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Pilgrims’ progress

Whilst holidays abroad are very much a luxury, they are nowadays a perfectly reasonable one. Cheap flights, ferries and even a train under the English Channel means that going abroad is a simple endeavor, one that most people can afford. During the Middle Ages this was far from the case, where the vast majority of people would never explore much farther than their place of birth, and long travel times meant that very few could afford to take the time to travel at all. The one exception was taking a pilgrimage, and the journeys that people took in the name of visiting holy sites seem almost bizarre to us today.

One of the most famous pilgrimage routes both in the Middle Ages and today is the route to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. There are records of people travelling from England and going by foot to the far end of Galicia, a journey through mountains and extreme conditions. That was the easy version. For those travelling for reasons of penitence, the journey was to be undertaken on your knees, and the route was so tightly controlled by the papacy and religious orders that there was no way of cheating your way around this penance.

Another route closer to home but far less famous is the pilgrimage of Reek Sunday in Ireland to the peak of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s most holy mountain. This route has been in use for over one and a half thousand years, and is undertaken barefoot.  The route is still used today and mountain rescue is on call around the clock to protect pilgrims from hurting themselves en route. Imagine climbing the side of a mountain with bare feet and knowing that if you fell, that would be the death of you. This was certainly not for the fainthearted.

A final Pilgrims route that was a test of faith in itself was the Pilgrim’s route to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. This route is 400 miles long and starts in Oslo, snaking its way up into the extreme north of Scandinavia to visit the tomb of St. Olav, the king that brought Christianity to Norway. The kings of Norway followed this route themselves, and whilst the route has changed today it was still one of the most significant pre-reformation pilgrim routes.

There were of course many other pilgrims’ routes in the Middle Ages, including those that ended in the Holy Land and Jerusalem itself, so choice was not limited. For any good Christian who could afford it a pilgrimage was a serious endeavor and a far cry from our present day beach getaways.