Pilgrimages during the Great Mortality


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

Among all the religious practices during the Great Mortality, one of the more mainstream one was pilgrimage. It was widespread throughout the medieval world before the plague arrived. It was common practice for people to travel to a town where the church possessed, say, the toenail of a saint or a stone that the saint had once sat upon.

Image of a giant cross next to a road in the countryside along a pilgrimage path.
Pilgrimages became much more prevalent as the plague spread through Europe. (Image: RIccarbi/Shutterstock)

Why Take Such a Long Journey?

One popular destination for medieval pilgrims during the plague years was one of the shrines of Saint Sebastian. There were more than a few of these because it was a common practice for those in authority to divide the saints’ relics—that way, more churches, and cathedrals, could benefit from the holiness of each saint. So one church might have a saint’s eyeball, while another might have his shinbone or cloak, or a cutting of the saint’s hair. 

It was a special thing if the body of a saint was intact at one particular location—that church was lucky indeed. The presence or absence of these relics could mean stability or collapse for a church that did or did not possess them. 

Those who came on pilgrimage could be expected to make an offering of thanks, and those offerings would go straight into the church or monastery’s coffers. The more A-list your saint was, the more likely you would get high pilgrim traffic, and the more likely it was that your ecclesiastical institution would get some financial benefit.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Pilgrimage Brought More Problems During the Plague

As most of you are probably thinking right now, the idea of large groups of people from all over the medieval world traveling through it and then gathering together in large groups is exactly the opposite of what people should do in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a cruel irony that this attempt to avoid the plague probably infected more people with it and probably brought it to places that had so far managed to avoid infection. 

You might be a healthy pilgrim on the way out, and while traveling the pilgrim road, or after you arrived at a shrine, you would most likely mingle with other pilgrims, some of whom were coming from plague-infested places, and many of whom carried plenty of fleas with them in their clothing.

Also, remember that, along the way, you’d need a place to stay. You might stay in the guest chambers of a monastery, as did many others before your arrival. You might stay at an inn, where you most likely had to pay for part of a bed. 

That’s right—it was perfectly typical, if you were a medieval traveler stopping for the night, to end up sharing a bed with a complete stranger. And that bed was probably made of straw or other plant material covered with linen that was almost certainly not washed with any kind of regularity. Even if you had a private room, it would have been slept in by any number of people from any number of places before your arrival. 

Learn more about communities that survived the first wave.

Pilgrimage: Not So Ideal During the Plague 

At the same time that more people were hitting the road as pilgrims seeking salvation, other people recognized that this was not ideal, even if they didn’t fully understand the theory of germ transmission. 

Those pilgrims who did make it home and shared their experience talked of roadblocks put up by members of certain communities who really didn’t want a steady stream of potentially infected people marching through their towns. They also talked of shuttered inns and establishments that were turning away strangers. 

A Chance that Comes Once in a Century  

Apart from Jerusalem, the greatest pilgrimage you could make during the Middle Ages was to the holy city of Rome. At the end of the 13th century, Pope Boniface VIII had declared that the year 1300 would be a jubilee year. 

By that, he meant that all those who made a pilgrimage to Rome that year would receive full remission of all their sins as long as they were truly contrite and fulfilled his command to visit the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul once a day for 15 days. 

Image of Saint Paul’s basilica
The pilgrimage in the jubilee year was to Rome, and people had to visit the basilicas of Saints Peter and Saint Paul every day for 15 days. (Image: Oligo22/Shutterstock)

If you were an inhabitant of Rome and didn’t have the burden of traveling to the city, you could partake in the jubilee as well as long as you went to those basilicas once a day each for 30 days.

Learn more about the economics of the Black Death.

More Pilgrimages During the Plague

Boniface had intended for jubilees to happen once every century, but in 1349, several people appealed to Pope Clement, pointing out that this schedule would mean that many Christians would be deprived of the opportunity to experience a jubilee due to the long period between them. 

Image of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome
Pope Boniface VIII made it so that people were encouraged to visit Rome every 100 years but Pope Clement changed it to 50. (Image: Phant/Shutterstock)

Clement went ahead and called a jubilee for 1350, and, as you can imagine, those who had managed to survive the Black Death to this point, and those who managed to avoid it, felt a strong compulsion to travel to Rome both to give thanks and, of course, to get that ticket on the express train out of purgatory. 

Many people probably thought they were likely to die sooner rather than later and wanted to get their spiritual affairs in order. In a world in which religion pervaded just about every aspect of life, it’s hard to imagine that there would be those who didn’t want to go.

Common Questions about Pilgrimages During the Great Mortality

Q: Why were relics of saints scattered among churches?

The relics of saints were divided among churches to ensure that more churches could benefit from the holiness of a saint. Also, it made people more likely to take a pilgrimage to that church.

Q: Why did pilgrimage become a problem during the Great Mortality?

Pilgrimages created more problems during the Great Mortality as those people who were infected spread the disease wherever they went. Meanwhile, those who were healthy, probably became ill and brought back the disease to their hometowns.

Q: What did Pope Boniface VIII mean by declaring 1300 a jubilee year?

It involved the practice of pilgrimage. It was believed that all those who would make a pilgrimage to Rome that year and visited the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul every day for 15 days would receive full remission for all their sins.

Keep Reading
What Caused the Great Mortality in 14th Century England?
The Spread of the Black Death in England
How England Coped With the Plague