Post-classical history



Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.’ PSALMS CXXII, 2

The desire to be a pilgrim is deeply rooted in human nature. To stand where those that we reverence once stood, to see the very sites where they were born and toiled and died, gives us a feeling of mystical contact with them and is a practical expression of our homage. And if the great men of the world have their shrines to which their admirers come from afar, still more do men flock eagerly to those places where, they believe, the Divine has sanctified the earth.

In the earliest days of Christianity pilgrimages were rare. Early Christian thought tended to emphasize the godhead and the universality of Christ rather than the manhood; and the Roman authorities did not encourage a voyage to Palestine. Jerusalem itself, destroyed by Titus, lay in ruins till Hadrian rebuilt it as the Roman city of Aelia. But the Christians remembered the setting of the drama of Christ’s life. Their respect for the site of Calvary was such that Hadrian deliberately erected there a temple to Venus Capitolina. By the third century the cave at Bethlehem where Christ was born was well known to them; and Christians would journey thither and to the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane and to the place of the Ascension. A visit to such holy spots for the purpose of prayer and of acquiring spiritual merit was already a part of Christian practice.

The First Pilgrims

With the triumph of the Cross the practice grew. The Emperor Constantine was glad to give strength to the religion that he had chosen. His mother, the Empress Helena, most exalted and most successful of the world’s great archaeologists, set out to Palestine, to uncover Calvary and to find all the relics of the Passion. The Emperor endorsed her discovery by building there a church, which through all its vicissitudes has remained the chief sanctuary of Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

At once a stream of pilgrims began to flow to the scene of Helena’s labours. We cannot tell their numbers; for most of them left no record of their journey. But already in 333, before her excavations were finished, a traveller who wrote of his voyage came all the way from Bordeaux to Palestine. Soon afterwards we find the description of a tour made by an indefatigable lady known sometimes as Aetheria and sometimes as Saint Silvia of Aquitaine. Towards the close of the century one of the great Fathers of Latin Christendom, Saint Jerome, settled in Palestine and drew after him the circle of rich and fashionable women that had sat at his feet in Italy. In his cell at Bethlehem he received a constant procession of travellers who came to pay him their respects after viewing the holy places. Saint Augustine, most spiritual of the western Fathers, considered pilgrimages to be irrelevant and even dangerous and the Greek Fathers tended to agree with him; but Saint Jerome, though he did not maintain that actual residence in Jerusalem was of any spiritual value, asserted that it was an act of faith to pray where the feet of Christ had stood. His view was more popular than Augustine’s. Pilgrimages multiplied, encouraged by the authorities. By the beginning of the next century there were said to be already two hundred monasteries and hospices in or around Jerusalem, built to receive pilgrims, and almost all under the patronage of the Emperor.

The mid-fifth century saw the height of this early taste for Jerusalem. The Empress Eudocia, born the daughter of a pagan philosopher at Athens, settled there after an unhappy life at court; and many pious members of the Byzantine aristocracy came in her train. In the intervals of writing hymns she patronized the growing fashion for collecting relics; and she laid the foundation of the great collection at Constantinople by sending there the portrait of Our Lady painted by Saint Luke.

The Value of Relics

Her example was followed by pilgrims from the West as well as from Constantinople. From immemorial ages the material luxuries of the world came from the East. Now religious luxuries too went westward. Christianity was at first an eastern religion. The majority of the early Christian saints and martyrs had been easterners. There was a spreading tendency to venerate the saints. Authorities such as Prudentius and Ennodius taught that divine succour could be found at their graves and that their bodies should be able to work miracles. Men and women would now travel far to see a holy relic. Still more, they would try to acquire one, to take it home and to set it in their local sanctuary. The chief relics remained in the East, those of Christ at Jerusalem till they were moved to Constantinople, and those of the saints for the most part at their native places. But minor relics began to penetrate to the West, brought by some lucky pilgrim or some enterprising merchant, or sent as a gift to some potentate. Soon there followed small portions of major relics, then major relics in their entirety. All this helped to draw the attention of the West to the East. The citizens of Langres, proud possessors of a finger of Saint Mamas, would inevitably wish to visit Caesarea in Cappadocia where the saint had lived. The nuns of Chamalieres, with the bones of Thecla in their chapel, would take a personal interest in her birthplace at Isaurian Seleucia. When a lady of Maurienne brought back from her travels the thumb of Saint John the Baptist, her friends were all inspired to journey out to see his body at Samaria and his head at Damascus. Whole embassies would be sent in the hope of securing some such treasure, maybe even a phial of the Holy Blood or a fragment of the true Cross itself. Churches were built in the West called after eastern saints or after the Holy Sepulchre; and often a portion of their revenues was set aside to be sent to the holy places from which they took their names.

This interconnection was helped by the commerce that was still kept up round the coasts of the Mediterranean. It was slowly declining, owing to the growing impoverishment of the West; and at times it was interrupted, as when the Vandal pirates in the mid-fifth century made the seas no longer safe for unarmed traders; and discontent and heresy in the East added further difficulties. But there are many itineraries written in the sixth century by western pilgrims who had travelled eastward in Greek or Syrian merchant ships; and the merchants themselves carried religious news and gossip as well as passengers and merchandise. Thanks to the travellers and the traders, the historian Gregory of Tours was well informed on Oriental affairs. There exists the record of a conversation between Saint Symeon Stylites and a Syrian merchant who saw him on his pillar near Aleppo, in which Saint Symeon asked for news of Saint Genevieve of Paris and sent her a personal message. In spite of the religious and political quarrels of the higher authorities, the relations between eastern and western Christians remained very cordial and close.

With the Arab conquests this era came to an end. Syrian merchants no longer came to the coasts of France and Italy, bringing their wares and their news. There were pirates again in the Mediterranean. The Moslem rulers of Palestine were suspicious of Christian travellers from abroad. The journey was expensive and difficult; and there was little wealth left in western Christendom. But intercourse was not entirely broken off. Western Christians still thought of the eastern holy places with sympathy and longing. When, in 682, Pope Martin I was accused of friendly dealings with the Moslems, he explained that his motive was to seek permission to send alms to Jerusalem. In 670 the Frankish bishop Arculf set out for the East and managed to make a complete tour of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and to return through Constantinople; but the journey took several years, and he met with many hardships. We know the names of other pilgrims of the time, such as Vulphy of Rue in Picardy, or Bercaire of Montier-en-Der in Burgundy and his friend Waimer. But their stories showed that only rough and enterprising men could hope to reach Jerusalem. No women seem to have ventured on the pilgrimage.

Eighth-and Ninth-Century Pilgrims

During the eighth century the number of pilgrims increased. Some even came from England; of whom the most famous was Willibald, who died in 781 as Bishop of Eichstadt in Bavaria. In his youth he had gone to Palestine, leaving Rome in 722 and only returning there, after many disagreeable adventures, in 729. Towards the end of the century there seems to have been an attempt to organize pilgrimages, under the patronage of Charles the Great. Charles had restored order and some prosperity to the West and had established good relations with the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. The hostels that were erected by his help in the Holy Land show that in his time many pilgrims must have reached Jerusalem, and women amongst them. Nuns from Christian Spain were sent to serve at the Holy Sepulchre. But this activity was short-lived. The Carolingian empire declined. Moslem pirates reappeared in the eastern Mediterranean; Norse pirates came in from the West. When Bernard the Wise, from Brittany, visited Palestine in 870, he found Charles’s establishments still in working order, but empty and beginning to decay. Bernard had only been able to make the journey by obtaining a passport from the Moslem authorities then governing Bari, in southern Italy; and even this passport did not enable him to land at Alexandria.

The great age of pilgrimage begins with the tenth century. The Arabs lost their last pirate-nests in Italy and southern France in the course of the century; and Crete was taken from them in 961. Already by then the Byzantine navy had been for some time sufficiently in command of the seas for maritime commerce in the Mediterranean to have fully revived. Greek and Italian merchant ships sailed freely between the ports of Italy and the Empire and were beginning, with the goodwill of the Moslem authorities, to open up trade with Syria and Egypt. It was easy for a pilgrim to secure a passage direct from Venice or from Bari to Tripoli or Alexandria; though most travellers preferred to call in at Constantinople to see its great collections of relics and then to proceed by sea or by the land route, which recent Byzantine military successes had now made secure. In Palestine itself the Moslem authorities, whether Abbasid, Ikshid or Fatimid, seldom caused difficulties, but, rather, welcomed the travellers for the wealth that they brought into the province.

The improvement in the conditions of pilgrimage had its effect on western religious thought. It is doubtful at what age pilgrimages were first ordered as canonical penances. Early medieval poenitentialia all recommend a pilgrimage, but usually without giving a specified goal. But the belief was growing that certain holy places possessed a definite spiritual virtue which affected those that visited them and could even grant indulgences from sin. Thus the pilgrim knew that not only would he be able to pay reverence to the earthly remains and surroundings of God and His saints and so enter into mystical contact with them but he might also obtain God’s pardon for his wickedness. From the tenth century onwards four shrines in particular were held to have this power, those of Saint James at Compostella in Spain and of Saint Michael at Monte Gargano in Italy, the many sacred sites at Rome, and, above all, the holy places in Palestine. To all of these access was now far easier, owing to the retreat or the goodwill of the Moslems. But the journey was still sufficiently long and arduous to appeal to the common sense as well as to the religious feeling of medieval man. It was wise to remove a criminal for the space of a year or more from the scene of his crime. The discomforts and expense of his journey would be a punishment to him, while the achievement of his task and the emotional atmosphere of his goal would give him a feeling of spiritual cleansing and strength. He returned a better man.

The Great Age of Pilgrimage

Casual references in the chroniclers tell us of frequent pilgrimages though the names of the actual pilgrims that we now possess are inevitably only those of the greater personages. From amongst the great lords and ladies of the West there came Hilda, Countess of Swabia, who died on her journey in 969, and Judith, Duchess of Bavaria, sister-in-law of the Emperor Otto I, whose tour took place in 970. The Counts of Ardeche, of Vienne, of Verdun, of Arcy, of Anhalt and of Gorizia, all were pilgrims. Leading ecclesiastics were even more assiduous. Saint Conrad, Bishop of Constance, made three separate journeys to Jerusalem, and Saint John, Bishop of Parma, no less than six. The Bishop of Olivola was there in 920. Pilgrim abbots included those of Saint-Cybar, of Flavigny, of Aurillac, of Saint-Aubin d’Angers and of Montier-en-Der. All these eminent travellers brought with them groups of humble men and women whose names were of no interest to the writers of the time.

This activity was mainly the result of private enterprise. But a new force was appearing in European politics, which amongst its other work set about the organization of the pilgrim traffic. In 910 Count William I of Aquitaine founded the Abbey of Cluny. By the end of the century Cluny, ruled by a series of remarkable abbots, was the centre of a vast ecclesiastical nexus, well ordered, closely knit and intimately connected with the Papacy. The Cluniacs regarded themselves as the keepers of the conscience of western Christendom. Their doctrine approved of pilgrimage. They wished to give it practical assistance. By the beginning of the next century the pilgrimages to the great Spanish shrines were almost entirely under their control. At the same time they began to arrange and to popularize journeys to Jerusalem. It was owing to their persuasion that the Abbot of Stavelot set out for the Holy Land in 990 and the Count of Verdun in 997. Their influence is shown by the great increase in the eleventh century of pilgrims from France and Lorraine, from districts that were near to Cluny and her daughter houses. Though there were still many Germans amongst the pilgrims of the eleventh century, such as the Archbishops of Trier and Mainz and the Bishop of Bamberg, and many pilgrims from England, French and Lorraine pilgrims now by far outnumbered them. The two great dynasties of northern France, the Counts of Anjou and the Dukes of Normandy, were both, despite their mutual rivalry, the close friends of Cluny; and both patronized the eastern journey. The terrible Fulk Nerra of Anjou went to Jerusalem in 1002 and twice returned there later. Duke Richard III of Normandy sent alms there, and Duke Robert led a huge company there in 1035. All these pilgrimages were faithfully recorded by the Cluniac historian, the monk Glaber.

Scandinavian Pilgrims

The Normans followed their Dukes’ example. They had a particular veneration for Saint Michael; and great numbers of them made the journey to Monte Gargano. From there the more enterprising would go on to Palestine. In the middle of the century they formed so large and so fervent a proportion of the Palestine pilgrims that the government at Constantinople, angry with the Normans for their raids on Byzantine Italy, began to show some ill will towards the pilgrim traffic. Their cousins from Scandinavia showed an almost equal enthusiasm. Scandinavians had long been used to visit Constantinople; and its wealth and wonders greatly impressed them. They talked in their northern homes of Micklegarth, as they called the great city; which they even at times identified with Asgard, the home of the gods. Already by 930 there were Norsemen in the Emperor’s army. Early in the eleventh century there were so many of them that a special Norse regiment was formed, the famed Varangian Guard. The Varangians soon acquired the habit of spending a leave on a journey to Jerusalem. The first of whom we have a record was a certain Kolskeggr, who was in Palestine in 992. Harald Hardrada, most famous of the Varangians, was there in 1034. During the eleventh century there were many Norwegians, Icelanders and Danes who spent five or more years in the imperial service, then made the pilgrimage before they returned, rich with their savings, to their homes in the north. Stimulated by their tales their friends would come south merely to make the pilgrimage. The apostle to Iceland, Thorvald Kodransson Vidtforli, was in Jerusalem about the year 990. Several Norse pilgrims claimed to have seen there Olaf Tryggvason, first Christian king of Norway, after his mysterious disappearance in 1000. Olaf II intended to follow his example, but his voyage never took place except in legend. These Nordic princes were violent men, frequently guilty of murder and frequently in need of an act of penance. The half-Danish Swein Godwinsson set out with a body of Englishmen in 1051 to expiate a murder, but died of exposure in the Anatolian mountains next autumn. He had gone barefoot because of his sins. Lagman Gudrodsson, Norse king of Man, who had slain his brother, sought a similar pardon from God. Most Scandinavian pilgrims liked to make a round tour, coming by sea through the Straits of Gibraltar and returning overland through Russia.

Tenth-century pilgrims from the West had been obliged to travel by sea across the Mediterranean to Constantinople or to Syria. But fares were high and berths not easy to obtain. In 975 the rulers of Hungary were converted to Christianity; and an overland route was opened, going down the Danube and across the Balkans to Constantinople. Till 1019, when Byzantium finally established control over the whole Balkan peninsula, this was a dangerous road; but thenceforward a pilgrim could travel with very little risk through Hungary to cross the Byzantine frontier at Belgrade and then proceed through Sofia and Adrianople to the capital. Alternatively, he could now go to Byzantine Italy and make the short sea-passage across from Bari to Dyrrhachium and then follow the old Roman Via Egnatia through Thessalonica to the Bosphorus. There were three good main roads that would take him across Asia Minor to Antioch. Thence he went down to the coast at Lattakieh and crossed into Fatimid territory near Tortosa. This was the only frontier that he had to pass since his arrival at Belgrade or at Termoli in Italy; and he could proceed without further hindrance to Jerusalem. Travel overland, though slow, was far cheaper and easier than travel by sea, and far better suited to large companies.

Travel across the Frontier

So long as the pilgrims were orderly they could count on hospitable treatment from the peasants of the Empire; and for the earlier part of their journey the Cluniacs were now building hostels along the route. There were several hospices in Italy, some restricted to the use of Norsemen. There was a great hospice at Melk in Austria. At Constantinople the Hospice of Samson was reserved for the use of western pilgrims; and the Cluniacs kept up an establishment at Rodosto in the suburbs. At Jerusalem itself pilgrims could stay at the Hospital of St John, founded by the merchants of Amalfi. There was no objection to the great lords of the West bringing with them an armed escort, so long as it was properly under control; and most pilgrims tried to join some such company. But it was not uncommon, nor particularly risky, for men to travel alone or in twos and threes. At times there might be difficulties. During Hakim’s persecution it was uncomfortable to stay long in Palestine, though the flow of pilgrims was never wholly interrupted. In 1055 it was considered dangerous to cross the frontier into Moslem territory. Lietbert, Bishop of Cambrai, was not granted an exit-visa by the governor of Lattakieh and was forced to go to Cyprus. In 1056 the Moslems, perhaps with the connivance of the Emperor, forbade westerners to enter the Holy Sepulchre and ejected some three hundred of them from Jerusalem. Both Basil II and his niece the Empress Theodora caused offence by ordering their customs officers to levy a tax on pilgrims and their horses. Pope Victor II wrote to the Empress in December 1056, begging her to cancel the order; and his letter suggests that her officials were also to be found in Jerusalem itself.

But such inconveniences were rare. Throughout the eleventh century till its last two decades, an unending stream of travellers poured eastward, sometimes travelling in parties numbering thousands, men and women of every age and every class, ready, in that leisurely age, to spend a year or more on the voyage. They would pause at Constantinople to admire the huge city, ten times greater than any city that they knew in the West, and to pay reverence to the relics that it housed. They could see there the Crown of Thorns, the Seamless Garment and all the major relics of the Passion. There was the cloth from Edessa on which Christ had imprinted His face, and Saint Luke’s own portrait of the Virgin; the hair of John the Baptist and the mantle of Elijah; the bodies of innumerable saints, prophets and martyrs; an endless store of the holiest things in Christendom. Thence they went on to Palestine, to Nazareth and Mount Tabor, to the Jordan and to Bethlehem, and to all the shrines of Jerusalem. They gazed at them all and prayed at them all; then they made the long voyage homeward, returning edified and purified, to be greeted by their countrymen as the pilgrims of Christ who had made the most sacred of journeys.

But the success of the pilgrimage depended on two conditions: first, that life in Palestine should be orderly enough for the defenceless traveller to move and worship in safety; and secondly, that the way should be kept open and cheap. The former necessitated peace and good government in the Moslem world, the latter the prosperity and benevolence of Byzantium.

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