by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bibliothèque Municipale, Lyon
A bishop blesses the staffs and satchels of two pilgrims, early 16th century

The Medieval Pilgrimage to St. Peter's: 350-1350

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 22 January 2000


'Travel,' according to one of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, 'is a foretaste of Hell.' Pilgrimages to the Christian holy places were imposed on malefactors as a punishment - a long, arduous, dangerous journey on foot being regarded as a form of chastisement - and pilgrimages were equally undertaken voluntarily as a means of mortifying the flesh and expiating sins.

The prized destinations were, of course, Jerusalem and the shrines of the Holy Land, but in time other centers became important, not least because of the difficulty and expense of reaching Palestine. When the Roman empire split, and the church divided into eastern and western halves, Rome, the burial place of Peter, Paul and countless other martyrs, began ever more vigorously to promote itself as a viable alternative to the Bible lands for all-sins-forgiven packages.

Dante defined pilgrims in the broad sense as all wayfarers traveling beyond their homelands, but wrote that, by this era at least, the term more strictly applied only to those on the road to the tomb of St. James at Compostela in Spain (while those visiting the Holy Land were dubbed 'palmers,' from the souvenir palm leaves they returned with). Those journeying to Rome, he noted, were properly called 'Romei,' or Romers, taking their name from their destination.

This archaic label is revived in the title of an exhibition on the phenomenon, 'Romei e Giubilei' (Romers and Jubilees), subtitled 'The Medieval Pilgrimage to St. Peter's, 350-1350,' on view at Palazzo Venezia here until Feb. 26.

With more than 250 paintings, frescoes, sculptures, reliquaries, manuscripts and contemporary souvenirs - such as ampules for holy oil and water, medallions and badges - the show traces the development of devotional travel to Rome, with a final section on how the modest tomb of St. Peter grew into a large basilica to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims that flooded into the city in the Middle Ages.

As Christianity spread to the northern fringes of Europe, pilgrims came to Rome from further and further afield. Those from the British Isles were particularly indefatigable visitors to the Eternal City, these determined Old English and Celtic hikers prefiguring their later descendants who were to spearhead the trend for recreational travel and tourism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This to-ing and fro-ing of the faithful helped establish well-trodden, long-distance trans-European routes, along which passed art and artifacts (promoting the internationalization of styles), along with a host of other merchandise - some of which was evidently human. As the English missionary St. Boniface, who went to Rome three times, recorded, there were English prostitutes in every town from the Channel ports to Rome.

The first jubilee was not declared until 1300, and given that it was not announced by Pope Boniface VIII until Feb. 22, seems to have been something of an afterthought. Its inspiration was partly the ancient Roman tradition of 'Secular Games' marking the end of each century, and also the concept of the Old Testament jubilee, described by Leviticus, of a celebratory wiping clean of the slate and fresh beginning in human and business affairs every 50 years.

Boniface's jubilee (originally scheduled on the Roman model to occur only every 100 years) offered a plenary indulgence of sins to all those who came to Rome during the year. Despite the late start, large crowds turned up, hotel prices went through the roof, the Pope's coffers were filled by pious donations - Dante, who was there, described priests on 24-hour duty with rakes to sweep up the heaps of gold and silver coins - and the whole business was a resounding success.

Ironically, Boniface's death in 1305 ushered in the era of the 'Babylonish Captivity,' lasting until 1377, during which a succession of French popes sat at Avignon, without ever setting foot in Rome, while that city experienced a period of turbulence, anarchic even by the hair-raising standards of the times. A Roman delegation to the self-exiled Clement VI begged him to authorize the celebration of the jubilee in the Old Testament manner every 50 years. He was prepared to consider anything as long as it did not involve his going to Rome. So the second jubilee duly took place in 1350, with the Pope's approval, but in his absence.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023