03.04.08, Morris, Roberts, eds., Pilgrimage; Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage

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Lutz Kaelber

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.008


Morris, Colin, Peter Roberts, eds.. Webb, Diana. Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan. Medieval European Pilgrimage, c.700-c.1500. Series: European Culture and Society. Cambridge UK: New York: Cambridge University Press, Palgrave, 2002. 2002. Pp. xvi, 268. Pp. xvii, 201. ISBN: 0-521-80811-1.
ISBN: $21.95.
ISBN: 0-333-76260-6.

Reviewed by:
Lutz Kaelber
University of Vermont

Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan begins on a promising note. As stated in the short summary in the front of the book, religious journeys are to be discussed, among other things, "in light of the 'liminality' of pilgrimage." Liminality in this context, readers familiar with the literature will know, refers to Victor Turner's notion that pilgrimage is one of those "liminal" activities by which people transcend everyday life. They enter into a new field of experience in which they find an egalitarian type of communitas. Critics such as social anthropologists John Eade and Michael Sallnow and medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum have raised doubt whether Turner's approach was useful by questioning the notion that pilgrimage was indeed a sharp break from everyday life. Alternatively, they have attempted to go beyond accepting accounts about the pilgrims' experiences by deconstructing pilgrimage from within as a realm of competing discourses.[[1]] Even though it does not address the issue of liminality throughout, by pointing to multiple meanings associated with pilgrimage and raising the issue of its mundaneness in many of the contributions, Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan delivers on its promise. It takes us through a variety of pilgrimage settings, and each chapter contributes significantly to existing historical scholarship.

Nicholas Vincent shows in the expertly argued opening chapter on the Angevin kings that royal pilgrimage in England appears not to have been liminal, communitarian, or of a status-leveling nature. The royal itinerary consisted of abundant journeying from one dominion to the next, or, as he puts it, a "near ceaseless round of campaigning, hunting expeditions, crown-wearings, solemn entries and local visitations" (15). It was thus difficult in this context to distinguish religious travel for pious purposes from other but related types of travel, such as for political or recreational purposes.[[2]] Royal pilgrimages were orchestrated carefully so as not to level the distinction between the king's exalted status and that of his mundane subjects; they could include sumptuous banquets next to the more humbling features of a pilgrimage; and they involved neither penitential pilgrimages nor a salient role for the voluntary pilgrim's vow and his insignia of scrip and staff. Pilgrimage, instead, presented an opportunity for the Angevin kings to serve as intermediaries between the profane and the sacred on their visits to shrines and churches, and in this and other, political functions they themselves could become the object of a (religious or secular) sort of pilgrimage.

The two next chapters focus on the physical and visual aspects of English pilgrimage. Richard Gameson writes about the visual appropriation of Thomas Becket as a martyr saint. He describes the imagery of sainthood in the distribution of objects such as saints' badges and examines what he terms the internal and external iconography of saints. Internal iconography pertains the depiction of the saint himself, whereas external iconography deals with the ways in which the saint is depicted in a broader setting. He makes it clear that the sheer quantity of images of Becket had important repercussions for his cult, and that the depiction of his sainthood can not be divorced from the ecclesiastical and political purposes such depiction served. In a fairly technical chapter on the architecture of Canterbury and other pilgrimage shrines, Tim Tatton-Brown complements the preceding chapter by thematizing the physical environments of pilgrimage loci.

Carole Rawcliffe, in her chapter "Curing bodies and healing souls," returns to the issue of liminality. She notes that the relative lack of knowledge about illness and medical intervention in the Middle Ages left the sick in a state that resembled liminality, and, in an interesting twist on the concept, views pilgrimage (in East Anglia) as a means for overcoming rather than bringing about a liminal state. Since sin was seen as a cause of sickness, pilgrims drew on the numinous powers of saints and shrines to infuse their bodies with healing grace.

The remaining contributions in the book take the reader into the early modern period, or its advent. Colin Morris, drawing on pilgrimage narratives, addresses the expensive and onerous religious journey to Jerusalem. He traces the vagaries of travel to that destination over the centuries and concludes his chapter with an exploration of late medieval developments, such as the creation of what he aptly terms "spiritual theme parks" (such as the Sacri Monti in Italy, 154) and the emergence of non-physical, inward spiritual pilgrimage.

In his inquiries into the dynamics of local pilgrimage, Eamon Duffy further questions the usefulness of the notion of liminality in pilgrimage. He shows that, among other things, penitential pilgrims were symbolically and materially placed outside the confines of communitas, and the institution of surrogate pilgrimage further obfuscated the notion of pilgrimage as a set-apart, transcending event.

Analyzing the pilgrimage of grace, Michael Bush shows that boundaries between religious and political pilgrimages could sometimes be blurry. He argues that the pilgrimage of grace was a predominantly political event, as an uprising from below, whose religious elements were secondary to the reactionary political goals it represented.

Peter Roberts retraces the ecclesiastical and political politics toward the cult of Thomas Becket, focusing mainly but not exclusively on the 1530s, whereas N. H. Keeble, in the book's last chapter, delineates the transformation in the Reformation from an emphasis on the physicality in pilgrimage to a spiritual one. In this process, he shows, the spiritualization of pilgrimage incorporated ascetic ideals and practices, therefore bringing what previously were considered liminal practices down to the level of mundane actions of faith. He concludes with a reference to a perception present in the writings of John Bunyan and New England poet Anne Dudley Bradstreet, in which the destination of pilgrimage "is not a particular, geographical location" but "rather an imaginative terrain, the landscape of an idea, the image of a spiritual conviction" (250). This notion placed the Puritan pilgrim of the early modern period in a state of permanent ascetic liminality.^Ă—The short introduction by editors rounds out the book. In sum, this is a wonderful piece of scholarship, and there is much to be learned by reading it.

Even though it makes reference to English pilgrimage, Diana Webb's Medieval European Pilgrimage has a different focus and audience. Webb has published extensively on the subject of pilgrimage before, including a recent book on English pilgrimage [[3]], and ranks among the foremost experts on the subject. As is the case with Webb's other writings, scholars can benefit greatly from reading this succinct yet comprehensive treatment, which includes the history and geography of medieval pilgrims, the motives and varieties of pilgrims, and pilgrimage as part of a wider culture. The book succeeds admirably in covering these topics. I was particularly impressed with her attention to the links between social class and pilgrimage, which received little attention before, and her description of the logistics of religious journeys. I would not hesitate to recommend it as a replacement of older accounts of medieval pilgrimage such as Jonathan Sumption's.[[4]]

But I wish to discuss a little further the extent to which her book is appropriate for its intended audience. Webb states that the book is written for students (vi). Yet right from the beginning, when reading the introductory section, I began to develop doubts whether Medieval European Pilgrimage does enough to "draw in" students, unless by students the author means graduate students. The introduction, as the rest of the book, is precisely if a bit dryly written but provides few sustained narratives or other personal accounts that nowadays seem to be popular among the intended target audience. Moreover, to reach students it is important to structure the writing appropriately, but at least for my taste there are too few headings in some parts of the book and too many references in the text to earlier or later sections to make this book as accessible to students as it could and should be. It is fortunate that Diana Webb provides a solution to this problem herself: her Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West [[5]] is a wonderful book that weds chronologically and thematically organized original sources in translation with concise essays that introduce the texts. That book might be better suited for student use.

Notes [[1]] For further discussion, see my "The Sociology of Medieval Pilgrimage: Contested Views and Shifting Boundaries," in William H. Swatos, Jr., and Luigi Tomasi, edd., From Medieval Pilgrimage to Religious Tourism: The Social and Cultural Economics of Piety (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 51-74.

[[2]] On this concept, see, e.g., Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims, 4th ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998). Not everyone will agree with this author's political views.

[[3]] Diana Webb, Pilgrimage in Medieval England (London: Hambledon and London, 2000).

[[4]] Jonathan Sumption, Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

[[5]] Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West (London and New York: Tauris, 1999).

Article Details

Author Biography

Lutz Kaelber

University of Vermont