Building imagined pilgrimage experiences and pilgrim libraries in the medieval world

Phillip Booth
Phil Booth

Blog-post author, Phil Booth, Associate Lecturer at Lancaster University, UK

Creating tools of contemplation and remembrance

When talking about Christian pilgrimage in the medieval period, there exists a tendency to divide pilgrimage into geographic types: the local, the national, the transnational and the international (for example). Each of these “types” of pilgrimage exhibit different qualities and were performed for different reasons at different times. The motivation, for example, for undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem might be vastly different from undertaking a pilgrimage to any number of local shrines which existed in Europe (and elsewhere) at this time. Yet one thing these “types” had/have in common was a belief in the benefit that could be derived from movement towards, and interaction with, a sacred space.

c15 image produced to accompany a translation of Burchard of Mt Sion’s 'Descriptio Terrae Sanctae'. Images like this were crucial for facilitating imagined or virtual pilgrimage experiences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
c15 image produced to accompany a translation of Burchard of Mt Sion’s ‘Descriptio Terrae Sanctae’. Images like this were crucial for facilitating imagined or virtual pilgrimage experiences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Increasingly, however, historians have recognised that pilgrimage did not require any sort of movement or travel at all; that there existed, in medieval Europe, a belief in what has been variously described as virtual, imagined or armchair pilgrimage. Simply put, people imagined themselves going to or seeing specific holy places believing they would benefit from the exercise. Paramount in facilitating an imagined pilgrimage experience were books, or other material objects, that could evoke an image of sacred space and associated events. Through ritual movements, physical touching of material objects, and simple contemplation an individual could experience a pilgrimage from the comforts of their own homes (or convent/monastery as was usually the case).

In this regard it is interesting to note that when pilgrims who wrote accounts of their pilgrimages sat down to do so they often express a very clear appreciation that their accounts of pilgrimage could be used in such a way. They were to be used as tools of contemplation and remembrance. Indeed, for many it was this very aspect of medieval spirituality which inspired them to record their pilgrimage experiences for posterity. Some examples.

John of Würzburg who travelled to the Holy Land in around 1160 stated:

I believe that this description will be valuable to you [i.e. Dietrich, the individual to whom the account is written] if … you come to everything which I have described and see them [i.e. the holy places] physically … But if you happen not to go [to the Holy Land] and you are not going physically to see them, you will still have a greater love of them and their holiness by reading this book and thinking about it.

The best example of these trends from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries occurs in the account of Burchard of Mount Sion, a Dominican friar who spent several years in the Holy Land in the late-thirteenth century. The introduction of his account is replete with references to the imagined experiences which pilgrimage to the Holy Land could provoke. Most noteworthy for our present considerations, however, is his statement that:

Seeing, however, that some people are affected by a desire to picture for themselves in some degree at least those things that they are unable to look upon face to face and wanting to satisfy their wish as far as I can, I have … described … that land [i.e the Holy Land] through which I have frequently passed.

These pilgrims were clearly producing these accounts to facilitate an imagined or remembered experience once back at home. However, it should be noted that this was not a uniquely “Catholic European” preoccupation. Daniel, a Russian abbot, and therefore an Orthodox Christian, who travelled to the Holy Land between 1106 and 1107, also wanted his account to enable people to think on or remember the holy places:

… for the love of these holy places I have set down everything which I saw with my own eyes, so that what God gave me, an unworthy man, to see may not be forgotten … I have written this for the faithful. For if anyone hearing about these holy places should grieve in his soul and in his thoughts for these holy places, he shall receive the same reward from God as those who shall have travelled to the holy places.

c14 depiction of Xuanzang returning from India laden with Buddhist texts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
c14 depiction of Xuanzang returning from India laden with Buddhist texts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Even more fascinating is that it does not seem to have been a uniquely Christian preoccupation either. Other religious cultures in the Medieval world expressed and practiced their spirituality in diverse ways. Pilgrimage, whilst possessing many universal qualities, was and still is performed in different ways, by different peoples, groups and religions. And those cultures which wrote about pilgrimage did so for sometimes different reasons. Nevertheless, when reading the Record of the Inner Law sent home from the South Sea, composed by the Buddhist monk Yijing, who travelled to India from China between 671 and 695, we read:

My life may sink with the setting sun this day, still I work to do something worthy of the promotion of the Law; … If you read this record of mine, you may, without moving one step, travel in all five countries of India, and before you spend a minute you may become a mirror of the dark path for a thousand ages to come.

While this is the only such reference of which I am aware of, what it shows is that imagined pilgrimage was not something peculiar to Christians or Europe. Furthermore, the experiences of these remarkable Buddhist pilgrims were intrinsically bound up with textual records. They travelled from China to India in the hope of recovering the original texts of Buddhism and they themselves were inspired to produce texts to help individuals become better Buddhists. They were also interested in building libraries of their own. Xuanzang who travelled in the seventh century (and whose travel account influenced Yijing’s own journeys) brought back to China some 657 Buddhist texts, Yijing himself some 400 texts, which were translated into Chinese and formed new libraries of knowledge connected to pilgrimage and Buddhism. The pilgrimages of the likes of Faxian, Yijing and Xuanzang were all about libraries, reading, the betterment of oneself and imagined journeys.

Overall it demonstrates the important link that existed between pilgrimage, text and imagination in multiple “medieval” cultures.