Friday, 29 September 2000

Jonathan Sumption: Pilgrimage (1975)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1975
Review number: 636

A fascinating study of the defining feature of the Middle Ages, its devout Catholicism, Pilgrimage views its subject through the aspect of it which provides the book's title. There are deliberate limitations to keep the book within manageable bounds - concentration on the period between 1100 and 1500, an emphasis on France and England rather than Germany, and interest in popular religious belief rather than the abstract theological arguments of scholars. Some important parts of medieval religion are sketchily covered as a result, though these are subjects easily accessible in more general histories of the period: the development of monasticism; the relationship between the papacy and Holy Roman Emperor (and, more generally, between religious and secular authority); the crusades (except in relation to religious enthusiasm and the invention of indulgences, both topics of great relevance to the history of pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages).

The importance of pilgrimage is really that it is probably the principal distinguishing feature of (popular) Western Christianity in this period. Its development and debasement - from a penance for serious sin to tourism and an indulgence to be gained by visiting particular shrines to obtain early release from Purgatory to an indulgence gained by cash payment - show much of the character of medieval belief as it developed and fed into the reaction against its excesses of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. (The Reformation is not an important a theme in the book as it perhaps could be, and relating what Sumption says to the ideas of Luther, Calvin and other reformers is an interesting exercise for a reader with some knowledge of developments in the sixteenth century.)

Pilgrimage is also one of the areas in which it is possible to gain an insight into normally unrecorded, popular ideas about Christianity as opposed to those of the theological schools. It is of course a relative extreme of enthusiasm - a lot of the evidence for the beliefs of the common people is gained through official condemnation of its excesses - and the picture it points to is not particularly surprising - a greatly simplified and superstitious version of the intellectual subtleties of the church's official views - but it is of great interest none the less.

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