Relics, Pilgrimages, and the Peace of God

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Relics, Pilgrimages, and the Peace of God

Interest in Relics.

Much of the activity related to pilgrimages and holy sites in the Middle Ages can be connected to a renewed interest in relics that began in the ninth century in northern European Christendom. Any physical objects tied to famous saints or holy personages, such as body parts, bones, hair, fingernails, or even clothing worn during their lifetime, qualified as relics. In 801 and again in 813 the emperor Charlemagne revived a statute from the Council of Carthage (401) that required all altars to contain relics. The Carolingians went so far as to import relics from Italy and Spain. Pilgrimages to the tombs of saints were also encouraged. Charlemagne even suggested that important oaths were to be sworn upon relics. Not all relics were kept in churches, however. Charlemagne himself kept relics in his throne room for the occasion of oaths. There were even special decorative containers called reliquaries where these holy objects were kept for veneration on ceremonial occasions. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, nobles would swear peacekeeping oaths upon relics. Cults to the physical remains of saints did not take long to develop, an attraction that may have gone back to the practice of pre-Christian hero cults in Europe, and pictures of them were common in churches and religious manuscripts of all sorts, as illustrated in an English book of hours now in Oxford. For many ordinary Christians, sacred objects connected to the saints and particularly their remains were often thought to be conduits to the holy. Churches and monasteries that had such important relics in their possession would be considered prestigious. Places such as Dijon, Fulda, Vézelay, Verdun, Cologne, Bruges, Verona, Milan, Loreto, Trier, Conques, and Compostela attracted visitors due in part to their famous relics. This did much for the income and morale of congregations and communities. In theory, the objects were not to be worshipped in and of themselves. Theologically it was argued that the relic allowed humans to come close to the spirit of the prescribed saint who then became an intercessor for humanity assisting in the transmission of God's grace. The relics would, of course, have only as much significance as a group of worshipers gave them. But they did provide a point of contact between their perception of the divine and their everyday mortal lives.


The Christian practice of making pilgrimages to holy sites dates back to the fourth century. The theology behind this was the notion of establishing a connection to places significant to the incarnate Christ. As early as the seventh century, Christians in northern Europe were making pilgrimages to Rome, where they wished to visit the supposed tombs of saints Peter and Paul, and by the eighth century such visitors could follow a written guide with an established itinerary. Around this time, the notion of remitting the public penance (assigned by a priest in confession) for one's sins through some sort of pilgrimage had become common. Thus, pilgrimages often became associated with the notion of penitence. By the tenth century pilgrimages began to be organized on a grander scale. Noble-women, dukes, bishops, abbots, and even those from lesser walks of life, from as far away as England, Normandy, Bavaria, and Swabia, sought to visit the Holy Land. With the conversion of the Hungarians in the late 900s, overland routes to the Levant (the area comprising modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Syria and Turkey) began to be developed through southeastern Europe. The monks of Cluny also assisted with the organization of the pilgrimages, particularly from France. Even when sites of Christian shrines were located in Muslim-controlled areas such as the Holy Land and Spain, Christians were traditionally allowed access since a deep respect for the notion of pilgrimage was a vital part of the Islamic faith. However, when these holy places became inaccessible, Christians believed that they were justified in attempts to secure these areas by force.

Popular Journeys.

Depending upon the balance of power in the Levant and the route of travel one chose, journeys to the Holy Land could be quite dangerous. Pilgrimages to sites in western Christendom such as Conques (southeastern France), Rome, and Santiago de Compostela (northwestern Spain), which were more associated with the relics of saints, could be much safer. By the twelfth century, sites such as the shrine of St. James at Compostela became tourist attractions and local economies flourished along their travel routes. Sites like Canterbury commemorated both relics and events, such as the twelfth-century murder of Thomas Becket (chancellor of England and archbishop of Canterbury). Becket's grave as well as the spot upon which he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral became a popular destination for both the pious and the curious. Miracles were recorded at Becket's tomb, and eventually his remains were moved to the choir of Trinity Chapel in 1220 where they stayed until the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538. In effect, Becket became one of the first saints elevated by popular acclaim and enthusiastic devotion in medieval European tradition. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1390s) remind us of the Becket tradition and testify to the fact that these pilgrimages were not always somber affairs. Certainly, such expeditions contained elements of adventure and entertainment as well as spiritual satisfaction.

Truce of God and Peace of God.

The experience of pilgrimage was made possible, in part, by attention to the issue of safety both for travelers and for the broader European society. Effective peacekeeping in the early part of the Middle Ages was a major problem not only for secular rulers, but also for the church, as uncontrolled violence posed threats to both church property and those in religious life. Also caught up in these dangers were innocent lay people who would often find themselves at the mercy of armed local warriors. Without physically fighting back, the church found it necessary to create ways to disarm a society where violence seemed to have become an all too commonplace occurrence. Legislation at tenth- and eleventh-century assemblies known as synods began to reflect principles such as the Peace of God (Pax Ecclesiae) and the Truce of God (Treuga Dei). Between 990 and 1096 at least thirty church councils addressed the problem of unchecked martial activity in European society. At these synods the church promoted the cessation of unnecessary violence through the Truce of God and imposed penalties, under threat of excommunication, for carrying on warfare during certain holy seasons, on Sundays, and in certain holy places. In an attempt to save the weak and innocent from the horrors of unjust physical abuse, the knightly order was obliged through the ideals of the Peace of God to protect unarmed poor, children, women, clerics, merchants, and pilgrims. This also extended to their property, merchandise, and even farm products, animals, and equipment.

The Concept of Just War.

The idea of war which could be justified in the service of the church—a principal that was applied to the Crusades both in connection with protecting pilgrims and with maintaining access to holy places—may have been indirectly tied to notions of curbing the outright martial character of medieval society as a whole, although it certainly was rooted in the drive for the church to gain more control over secular affairs. During the eleventh century, the notion of "Christian" knighthood had begun to moralize the activities of a knight, turning him from full-time warrior to part peacekeeper, as would be encouraged by the Peace of God and Truce of God movements. Bishops even went so far as to impose spiritual sanctions on offenders who refused to put down their weapons. Soldiers fighting for the church on the advice of their bishops or in a war against heretics, on the other hand, could be forgiven without penance for their violent acts. In 1085 Anselm of Lucca published the Collectio Canonum, which assembled just war texts from St. Augustine to Gregory I (fifth through seventh centuries). This literature supported the ecclesiastical right actively to direct the ius gladii (literally: by right of the sword) in the service of the church. Actions like blessing the weapons of a knight for the service of justice and God came from a century earlier. The idea of the militia Christi (army of Christ) certainly precedes the Crusades, but it had been used more in a metaphorical sense by the Gregorian reform movement (beginning in 1059) to address the spiritual battles fought by the monks. As it began to be applied to the military during the time of the Crusades, it probably reflected the growing need of the church to justify protecting itself from secular powers or taking up a noble cause.


Tim Davis, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: A Monastic View of Medieval Violence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Patrick Geary, Furta Sacra (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991).

Thomas Head and Richard Landes, eds., The Peace of God: Social Violence and Religious Response in France Around the Year 1000 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992).

G. J. C. Snoek, Medieval Piety from Relics to Eucharist (New York: Brill, 1995).

Jonathan Sumption, The Age of the Pilgrimage (Manwah, N.J.: Hidden Springs, 2003).

Diana Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage 700–1500 (New York: Palgrave Publishing, 2002).

see also Architecture: Pilgrimage Architecture ; Fashion: Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress ; Literature: The Canterbury Tales ; Visual Arts: The Cult of Saints and the Rise of Pilgrimage