Decoding Medieval Pilgrimage: Motivations Behind The Journey


Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy

Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy

Bernard of Angers’ Investigation

In his ‘Liber Miraculorum Sancte Fidis’, 11th century churchman and sceptic, Bernard of Angers reported hearing of strange miracles, and an even stranger saint located in the region of Languedoc. As such, in c.1013, Bernard decided to undertake an investigation and pilgrimage to the shrine of Sainte Foi, also known as Saint Faith, to find the truth behind certain miracles and those who worship the saint. Bernard’s scepticism for saints is demonstrated when he passes through Aurillac and comes upon the shrine and statue of Saint Gerald, resplendent in gold. Unimpressed by the shrine, Bernard believes the practice of saint worship is “perverse and most contrary to Christian law” and that the holy cross was the only true image of Christian worship. Despite this idolatry, he continued to the shrine of Saint Faith at Conque where he discovered the golden girl. The reliquary, which still survives to the present day, shows a golden gilded Saint Faith, enthroned, and encrusted with jewels and gems which reportedly glistened in the sunlight. Bernard mocked the false idol and compared it to the golden bull featured in the Hebrew Bible.

Transformation Through Encounter

Bernard, however, would soon become enthralled in the shrine and captivated by its cult as he began to encounter and familiarise himself with Saint Faith’s pilgrims, and those who had experienced her miracles. Bernard provides us with a remarkable description which encapsulates the incredible importance and connection between saint and pilgrim. He learnt that far from idolatry, the relic and remains of the young girl connected heaven to earth; that the beauty of the statue reflected the glory of heaven and allowed the everyday person to focus their prayer and access divinity. Bernard even goes as far as to state that the shrine and saint were more precious to the local region than the Arc of the Covenant was to the Israelites. This story, and the description of saint worship provided by Bernard, perfectly encapsulates the focal point of this article: decoding pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.

Diverse Motivations for Pilgrimage

The term ‘pilgrim’ encapsulates far more than simply someone who wanted to express their piety and faith. The wide range of motives behind undertaking a pilgrimage were highly varied. Some people visited shrines in anti-royalist protest and opposition to kings by honouring their enemies. Especially when the saint was killed through royal command the cult emerged a rebellious undertone and focus. This is particularly witnessed within the cults of Thomas of Lancaster and Simon De Montfort, especially since royal authority sought to prohibit and control these cults to reduce anti-royalist sentiment and protest. Another, rather amoral motive for pilgrimage, was to rob the shrine of its donations. Shrines were, without a doubt, fairly rich and thus were a target for those seeking to make some money. The miracles of St Cuthbert provide a multitude of examples of thieves stealing books, coins, and other offerings. One such instance is of a certain man, who sought to steal from the shrine by deceptively kissing the tomb and swallowing four or five coins whilst doing so. This idea of stealing coins through this manner is seemingly common and is written in many other miracle collections.

Pilgrimage as Penance

These motivations for pilgrimage, however, were a small proportion of the wider scope. Ultimately, pilgrimage was undertaken for one of two predominant reasons. The first was to undertake penance and absolution for sins or crimes committed. Pilgrimage as a form of penance could be undertaken as a voluntary act of devotion, but more often it was imposed by an ecclesiastical authority. Whilst many pilgrims today venture to Santiago to receive their Compostela, this certificate finds its origins as proof of identification for criminals to prove their pilgrimage to authorities.

Fresco of Saint Columbanus in Brugnato Cathedral

Fresco of Saint Columbanus in Brugnato Cathedral

Ecclesiastical Imposed Penance

Particularly in the Celtic church was there a set of penalties which detailed conditions of pilgrimage to match certain crimes or sins. The Penitential of Columban, for example, prescribed a seven-year pilgrimage for a clerk who begot a child, whilst theft, on the other hand, only entailed a pilgrimage of three years. Penitential letters collected in the eleventh century provide an incredible insight into individuals who undertook such penance pilgrimages. One such example is a letter to Lupus, bishop of London, in the early eleventh century, whereby a certain man “deceived by diabolical fraud” begged for mercy and requested penance as punishment. What is particularly notable about this letter is that certain conditions are outlined for his penance to ensure suffering is endured, and absolution is achieved. The idea of an ecclesiastical authority outlining conditions was common amongst criminals, and the conditions for this fraudulent man included:

“On the second, fourth and sixth days [of the week] he shall fast on bread and water, he shall enter the church on the Nativity of the Lord and Easter, he shall eat flesh on Sundays and major feast days. On the three days on which he abstains from flesh, he is to wear woollen clothing and go barefoot, he shall not give peace, he shall not cut his hair except three times in the year, he shall not communicate unless he comes to the point of death.”

Self-Imposed Penance

There are instances, however, of self-imposed penance pilgrimages. Typically, these were undertaken by clergy and priests who sought to cleanse themselves of their sins. Furthermore, following the self-imposed nature of the pilgrimage, the itinerary of the journey was equally self-determined. Wills and other agreements made by departing pilgrims provide a notable insight into those who sought to undertake a journey of their own accord. The following is taken from an Iberian cartulary and involves Remundo, an eleventh-century priest, who declares the following:

“I acknowledge that I am weak and a sinner and because of the horrible sins which I have committed, I fear the pains of eternal judgement; however, not despairing of the mercy of Christ, I desire to attain the joys of Paradise. I want therefore to go to the shrine of the blessed apostle James…”

Faith, Healing, and Divine Assistance

Nevertheless, aside from penance, opportunistic theft, and protest, most pilgrims undertook a pilgrimage to express their faith and ask for healing or special favours. Furthermore, as witnessed in the variety of contemporary sources on undertaking such a journey, it can be understood that pilgrimage had a degree of fluidity and flexibility as whilst there were ecclesiastical guidelines, self-determination was a highly prominent aspect of this topic. Some pilgrims had a specific destination, be it local, regional, or international; others simply wandered from shrine to shrine seeking divine assistance. Yet, all pilgrims understood saints as being a vessel of God and a connection between heaven and earth.

Medieval Saints and their Sins - A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories by Luke Daly
Medieval Saints and their Sins - A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories by Luke Daly


  • Daly, L. (2024). Medieval Saints and their Sins: A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories. Pen and Sword History.


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