Midsummer Night and medieval pilgrimages


Happy solstice.  It’s the last night of spring, or the first hours of summer, depending on your p.o.v. — and it’s not too late to make a pilgrimage, if you’ve a mind to do so.  Robert A. Scott writes:  “We tend to associate pilgrimage with springtime, no doubt in part because of the evocative opening passage from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.”

You remember (I won’t cheat you by using a modern version):

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced 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,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage …

In his fascinating study Miracle Cures, which landed on my desk in time for the solstice, sociologist Scott says that spring was a popular season for pilgrimages — but not the only one.  “Nilson’s data from the cathedral churches at Ely, Hereford, Durham, and Canterbury suggest that the income from these shrines was greatest during the autumn, followed by the spring and early summer” — that means right now.

Robert A. Scott (Photo: Kate Shemilt)

But don’t grab your hat:  “a pilgrim did not act on impulse and of a morning, stumble out of bed, decide over breakfast to take to the road, pack a few belongings, and leave.  Pilgrimage required substantial forethought and planning. … Except for journeys of a day or two to a local shrine, permission of various kinds had to be obtained: from the pilgrim’s family, from the lord of the manor to which he belonged, and from the village priest.  For longer journeys, wills had to be drawn up, signed, and witnessed in case the pilgrim died along the way.  Debts had to be settled, provisions made to cover work obligations, and, for the head of a household, decisions taken about how to provide for the family.  An itinerary had to be prepared spelling out the route to be followed, the time of year to depart, what form gifts for the saint should take, and the proposed timetable.”

Scott wants to know, however, why people go on pilgrimages in the age of advanced biotechnology and MRI scans.  Why is it still a major industry?  Using the latest research, he examines accounts of miracle cures from the medieval times onwards, the power of relics and apparitions, and — here is the book jacket talking — “the transformative nature of sacred journeying, and shines new light on the roles that belief, hope, and emotion can play in healing.”

Sounds like Scott knows a good deal about the medieval world, and he does.  His earlier book was The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral.  One of the fascinating aspects of medieval studies is the integration:  architecture affects music, poetry affects painting, literature influences liturgy, early science and religion mingle — ages before it all shattered into shards.

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