The Origins of Christian Pilgrimages

The Origins of Christian Pilgrimages

To make a pilgrimage is traditional in all religions of the world, it is human nature to search for your origins, why you exist and to have a “holy” place or thing to believe in. This place or thing belongs closer to heaven, and brings the pilgrim closer to some divine entity that offers a unique meaning to all our lives. So, the actual goal of the pilgrimage is the final destination, and not the journey itself.

Christian Pilgrimages

The Christian Pilgrimages date back to the first dates of the Church, the Christians loved to walk where Jesus supposedly had been, places, such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But this was not the only reason, in the early days the church had many martyrs who later were bestowed sainthood, and these became popular icons to follow. Bit by bit martyrs had many resting places which became highly popular places for pilgrims to visit. Instructions used to be given for sinners to go on pilgrimage by the Church as penance. This led to a bizarre custom of people getting paid to go on pilgrimage by wealthy sinners who were too lazy to go themselves.


Another major destination for pilgrims was Rome, it was far easier for European pilgrims to get to, and it had great significance as it had been home to many martyrs, such as the apostles Paul and Peter. Great basilicas were erected by Constantine to celebrate the tombs of these saints, and many pilgrims used to make pilgrimage to see ancient relics, such as bones.


As time progressed in the Middle Ages, many pilgrims made their way to Santiago de Compostela, which was the resting place of St James, and many relics were believed to have been discovered around 830 AD.


English tourists made first pilgrimages to Canterbury, to visit the relics of Thomas Becket. Becket was murdered at the hands of henchmen on the orders of Henry II in 1170, there had been a quarrel between the Henry and Becket over religion and Henry saw him as a threat to his reign.


Going on pilgrimage was not a case of just shutting the front door and going for an elongated walk. Each pilgrim prior to departing made a full confession and obtained a blessing from a Bishop. To signify his vocation, the pilgrim donned a long, coarse garb and carried a staff. Along the route of the pilgrimage it was common that monasteries and churches provided food and lodging for the pilgrims. Some of these places also had relics of their own, so the pilgrimage had a set route to follow to their destination. This notion of pilgrimage in medieval times was so strong, it led to military pilgrimages as well. The Crusades were a type of pilgrimage, and the idea of going on a pilgrimage also influenced the arts of the time. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is one such example.

Since the Middle Ages the practice of pilgrimage has never gone away, even today pilgrims of all faiths make special journeys to visit a place or person that has significance to them or their faith. Although the amount of pilgrimages may have declined somewhat, the number of pilgrims taking such journeys does not seem to have waned.