Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

Pilgrimages and Crusades

Life in the Middle Ages was not all made up of tournaments and battles and sieges of castles. People thought a good deal of how to escape being punished for their sins and how to make sure of going to heaven when they died. The way that seemed to them most certain to accomplish these objects was to make pilgrimages, or visits to holy places. The pilgrimage that was looked upon as most profitable was that to the Holy Land; but this was a long, difficult journey and quite beyond the reach of the masses of people. Fortunately for them, almost every cathedral was believed to be favored by some saint, and there were few persons who could not at some time in their lives make a visit to at least one of these fortunate shrines. When people were ill or were in danger, they often vowed to make a pilgrimage if they were healed of their illness or were rescued from their peril. Many went in the hope that by praying before a certain shrine they would be cured of some disease for which the doctors had not been able to find a remedy. Some were sent by their confessors as penance for their sins; and in such cases it was believed to be praiseworthy to make the journey as uncomfortable as possible. Sometimes a penitent was ordered to go barefooted or wear an iron ring on his arm, or even to carry a heavy iron chain. There is an old story that two men were once commanded by their confessor to walk with peas in their shoes. One of them hobbled along the way in great discomfort; but the other strode along easily, for he had been thoughtful enough to boil his peas before starting.


a pilgrim

The ideal pilgrim was supposed to wear a rough gray cloak and a round felt hat, to sling a scrip, or bag, for bread, over his shoulder, to carry a long staff with a water bottle hanging from it, and to set out on foot, begging his bread by the way; but there were as many kinds of pilgrims as of folk, and as time passed, fewer and fewer of them troubled themselves to wear the gray cloak or even to beg their bread if they could afford to buy it. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales  the author describes a large company of pilgrims, but not one of them carried even scrip or staff. A knight, who was one of their number, had just returned from a voyage, and he started just as he was, in a fustian gipon, stained by his coat of mail. His son, a merry young squire, wore a sort of short gown with long, wide sleeves. A doctor was gorgeous in a robe of bright blue and red lined with silk. A woman from the town of Bath wore a sort of riding mantle fastened about her waist, and a hat "as broad as is a buckler or a shield."

Good folk who were entirely sincere in wishing to make a pilgrimage in order to beg the aid of some kindly saint saw no harm in making their journey agreeable. A company of pilgrims often hired a few singers and bagpipe players to go with them and enliven the way. In the Canterbury Tales, the worthy landlord says, "There is neither comfort nor pleasure in riding along as silent as a stone"; and he suggests that each one of the travelers shall tell two stories going to Canterbury, and two returning. Then, when they have come back to the inn, he who has told the best tale shall have a supper at the expense of the others. These people had no peas in their shoes, or if they had, they did not mind, for they ambled along comfortably on horseback; and when night had come, they drew rein at the Tabard Inn, where they were sure of good wine and the best of food.


canterbury pilgrims

When pilgrims had come to their journey's end, some went straight to their prayers; others wandered about the church curiously. At Canterbury there was much to see. Among other treasures there was the point of the sword that had been thrust into the brain of the martyr Thomas à Becket, and there was his very skull, all covered with silver save the forehead. The devout kissed the sacred rust of the sword and pressed their lips reverently to the skull. They gazed upon the hair shirt which the archbishop had worn and the scourge with which he had so often beaten himself for his sins. There were bones of lesser saints, there were silken vestments stiff with elaborate embroidery, and there were superb jewels and gold and silver ornaments for the shrine that had been presented by earnest worshipers. It is said that at the principal altar in the Canterbury cathedral only a few pence were left in the course of a whole year; but that at the shrine of Thomas à Becket gifts were made in the same time amounting to nearly one thousand pounds, a sum that would buy much more then than it will to-day.

One of the greatest treasures of the cathedral at Canterbury was a flask of blood, said to be that of à Becket. It was believed that if a sick person was permitted to taste a cup of water with which a drop of this blood had been mixed, he would be cured of whatever disease he might have. It is no wonder that thousands flocked to Canterbury. Sometimes one hundred thousand were in the place at the same time. An enterprising young man set to work to make ampullæ, or tiny flasks of lead and pewter, in which pilgrims might carry home a few drops of the wonder-working water to heal any of their friends who were suffering. These ampullæ had little ears pierced with holes for cords. They were sometimes hung about the neck and sometimes sewn on the cap or cloak or on the tunic over the heart. Other souvenirs could be purchased. One was a silver or pewter head of Saint Thomas. Little bells were also for sale, called Canterbury bells, a name that has been given to a blue bell-flower of Canterbury which grows commonly in our gardens.



Every shrine had its special token. Pilgrims who had been to Rome might wear badges representing two keys crossed, or a veronica, that is, a representation of the face of Christ on a handkerchief; those who had visited Santiago da Campostella in Spain wore scallop shells in honor of a miracle said to have been wrought on the seashore by the body of Saint James. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:—

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope's true gage;

And thus I 'll take my pilgrimage.

The scallop shells and other badges were highly valued by their owners as proofs that they had really made the various pilgrimages. Of course a large amount of money was gained by their sale, and the right to manufacture them was very valuable. This privilege was given to certain families or to a bishop or to some convent.

The people who went on pilgrimage were as unlike as people of to-day, and while many went with most honest devotion and often with loss and trouble to themselves, others went because they enjoyed new scenes and the adventures of the way. Chaucer laughs slyly at these last and says that when April has come, when the gentle breezes blow, when twigs are green and little birds sing through the night, then it is that folk long to go on pilgrimage. They could hardly be blamed, for such a pilgrimage as that to Canterbury was certainly a pleasant little excursion. The road from London was known as the "Pilgrim's Road." At Walsingham there was a monastery whose chapel contained a famous statue of the Virgin Mary, and the road thither was called the "Palmer's Way," and the "Walsingham Green Way." A common name in England for the Milky Way was the "Walsingham Way."

On the Continent there was a shrine in almost every province. The favorite one in France was on the wild, jagged rock of Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. This was sacred to the archangel Michael. At Kiev in Russia rested the bones of many martyrs, and every year thousands came to gaze reverently upon them and offer up fervent prayers. Trèves in Prussia rejoiced in the possession of a garment said to be the seamless coat worn by the Saviour. Throngs of people made long journeys to visit these places, and it was a common saying that the city which contained a valuable relic consisted mainly of churches and inns.

There were sham pilgrims as well as real ones. It was regarded as a worthy act to aid a pilgrim by giving him food and lodging, and some of the gilds, or associations of tradesmen, maintained lodging-houses on purpose for poor pilgrims. This was an accommodation, but not entirely a charity; for the tradesmen expected to be well paid in the benefit that they would receive from the prayers of their guests. People of a wandering turn of mind or those who were too lazy to work for their bread found the liberality shown to pilgrims a vast convenience. They had only to choose a way leading to some popular shrine, and then they could roam on, comfortably certain of bed and board without money or labor. It was easy for one who was weary of his work or his home village to become a sort of perpetual pilgrim; that is, it was easy until so many had learned the trick that laws were made against this vagrancy, and unless a person could prove that he was a real pilgrim, he was in danger of being shut up in prison as a real vagabond.

Of course the most advantageous pilgrimage of all was that to the Holy Land. This was counted so meritorious a deed that he who aided any one in accomplishing it was looked upon as especially sure of a blessing; while he who hindered such a pilgrim might expect neither happiness nor prosperity. Many of the gilds had the law that when one of its members was setting out on pilgrimage, the others, both men and women, must go a little way with him, and in saying good-bye each must present him with a piece of money. He paid no dues to the gild while he was away; for the members were supposed to share in the merits of his journey. On all the principal roads leading to holy places there were rest stations, sometimes built and supported by freewill offerings and sometimes by regular taxes. Here the pilgrim was always entitled to a night's shelter. Convents were frequent, and at any one of them he was welcome to fire, water, and lodging, and even food if this was needed. In many places he had no tolls to pay, and whoever did him an injury was excommunicated, or forbidden the benefits of the Church.

Before a person started on a long pilgrimage, he confessed his sins and went to a special service. Psalms were sung and prayers were offered that he might return in safety. Then, just as the sword of the young knight was blessed, so the priest now pronounced the blessing of the Church upon the pilgrim's staff and scrip. Mass was said, a cross of cloth was sewn on his shoulder, and he started on a journey that would separate him from his friends for months and perhaps years. It might be that he had no idea of returning, for he who spent his last years in Jerusalem and there met his death was regarded as being the most blessed of mankind.

The common route from England to Palestine lay through France to Lombardy and Venice, thence to Cyprus, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. Sometimes it led to Egypt. So many thousand pilgrims were constantly traversing these roads that a person who started alone soon found companionship and the safety that a large company would afford. Prominent men usually carried letters from their king, declaring that they were pilgrims and commending them to the protection of the rulers through whose lands they would pass. Sometimes a band of pilgrims was almost large enough for an army. In the eleventh century a great company, seven thousand strong, set out from Germany and Normandy for the Holy Land. Many of them were priests or bishops; but their holy orders did not save them, for Arab robbers came down upon them and carried away a large amount of their money, and forced them to fight for their lives. When those who escaped reached Jerusalem, the patriarch, or head of the Church in that city, came out with the Christians of the place to bid them welcome. They were escorted with clanging of cymbals and flashing of lights to the Holy Sepulchre, in which Jesus was said to have lain. These dwellers in Jerusalem pointed out the various places of interest, and were as definite in their information as if they had known anything about the matter. The pilgrims were eager to bathe in the river Jordan, and, indeed, to go wherever the feet of the Lord had trodden; but the Arabs were all about Jerusalem, and he who wandered far from the city was in danger of losing his money and perhaps his life. After going about as much as they dared, they set out for their homes, stopping at Rome on their way.


crusaders setting sail for jerusalem

Many pilgrims preserved with the utmost care the shirts which they wore at their entrance into Jerusalem to be used as their shrouds; for thus they would make sure of an easy entrance into heaven. They did not forget to carry home some of the dust of the sacred country; for it was believed that whoever possessed a grain of it could never be harmed by fiends or demons. It was the custom for every pilgrim to bring back also a palm; and when he had come to his own village, this was put up over the altar of his church to show that he had made the great pilgrimage. It was from this custom that pilgrims to Jerusalem were called palmers; but as time passed, the name was often given to any pilgrim, even though he was making only a few days' journey to some shrine near his home.

Pilgrims sometimes came back with heavier purses than they had carried with them; for some of them were also merchants, and the productions of Asia were brought by caravans to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There these merchants would buy them, and on their homeward journey they would dispose of them at a most excellent profit. Another advantage of pilgrimage was that the returning traveler had enough stories of strange sights and adventures to last him all the rest of his life. In those days when neither magazines, novels, nor daily papers had ever been dreamed of, even the prosiest of these story tellers must have been a welcome guest at any castle on his way.

The pilgrim often had, however, many stories of cruelty and persecution to narrate. In the seventh century the followers of Mohammed who captured Jerusalem had agreed that Christians might be permitted to live in the city provided they paid a tax of two gold pieces every year, wore a dress different from that of the Mohammedans, and did not put the cross on the outside of their buildings. Moreover, they must always rise if a Mohammedan appeared among them. During the following four hundred years, there were no great changes in the laws, but there were great differences in the characters of the Mohammedan rulers. Some were cruel, while others were kind; and the condition of the Christians in Jerusalem was "as uncertain as April weather," said one of the old writers. The best of these rulers was the famous Haroun al Raschid, the "caliph" of the "Arabian Nights." At length, however, the Holy City fell into the hands of the barbarous Seljukian Turks. They, too, were Mohammedans, and they hated the Christians; and now, when pilgrims returned to France and Germany and England, they had terrible tales to tell of how the Christians were treated. "The Christian churches are profaned," they said, "and the priests are thrown into wretched dungeons. If a pilgrim shows any signs of having money, he is seized and robbed. If he is apparently a poor man, he fares even worse, for the Turks declare that no one would set out on such a journey without money, and they either kill him outright or torture him to make him give it up."

Among the pilgrims was a monk called Peter the Hermit. He grew more and more indignant as he thought of the sufferings of the Christians, and of the insults offered by the Turks to the holy places. He prayed and fasted and finally became convinced that God had given to him the special work of recovering the Holy Land for the Christians. He told what he had seen to the Pope, Urban II. The Pope wept in sympathy and declared that the time had come for all Christians to unite and drive the Turks from Europe. Peter set out to arouse the people of France. He wore a coarse woolen shirt and a gray mantle. He was bareheaded and barefooted. He rode upon a mule and bore a huge cross in his arms. He was so earnest and eloquent that no one could hear him without being moved. People treasured up the very hairs of his mule as precious legacies for their children. They loaded him down with gifts, but he divided these among the poor. He seemed to have no thought for himself, but only for the freedom of the Holy City. "Repent! Repent!" he cried. "Remember that, however wicked you may have been, you have now the chance to win pardon for all your sins. He who strikes a blow to rescue the Holy Sepulchre from the pollution of the unbelievers has thrown open the door of heaven for himself."


peter the hermit handing letter from simeon, patriarch of jerusalem, to pope urban ii

Into the midst of these people, already aroused to a high pitch of excitement and enthusiasm, came Pope Urban. He called a great council to meet at Clermont in France. No church was large enough to hold the thousands that came together, and they all went out upon a wide-spreading plain. A high scaffold was built, and from this the Pope addressed them. He bade them cease making war with one another and devote all their power to striving against the Mohammedans. "You are sure of victory," he said, "for the Turks are cowards, while you are valiant and strong. If you are slain, you will indeed have lost your bodies, but you will have saved your souls. Do not refuse for love of your families; for you must love God more than these. Do not refuse for love of home; for all the world is the Christian's country. Do not refuse because of your wealth; for much richer treasures await you. Those who die will enter the mansions of heaven. Those who live will behold the sepulchre of our Lord. Fortunate indeed are they who may enter such a conflict and share the glorious rewards that are set before them." "God wills it! God wills it!" shouted the people. They wept, they smote their breasts in sorrow for their sins, and on the instant many pressed forward to beg for the red cross that was to be the sign of their having entered upon the holy undertaking. The Latin word for cross is crux, and therefore the expeditions to drive the Turks from the Holy Land were called crusades.

The pope had forbidden any to go except strong men well able to fight, and he had set August 15, 1096, as the day of their departure; but the eager people could not think of waiting so long, and four months before that date two bands set out for Palestine, made up not only of strong men, but of old and infirm men and even women and children. One band was led by a gentleman of Burgundy called Walter the Penniless, one by Peter himself. It is thought that there were several hundred thousand persons on the march. They had come from throughout Europe. If a servant declared that he wished to join the crusade, no master dared to hold him back. "God wills it!" said the debtor, and his creditor did not attempt to prevent him from going or even to make him pay his debt. "God wills it!" the criminal in prison cried, and the doors of his dungeon were thrown open that he, too, might join the army. The lord of a manor did not venture to forbid even a villein to put on the cross, nor did the bishop venture to command a priest or monk to remain at home. Sometimes whole families set out together, sometimes husbands left their wives, or mothers their children, to join in the wild rush to the land of the unbelievers. Vast numbers of these eager people went because they firmly believed they were following the will of God; but thieves went to gain chances to rob and steal, and swarms of folk went because they were greedy for any kind of change and excitement. As for the knights, their business was fighting; and here was an opportunity to fight, not for the prizes of the tournament, but for heaven itself.

This strange and unwieldly army made their way to the East, and they succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. Some one must be chosen to rule the city, and the crusaders favored the foremost of the leaders, Godfrey of Bouillon, duke of Lorraine. It is said that some of them asked Godfrey's servants what was their master's greatest fault. The answer was that he persisted in staying so long in church to learn the meaning of every image and picture that the dinner was often spoiled. In spite of this grievous imperfection, he was chosen ruler of Jerusalem. He would not accept the title of king and wear a crown of gold in the very place where Jesus had worn a crown of thorns; and therefore the title of "Baron and defender of the Holy Sepulchre" was given to him.

This was the first of the crusades. There were eight others, for after about one hundred years, Jerusalem again fell into the hands of the Mohammedans. Then Europe was indeed aroused, and three sovereigns, Richard the Lionhearted of England, Philip II of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, led enormous armies toward the East. Frederick was drowned on the way; but the others pushed on to Palestine. Battles were lost and battles were won. The kings quarreled and Philip and his soldiers went home. Richard had not men enough to capture Jerusalem, and he, too, left the country, though not until he had shown such skill and valor in warfare that even to this day his prowess is not forgotten in the East.


godfrey of bouillon

People had felt so sure that the crusade of the three sovereigns would succeed that they hardly knew how to account for its failure. "It must be that the crusaders had committed many sins of which they had not repented," thought some; and gradually the belief spread that only those who were free from sin and pure in heart could ever win the home-land of the Saviour. A French shepherd boy named Stephen went from place to place in France declaring that Jesus had commanded him to lead a company of children to the Holy Land to rescue the sepulchre of Jesus from the unbelievers. Throughout France he sang:—

Jesus, Lord, repair our loss;

Restore to us the holy cross.

Thousands of children joined him. Rich and poor broke away from their homes and marched after him crying, "God wills it! God wills it!" "No bolts, no bars, no fear of fathers or love of mothers could hold them back"; and, moreover, the fathers and mothers often hardly dared to hold them back, lest in so doing they should be opposing God. In Germany, another boy preacher named Nicholas aroused the German children in the same way; and they all set out for the Holy Land. Longfellow says of their departure from Cologne:—

From the gates, that summer day,

Clad in robes of hodden gray,

With the red cross on the breast,

Azure-eyed and golden-haired,

Forth the young crusaders fared;

While above the band devoted

Consecrated banners floated,

Fluttered many a flag and streamer,

And the cross o'er all the rest!

Singing lowly, meekly, slowly,

"Give us, give us back the holy

Sepulchre of the Redeemer!"

They had neither weapons nor any thought of using them. They expected the waters of the sea to divide that they might pass over dryshod; and they supposed that the walls of Jerusalem would fall at their coming and that the unbelievers would yield to them without striking a blow. But the plains were hot and the mountains were cold. Sometimes they could not get food. Longfellow says:—

Ah! what master hand shall paint

How they journeyed on their way,

How the days grew long and dreary,

How their little feet grew weary,

How their little hearts grew faint!

Many were stolen and sold as slaves. Many were lost in that strange and bewildering journey. Thousands sickened and died. A very few, after long months of suffering, found their way back to their homes.


the children's crusade

There were in all nine crusades between the latter part of the eleventh century and that of the thirteenth. The bloodshed and suffering came to nothing so far as getting possession of the Holy Land was concerned; for at the end of the last expedition it was left in the hands of the Mohammedans, and there it has remained from that day to this. The crusades did not drive the unbelievers from Palestine, but they did make vast changes in Europe. In the first place, an enormous amount of money was needed to pay expenses. If the lord of a manor wished to go on a crusade, he would often allow some of his villeins to pay dues in money instead of in work; and this tended to break up the manor system. A sovereign who needed money for a crusade was usually willing to grant to some of his cities many privileges of self-government if they would pay him a good round sum for this freedom. Again, the most turbulent folk and the most eager fighters were sure to seize the opportunity to join these expeditions, and thus make sure of plenty of fighting and excitement; and this left the home-lands more quiet and peaceful. Another great gain was that these expeditions strengthened the Latin power in Constantinople, and thus prevented the Mohammedans from sweeping over central Europe. Moreover, the crusaders became accustomed to the use of many things from the East, such as spices and silks, which they had regarded as luxuries when at home or had perhaps seldom seen at all. Numbers of vessels were built to carry the thousands of men to Palestine, and on the return voyage their holds were filled with these eastern productions. So it was that both shipbuilding and commerce were greatly increased. People learned not only to use new things, but to think new thoughts. They learned of lands previously unknown to them, of strange peoples and customs. They were eager listeners to stories of the crusades, and soon these stories, together with poems and histories, were written in the languages of the different countries of Europe. All these new ideas were most interesting to the good folk of the time; but there was one in particular that was not only interesting but exceedingly surprising to them. The knight was the ideal man of the age, and Richard the Lionhearted was the ideal knight. The Mohammedan was despised by every one. But, behold, it had been seen that Richard's Mohammedan enemy Saladin was as brave and fearless, as courteous and generous as any hero of chivalry could ever be. The crusaders and those who listened to their stories did not become devoted admirers of their Mohammedan foes, but many of them did begin to comprehend that even if a man was of different race, different customs, and different faith, he was "a man for a' that"; and this was perhaps the greatest gain of all.

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