Mary Irvine: blogging about Pilgrimage



I recently attended a talk about the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela of which I may write later but it brought to mind a piece I wrote some time ago. It is taken from a much longer piece which I will revise for later use. In the meantime… Oh, for those of you who may claim Chaucer is too difficult to understand, just read it out loud and you’ll get the drift!

A bit of Chaucer

 Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath percèd to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye
 (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

 The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400)

The pilgrimage described by Chaucer is probably the best known of all pilgrimages and one that adheres to the definition of a journey of some distance to a place of veneration, seeking healing and transformation – in this case a Christian shrine. But pilgrimages existed long before Chaucer’s time, long before Christianity and many other world faiths came into existence.

Pilgrim’s Way

Pre-Christian peoples all had their special places. Sacred to them. Sacred in its meaning, a place worthy of esteem and respect.  The desire to see a place as having special significance and to which one feels a spiritual attraction is a characteristic shared by humans everywhere, regardless of culture or belief. An example of such is The Pilgrim’s Way, a recent name given to a route supposedly used by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Archeological finds suggest The Pilgrim’s Way is a track at least dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries BC. But it most likely pre-dates that period as it would appear to be part of a much longer, natural track which stretched from the South coast to Avebury and Stonehenge; both places of pilgrimage where people sought healing or spiritual comfort.

As with many aspects of beliefs existing in pre-Christian time the followers of the new belief (Christianity) subsumed the idea of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage took many forms in the Anglo-Saxon church: the journey through life itself, the journey through the Christian faith – the spiritual journey to heaven. Another subsummation was that of the so-called ‘heathen’ shrines. Churches were built on or near such places. Dates of regular attendance at these shrines, often associated with the seasons or the movements of the heavenly bodies, were retained and given Christian significance. This was no accident but a directive from Pope Gregory 1 to his missionaries.


In this way the affinity felt for certain places where people communed with the land would take on Christian significances. Relationship with place is fundamental to the magnetism of a place of pilgrimage, Iona being the quintessential example.

The original purpose of Christian pilgrimage was to seek God’s help. Christians traditionally went to places with some connection to Christ or one of his followers. The idea of leaving home and family behind, taking little, if anything with them, permeates and pre-dates many beliefs.

Not only Christianity but other faiths include pilgrimage as part of their spiritual witness. As Christians journey to the Holy Land, the Muslims travel to Mecca, the Jews to Jerusalem, as did Jesus and his family. It is a matter of record that not all pilgrimages have been made for peaceful reasons. In the 12th and 13th centuries the Church invoked Crusades against the Muslims and many were killed in fighting for the possession of places sacred to both. It was during this time that more accessible and safer places nearer home became popular in Britain. For the wealthy there was always St Peter’s in Rome which claimed to be the burial place of the disciple, Simon Peter. For the poor there were home-spun shrines. This popularity waned during the Reformation as superstition and abuses grew up around the shrines, although the idea of making a journey of spiritual transformation has remained a commanding tenet of many sects of Christianity.

Pilgrimage again gained favour in more recent times, with an emphasis on the peace and tranquillity of a place. Not a holiday as such but a place of contemplation and spiritual refreshment.

“The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation – to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.”*

*The Art of Pilgrimage Phil Cousineau Conari Press 1998

First sentence in Forward by Huston Smith

Mary Irvine, November, 2016

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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