As the evening drew on and after a good meal, I wandered out to the back of the pub where a marquee was set up. A snooker table took up one half of the space towards the back, and at the entrance were old leather sofas, begging to be snuggled in; wicker chairs, a huge old wood table in the centre and a gas burner which made the whole place cosy and welcoming. There the pilgrims like myself sat, laughing, talking, mixing, and my mind somersaulted as I sat quietly drinking it all in, feeling that I really had entered a time warp. This could have been the scene of any year for the past 1000 years…ordinary people, all with their own private reasons for pilgrimage, all with our own hopes and fears and expectations, just being people together in a strange place, getting along. The camaraderie was palpable, the glasses chinked and as more alcohol was consumed, and we warmed in subject and in body temperature, the mood relaxed as did the tongues, and the groups of conversations differed between religious, bawdy, confessional and counselling. All backgrounds, all life was there in this small group of 20 or so people. Priests and lay mixed with no difference. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, the curious, the unsure, converts, and ones who defied categorisation.
There were those that believed in life after death and those who did not, some who saw aliens as being “the answer”, others who gently mocked such ideas. Some believed wholeheartedly in the physical Resurrection, others saw it as symbolic… some thought women should be priests full stop, others saw it as heresy… but all talked, debated, and shared. It was a joy to behold. One of the main gifts of Pilgrimage because within that diversity you realise that you too have your own little space, your own slot that creates the whole on-going debate and question of the mystery of Christianity. It continues to be revealing through time, it is not fixed and stagnant. It still evolves just as we do and there is a space for all of us within it. And that is the point of the Canterbury Tales. I was seeing it in living action. At one point I just sat back absorbing it all, and felt the wonder of the experience. We had created bonds. We had a common link that we would explore over the next couple of days. Living Faith.
We had all come to metaphorically place something at the Shrine, a prayer for healing for oneself or another maybe, a prayer for deepening faith, the hope for a miracle within ones life, perhaps an act of memorial of someone dear to us, or a thanksgiving for our life or something that has been granted us, or maybe we are asking forgiveness, or intercession or simply for peace. This we share with all pilgrims of all ages, the one thing that none of us are likely to be doing it for nowadays is to avoid our taxes. In medieval times, pilgrimage offered two unusual benefits that are not relevant today.
‘He that be a pilgrim’, declared the London preacher Richard Alkerton in 1406, ‘oweth first to pay his debts, afterwards to set the house in governance, and afterwards to array himself and take leave of his neighbours, and so go forth.’ Pilgrims enjoyed the special privilege of disposing of their property by will, a privilege which until the late Middle Ages was accorded to very few. Heirs would be named, and the will would state things such as how long he should be missing before presumed dead that his wife may remarry. A second benefit of pilgrimage was as follows. In his absence, a pilgrims property was immune from all civil claims in a court of law. The service he owed his feudal lord was suspended during his time of pilgrimage. In the Papal bull Quantum Praedeccssores of December 1145, Eugenius 111 proclaimed that the wife and children, goods and chattels of every pilgrim or crusader were ‘placed under the protection of the Holy See and all of the prelates of the Church of God. By our apostolic authority we absolutely forbid anyone to disturb them until their return or death.’
On his way home, a pilgrim usually wore a badge or token showing where he had been. It was the formal sign that the pilgrims vow had been fulfilled. Much travelled pilgrims would cover the brims of their hats with badges until their heads were bowed beneath the weight of the lead. Langland’s pilgrim had:
‘An hundredth of ampulles on his hatt seten,
Signes of Synay and shelles of Galice
And many a cruche on his cloke and keyes of Rome
And the vernicle bifore; for men shulde knowe
And se bi his signes whom he sought had. ‘
Perhaps now we do not go to quite such great lengths, but who can resist a token of their visit? For them, the Pilgrims shop in Walsingham is a treasure trove. Are we really so different to our ancestors? Tomorrow I would go the shrine.
Photos (C) Stephanie 2012