Pilgrimages: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages by John Ure

For anyone interested in why and how so many kings, nobles, adventurers, religious people and laypeople left the relative safety of home and hearth to go trooping across countryside and continents on pilgrimages to various shrines throughout the Middle Ages, then this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy.

Taking each of the major shrines/destinations – from Santiago de Compostela, to Jerusalem, Walsingham, Canterbury, Lindisfarne and Cologne etc. – as well as some famous pilgrims (John of Gaunt, Canon Casola, the weeping and wailing Margery Kemp, the plagiariser, Sir John Mandeville and a few others), John Ure captures the essence of pilgrims and their journey, immersing readers in historic time and place.

Creating a context for each place and individual, Ure explores the nature of a particular site and what drew followers there. Explaining the type of pilgrims who ventures forth – the penitent, the militant, the tourist (though that word didn’t exist then, of course!) and even the secular, he describes the landscape and culture through which they would have travelled and the ways in which spiritual expectations might have been met or confounded. Ure also doesn’t hesitate to describe the less pleasant aspects and dangers of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages – everything from bandits and cutthroats, to conmen and women ready to rip foreigners off, to racism, sexism, and the dangers of losing baggage, succumbing to sea-sickness, disease and even death. The trade in relics and how and why these were so important to these sites is also dealt with. He also discusses the religiously-led pilgrimages from the Crusades, to the horrific Albigensian Crusade (when thousands of Cathars were brutally killed), to the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace in England.

I particular enjoyed his chapter on Margery Kempe, a figure I knew well from other reading. I can only imagine what a chore it would have been having her company on a pilgrimage and the lengths some of her fellow travellers went to in order to rid themselves of her is humorous but also understandable. As for those souls who succoured and protected her, I can only hope they earned extra pardons for their forbearance! But what an amazing character she was.

Each chapter offers the reader a new place and person and thus additional insights into these medieval journeys. The writing is fresh and vivid and the examples so well drawn.

The final chapter is dedicated to Ure’s own pilgrimages – not so much spiritual (though he acknowledges one cannot help but be affected by these locales and the history contained therein), but certainly physical as he visits all the holy sites mentioned in the book. I was deeply affected by the last story he tells when he visits the Monastery of St George in Syria. A fitting conclusion to a marvellous and really interesting book.

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