The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God

Article excerpt

The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. By Jonathan Sumption. Mahwah, NJ.: HiddenSpring, 2003. iv + 567 pp. $24.00 (paper).

Originally published as Pilgrimage in 1975, this book's new title more accurately indicates its full scope, which encompasses both the narrower phenomenon of medieval pilgrimage as well as the more universal aspirations with which pilgrimage was intimately entwined, namely, the medieval Christian s journey toward salvation. In writing narrowly about pilgrimage, Sumption reveals what it meant to be a medieval Christian in a broader sense.

He lays the foundation for understanding pilgrimage by addressing some of the most recognizable features of medieval Christianity: a passion for saints and relics, anxiety about a life fraught with disease and war, belief in divine intervention in nature, and profound concern with the state of one's soul and the processes by which one could be assured of salvation. As Sumption reveals, pilgrimage is tied not only to spiritual attitudes, but also to the hard realities of commerce, military might, and politics. The popularity and viability of pilgrimage depended on the fortunes of the papacy and other kingdoms of medieval Europe; schisms, political intrigue, and enemy invasions along the route could create serious problems (spiritual and physical) for even the most determined of pilgrims. Economic realities wrought havoc as shrines vied with each other (honestly or otherwise) for relics, pilgrims, and honor. Anticipating the modern tourist industry, shipping companies organized the first "package tours" to Jerusalem, in which pilgrims could fulfill their duty for an all-inclusive fee covering not only legitimate expenses, but also "illicit tolls and bribes to powerful officials" (p. 290). Throughout the text, such details bring the period alive not only as exotic but also as unexpectedly akin to our own day. Sumption describes a world that is both foreign and remarkably familiar; consequently, we can neither adopt the medieval perspective uncritically nor dismiss it as altogether unconnected to our own. …