What is a Pilgrimage? - Middle Ages
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chartres cathedral
Chartres on the horizon (France)

May 2016 - In the Middle Ages, many people - both men and women - went on short or long pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is a trip you take to a famous religious place. Christians, Jews, and Muslims went on pilgrimages. Most people walked, and others rode horses or went in carts. The people in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are a group of pilgrims traveling together to the cathedral at Canterbury in England.

Pilgrim badge of Thomas Becket, Canterbury
Pilgrimage badge from Canterbury
(of Thomas a Becket), England

Sometimes people went on short trips. From Paris, many Christian people walked for one or two days to Chartres, to see Mary's tunic that was there. Other times, people walked all summer, to get to the shrine of Saint Jacques at Compostela, in Spain. They had a good time, talking to the people they met on the road, and having adventures, as you do when you go on vacation today.

Karbala (ca. 1000 AD, Iraq)
Compostela badge
Pilgrimage badge from
St. Jacques de
Compostela, Spain

When you got there, you prayed at the church, and often people bought souvenirs to take home, to show where you had been. Sometimes the souvenirs were little metal medals you wore pinned to your hat or your scarf. Other times people brought back some holy water or oil from the shrine.

painting of a group of people on horseback
Pilgrims set off to go to Mecca on the haj.

Muslim people traveled on the haj, which was a pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia) to pray at the place where Mohammed went up to Heaven. Any Muslim who could afford it was supposed to go to Mecca at least once in his or her life. Shiites also went on shorter pilgrimages, to the shrine at Karbala (in modern Iraq), for instance.

In the same way, Jewish people went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, or to places where famous Jewish leaders like Maimonides had lived.

Learn by doing: what souvenirs of trips do you have in your house?
More about the Islamic Haj to Mecca

Bibliography and further reading about pilgrimages:

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
Medieval religion
Islamic religion
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 29 March, 2017