnectivity of shrines, monastic communities, and regions as a result of pilgrimage.

Unlike typical historical narratives that aim to follow a specific individual, reign, or war, this essay captures a topic which encompassed everyone, from every part and sect of society. As such, there are a multitude of issues and limitations that come with researching such a widespread topic, namely that because pilgrimage was such an ingrained aspect of society, rarely is it solely written about in detail. Thus, the historian must interweave multiple sources that only provide pieces of insight in order to create the full image as accurately as possible. By doing so, this also reduces the respective limitations of each type of source, once again aiding in building a complete and accurate narrative of pilgrimage in the period in question.

Hagiographical literature, more specifically the Miracula, of some of England and Northern France’s most prolific saints provides a helpful insight into constructing an analysis of pilgrims. Rather than general figures, the multitude of miracles in any given hagiography provide a highly detailed sample and representation of the wider pilgrim population. Miracles can provide us with the sex and social class of the pilgrim, as well as the type of miracle experienced, and even sometimes detailing where the pilgrim had come from. The statistical analysis of over 2,000 miracles across nine shrines conducted by Finucane will be primarily harnessed to analyse and understand the relationship between saints and pilgrims.[4] Furthermore, I have used Finucane’s methodology to analyse the miracle collections of two further shrines, namely the shrine of St Cuthbert and St Edmund, to provide new comparisons and information on the patterns of pilgrim distribution, composition, and migration within England and Northern France.

Individual miracles, however, are limited in providing details on worshiping culture. Whilst chroniclers, such as Thomas of Monmouth, discuss a variety of pilgrim traditions, by combining non-monetary donation records with written sources can we construct an understanding of pilgrim traditions and worship culture, of which all levels of society partook in. It is important to note, however, that such traditions within pilgrimage were governed by oral tradition and systems of belief, rather than lay or ecclesiastical laws. This concept will be emphasised when understanding the jostling relationship between tradition and monastic communities as certain sites sought to endorse certain practises whilst discouraging others.

We are, however, discussing England in conjunction with Northern France, and the reason for this is because there is a vast network and interconnectivity between these two regions. Miracles provide a small degree of information about such international migrations, and Finucane has provided highly useful statistics on this, yet foreign pilgrims represent a small percentage of pilgrim populations discussed in Miraculas. Diana Webb, however, has cumulated a vast and vibrant collection of documents in researching the international element of pilgrimage. Such documents include Patent Rolls, letters, cartulary manuscripts, and registers to name a few. These provide examples of incoming and outgoing individuals travelling to certain shrines which enables us to map the network and overseas migration of pilgrimage in this era, and piece together the links between England and Northern France, as well as the connections between these regions and wider Europe.

The hope is that by interweaving all these different elements, we will be able to fully understand such a vibrant topic that was so integral to society.

The Pilgrim

The term ‘pilgrim’ encapsulates far more than simply someone who wanted to express their piety and faith. The wide range of motives behind undertaking a pilgrimage were highly varied. Some people visited shrines in anti-royalist protest and opposition to kings by honouring their enemies. Especially when the saint was killed through royal command would the cult emerge a rebellious undertone and focus. This is particularly witnessed within the cults of Thomas of Lancaster and Simon De Montfort, especially since royal authority sought to prohibit and control these cults to reduce anti-royalist sentiment and protest.[5] Another, rather amoral motive for pilgrimage, was to rob the shrine of its donations. Shrines were, without a doubt, fairly rich in nature and thus were a target for those seeking to make some money.[6] The miracles of St Cuthbert provide a multitude of examples of thieves stealing books, coins, and other offerings. One such instance is of a certain man, who sought to steal from the shrine by deceptively kissing the tomb and swallowing four or five coins whilst doing so.[7] This idea of stealing coins through this manner is seemingly common and is written in many other miracle collections.

These motivations for pilgrimage, however, were a small proportion of the wider scope. Ultimately, pilgrimage was undertaken for one of two predominant reasons. The first was to undertake penance and absolution for sins or crimes committed. Pilgrimage as a form of penance could be undertaken as a voluntarily act of devotion, but more often it was imposed by an ecclesiastical authority. Particularly in the Celtic church was there a set of penalties which detailed conditions of pilgrimage to match certain crimes or sins. The Penitential of Columban, for example, prescribed a seven-year pilgrimage for a clerk who begot a child, whilst theft, on the other hand, only entailed a pilgrimage of three years.[8] Penitential letters collected in the eleventh century provide an incredible insight into individuals who undertook such penance pilgrimages. One such example is a letter to Lupus, bishop of London, in the early eleventh century, whereby a certain man “deceived by diabolical fraud” begged for mercy and requested penance as punishment.[9] What is particularly notable about this letter is that certain conditions are outlined for his penance to ensure suffering is endured, and absolution is achieved. The idea of an ecclesiastical authority outlining conditions was common amongst criminals, and the conditions for this fraudulent man included:

“On the second, fourth and sixth days [of the week] he shall fast on bread and water, he shall enter the church on the Nativity of the Lord and Easter, he shall eat flesh on Sundays and major feast-days. On the three days on which he abstains from flesh, he is to wear woollen clothing and go barefoot, he shall not give peace, he shall not cut his hair except three times in the year, he shall not communicate unless he comes to the point of death.” [10]

There are instances, however, of self-imposed penance pilgrimages. Typically, these were undertaken by clergy and priests who sought to cleanse themselves of their sins. Furthermore, following the self-imposed nature of the pilgrimage, the itinerary of the journey was equally self-determined. Wills and other agreements made by departing pilgrims provide a notable insight into those who sought to undertake a journey by their own accord. The following is taken from an Iberian cartulary and involves Remundo, an eleventh century priest, who declares the following:

“I acknowledge that I am weak and a sinner and because of the horrible sins which I have committed, I fear the pains of eternal judgement; however, not despairing of the mercy of Christ, I desire to attain the joys of Paradise. I want therefore to go to the shrine of the blessed apostle James…” [11]

Nevertheless, aside from penance, opportunistic theft, and protest, most pilgrims undertook pilgrimage to express their faith and ask for healing or special favours. Furthermore, as witnessed in the variety of contemporary sources on undertaking such a journey, it can be understood that pilgrimage had a degree of fluidity and flexibility as whilst there were ecclesiastical guidelines, self-determination was a highly prominent aspect of this topic. Some pilgrims had a specific destination, be it local, regional, or international; others simply wandered from shrine to shrine seeking divine assistance. Yet, all pilgrims understood saints as being a vessel of God and a connection between heaven and earth. Thus, a statistical analysis of the numerous miracle collections across England and Northern France can provide the greatest insight into who pilgrims were, what social class they attached to, and why they partook in pilgrimage.

The Miracula

Quite simply, without the belief in the power of saints, the concept of pilgrimage would not exist, or at the very least it would be mere tourism. Thus, to understand pilgrimage, we must understand those who experienced and witnessed the miracles performed by local, regional, or even international saints. Miracles are also important if we understand shrine worship in terms of modern virality because, quite often, patterns and influxes of pilgrim migration were influenced by the reputation and popularity of the shrine spurred on by oral tradition. An extraordinary example of virality is the 12th Century case of Eilward of Westoning, a man who was blinded and castrated for petty thievery. Upon asking the newly established Saint Thomas Becket for help, he quickly regained sight.[12] Eilward’s story, as understood by Benedict of Peterborough, went viral and ‘‘word of this went out among the vicinity, and the new thing attracted no small multitude of people.’’[13] As Eilward travelled to the shrine at Canterbury to pay homage, he told his story along the pilgrim routes and created a large buzz, so much so that the story reached Canterbury before he did.[14] Yet, Eilward is not unique, and John McNamara has pointed out that multiple hagiographical texts ‘‘reveal surprising amounts of information about the oral tellings of these legends in their own contexts.’’ [15]

This is, however, a potential limitation of analysing miracles. R.W Southern dubbed this oral tradition as a “chattering atmosphere” and thus the telling of miracles can become a game of whispers.[16] Benedict of Peterborough, narrating St Thomas Becket, remarks how he was told about a miracle from a “truthful man”, who had heard it “from a certain Gilbert”, who had heard it from a blind man.[17] Likewise, the author of the Liber Eliensis at Ely received a letter from Osbert of Clare about a miracle he was told about by Prior Osbert of Daventry, who had heard said miracle by the friends of a women.[18] Though seemingly comical, Brian Patrick McGuire in examining Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum, discovered that 95% of miracle stories arose from oral sources, as opposed to 5% written records.[19] The miracle collections of Thomas Becket have comparatively similar statistics as 94% of miracles were from oral tradition.[20] Questions thus arise on the truth and validity of such miracles, especially if we are to closely analyse them. Did stories become distorted as they were passed on? It is difficult to be sure to say the least, but in his study of twelfth century miracle collections, Marcus Bull suggests that ‘‘we should treat the majority of miracle stories as the end-product of genuine attempts to formulate explanations of real experiences.”[21] Thus, we must rely on the scrutiny and critique of miracle collectors for reassurance.

Such a notion is not overly farfetched if we understand how miracle collections were constructed, and how certain miracles were omitted or grouped. What becomes clear from the introductions of some miracle collections is that collectors did take time to process miracles and decide how the collection should be curated. A modern and comparative example is that of sociologist Candace Slater who sought to record the miracles witnessed at Brazilian and Spanish shrines.[22] Her fifteen years of research yielded over 47,079 miracles, and thus to keep her research manageable she based her collection on quality rather than quantity, and thus deconstructed the personal experiences to group the miracles together.[23] In essence, contemporary sources show that medieval miracle collectors undertook a similar methodology. The anonymous Beverley collector noted, ‘‘the passage of time would detain me for a very long time if I wished to write down every single release of prisoners through the merits of St. John.’’[24] Likewise, another anonymous miracle collector at Reading wrote that ‘‘in a similar way and by a similar remedy another knight named Ralph Gilbuin was cured of a similar disease, as also were so many others, both men and women, that I cannot cover them all in this account.’’[25] Therefore, considering this methodology, miracle collectors did seek to minimise any anomalies, half-truths, or distortions, so much so that miracle stories are known to be highly repetitive, all containing similar themes. We can, with a fair degree of reassurance then, understand these collections to be a qualitative sample of the wider pilgrim population. As such, statistical analysis can be conducted on such data to understand shrines and their pilgrims.

Arguably the most impactful study on medieval pilgrimage, Finucane’s ‘Miracles and Pilgrims’ sought to examine the miracles of each of the major medieval saint cults and place their pilgrims within a system of classification to identify trends and social profiles in shrine devotees. Miracles provide stories on all types of medieval people: bakers, bishops, millers, peasants, knights, artisans, merchants, and more. Thus, Finucane aimed to divide pilgrims into six general social groups: the nobility; upper ecclesiasts; knights; lower ecclesiasts; gentry, merchants, and artisans; and the unskilled, the peasantry, the poor, and the unspecified.[26] Finucane does note that these categories, as with any division, are highly contentious. Whilst it is simple to identify nobility and upper ecclesiasts as these are usually named and eagerly mentioned by scribes, it can become difficult and less well-defined when venturing further down the social ladder. This is especially true for women, of whom were often of unspecified social class unless they were from nobility or in an upper ecclesiastical position. Equally, Finucane also classified miracles by thirteen different categories: Unqualified Illness; Cripples; Non-Healing Miracle; Blindness; Accident; Mental; Abcess/Leprosy; Specific Infirmity; Deaf/Dumb; Gutta/Dropsy; Wounding; Visions; and Childbirth Problems.[27] Again, this is a contentious categorisation. Most prominent is the fact that all non-healing miracles (such as sailors rescued at sea, or prisoners escaping from capture) are grouped together, which discourages any attempts to understand the non-healing function of certain shrines and to examine the relationship, for example, between coastal shrines and rescued sailors. Nevertheless, this methodology is sufficient in classifying pilgrims, and the results of such classifications provide insightful trends, analysis, and understanding.

Finucane was strict on which shrines to include, they had to follow all three rules that he outlined: At least 100 miracles were registered at each cult; the cults developed into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; all new cults. It is no surprise then that the most prolific shrine for Finucane to analyse would be that of Thomas Becket. In c.1172, the Archbishop of Sens wrote to John of Salisbury stating that the numbers of miracles occurring in France were so numerous that they could scarcely all be counted.[28] As such, there is plenty of evidence on the popularity of Thomas Beckets shrine within England, but also internationally on the continent. In fact, within the first decade of Thomas Becket’s cult becoming established, Benedict of Peterborough had assembled the greatest miracle collection of the Middle Ages with over 703 miracles. William, another Canterbury monk, also collected over 438 miracles for his collection which ends about c.1179.[29] Finucane’s analysis provides some incredible insight into where these pilgrims predominantly came from. Subtracting the pilgrims listed by Benedict and William where no origin is given, 531 individual pilgrims can be pinpointed. 360 of these pilgrims were from England, and over half of these (56%) came from south-east England.[30] The localisation to the cult, however, is striking as a quarter of all English pilgrims originated in Kent or Canterbury. Then, great numbers of pilgrims came from London, followed by Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Sussex, Essex, and Suffolk. There were relatively fewer pilgrims from more distant counties such as Devon, Somerset Cornwall, Hereford, Shropshire, Durham, and Northumberland.[31] Interestingly, of the northern, Midland, and western regions, York contributed the most pilgrims, most probably due to its prominence as an English monastic site.

Of the aforesaid 531 pilgrims, over a third of these pilgrims (171) came from Northern France.[32] Abbot Peter de Celle describes vast numbers of Northern French pilgrims visiting Canterbury in the late c.1170s,[33] and one such pilgrim was Louis VII of France who, in c.1179, visited the tomb of St Thomas Becket seeking a cure for his son Philip Augustus. Louis is recorded as placing a gold coin on the altar and granting the priory an annual income of 1,600 gallons of wine.[34] The associations between Northern France and Becket are perhaps encouraged through his interactions as chancellor and exiled Archbishop, but the proximity of the shrine to Dover, and by extension Northern France, meant that pilgrims from France, specifically Claremont, Eu, Liseux, Poitiers, Pontigny, and Rouen all visited and worshiped at the shrine with ease.[35] In terms of hagiographical literature, the popularity of the shrine can also be represented by mapping monastic communities whereby the manuscripts of Benedict of Peterborough established provenance. Once again, we witness a degree of proximity with the shrine as the manuscript is found at Lyre, Signy, Aulne, Clairvaux, and Pontingy.[36] Yet its prominence does not end there as the miracle collection reached as far as San Mames de Lorvao and Santa Cruz de Coimbra in modern Portugal; and Salem, Boddeken, Heiligenkruez, and Lilenfeld in modern Germany.[37] Once again, this promotes the idea that although many monastic communities competed for influence and prominence, there was a vast interconnected network whereby pilgrims and miracle collections were vibrantly exchanged. In terms of wider Europe, Canterbury was thus included amongst the ‘greater pilgrimages’ that a pilgrim could undertake (others being Compostela, Colonge, Jerusalem, and Rome). Returning once more to penance, Flemish cities also utilised pilgrimage to English shrines, mainly that of St Thomas Becket, for absolution. The city of Ghent, for example, sent pilgrims to shrines at Canterbury, St Andrew’s, Salisbury, Walsingham, Yarmouth, Beverly, Peterborough, Bury St Edmund’s, and Louth.[38] Other cities, such as Anterwerp, ordered their pilgrims to visit not only those aforesaid shrines, but also Oxford, and St Patrick's Purgatory.[39] As such, similar to those regions of northern France, there was a vast interconnected network of pilgrims travelling from Ghent, Aalast, Dendermonde, Oudenaarde, Leuven, Antwerp, Tournai, Lier, Courtrai, and Bruge, to shrines along the eastern side of England.

We cannot disregard the fact that there were as many pilgrims leaving England as there were being received. This period, quite clearly, saw a huge influx in pilgrims as a result of the crusades. These departing pilgrims are frequently registered in Patent Rolls, especially after the mid-thirteenth century. It is for this reason, however, that so much of international pilgrimage is recorded as alongside those who are registered to visit the Holy Land are those who registered and asked to visit other European shrines, namely the Santiago de Compostela, Cologne, and Rome. The following is an example of such document from c.1223:

“The Abbot of St Augustine’s of Canterbury, who by the royal licence has gone on pilgrimage to Cologne, has letters patent of protection, to last until the feast of St Michael [29th September], in the seventh year of the king’s reign.” [40]

There are, however, plenty of other shrines that English pilgrims visited abroad. In the mid-thirteenth century, the canonisation of Edmund Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Pontigny provided a huge influx in English pilgrims. Patent Rolls record pilgrims venturing to Pontigny far into the fourteenth century,[41] and even Henry III had vowed to undertake pilgrimage to his shrine in c.1252 during a spout of illness.[42] These shrines, however, also contained their own spheres of influence on the local French region and area. In his analysis of over 150 French miracle collections from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Pierre-Andre Sigal discovered notable figures involving French shrines and pilgrims. All the miracles attributed to women concerned healing, and 90% of these miracles were in relation to their bodies. Comparatively, only 70% of men from the higher classes involved healing, notably less than women of the same status. Of this 70%, only a mere 22% were about their bodies, instead these men were concerned with their dreams as over 44.6% of male miracles involved visions.[43] Furthermore, Finucane’s analysis of the 209 miracles recorded for the shrine of Edmund Rich showed that most of these pilgrims were men, and half of those were of the lower class.[44] Unlike England, there were relatively few male pilgrims from the upper classes or clergy which is a notable difference.

Upon setting off on a journey, however, certain routes could be taken to get to your destination. Much has been written about the Via Francigena, the multitude of complex routes connecting north-western Europe to Rome, and likewise the Via Tolosana, which connected France to the Compostela via Grenoble and the Rhone Valley. The sea, however, often provided direct pilgrim travel to certain shrines, particularly in those in Spain or Italy. In the twelfth century, Icelandic Abbot Niklas of Munkathvera described a junction at Luni whereby pilgrims who travelled by road and by sea would converge on their way to Rome.[45] Nevertheless, pilgrims had to adapt to the ever-changing political climates of Europe, and chronicler Ralph Glaber describes how a “usual route” to Jerusalem for French and Italian pilgrims by sea changed when Hungry converted to Christianity and opened its land borders.[46] Likewise, fluctuations of pilgrims to Jerusalem notably declined in c.1009 when the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed by Caliph Al-Hakim.[47] Only when it was later restored did pilgrims, firstly of lower social classes, begin to return to this region. Thus, as said previously, pilgrimage was well-defined yet also highly flexible, and could adapt and change according to political climates, both positive and negative – perhaps because it truly was so ingrained within societies and cultures across Europe.

Miracle collections can also provide an understanding of domestic spheres of influence within a localised region and the true impact of oral tradition. The miracles of William of Norwich deliver great detail on the origins of local pilgrims, so much so that we can even visualise the growth of the cult over time. Thomas of Monmouth’s extraordinarily detailed miracle collections on the saintly boy enable us to locate 94% of pilgrims which can then be placed in the periods between the several translation ceremonies. Within the first few years of the cult’s establishment, more than half (57%) of pilgrims lived less than 10 miles from the shrine, many of whom were from Norwich itself.[48] There is a notable decline in the recording of miracles outside of this margin. In 1150-1, the average distance rose to 23 miles; from 1151-1154 it rose to 32 miles; then from 1154-1172 it rose to 45 miles, double the original sphere of influence.[49] A visual representation of this growth can be seen below:

It is debatable and unlikely that it would take 20 years for the cult to grow as little as 40 miles, even by Norfolk standards. Yet, being able to map the organic growth of a shrine in this way allows us to visualise the impact of oral tradition and word of mouth. Particularly interesting is that the cult growth encapsulated the local community, almost to perfectly fit and resemble the regional borders of Medieval East Anglia, reaching its peak growth at around 50 miles. After this boundary there is a sharp decline in the belief of Norwich’s saint, and a reason for this is that from around 40-50 miles, Norwich’s cult sphere intersects with the sphere of influence established by Bury St Edmunds, which was far more popular and influential, and contained a more powerful oral tradition.

In fact, upon analysing the social class composition of Bury St Edmunds, it becomes clear that the cult was far more established than St William’s in Norwich, containing numerous high-profile pilgrims. The miracles collected at Bury St Edmunds are limited, only 52 being accounted for across the Miraculas written by Archdeacon Herman (c.1070), Goscelin (c.1100), Osbert (c.1130s), and Abbot Samson (c.1200).[50] Nevertheless, the results are still relevant in understanding the composition of pilgrim devotees. Of the 52 pilgrims recorded, the sex of the pilgrims at Bury St Edmunds closely follows the overall national average outlined by Finucane. Whilst the national average is 61% male and 39% female,[51] Bury St Edmunds consists of 65% male, 35% female – nothing overly unique. The distinctiveness of the cult comes in the form of social class representation. The following graph shows the social class composition of those men and women:

As we can see, in both male and female shrine visitors, there is a notable amount of nobility, knights, and upper ecclesiasts. A probable cause for such a function is perhaps due to the nature of St Edmund being an Anglo-Saxon king who was martyred at the hands of foreign invaders. Thus, when Edward I prayed before St Edmund, and was bestowed his blessed banner before fighting the Scots, it makes sense that Bury functions as a primarily royal and monastic patron.[52] It is no surprise then that Herman, in his De Miraculis, was motivated to portray Edmund as a symbol of foreign resistance and military strength. In the aftermath of The Conquest, Edmund thus played a key role in bridging the gap between the foreign Norman culture and Anglo-Saxon tradition. Furthermore, with so many nobles having land disputes, levied taxes, and succession conflicts as a result of the The Conquest, it is understandable why there is such a heightened interaction between the saint and high nobles, aristocracy, and nobility. It should be noted, however, that St Edmund healed as much as he punished, and there are positive experiences of Norman knights being healed by the saint. Ranulf, a Norman knight who arrived with William I in c.1066, was cured of madness by St Edmund, whilst William fitz Asketill, a knight from Herefordshire, was cured of a fever after making an offering.[53] Overall, however, healing a specific illness was the most asked for miracle amongst men, whilst being crippled was oddly popular amongst women, something seemingly unique to Bury. The miracula constructed by Abbot Samson, however, describes how widespread the call for healing was:

“Et ut evidentius noverit quis quantusve sebeat portas eius, ad miracula venitur. Aegrotivariis vexati languoribus aggregantur; plateae debilium multitudine constipantur. Per cunctorum ora Aedmuni nomen, Aedmundi laus, Aedmundi resonat praeconium.” [54]

Aside from specific infirmity, we can see from the table below that non-healing miracles were highly popular. These predominantly consisted of visitors to the shrine who had been saved at sea, escaped from prison, or required assistance in conflict. Nevertheless, Edmund was a patron who protected and healed his worshipers.

Aside from spheres of influence, analysing miracles can also provide an understanding of the sex of pilgrims which is particularly important in understanding the role of women in pilgrimage. Finucane analysed two local shrines in England, of which, there are a unique number of female pilgrims. The first is Godric of Finchale, situated outside of Durham. Of the 244 miracles analysed, two thirds of these are women, higher than any other shrine analysed by me or Finucane.[55] No other saint also accounted for so many lower class people but considering that the social class of women were typically unspecified, this is no surprise.[56] The other shrine with a predominantly female devotees was Frideswide of Oxford. Of the 108 miracles, also two thirds of these were women.[57]

Miracles, however, thus provide a special insight into how women were able to express their faith in this period, but other contemporary sources involving pilgrimage can also enable understanding into understanding the degree of freedom women had. The following source, a letter sent to Eleanor of Provence, the queen of England, from Pope Innocent IV, is particularly notable as it demonstrates that royalty frequently undertook pilgrimage:

“Yielding to your devout prayers, we concede to you by the present authority that since from time to time it happens, by reason of devotion, that you come to many monasteries, of Cistercians and others, of the kingdom of England, you are permitted, with ten good and honest women, to enter their churches and cloisters for the purpose of prayer; any custom or statute confirmed by the Apostolic see or other authority notwithstanding.” [58]

More than this, however, it expresses certain complexities within gender and pilgrimage that are a prevalent undertone throughout this period, namely that women could only seemingly undertake pilgrimage through the approval of men, and more specifically, only with the permission of ecclesiastical males. The most striking aspect of the passage is that the pope “concedes” his approval and is “yielding” after her multiple attempts at visiting monasteries. This great reluctance to allow women on pilgrimage is seemingly a microcosm for common opinion as St Cuthbert, patron of Durham Cathedral, was equally as reluctant to provide women with access to the cathedral-priory and other areas. By using Finucane’s methodology on the 86 miracles of St Cuthbert (based on the collections constructed by Symeon of Durham in the 1100s, and Reginald of Durham in the 1160s), I discovered that 89% of pilgrim visitors were men, which is notably higher than the overall male average of 61%. Such a result only corroborates the understanding that St Cuthbert was a misogynistic saint. The ban on women entering St Cuthbert’s church was first recorded in Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de Exordio, whereby Cuthbertsevered his monks from all female company” so that through “the indiscreet association of women with God’s servants the monks should not endanger their resolve and so ruin them, thereby giving joy to the Enemy.”[59] It is perhaps not surprising then that a quarter of male pilgrims (see graph below) were ecclesiastical, one of the largest proportions across English and French shrines. In correspondence to what Symeon describes, it seems to be that certain shrines and monastic communities were highly protective over who could and couldn’t access the shrine, but it is noteworthy that this rule extends to include even the queen.

Comparing any given individual shrine will only provide vast generalisations and limitations. Alternatively, by understanding pilgrimage through all the miracles across all the shrines researched, we can draw together patterns and trends within English and Northern French pilgrimage. To begin with, as previously stated, across 2,000 pilgrims analysed, over 61% were male, and 39% were female.[60] Of those women, the majority were obviously of unspecified social class aside from named examples from nobility and gentry. Whilst 86% of women were from the lower class, only 56% of men came from this social level.[61] Instead, the most frequent male pilgrims were of the lower clergy, such as monks or priests. A comparison between the English and French cults provides some interesting, yet peculiar outcomes. The same proportion of sexes were found in both England and France, and exactly the same proportion of female pilgrims were from the lower classes.[62] The only prominent difference between French and English pilgrims were that English male pilgrims were typically a higher social class than male French pilgrims. Nevertheless, the similarities are striking, and the reasons for these parallels are uncertain, yet it is certain that pilgrimage and oral tradition was incredibly ingrained into all sects and classes of society, and the motivation to undertake a pilgrimage was felt by most, if not everyone.


As of now, statistical analysis has shown that shrines had a variety of devotees; some received vast amounts of lower-class women, whilst others frequently obtained patronage from royal and upper-class pilgrims. Nevertheless, what unites and underpins this worship and practise of pilgrimage is an underlying, yet prolific culture based on oral tradition. Shrine donations, particularly non-monetary donations, provide historians with a highly in-depth understanding into how people worshiped and expressed their faith in ways not necessarily governed by lay or ecclesiastical laws.

In c.1307, about mid-way between Thomas of Cantilupe’s death and canonisation, papal commissioners travelled to Hereford to conduct an examination on the shrine donations. The following is, according to the commissioners, a small fraction of the total offerings donated but nevertheless provides an insightful look into worship.[63] These items included:

· 170 ships in silver and 41 in wax

· 129 images of men or their limbs in silver, 1,424 in wax

· 77 images of animals and birds of diverse species

· 108 crutches

· 3 vehicles in wood and 1 in wax, left by cured cripples

· 97 night-gowns

· 116 gold and silver rings and brooches

· 38 garments of gold thread and silk

This vibrant array of items reflect many of the motivations and reasons why people take up pilgrimage. The 108 crutches, for example, most probably signify those who either asked the saint to heal their crippled limbs, or symbols of those who have been healed and believed it was through the saint’s power. Either way, these items each contain extremely personal stories of those who, arguably in a degree of desperation or hope, placed their faith in the divine. There is, however, an overwhelming number of wax limbs found at Hereford as well as other English shrines, and as part of the papal investigation a certain pilgrim provided a detailed account which explains why such donations were made. Hugh le Barber, who had been the barber to Thomas in his later life, began to lose his eyesight as he grew older and thus appealed to the saint by sending two wax eyes to Hereford. These eyes were to the exact measurements, proportion, and likeness to his real eyes and were placed by the altar in the shrine upon his pilgrimage completion.[64] His prayers were seemingly answered as his eyesight returned. What is particularly noteworthy about this tradition is that it seemingly transcends social class as Henry III, in c.1245, spent £51 13s. 6d. for fifteen candles 'of his size' which were to be placed at the shrine of Edward the Confessor.[65] Whether fifteen life-sized candles were actually made is unlikely, but this tradition of ‘measuring’ an aliment and making a candle of it is frequently described in hagiographies. A more logical approach, described in the Miracles of St Osmund, was that a string would be measured to the length of the afflicted limb or body of the pilgrim and then “the measuring thread (sometimes doubled back on itself) would form the wick of a candle of standard proportions”.[66] Thomas of Monmouth corroborates this tradition in his description of a certain man who measured a length of string around his sick heard of oxen and used such thread to construct a candle as an offering.[67] The shrine of St Cuthbert also housed one donation whereby the string folded back on itself 66 times to form an appropriate wick.[68] Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this tradition is that of the taper donated by the city of Dover to Thomas Becket at Canterbury. This 'candela in rota', or rather a taper wound around a drum several times, “contained in its length, the border of said city” and thus hoped for Thomas to aid all its inhabitants.[69] This incredible tradition of representing the afflicted in wax thus symbolically equated the disappearance of ailment and disease. What is particularly clear, however, is this tradition, as with many others, transcends the strict boundaries of social class.

One possible reason that enables these traditions to surpass class is due to the fact that worship is so closely related to belief, and by extension, oral tradition. Rather than a set of rules outlining worship, many of these traditions become popular on a “If it works, I’ll try it” basis in the same way many of us will attempt the new internet dieting fad nowadays. As we saw with the story of Eilward, pilgrim routes are highways of gossip and thus when people catch wind of certain practices that seemingly work, word of mouth can make them go viral. Other so-called ‘viral trends’ included kissing the base of a saint’s altar, donating a single coin, and even entering the ‘Holy Hole’ which enabled pilgrims to crawl beneath the tomb and absorb divine radiation.[70] Yet, it is the practices which failed to take off that prove how worshiping traditions are based on gossip. One such practice is that of bending a coin over an ill person when donating to the shrine of Thomas Becket.[71] The miracula discusses this practice as if it were commonplace, and whilst it may have been in Canterbury, there is a lack of references in Osbern or other contemporary authors. Another tradition, created by a certain man from Exeter, saw him: boil eggs, cut them into quarters, write Thomas Becket’s name on them, and eat them.[72] It is no surprise that, though inventive, it did not gain traction.

What is particularly interesting, however, is how a monastic community may jostle over particular worshipping traditions and change their opinion over time. Benedict of Peterborough describes an odd practice known as “Canterbury Water” whereby pilgrims would drink a concoction that contained water and Thomas Becket’s blood. Benedict states that the monks were fearful to endorse such a practice as it was highly unusual, and almost perverse, to drink someone blood. Yet, over time the practice was allowed as it seemingly began to work miracles and Benedict writes, ‘‘O marvelous water’’, ‘‘that not only quenches the thirst of drinkers, but also extinguishes pain!”.[73] In fact, in the miracle collection of c.1172 produced by William of Canterbury, drinking this water is written as casual practice.[74] Thus, it can be argued that monastic communities conformed to the traditions developed and established by pilgrims which is fairly atypical when we consider that there is an abundance of contemporary material (such as the Rule of St Benedict) on the rulings of how certain people should pray and act in life.

Fundamentally, pilgrimage is far more in-depth than what may firstly appear. People did not merely travel to the local shrine to give offerings and ask for divine favours. Rather, pilgrims contained both the male and female; moral and amoral; the rich and the poor; and the lay and the ecclesiast. Whilst on one hand, pilgrimage was strict in legalities as kings, archbishops, and popes attempted to control and regulate aspects of worship and travel, it was also extremely fluid. Quite simply, pilgrimage was largely held in the palm of pilgrims themselves, and it was they who established and developed their journeys, traditions, and networks, all of which were based around belief and oral tradition. And though each shrine functioned and varied slightly differently – be it a royal patron, protector, or healer – these systems of belief meant that worshipers could transcend national borders, social class, political rivalries, and ethnic divisions. From the research largely conducted by Finucane, miracles are perhaps the most important source for understanding the composition and patterns of pilgrims across English and Northern French shrines. Through these vast collections, we can gain incredible statistics which can map the development of saint cults, understand the function of shrines through their devotees, and decode the complex topic of pilgrimage and gender disparity. In some ways, pilgrimage is one of the few areas whereby women had vast freedoms: they contributed a sizable proportion of total pilgrims; they had the ability to undertake pilgrimage at free will, both domestically and internationally; and they even dominated the worship of some shrines, such as Godric of Finchale and Frideswide of Oxford. Yet, as witnessed with the letter sent to the queen of England by the pope, there is a dark misogynistic undertone within pilgrimage that did limit women to access certain shrines such as that of St Cuthbert. Nevertheless, as shown by Finucane, as well as the material collected by Diana Webb, pilgrimage overturns the predisposed ‘Dark Age’ idea that medieval people did not travel or know much of the world around them. Instead, this documentation proves that the pathways and seas within Europe were bustling with travellers from all parts, and that England saw vast amounts of pilgrims from Northern France as well as the Low Countries via an interconnected monastic network.

There is, however, so much about pilgrimage that is untouched in this essay, and 6,000 words is nowhere near enough to fully represent the topic. One further aspect of study to support this essay would be the analysis of the archaeological evidence of pilgrim badges and other shrine souvenirs which can enable us to further map the distribution of pilgrims across England and the Continent.[75] Likewise, Benjamin Nilson’s theory of monetary donations can enable us to attempt to verify claims made by the authors of miracle collections and measure influxes of pilgrims within a shrine overtime.[76] Nevertheless, this study has highlighted how prominent and ingrained pilgrimage was within English and Northern French society, and though contemporary sources that solely discuss the topic may be limited, I believe the diversity of documents is only a signifier of how far and wide pilgrimage spanned and had a place amongst all areas of life and society.


[1] Bernard of Angers, The Book of Sainte Foy, trans. Robert Clark and Pamela Sheingorn, (Philadelphia, 1994), p.13 [2] Ibid, p.21 [3] Ibid. [4] Finucane, in his Miraclesand Pilgrims, analysed the English shrines of: William of Norwich, Thomas Becket, Godric of Finchale, Frideswide of Oxford, Wulfstan of Worcester, Simon de Monfort, and Thomas of Cantilupe. Of the Northern French shrines, Finucane analysed: Edmund Rich, and Louis of Toulouse. [5] Ronald C. Finucane, Miraclesand Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in MedievalEngland (Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), p.43 [6] Ibid, p.44 [7] Reginald of Durham, ‘CAP. LXIII’ in Reginaldi Monachi Dunelmensis Libellus de Admirandis Beati Cuthberti Virtutibus Quae Novellis Patratae Sunt Temporibus (Durham: Surtees Society, 2007) pp. 123-126 [8] Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2001), p.14 [9] ‘Penitential letters collected by Wulfstan, c.1000’ in Councils & Synods, with other Documents Relating to the English Church, ed. F.M. Powicke and C.R. Cheney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964-1981), pp.233-4 [10] Ibid. [11] Cartulario del ‘Sant Cugat’ del Valles, ed. J. Rius Serra, Vol 2 (Barcelona, 1945-47), n.582 [12] Rachel Koopman, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011), p.9 [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid. [15] John McNamara, “Problems in Contextualizing Oral Circulation of Early Medieval Saint’s Legends” in Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition, eds. Francesca Canade, Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Guiseppe Carlo Di Scipio (New York, 1998), p.21–36. [16] R.W Southern, Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought (Cambridge, 1963), p.278 [17] Rachel Koopman, Wonderful to Relate, p.17 [18] Ibid. [19] Brian Patrick McGuire, “Friends and Tales in the Cloister: Oral Sources in Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum.’’ Analecta Cisterciensia 36 (1980): p.244 [20] Rachel Koopman, Wonderful to Relate, p.17 [21] The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour: Analysis and Translation. Trans. Marcus Bull. (Woodbridge, 1999), p.34 [22] Rachel Koopman, Wonderful to Relate, p.15 [23] Ibid. [24] Ibid, p.14 [25] Ibid. [26] Ronald C. Finucane, Miraclesand Pilgrims, pp. 113-117 [27] Ibid, p.145 [28] Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles andPilgrims, pp. 123-26 [29] Ibid, p.126 [30] Ibid, p.164 [31] Ibid. [32] Ibid. [33] Ibid, p. 123 [34] Benjamin Nilson, Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England (Boydell Press, 1998), p.118 [35] Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims, pp. 161 [36] Rachel Koopman, Wonderful to Relate, p.113 [37] Ibid. [38] Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, p.226 [39] Ibid. [40] Calendars of Patent Rolls H III, 1, p.372 [41] Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, p.164 [42] Ibid. [43] Pierre-Andre Sigal, L’homme et le miracle dans la France medievale, XIe–XIIe siècle (Paris, 1985), pp.297-301 [44] Ronald C. Finucane, Miraclesand Pilgrims, pp. 138-139 [45] Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, p.19 [46] Ibid, p.26 [47] Ibid [48] Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles andPilgrims, pp. 161 [49] Ibid. [50] For the collection of miracles written by Herman and Goscelin, see Tom License, Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin: Miracles of St Edmund (Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, 2014). For the miracles collected by Osbert and Samson, see “Opus De Miraculis Sancti Aedmundi by Abbot Samson” in Memorials of St Edmund’s Abbey, Vol 1, ed. Thomas Arnold (Cambridge University Press: 2012). [51] Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims, p. 143 [52] Ibid, p.45 [53] Simon Yarrow, Saints and their Communities (OUP Oxford, 2006), p. 50-54 [54] “Opus De Miraculis Sancti Aedmundi by Abbot Samson” in Memorials of St Edmund’s Abbey, Vol 1, ed. Thomas Arnold (Cambridge University Press: 2012), p.121 [55] Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims, pp.126-127 [56] Ibid, pp. 116-117 [57] Ibid, pp.127-128 [58] Thomas Rymer, Foedera, Conventiones, Literae et cuiuscunque generis Acta Publica, Vol 1 ( London 1704-17), p.417 [59] William M. Aird, The Boundaries of Medieval Misogyny: Gendered Urban Space in Medieval Durham (Cardiff University, 2008), p.55 [60] Ronald C. Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims, p. 143 [61] Ibid. [62] Ibid. [63] Acta Sanctorum, October, vol. 1, ed. J. Ghesquiero (Antwerp,1765), pp. 5945. [64] Benjamin Nilson, Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England, pp.100-102 [65] Ibid. [66] Calendar of the Liberate Rolls (London, 191664), vol. 2, p. 306. [67] Thomas of Monmouth, Life of St William, pp. 1534. [68] Reginald of Durham, Libellus de Admirandis Beati Cuthberti, p. 134 [69] 'Cuius longitudo continebit ambitum siue circuitum dicte ville': 'Customary of the Shrine of St Thomas', Add. MS 59616, f. 9. [70] Benjamin Nilson, Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England, p.100 [71] Rachel Koopman, Wonderful to Relate, pp.34-35 [72] Ibid. [73] Ibid., p.35 [74] Ibid. [75] Archaeological analysis has been conducted by B. Spencer, in 'Medieval Pilgrim Badges', Rotterdam Papers, vol. 1 (1968), pp. 137, 139 as well as Spencer’s 'Pilgrim Souvenirs', in Medieval Waterfront Development, eds G. and C. Milne, London and Middlesex Archaeological Soc. Special Paper no. 5 (London, 1982), Equally, for literary evidence regarding shrine souvenirs, see the opening to the Tale of Beryn, pp.7-9. [76] Benjamin Nilson, in using the shrine accounts of Lincoln in 1335 as well as evidence of pilgrim donation culture, has developed a theory whereby one coin represents one pilgrim and thus ‘ball-park’ figures of pilgrims may be conducted using donation amounts. See: Benjamin Nilson, Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England, p.113-115


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