The Holy Land, the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome, those of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain and St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury were great centres of medieval pilgrimage. A pilgrim was easily identified by the way he dressed. He wore a rough grey gown and wide- brimmed hat. In his hand he carried a staff and over his shoulder a scrip and bottle containing basic provisions. At each shrine the pilgrim would collect a badge in memory of his visit. That of Compostela was a scallop shell, while the badge of Thomas a Becket bore the saint’s likeness.

Pilgrimages to far-flung holy places were not possible for everyone, however, and were undertaken only by the very devout or those seriously expiating their sins. Shrines of local reputation were important, attracting all kinds of people. The group described by Chaucer, making the relatively short journey from London to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, included a miller, a summoner, a clerk, a yeoman, a merchant, a knight, a monk and a friar. The word pilgrim reflects the notion that the travellers devotional journey has taken him out of his own neighbourhood or country. It comes from Latin peregnnus, meaning ‘stranger, foreigner’, and found its way into Middle English by way of Old French peligrin around the turn of the thirteenth century. Peregnnus itself was derived from Latin pereger which meant ‘on a journey, travelling through a (foreign) land’, being composed of per, ‘through’, and ager,‘land, country’. In English, therefore, pilgrim first meant ‘traveller, wayfarer’ but its particular, and enduring, application to ‘a person on a devotional journey’ quickly followed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top