Colin Morris and Peter Roberts, eds. Pilgrimage: the English Experience from Becket to Bunyan.
Pilgrimage was a familiar theme in medieval and early modern life and literature. Thousands of people saw pilgrimages as an opportunity to express their piety. The present volume consists of essays delivered at a colloquium on English pilgrimage at the University of Kent and revised in light of discussions on that occasion and additional research. According to one of the editors, the collection makes a "distinctive contribution to the growing body of historical literature on the concept and experience of pilgrimage" (xi).
While the essays presented here probably fall short of this mark, the volume does have virtues. It is certainly the embodiment of several of the most important trends in recent historiography, most conspicuously, cultural history. All of the contributors endeavor to place the meaning of pilgrimage in particular contexts. Moreover, more and more historians are paying attention to art, and one of the volume's strengths is its attention to visual evidence. Art, architecture, and imagery are all treated extensively.
History and memory is another theme of recent historiography which is repeatedly echoed in this volume. The great French historian Jacques LeGoff once declared that "religion is memory," and several of the contributors look at how previous experience and understanding of the value of pilgrimage shapes and is shaped by new religious practice.
None of the essays, unfortunately, truly breaks new ground. Those by Richard Gameson and Tim Tatton-Brown concentrate on visual evidence. The importance of the cult of Thomas Beckett is considered in the essays by Gameson and Peter Roberts. The pilgrimages of the Angevin kings are described by Nicholas Vincent.
Other authors seek broader perspectives. While most pilgrimages were local, Colin Morris examines pilgrimages to Jerusalem. While most pilgrimages were religious, Michael Bush looks at pilgrimage as a political movement in his essay on the Pilgrimage of Grace. Carole Rawcliffe studies pilgrimages undertaken for healing purposes. Eamon Duffy emphasizes the local dynamics of pilgrimage. And N.H. Keeble studies how pilgrimages were denounced in the early stages of the Reformation but were later revived by Puritans in the seventeenth century.
Generally speaking, the essays are quite competent, but do not add anything of great interest. Most of them serve the time-honored role of filling in gaps or adding specific details. Few will be surprised to find out that art was a tool to keep religious feelings in people's minds. Nor will many be surprised that Henry VIII and Cromwell were eager to suppress the cult of Beckett, although, admittedly, it is useful to have the details and specific studies of these matters.
Several of the essays do call for comment. Eamon Duffy, as in his earlier work, treats the various forms of medieval devotion as localized phenomena, and contends that going on a pilgrimage was as local as going to market. When Henry VIII and Cromwell attacked pilgrimages, according to Duffy, they were not simply attacking a traditional form of Catholic observance, they were also waging another battle in the unending war between central authority and local autonomy.
In the concluding essay N.H. Keeble addresses an interesting question: how was it that early English Protestants decided that pilgrimages and Protestantism were incompatible, but by the seventeenth century Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress had emerged as one of the most revered works of the Protestant imagination? Keeble's investigation of this process is intriguing. To the earliest English Protestants, pilgrimages seemed to embody the despised Catholic doctrine of works. Later Protestants, however, began to notice that there were biblical precedents for pilgrimages. And, by emphasizing certain components of those pilgrimages, such as mortification, self-denial, and the struggle to find a pathway through the tangled wilderness of sin, they could shape them into a powerful tool for Protestant piety.
In conclusion, Pilgrimage: The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan provides several useful and interesting articles, and, probably, a fairly good barometer of where the present state of pilgrimage studies is. It is not likely, however, to be a launching pad for further investigation.
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|Author:||Palmer, William (English theologian)|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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