Medieval and Modern Pilgrimage

Miniature of a solemn benediction of attributes of the pilgirm. Photo: Bibliothèque municipale Lyon

The modern taste for souvenirs is strikingly close to the collecting instincts of Christian pilgrims. Auctions of belongings of famous movie stars, the pilgrimage status of the tomb of Elvys Presly, the football shoes of the legendary Pele or a simple talisman share the same feelings and beliefs. Christian martyrs were the first saints and source of relics. The idea that the bodies of these saints were infused with spiritual power did become common sense in the course of the following centuries.

The idea that even the smallest parts of the holy body or relics retained the entirety of the saint’s power was an analogy with the body of Christ, symbolized in the conception of the Eucharist. The bread and wine contained the real presence of God. Even the veneration of living saints was on the rise in the four and fifth centuries. The most famous of all was Symeon the Stylite, who lived for forty years on a high pillar (even on one leg). The most important European pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages were the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome, the grave of St. James in Santiago de Compostela and the grave of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

A veritable pilgrimage fever broke out In the late Middle Ages , which eventually led to the reform movement of Luther at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Christianity is not the cause of the veneration of relics however. Atheistic ideologies of the twentieth century created their own martyrs and relics and were in fact religions themselves. Each society and ideology creates its relics. The Middle Ages are also from this perspective very human and truly European after all. (Source: A. Angenendt, ‘Relics and Their Veneration’, in M. Bagnoli a.o. (Eds.),Treasures from Heaven. Saints, Relics and devotion in medieval Europe (London 2011).