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13.06.03, Whalen, ed., Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages

13.06.03, Whalen, ed., Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages

Like other anthologies in the series, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures, Brett Whalen's volume on medieval pilgrimage is an ample and wide-ranging collection. Defining his topic broadly as "any sort of travel...made at least in part for...religious devotion" (xi), Whalen assembles more than eighty excerpts representing diverse genres from the earliest days of Christianity through the sixteenth century. Beyond the idea and practice of religious pilgrimage, recurring topics include the circumstances and experience of travel; the nature of travel narratives; miracle tales; the promotion of shrines, relics and saints' cults; critiques of these religious practices; and the transcendent meaning of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem to Christian pilgrims. The collection's geographic scope does justice to its subject, but Whalen often returns to Jerusalem to explore the place of pilgrimage and pilgrimage shrines in the relationships among Jews, Christians and Muslims and to highlight their competing claims to the biblical heritage of the Holy Land.

The collection is organized chronologically in eight sections that naturally foreground different themes. The first chapter, "The Origins of Christian Pilgrimage," sets the stage by stressing the centrality and contested character of Jerusalem and framing writings on Christian pilgrimage and shrines with non-Christian texts. Brief excerpts from Pausanias' Guide to Greece introduce commonplaces of texts throughout the volume: the description of art works, sacred objects, rituals and curiosities at shrines; the richness of popular tales and traditions; the use of stories and records of cures to validate the shrine's power; and the skeptical responses of different audiences. Passages from Josephus and the Old and New Testaments establish Jewish and biblical roots for ideas that justify pilgrimage and the sanctity of places. Most of the remaining texts center on the transformation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land into a place of Christian pilgrimage, through the Constantinian building programs, the discovery of the True Cross, the activities of St. Jerome, and the pilgrimages of devout women from western Europe. The emphasis is decidedly on biblical sites and martyrs' shrines; surprisingly, the desert saints do not merit a detour--one thinks, for example, of visits to Antony or Simeon Stylites or the sanctification of places associated with such ascetics.

The second and third chapters deal respectively with western Europe and the Holy Land in the early Middle Ages. Bookended by selections from the Liber Pontificalis, the examples from the early medieval West extend geographically and chronologically from early Christian Rome across Merovingian Gaul and the Carolingian Empire to St. Brendan's fabulous adventures on the western ocean. The texts are equally diverse, ranging from Irish penitentials and Carolingian capitularies to chronicles and letters. Together, they make plain how pilgrimage and associated religious practices permeated early medieval culture, society and politics. The geographic movements nicely underscore a central theme of the section: the travels of relics and the tension between pilgrimages to central places and the rise of local shrines. Best exemplified perhaps by Einhard's famous account of the translation of the relics of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, the theme also arises in stories like that told by Gregory of Tours of the man healed by the holy hermit, Hospicius, while accompanying a deacon to gather holy relics from Rome. The selection from Einhard illustrates other topics in this section too: the making of a shrine and the abuses that gave rise to the critiques represented here by figures like St. Boniface or Claudius of Turin.

In the third chapter, the accounts of pilgrimages and journeys by Christians and Muslims from the seventh to the eleventh century center upon Jerusalem and the Holy Land. From Bishop Arculf's painstaking description of the holy places and their lore, recorded by Adamnan of Iona, to the journey of Nasir-i-Khusrau from the eastern edge of the Islamic world, these narratives converge upon Jerusalem from the ends of the earth. The comings and goings of travellers, the impact and infrastructure of pilgrimage, and the notices of shrines and relics at sites along the way--from Constantinople, Damascus and Alexandria in the East to Monte Gargano, Montecassino and Mont St-Michel in the West--chart an emerging geography of pilgrimage from the Atlantic across the Near East. Jerusalem's centrality in this network--and in the cultural and religious imagination that sustained it--is underscored by representative versions of Muhammad's night journey and Charlemagne's legendary expedition, and by repeated references to the holy city's eschatological significance for Christians and Muslims.

Building on this foundation, the fourth and fifth chapters draw the reader back to Jerusalem, first, with the increasing popularity of the cult of relics and pilgrimages in the eleventh century and the frenzy stirred by tales of the desecration of the Holy Sepulchre; then, with the age of the Crusades. The fourth chapter opens with strikingly vivid and lively reports of the peace assemblies at the turn of the millennium, the liberation of a bound penitential pilgrim at Toul, and the miracles of Sainte-Foy--one of the most ample selections in the volume, from Pamela Sheingorn's translation of Bernard of Angers' Book of Sainte-Foy's Miracles. The popular religious fervor that bursts through these texts was channeled--as the selection and arrangement of readings suggest--into millennial fears, fierce persecution of the Jews, and an explosion of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, characterized by notably demonstrative and emotive expressions of piety.

The fifth chapter ("Pilgrimage and Holy War") explores the Crusades as "a special kind of medieval pilgrimage" (183). There is a short account from The Deeds of the Franks of the conquest of Jerusalem on the First Crusade, but most selections investigate the ramifications of the crusades for pilgrims and the cult of relics. The burgeoning and increasingly diverse pilgrimage traffic is represented by the visits of the English pilgrim, Saewulf, and the Russian abbot, Daniel, and there are accounts of new relics reaching the West and the gifts of crusaders to shrines in their homelands. The longest selection is the history of the discovery of the tombs of the patriarchs at Hebron, a piece which gives insights into the Christian appropriation of sites of importance to Muslims and Jews, and the rivalries between Latin and Greek Christians.

The sixth chapter ("Pilgrimage and Medieval Society") offers twelfth- and thirteenth-century cameos of the heyday of pilgrimage in western Europe. Major sites and shrines--Rome, Compostela, Canterbury, Vezelay and St. Denis--come into view and passages from the Pilgrim's Guide of the Liber Sancti Iacobi give teasing glimpses of other popular sites on the roads to Compostela. With their diversity, these texts weave a tapestry of the pilgrim's experience: the solemnities surrounding the pilgrim's departure, the perils of a fearsome journey, the oppressive crowds and astonishing miracles at the shrines, and the legends and travellers' tales that brought to life the ancient monuments pilgrims encountered at their destinations. Excerpts from Guibert of Nogent's well-known critique of the abuses of the cults of saints and relics and selected exempla from James of Vitry and Caesarius of Heisterbach illustrate the efforts of theologians and preachers to fit these devotional practices into a larger religious ideology. The dark side of this surfaces in the final selection describing the desecration of a host by a Jew, the ensuing miracles, the burning of the Jew and his holy books, and the construction of a chapel to commemorate the events. Overall, this engaging ensemble left this reader wishing for more and wondering whether the collection dedicated too much space and detail to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

The last two chapters are mainly devoted to the later Middle Ages. Chapter seven ("Pilgrimage and the Wider World") presents a wider variety of travel literature within which descriptions of shrines, a fascination with relics, and the shared experiences of pilgrims and other travellers link these journeys to those that might be more narrowly construed as religious pilgrimages. Jews, Muslims and Christians--from East and West--are represented. The travels of Benjamin of Tudela, Rabban Bar Sauma, Ibn Battuta and Ruy González de Clavijo crisscross a world with rapidly expanding horizons and long-distance exchanges spurred by commerce, conquest, diplomacy, piety and intellectual exploration. These remarkable accounts sweep the reader from the deserts of Mali to the Mongol realms, but, paradoxically, the sources seem less varied and the sheer weight of description is sometimes overwhelming. Instructors might also encourage students to tease out--and question--the implicit narrative that arises from the organization of the sections: true, these texts chart a world drawn ever-closer by long-distance travel, but are readers also led to see a linear movement from religious travel towards the voyages of a more secular age?

Certainly, the advent of a more secular world is suggested in the final chapter ("Pilgrimage and Piety in the Late Middle Ages") with the biting portraits of pilgrims from Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales and the neatly paired pieces from Thomas More and Martin Luther. The longest selections, however, take readers, again, to Jerusalem, even in the excerpts from writers, like Margery Kempe or Arnold von Harff, who travelled more widely. And, the final text--an absorbing account of a pageant staged by the Tlaxcaltecas of Mexico and depicting a fanciful Christian conquest of Jerusalem--sweeps us across the Atlantic only to underscore the tight grip of Jerusalem on the religious imagination, and on this collection. Although Whalen's introductory remarks (323) allude to the changing circumstances and new forms of religious expression of the late medieval and early modern periods, the choice of texts more obviously stresses continuities in the practice of pilgrimage--with the exception perhaps of the rise of indulgences. Here, too, more emphasis on local shrines and newer religious practices might have been welcome.

Overall, the volume supplies an invaluable teaching tool which--like others in the series--is ample and diverse enough to be deployed effectively in many types of courses. Study questions after each selection primarily encourage close reading and a search within the texts for answers, with some opportunities for speculative imagination and comparisons of different sources. The volume does share the limitations of others in the series: explanatory notes of any sort are scant and some older translations--though revised--may seem especially ponderous in an age of tweets and texting. More to the point, the range of translating styles creates a strange overlay in which sensitive readers may discern differences and contrasts that have little to do with the original qualities of the texts, either individually or as representatives of larger genres. This is compounded by the surprising lack of commentary--even within the limited scope of the short introductions to each selection--on the nature of the sources themselves or the contexts in which they were written, preserved, circulated and read. Intriguing texts, like that of the journey of the monk, Bernard, to Jerusalem in 867, the "fragment" describing an English monk's visit to Constantinople around 1090, or The History of Mar Yaballaha III, appear in something of a vacuum. Students' appreciation of these sources, the questions they ask of them, and their understanding of how the creation of literary and artistic forms derived from and contributed to the practice of pilgrimage would certainly be enriched by greater attention to their histories and the larger families of texts to which they belong. That, however, will fall to the instructor to provide.