Compromises/The Pilgrim's Staff

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Thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;
She hadde passed many a straunge strem;
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,
At Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne;
She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye.


The spirit that animated the Crusader animated the pilgrim. Piety, curiosity, the love of God and the love of adventure, the natural sentiment which makes one spot of ground more hallowed than another,—a sentiment as old as religion,—the natural restlessness of the human heart, a restlessness as old as humanity. With the decay of the Crusades began the passion for pilgrimages, which reached its height in the fourteenth century, but which at a much earlier period had begun to send men wandering from land to land, and from sea to sea, broadening their outlook, sharpening their intelligence, uniting them in a common bond of faith and sympathy, teaching them to observe the virtues of hospitality, courtesy, and kindness. Much has been urged against the pilgrim, even the genuine pilgrim; but it counts for little when contrasted with his merits. His was not the wisdom of Franklin. He spent time, strength, and money with reckless prodigality. He neglected duties near at hand; he ran sharp risks of shipwreck, robbers, and pestilence. But he was lifted, for a time at least, out of the common round of life; he aspired, however lamely, after spiritual growth; and he assisted the slow progress of civilization by breaking through the barriers which divided nation from nation in the remoteness of the Middle Ages.

The universality of a custom is pledge of its worth. Pious Egyptians speeding along the waterways to the temple of Bubastis; pious Hindoos following from hermitage to hermitage the footsteps of the exiled Rama; pious Moslems making their painful journey to Mecca; pious Christians turning their rapt faces to Palestine,—from the dawn of history to the present day we see the long procession of pilgrims moving to and fro over the little earth, linking shore to shore and century to century. Never without disaster, never without privations, never without the echoes of disparagement, never wholly discouraged nor abashed, the procession winds brokenly along. The pilgrims who visit Lourdes in this year of grace are not mere victims of a spasmodic enthusiasm. They are the inheritors of the world's traditions and of the world's emotions.

Alexander, Bishop of Cappadocia, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the year 202. He was by no means the first ecclesiastic to undertake the journey, but the records that survive from this period of limited authorship are few and far between. It was not until a century later that the Empress Helena stirred the hearts of Christendom, and gave the impetus that sent thousands of pilgrims to follow the footsteps of the Redeemer. Many who could not reach Palestine travelled as far as Rome, to pray at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. From time to time the church gently checked an enthusiasm which over-stepped the bounds of reason. Women, then condemned to much staying at home, showed an ardour for pilgrimage as natural as it was disconcerting. Nuns joyously welcomed the opportunity to leave, without broken vows, their convent walls, and tread for a time the beaten paths of earth. They found shelter on the road in other houses of religion, where all such devout wanderers were lodged and generously entertained.

For the virtues which blossomed most fairly along the pilgrim's track were chivalry and hospitality. For him a brotherhood of knights guarded the robber-haunted forests of Germany. For him the Spanish nobles kept watch and ward over their mountain passes. For him the galleys of St. John swept the Mediterranean in search of Algerine pirates. For him the Hospitalers built their first asylum. For him rang out the Templar's battle-cry, "Beauceant! Beauceant!" as the dreaded banner of black and white bore down into the fray. The pilgrim paid no tithes nor tolls. Monasteries opened to him their gates. In every seaport, and in many a royal burgh, houses were erected and maintained for his accommodation. In Calais stood the old Maison Dieu, with its wide, hospitable doors. Coventry was the first of English towns to provide a similar shelter. These houses were either endowed by pious benefactors or were supported by the strong and wealthy guilds. In Lincoln, the Guild of the Resurrection, founded in 1374, had the following rule: "If any brother wishes to make a pilgrimage to Rome, to Saint James of Galicia, or to the Holy Land, he shall forewarn the Guild; and all the members shall go with him to the city gate, and each shall give him at least a half-penny." Other guilds lent weightier service. Turn where we may, we see on every side the animosities of nations softened and the self-seeking of the human heart subdued by the force of that esprit de corps which bound hard-fighting Christendom together.

Rivalry there was in plenty, as shrine after shrine rose into fame and fortune. Palestine lay far away, and the journey thither was beset by difficulties and dangers. Rome held the great relics which from earliest years had drawn thousands of pilgrims to worship at her altars. Spain came next in degree, with the famous shrine of Compostella in Galicia, where lay the bones of her patron, St. James. So popular was this pilgrimage that in the year 1434 no less than 2460 licenses were granted in England to travellers bound for Compostella. Cologne claimed the relics of the Magi; France, the Holy Coat of Trèves, the shrine of St. Martin of Tours, and the beautiful pilgrimage churches of Boulogne and Rocamadour. The last, fair still in its decay, was one of the most celebrated in Europe. Great kings and greater soldiers, Simon de Montfort among them, had come as penitents to its rock-built sanctuary; and so many English were counted among its visitors that we find that arch-grumbler, Piers Plowman, bitterly conjuring his countrymen to stay away.

Right so, if thou be Religious, renne thou never ferther
To Rome ne to Rochemadore.

In good truth there were shrines in plenty at home. Glastonbury, the resting-place of Joseph of Arimathea, where grew the holy thorn-tree; Bury Saint Edmunds, where all might see the standard of the martyred king, and where, to keep it company, Cœur de Lion sent the captured banner of the king of Cyprus; Waltham, or Holy Cross Abbey, founded by that devout and warlike Dane, Tovi, to guard the mysterious cross of black marble, of which none knew the history; Edward the Confessor's tomb at Westminster; Our Lady of Walsingham, the best-loved church in England; and the ever-famous shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. "Optimus aegrorum medicus fit Thomas Bonorum," was the motto engraved on the little pewter flasks brought back by Canterbury pilgrims. "For good people who are ill, Thomas is the best of physicians."

Miracles apart, it was well to take the open road, and to live for a few days, or for a few weeks, in rain and sunshine. It was well to escape the dreadful ministrations of doctors, and trust to St. Thomas, who at all events would not bleed and purge his patient's life away. It was well to quit the foulness of the towns, to push aside the engrossing cares of life, and to see the fair face of an English summer.

I think the long ride in the open air,
That pilgrimage over stocks and stones,
In the miracle must come in for a share!

Many a cure was wrought before the shrine was gained, and a hopeful heart is ever a tonic for body and soul together. The most constant and the most curious reproach cast by reformers at the pilgrims is that they were cheerful, even merry, and that they went their way in what seems to have been an irritating spirit of enjoyment. One Master William Thorpe, a sour and godly man, protested sternly in 1407 against the number of "men and women that go on pilgrimages to Canterbury, to Beverley, to Karlington, to Walsinghame, or to any such other places"! His accusations were three in number. The pilgrims spent "their goodes in waste,"—which was true. They boasted, not always truthfully, of what they had seen, a reprehensible habit of travellers since man first roamed the earth. And, worst of all, they sang, rang little bells,—the Canterbury bells,—and made a joyous clatter on the road. To this, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, deeming light hearts as near to grace as sad ones, stoutly replied that pilgrims did well to sing and be as cheerful as the hardships of the way permitted. If a man's foot were cut and bleeding, it were better for him to sing than to be silent, "for with soche solace the travell and wearinesse of pylgremes is lightely and merily broughte forthe."

Not all pilgrimages, however, were undertaken in this jocund spirit. Figures terrible and tragic loom up in the darkness of history. Fulk Nerra, the black Count of Anjou, driven like Orestes by the stings of conscience, wandered from shrine to shrine, seeking pardon for nameless crimes. By his own command he was dragged barefooted through the streets of Jerusalem, his blood running down beneath the pitiless strokes of the scourge. From Guyenne to Picardy walked two noble Breton brothers, their heavy chains eating into their flesh, their heavier hearts burdened with unendurable remorse. Even less sinful men were sometimes inclined to penitence. The Lord of Joinville, before setting forth with St. Louis on the Seventh Crusade, walked in his shirt to every shrine within twenty leagues of his castle, imploring strength of arm and grace of soul. In blither mood, the Viscount De Werchin, Seneschal of Hainault, started upon a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella. The journey was long, and by way of diversifying it, the good Seneschal despatched messengers announcing his readiness to meet any knight, French, English, or Spanish, who would engage with him in a friendly passage of arms. That none who coveted this distinction might be so unfortunate as to lose it, he gave his itinerary with great care, and even offered to turn aside from his road as far as twenty leagues, for the felicity of a little fighting. Surely St. James, the patron of soldiers, who has himself turned the tide of more than one hard-fought battle, must have smiled kindly upon that brave and pious pilgrim, when he knelt in his battered armour before the glittering shrine.

Kings and princes frequently went upon pilgrimages. The sprig of broom, the planta genistae, destined to give its name to a great and royal line, was worn by Geoffrey of Anjou—some said in token of humility—when he journeyed to the Holy Land. Henry the Second of England travelled piously to Rocamadour, and four English Edwards knelt in turn at the feet of Our Lady of Walsingham. Jusserand tells us that the royal fee on such occasions was seven shillings; the ordinances of Edward the Second make especial mention of the sum. It does not seem munificent, when we remember that Canute took off his crown and laid it on St. Edmund's shrine; but there were occasions when even seven shillings were notably lacking. The Chronicles of Jocelin of Brakelond, quoted by Carlyle in "Past and Present," relate minutely how King John came to St. Edmundsbury with a large retinue, how he gave the abbot thirteen pence, beseeching in return a Mass, and presented to the shrine a silken cloak, which was carried promptly away by one of his followers, so that the monks beheld it no more. When Henry the Eighth and Catharine of Aragon visited Walsingham, the king hung around the statue's neck a string of pearls and golden beads, and perhaps was not unmoved subsequently by a desire to have it back again.

"Of all our Ladyes, I love best our Lady of Walsyngham," says Sir Thomas More in one of his "Dyalogues," reflecting the common sentiment of the past three hundred years, and defending the ancient custom of pilgrimages from the raillery of Erasmus. The road to Walsingham, like the road to Canterbury, was called the "Pilgrims' Way;" the town was full of inns and lodgings for the accommodation of the devout, and "manye faire myracles" were witnessed at the shrine. When the Norman knight, Sir Raaf de Boitetourt, fled from his burning castle, he sought refuge at Walsingham, where for seven years he had kept vigil on the eve of Epiphany. Hard pressed, he reached the doors, and the Virgin, mindful of faithful service, opened them with her own hands, and drew him swiftly and gently within her blessed walls.

Frequent mention is made of Walsingham in state papers and in family chronicles. The Paston letters contain numerous allusions to this popular shrine. John Paston's wife, troubled by the news of her husband's illness, writes to him lovingly: "My mother behested [vowed] another image of wax of the weight of you to our Lady of Walsingham; and she sent four nobles to the four orders of friars at Norwich to pray for you; and I have behested a pilgrimage to Walsingham and to St. Leonards for you." Again, Justice Yelverton thanks John Paston, "especially for that ye do much for our Lady's house at Walsingham, which I trust verily ye do the rather for the great love that ye deem I have thereto; for truly if I be drawn to any worship or welfare, and discharge of mine enemies' danger, I ascribe it unto our Lady."

In proportion to the piety of the pilgrim flames the wrath of the reformer. Denunciations from poets of a radical turn, like Langland and Skelton, echo shrilly through English letters.

Pylgrimis and palmers plyghten hem togederes,
To seken seint James and seintes at Rome,
Wenten forth in hure way with many unwyse tales,
And haven leve to lyen alle hure lyf-tyme.

This sounds like the bitterness of the stay-at-home, resenting with his whole soul the allurement of travellers' tales,—tales to which Chaucer lent a tolerant ear. A century and a half later, when reform had had its way, when the relics of St. Thomas had been scattered to the winds, when our Lady's image had been flung from its altar into the nearest well, and Cranmer in his "Catechism" had alluded to vows and pilgrimages as half-forgotten errors, one poor faithful soul was accused in 1542 of going to Walsingham,—not blithely, indeed, with song and ringing of bells, but sad, fearful, and forlorn, to pray at the defaced and empty shrine.

There was a little chapel built on one of the eastern piers of old London Bridge, and dedicated to St. Thomas à Becket. Hither came the pilgrims bound for Canterbury, or for the far-off shrines of Compostella and Rocamadour, to beg a blessing on their journey; and many were the curious eyes that watched them faring forth. To-day, when no spot is remote, and nothing is unknown, it is hard to understand the interest which once attached itself to the wanderer, or to realize his importance as a link in the human chain. At a time when the mass of mankind learned orally what it learned at all, when news crept slowly over the country-side, and rumour passed from one village ale-house to another, people were preserved from mental stagnation by the "unwyse tales" which Langland found so reprehensible. They heard how a fair and famous courtesan, smitten with blindness, travelled to Rocamadour, beseeching a cure, and how, kneeling outside the walls, she was withheld by an invisible power from entering the sanctuary. Then, confessing her sins with tears and lamentations, she cut off her beautiful hair,—

A net
Wherein no more shall souls be snared and slain,

and offered it to the Virgin in token of amendment. This being done, the barrier was lifted, she hastened into the church, "giving praise to the Mother of God," and sight was restored to her eyes."

Many were the miracles related by pilgrims, and bewildering were the wonders they described. The zeal for relics having far outrun discretion, a vast hoard of heterogeneous and apocryphal objects had been collected in every church, and were reverenced indiscriminately by the devout. They were less grisly, but hardly less marvellous than the weapons which Christian found in the house of Prudence, Piety, and Charity, when these benevolent ladies exhibited to their guest the "engines with which God's servants had done wonderful things." Christian's delight over the hammer and nail with which Jael killed Sisera, the sling and stone with which David killed Goliath, the jaw bone of an ass with which Samson killed the Philistines, and the ox goad with which Shamgar killed six hundred of his enemies, is but the reflection of a gentler sentiment which stirred the pilgrim's heart. Our ancestors were not wont to reason very distinctly on these or on other matters; the abnormal offered no obstacle to their credulity; and the complete absence of an historic background annihilated for them a dozen and more intervening centuries. The Holy Coat carried them in spirit to Nazareth, the Veil of Veronica led them to the foot of the Cross. When told that the head of St. John the Baptist reposed in a church at Amiens, they neither calculated the probabilities of the case nor inquired into ways and means. When a few far-travelled pilgrims heard that the same relic was claimed by a church in Constantinople, they either became partisans—a natural sentiment—or argued with the simple sagacity of Sir John Mandeville. Which was the true head he could not tell. "I wot nere but God knowethe; but in what wyse that men worschippen it, the blessed seynte John holt him a-payd."

This is the pith and marrow of the argument. Pilgrims, reaching back dimly into a shrouded past, grasped at the relic which bridged for them the chasm, and felt the mysterious blessedness of association. If it were not what it was believed to be, the saints, well aware both of men's fallibility and of their good faith, would undoubtedly "holt them a-payd." The same sentiment hallowed countless shrines, and found expression in the sygnys or medals which then, as now, played a prominent part in pilgrimages. We know how little such customs change when we read of the fourteenth-century pilgrims at Rocamadour, and see the twentieth-century pilgrims at Lourdes. The Rocamadour medals were made of pewter, stamped with an image of the Virgin, and pierced with holes so that they could be sewn to the cap or dress. The right to make and sell them belonged exclusively to the family of De Valon, and had been granted by the crown in return for military service. So large were the sales, and so comfortable the profits, that the thrifty townspeople constantly infringed upon the seignorial privilege, and flooded the market, in defiance of all authority, with contraband medals,—a pardonable offence, not without parallel in every age and land.

The Canterbury sygnys were in the shape of little flasks; at Compostella they were minute cockle-shells; at Amiens they bore the head of St. John the Baptist: "Ecce signum faciei beati Johannis Baptistae." So pleased were pilgrims with these devices, and so proud to wear the mementoes of their piety,—as the Moslem, returned from Mecca, wears his green turban,—that we find Erasmus mocking at their appearance "clothyd with cockle-schelles, and laden on every side with bunches of lead and tynne." There is not a shrine in Europe to-day unprovided with similar tokens. At Auray, medals of St. Anne; at Padua, medals of St. Anthony; at Avila, medals of St. Theresa; at Prague, medals of the Holy Infant; at Loretto, medals of the Santa Casa; at Genazzana, medals of Our Lady of Good Counsel; at Paray-le-Monial, medals of the Sacred Heart; at the charming old pilgrimage church of Maria Plain near Salzburg, medals of the Blessed Virgin uncovering the Divine Child; at Lourdes, more medals and rosaries than one can imagine all Catholic Christendom buying in the next three hundred years.

Yet bought they are, and could Erasmus behold the pilgrims leaving Lourdes, he would deem himself once more on the Walsingham way. It is well to watch the French country people, laden with the heavy baskets which hold their supply of food, grasping the inevitable umbrellas, as big and bulky as folded tents, and burdened furthermore with an assortment of pious souvenirs that require the utmost care in handling. They move slowly in little groups from image to image in the lower church. Some scholar of the party spells out the name of each saint, and then all softly rub their miscellaneous treasures—beads, scapulars, medals, bénitiers—up and down the statue's robe and feet. Some old, old, misty notion of the blessedness of touch dwells confusedly in every mind. Their contentment is beautiful to behold. They alone know by what sacrifices and privations these days of pilgrimage were made possible; but we know how much they have gained. New sensations; the sudden opening of the world's closed doors, revealing to them a little corner amid wide mysterious spaces; the stirring of the heart in the presence of sacred things; one keen experience in a monotonously bucolic life; one deep breath of a diviner air; something desired, achieved, and ever to be remembered,—what generous mind doubts that all this is better than sensibly staying at home? No observer could have stood at the doors of St. Peter's in the spring of 1900, when the pilgrims of every land thronged up the sunlit steps, without learning once for all the value of emotions. The crowd stared, jostled, chattered, as it swept along, and then, entering those vast, harmonious aisles, fell silent, while there came into every face a look that could never be mistaken nor forgotten. It was the leaping of the human soul to the ideal. It was an inarticulate nunc dimittis, as the pilgrim entered upon the inheritance of ages.