Pilgrims were they all? : aspects of pilgrimage and their influence on Old and Middle English literature
Pilgrims are so frequently encountered in the pages of medieval literature that their presence (and significance) can easily be overlooked. Moreover, the visiting of holy places formed such an integral part of medieval religion that critics often assume it to have constituted the primary meaning of pilgrimage in medieval thought. Pilgrimage is consequently treated as a given fact of medieval life, a pious exercise which some writers, more creative than the rest, chose to craft into an image of life and inward growth. The reality is more complex and fascinating by far. Pilgrimage, as understood by the medieval church, was not a monolithic concept but a mosaic of ideas which had evolved through the centuries, the product of both syncretism and heated debate. In order to assess the use which individual authors made of the pilgrimage motif it is essential to establish the range of concepts which they inherited. This study therefore charts the development of Christian pilgrimage through the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, the influences of classical pagan religion and the impulses of popular devotion, before tracing the ways in which the resulting multiple meanings of pilgrimage were incorporated into the spirituality and literature of the Anglo-Saxons. It then re-examines the use of this multi-faceted image in selected Middle English texts. In the process several key perspectives emerge, chiefly the pre-eminence of the concept of life as pilgrimage and the existence within it of three strands which the Church has struggled to reconcile through the centuries: interior, moral and place pilgrimage. These perspectives, together with a clearer understanding of the manner in which different modes of pilgrimage combine and conflict with one another, offer new approaches to particular problems of interpretation, such as the role of the Parson's Tale and the apparently contradictory attitudes to pilgrimage manifested in Piers Plowman.