03.02.04, Dyas, Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature

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Cynthia Ho

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.004


Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700-1500. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. vii, 288. ISBN: 0-85991-623-5.

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Ho
University North Carolina at Asheville

Pilgrims and pilgrimage are an integral part of Middle English literature. And ironically, because this subject matter is so pervasive and well-known, readers may overlook or underestimate the complex meanings inherent in the origins and application of the motif. The project of this book is, first, to identify the multivalent meanings of pilgrimage and second, to re-read canonical texts of Old and Middle English with this fuller awareness of the contested nature of pilgrimage.

For Christians in the fourth century the term "pilgrimage" came to refer to a journey with a particular religious goal; the pilgrim is someone who is taking either a literal, physical trip or having a lifelong spiritual experience. Thus, "Journeys involve new surroundings but also new levels of understanding" (2). This in a nutshell is the thesis of the book, that from the beginning of the Christian church, pilgrimage was a mosaic of ideas combined in sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting ways. Dyas demonstrates that the potential friction between physical and spiritual pilgrimage in the fourth century is still being played out in fifteenth-century English religious texts.

The first part of the book examines four elements that provided the foundation for early understandings of pilgrimage: the theology and practice of pilgrimage in the Old Testament, the emphasis on the pilgrimage of life revealed in the New Testament, the influence of pagan religion, and the debates within the early church prompted by the rapid growth of the cult of saints and the development of holy places.

Adam's expulsion from paradise creates the first great pilgrimage paradigm: Life is exile, salvation is a journey, and Adam is the first pilgrim. The lives of Abraham and Moses then refine this idea by introducing "a multivalent idea of the wilderness: potential paradise, place of testing, experience of bliss and place of contemplation" (22). Dyas returns repeatedly to the idea of Adam and the importance of his pilgrim status in the creation of the ideals of Christian pilgrimage. In the New Testament the idea of journey to the heavenly home is added to the pilgrimage of life. Here, Jesus is the pilgrim-stranger who personifies the transience of this present world. While Jerusalem is important in the New Testament story, it is the Roman image of the city which introduces two enduring additions to pilgrimage: the pilgrim as a citizen of a distant, greater homeland and (later) the physical city or place as a site of journey.

In the early church, the Adamic model is fulfilled in the life of the monk whose spiritual journey takes place in his cell, his metaphoric desert. At the same time, interest grows in holy places when Constantine in 312 begins reclaiming sites. Here begins the second great motif Dyas investigates throughout this book: the oscillation between an emphasis on the omnipresence of God and the belief that visiting special places would result in special blessings. Formerly, Jerusalem as a sacred place had little allure for Christians because of its "fallen" status, and early visitors to Palestine were scholars more than pilgrims. But Constantine and his mother Helen changed all that with their work establishing the cult of martyrs and recovering holy sites. Places become important because of their connections first with martyrs and later with other kinds of saints. When tombs were recognized as points where heaven and earth intersected, the race for relics began because they too were channels of holiness.

At this point, the argument is very clear, methodically organized and well signposted. The book continues in this manner, providing a cleanly and carefully argued analysis. It appears that each subsequent chapter is designed potentially to be read alone, because each begins with one or more reiterations of the argument that preceded. For the attentive reader, it can become repetitious, but reiteration has its uses. For the second part, Dyas takes these two strands of early Christian practice which she has identified -- spiritual and place pilgrimage -- and shows how they are played out in pilgrimage images in Old English literature. She argues that these multi-faceted views of pilgrimage in Old English poetry are so ubiquitous they are "the key undergirding image of Christian poetry and prose in the period from the Conversion to the Norman Conquest" (68). The cluster of goals in Old English literature which reflect the New Testament sense of pilgrimage include the following: recognizing that mankind is in a state of spiritual exile (earth is only a temporary rest), committing to live as one seeking a different goal, and embarking upon life pilgrimage to adopt the view that earthly pleasures and achievements are transitory.

However, "life pilgrimage" coexists in Old English Literature with the belief in "place pilgrimage." The Celtic and Roman churches share some common beliefs about pilgrimage, but the Irish valued wandering, stressing the value of exile for its own sake. In contrast, the Romans placed greater emphasis on journeying to specific destinations for specific reasons. Dyas uses this foundation to reread two Old English texts, The Wanderer and The Seafarer, both of which are personal accounts of a lonely exile in search of the security of the heavenly homeland. In them she sees "the creative interaction between secular and spiritual understandings of exile, the nature of security and the priorities which human beings should observe as they navigate the trials of this world" (105). The differences in the two are that the Wanderer is an involuntary exile whereas The Seafarer provides encouragement for those who have already chosen God's path of self sacrifice. The Wanderer's ubi sunt, his consideration of the transience of life, represents a "horizontal exile" which shifts perspective and becomes vertical as he searches for the comforts of heaven. Dyas builds her reading of The Seafarer by studying the Book of Exodus for spiritual reflection and submission.

Part III then turns to applying the early Christian and Anglo-Saxon backgrounds to reading canonical Middle English texts, most especially Piers Plowman and the Canterbury Tales. Dyas' main concern is to show that the tensions and contradictions apparent in the use of the pilgrimage motif in Middle English literature is not only attributable to the idiosyncrasy of the authors. Rather, they reflect two kinds of tensions: those inherent contradictions between life and place pilgrimage, and the religious controversies concerning pilgrimage of place. Place pilgrimage, given a legitimate place in Christian practice by Constantine, had a further boost with the introduction of indulgences in 1095. Dyas convincingly demonstrates that on the eve of the Reformation, popularity of place pilgrimage remained strong even while attacks on the practice were widespread. Lollards were not the only ones opposed to pilgrimage, and in fact its critics were a diverse group. By the Middle Ages, the two most common complaints were that there was no merit in so-called holy places and that traveling to shrines was a misuse of energy and resources. Most English journeyed to nearby shrines and chose pilgrimage sites for a number of reasons.

Dyas applies this plethora of information to a reading of Piers Plowman which is a natural choice since the whole poem is structured around the pilgrimage of life, a concept to which Langland demonstrates a deep commitment. "Wandrynge" in line 20 sets the tone for this discussion, because Langland sees it as a negative enterprise, an indication of mankind's sinfulness and lack of productive effort William, a lost sheep, only has his visions when he ceases to wander. The many false starts are read as part of this life story, and if Will's quest remains unfinished it is because it cannot be otherwise while he remains in this imperfect world. Langland's point is that "Life pilgrimage could be expressed in terms of playing one's ordained role in social as well as in moral living. In addition, human sin not only caused physical exile from the Garden of Eden but also spiritual separation from God. We are journeying back to God" (148). The motif of pilgrimage in Piers provides a thread of spiritual consistency, signals the desire to return to God, and allows the Dreamer to transform aimless wandering into purposeful pilgrimage. The text is created from layers of pilgrimage laid upon each other, but clearly Langland condemns one kind, place pilgrimage. For Dyas, the crucial moment of t of the concept of life pilgrimage are set alongside each other.

The central place of pilgrimage in Piers Plowman is then compared with The Canterbury Tales where pilgrim identity is also paramount. Dyas argues that while Langland opposes place pilgrimage in favor of life journey, Chaucer offers a third way, which merges the two concepts. Dyas argues against the common reading that sees e Canterbury pilgrimage as a liminal experience because "the interaction of the pilgrims on the journey to Canterbury can be seen to function as a revelation of the true state of their daily pilgrimage through life" (176). Dyas also counters Donald Howard's well accepted opinion that literary and actual pilgrimages were a one way affair. Homecoming was in fact an important element of the pilgrimage which saw the reintegration of the pilgrim. Reading the role of the Parson's Tale is central to Dyas' understanding of the entire Canterbury Tales collection. The Parson is preaching true repentance which involves sorrow for sin and a determination to avoid it in the future. And his message is quite clear: Christians traveling through the wilderness of this world towards the heavenly city stray from the right road by succumbing to the seven deadly sins.

After applying background information to these two canonical texts, Dyas offers a third possibility for pilgrimage, the "inner journey," which is a withdrawal from the world to travel inwardly. Taking the stability offered by monasticism to an extreme "Peregrinatio in stabilitate" opens new avenues for medieval mystics. According to Bernard of Clairvaux, the cloister itself prefigures the heavenly Jerusalem and Monkhood is a journey of the heart while the body remains stable. Enclosure is a journey as well, a voluntary and spiritual exile. The Ancrene Wiss explicitly links resistance to the Seven Deadly Sins with the idea of the pilgrimage through life. Mysticism then becomes a "fuller" expression of the interior journey and often justifies itself by claiming that place pilgrimage is easier. The desire to meet with God is the primary purpose of the mystical experience, and along the way, the mystic journeys to the interior Jerusalem or heaven.

The Booke of Margery Kempe is then offered as an interesting example of a fully integrated insider view of the pilgrim. Dyas argues that despite the lack of order in Margery's story she is an important pilgrimage figure because she refuses to recognize boundaries and she displays a surprising degree of spiritual integration. Many critics have noted that Margery clearly constructs her "creature" from all the available spiritual models she could. Thus, what might seem a montage is actually, in this reading, a unique combination of interior, moral, and place pilgrimage. Margery cannot choose only one model, but integrates what many would consider the irreconcilable. Though totally committed to place pilgrimage, Margery does not consider her relationship with God to be dependent on it -- it enhances her spiritual journey. One final chapter, on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, revisits the texts already discussed but highlights the appearances of the city in real and allegorical form. This is the least interesting of the chapters, for the attentive reader will have already made the synthesis that she offers here.

Dee Dyas is Director of the Christianity and Culture Project at York University and is also the author of Images of Faith in English Literature, 700-1550. This book clearly reflects her interest in clarifying important issues of belief and practice. The book serves a useful purpose by gathering together a wide sweep of representations of pilgrimage and locating important canonical texts with the tradition. She succeeds in showing the idea of pilgrimage as a series of concentric or interlocking circles holding together moral, interior and place pilgrimage within the overarching image of the pilgrimage of life.

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Author Biography

Cynthia Ho

University North Carolina at Asheville