4 June 2017
“I woke on day two with very good spirits,” I wrote twenty years ago, to start my journal of that part of the pilgrimage path that we are now on. I woke this morning to news that nine people died last night and another fifty were injured when terrorists drove a van through a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge and then stabbed people in the Southwark market area. That is where we were ambling last Tuesday, as it is the neighborhood of the Globe Theatre and the George Inn. We walked across London Bridge, enjoying the evening and even talked about the earlier attack on Westminster Bridge.
I like to think that travel makes people more understanding and sensitive to other people and cultures, and I don’t want to live my life in fear or isolation, so onward we go on our pilgrimage, hoping for peace.
May 1997: The Shoes of Despond
I woke on day two with very good spirits. Unfortunately other parts were not so good. When I went to stand up, I found that my feet absolutely refused to support the rest of me. The pain in my heels and the back of my arches was so great that I could barely walk. I hobbled into the bathroom, took a hot bath, took both aspirin and ibuprofen, and finally made it downstairs to breakfast. I must have looked really pathetic, because Betty, my hostess at the B&B, offered to drive me up to the top of the hill that led into Wells, and I gratefully accepted her generosity. Pilgrims are dependent on the kindness of strangers.
The ride cut my trip from six miles to three. It had been my plan to walk along the A39, thinking that there might be a sidewalk along it as there had been the day before going into Farrington Gurney, but according to Betty there was no sidewalk and it would not be a nice walk; she dropped me at the head of a bridle path that led down the hill into Wells. While this was a clearer path than any of those through the fields of yesterday, it was still hard going. The decline was steep and the surface was first muddy and then rocky. It was difficult anywhere along the path to put my foot down with confidence. I felt my ankles twist and turn and through the whole walk the pain of my feet was first and foremost on my mind. It's too bad too, because the views through the mist were really pretty. It was a soft cool day and the air was filled with the sounds of many different kinds of birds, the bleating of sheep, the mooing of cows, and the movement of the leaves on the trees. On my left was a woodsy patch, with more bluebells, to my right a broad pasture swept down to a farm in the valley below, and other fields rose in a mirror image on the other side. I should have been singing, instead I was moaning, “Ow, ow, ow, ow.” With each step, an “ow.” Step, step, “ow, ow,” step, “ow,” step, “ow.”
The day before I had noticed how the young lambs wag their tails when nursing and the same comical picture was presented today. “Gamboling” is the perfect word for the sort of hoppity skip movement of the lambs. They all stared at me as I passed, and I found myself talking to them as they moved out of the way in front of me. “Good sheep, pretty lamb, how are ewe mama?” I was reminded me of a drive Stuart and I made several years ago around the Dingle peninsula in Ireland. From the tops of the steep hills, the sounds down in the valley rose up to us: the barking of the dogs, the bleating of the sheep, and the sound of the farmer calling to his dog in Irish. Here today I noticed again how the sound travelled across the valley. The sheep bleat in a whole range of tones and with differently pulsed bleats. I also thought at one point that I heard a wolf howling across the valley, and couldn't remember if they have wolves in England. Listening carefully I thought it might be a dog, or even a cow mooing intensely. Clearly, I am not a country girl.
My progress was extremely slow. My route into Wells brought me along the north side of the Cathedral just in time to see the clock chime eleven. I had walked three miles in two hours. It occurred to me that I had completed my walk for the day and my husband back in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wake up for another three hours. My feet were throbbing. I wanted to sit down and the cathedral clock was a great excuse to do so. From the stone wall below it there is a great view of the two armoured knights mounted above the clock face who alternated beating upon a bell eleven times with their axes. “Wonderful.”
I must have spoken this aloud, because the man standing next to me turned and asked, “Have you seen it inside?” When I shook my head, he said, “When the clock strikes inside there’s a jousting match.” I determined to see the battle on the clock when it chimed at noon, and set about finding a place to stay nearby so that I could dump my pack and get back to the cathedral.
The Swan Hotel was right around the corner from the Cathedral and centrally located. It was a bit beyond my price range, but had bathtubs, which I wasn’t sure I would find at a B&B, and, as my feet would sorely need one by the end of the day, I splurged. Pack off, face washed, shoes changed, I returned to Wells Cathedral.
If the experience of Bath the day before had somehow not met my expectations of finding a sense of the medieval in modern England, Wells Cathedral more than made up for it. In truth, I hadn’t heard of Wells Cathedral until I started planning my trip. Though I had been several times previously in Bath, Wells had never been on any itinerary and it was only because it was on the road between Bath and Glastonbury that I first began to read about it. I was pleased to learn they had a cathedral there, without investing any expectations in it being remarkable. But it is remarkable. The broad West face, covered with medieval stone carvings of angels, saints, bishops, kings, knights, and noblemen took my breath away. Though the statues were originally painted, the color has worn off over the centuries and it is all now a warm brown color.
Inside it was just as wonderful. Dramatic crossed “scissor arches” define the end of the nave and the near-noon light coming through the medieval stained glass on this overcast day heightened all the lines and shadows. It was a memorable moment for me. I worked my way down the long nave to the transept—where the shorter section of the church crosses the longer. There, at noon, I was ready with a small crowd to witness the chiming of the clock.
Though the original works of the clock are now ticking away at the Science Museum in London, the inside dial and figures, dating from Chaucer’s time, are all still splendidly on display in their original location, the oldest to survive anywhere in the world, though now run by more modern machinery. The complex dials illustrate Ptolemy’s universe, with the earth in the center, and rotating disks of minutes, days, and phases of the moon.
Above the dials is a carved tower around which four wooden horsemen ride in a joust, two in each direction, every quarter of an hour. One of them is knocked off his horse by an opponent on every turn. The effect is so wonderful that I returned every fifteen minutes for the two hours that I was in the cathedral to see it again. On the hour there is an additional mechanism, a carved figure called Jack Blandifer (though no one knows why), who sits in a sentry box above and to the right of the clock. Jack holds two hammers in his hands with which he strikes a bell in front of him every hour, while simultaneously kicking his heels at two bells under his chair.
Unlike at Bath, where the Abbey seems a jumble of additions and renovations, one can see in Wells Cathedral most of the original fabric of the building. All the major components were in place by the middle of the fourteenth century. The original cross shape, with its long axis of the nave and choir (or “quire”) crossed by the transept, was built in the twelfth and thirteenth century. It did not take long for the octagonal chapter house to be built off the north transept, or for the lady chapel and retro-choir to elongate the building beyond the choir. The chapter house is elevated and reached by a flight of worn stone steps, the relic of many tramping feet.
Though ancient, Wells Cathedral was not a real pilgrimage site in medieval times because it lacked famous relics. According to the architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor, the retro-choir was built specifically to house the relics of a saint, but the local choice, Bishop de la Marchia, who died in 1302, “failed to qualify for canonization. So the retro-choir remained untenanted.” I could easily imagine the Wife of Bath visiting here anyway, as any woman who had been three times to Jerusalem could certainly have travelled down the road to Wells from Bath. There are three carved tomb effigies of bishops from the thirteenth century. They had walked upon the stones on which I stood. Had Chaucer ever stood here and looked upon them, I wondered? Had Jane Austen?
The precincts of the Cathedral did nothing to diminish my feeling that I had discovered the medieval world just beneath the surface of modern England. Nearby was the “Vicar’s Close,” a whole street built in the fourteenth century. In the other direction was the Bishop’s Palace, surrounded by a moat which was fed by the wells from which the town took its name. Most surprising was the seeming lack of tourists. Bath had been crowded with them, especially French school children, but Wells seemed crowded mostly with locals taking advantage of their market day. The market square was filled with vendors and it was busy and festive, even with the light showers that fell most of the day. At four-thirty. the light showers became a heavy downpour and I ducked into a covered passageway built into the wall that surrounds the Cathedral. A plaque identified it as the “Penniless Porch” where, in 1450, the Bishop had provided a dry place for beggars.
The Bishop always had a close relationship with the public in Wells. For one thing, he controlled the water supply, which was in three wells on his property. Bishop Beckington, who established the porch, also had a conduit built to take fresh water out to the citizens. In return, they agreed to visit his tomb in the cathedral once a year. A fair exchange, I’d say, and it generated pilgrimages to his grave, which must have been a comforting thought to him as he lay dying.
The rain was like a tropical storm, heavy downpours with lighting and thunder. I sat there for almost half an hour, usually with about a dozen other people. When a bolt of lightning hit the cathedral and set off the fire alarm, the Penniless Porch filled with all the people sent out into the storm and we stood shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall. A woman there told me that they sometimes got storms like this in April, but never in May. But then, she reflected, April had been especially dry this year. I could not help but think about the opening line of The Canterbury Tales: “When April with its certain showers, the drought of March has pierced to its root... Then folks long to go on pilgrimages.”
That evening I went to a remarkable concert in Wells Cathedral. The performers were members of a local choir called “His Master’s Voices” who sing chants appropriate to the age of the Cathedral. The audience of about 100 people sat on the fold-down seats called misericords in the “Quire,” where the clergy, choir, and vicars sit during a service. The last row was carved in stone, the front two carved in wood. Each seat has a name carved above it, most with dates in the 15th century. Other names, with accompanying heraldic devices, are woven into small tapestries that hang above the seats. The stone seats are each set into their own Gothic archway, and as the hour progressed details of their carving began to emerge. What I had at first thought were just ornamental finials carved at the base of the arches proved to be tiny faces, on the left a dog-like creature and on the right a man and each of the men’s faces was different, as if they were portraits of individuals.
As the night came on outside and the windows darkened there was such a wonderful quality to the feeling of the choir space, lit by candles and small lamps, within the vast darkness of the cathedral. It was still twilight when I came out at about 9:15 and I sat for a time on a bench in front of the Cathedral. I discovered that evening, the third I spent in England, the essential pilgrim spirit I sought. I felt a connection to the past through the place and the music. I was completely at peace. I did not expect to find it every day, but I hoped I would find it again during the course of my pilgrimage.
Chapter Three: Of Relics and Pilgrimages
In a way, England was a strange choice for my pilgrimage.
On the plus side: they speak English, they have public footpaths that make access across the countryside possible, there are villages that are not more than a day’s walk apart, and I had the model of the Wife of Bath’s pilgrimage to follow.
On the minus side: the relics are gone, and this is a pretty big minus. My focus was always on the thing, on the power of the object. How much was the absence of them going to impact my quest? In order to answer this question, it is worth describing what relics were and are, and what happened to them in England.
Wells Cathedral was not a major destination for pilgrims because it did not have famous relics, but that doesn’t mean that there were no sacred bones there. No Catholic church can be consecrated without the bones of some saint, a practice that began in the middle ages and continues today. Holy relics are still a topic of serious discussion among the Catholic hierarchy, even though their role in the modern church is somewhat downplayed today. Relics, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, are:
“The material remains of a saint or holy person after his death, as well as objects sanctified by contact with his body. ...
Real (or first-class) relics include the skin and bones, clothing, objects used for penance, instruments of a martyr’s imprisonment or passion; while representative relics are the objects placed in contact with the body or grave of a saint by the piety of the faithful or by circumstance. ... The Church is gravely concerned with the public cult of relics and distinguishes between notable relics (insignes reliquiae), such as the head, hands, torso, arms, and parts of the body that suffered torture, and all other relics.”
The importance of this macabre practice is not outlined in any passage in scripture. “It is vain to seek justification for the cult of relics in the Old Testament,” says the NCE, “nor is much attention paid to relics in the New Testament.” The Apostles, say the experts “inherited Jewish diffidence regarding relics” and would certainly have been horrified to realize that their own corpses would begin the cultish practice. But the first miracles associated with relics were attached to the mortal remains of the Apostles, and gradually the people they converted began to take notice. The Vatican altar was constructed over the tomb of St. Peter.
For the first four centuries after the crucifixion there are occasional references to miracles, but for the most part the corpses of holy men were treated with traditional respect and buried. In the fifth century, the tombs of the saints began to be opened and objects which had touched their bodies distributed to the faithful to be worn in small cases suspended around the neck.
One thing led to another and before long powerful guys in Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, were asking to have the actual corpses of saints brought into the centers of civilization to perform their miracles closer to home. From there it wasn’t much of a leap to thinking that you didn’t need the whole body—a limb or two could do the job just as well, and the skeletons of saints began to be divided up for wider distribution. Pilgrims to Rome in the eighth and ninth centuries were encouraged by their guidebooks to visit the catacombs and even long-abandoned suburban cemeteries to help themselves to bones. Far from dissuading people from these desecrations, the Popes were giving the most important pilgrims whole bodies of important martyrs. A brisk business was born.
During the Crusades, the rescue of relics from the hands of infidels became a big goal, especially the cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Brought back to Europe, these would often be buried under the altar of a church, though they were just as often placed in elaborate “reliquaries” made of gold, silver, crystal, and precious stones, and displayed so that believers could see them. In the year 787, at the Nicene Council, bishops were prohibited from consecrating a church without relics, and that decree is still enforced. By the tenth century the Mass included a salutation directed at the relics in or under the altar.
The big time for relics was in the Middle Ages when the number available grew dramatically. The most important ones in England when the Wife of Bath made her pilgrimage, were the bones of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his own cathedral in 1170. Miracles began almost immediately at the site, and the blood and brains that had been spilled out on the pavement when he was killed were collected and stored, as were all of his clothes and whatever other personal effects could be identified. From this beginning, the cult of Becket relics was born.
At least at first, these were actual relics of Becket. There were eye-witnesses to the murder and to the collecting of the remains. Before long, however, the demand exceeded the supply and things began to be associated with Becket where no evidence indicated they had been, including at least one spare arm.
During Chaucer’s lifetime you could see a number of relics around England, many of them of highly questionable authenticity. At Walsingham they venerated milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary, at Glasgow they preserved the mouth of St. Ninian and some of St. Martin’s sweat. Wimborne Abbey had a piece of the true cross, a sample of the seamless robe of Jesus, some hairs from his beard, a vial of Becket’s blood, and the hair shirt of St. Francis. Pieces of the manger in which Christ had been born were all over England, including at Glasgow, Warwick, and Canterbury. Warwick also had Abraham’s chair, the burning bush of Moses, and part of the face of St. Stephen. Thorns from the crown of thorns were numerous, as were bits of bone, teeth, hair, and etc. from almost any saint you can name.
For years both Glastonbury and Canterbury claimed to have St. Dunstan. St. Swithun, whose shrine was a pilgrimage spot in Winchester, lost his skull to Canterbury and an arm to Peterborough in the eleventh century. And poor John the Baptist! When one looks at all the pieces of his head that were exhibited in medieval times, it would seem that he actually had several lopped off. Several good-sized chunks still survive: the back of his head is at Constantinople, the front at St. Sylvester’s Church in Rome, his jaws are at Genoa, and at least one tooth is in Vienna. The block on which he was decapitated was brought from the Holy Land to England by Richard the Lionhearted, and was visited by pilgrims until it was destroyed in a fire.
Before Becket’s murder, Canterbury Cathedral was already a treasure trove of relics. Among the hundreds of holy items there were the heads of St. Blasius, St. Fursus, and St. Austroberta, each in a head reliquary; the arms of eleven saints; bones, dust, hair, teeth, of numerous others; the rock on which the cross stood; the table of the last supper; the stone from which Christ ascended into heaven; and the coup de grace: a piece of the clay out of which Adam was formed by God!!! Several items there would have been of interest to the Wife of Bath, who was a weaver. They had wool woven by the Virgin Mary, along with a garment she made from it.
At some point the pope decreed that all holy relics had the “Divine gift of self multiplication” which allowed a certain legitimacy for some secondary items, but outright fakes were proliferating in the medieval era and it caused concern among believers. The Knights Templar, the order of soldier-monks that protected pilgrims headed to the Holy Land, considered “simony” or the perpetration of false relics to be a major crime.
Even after the authenticity of relics became highly questionable, the tradition of making a pilgrimage to the places where they were kept continued to flourish because of the “indulgences” that were granted at important shrines. When I was a kid, before Vatican II did away with this sort of thing, certain prayers printed in the back of missals had amounts of time written after them, like “Fifteen minutes,” or “Five years.” As I understood it, by saying these prayers when you were alive, you would get the allotted time removed from your sentence in Purgatory after you were dead. (Purgatory was where you went if you weren’t bad enough to go to Hell, but not quite good enough to go to Heaven. After a certain amount of time there, you could proceed on to the pearly gates.) In medieval times, you could actually hire somebody to say the prayers on your behalf, or make the pilgrimage for you.
You could buy indulgences from corrupt churchmen for all the wrong reasons, and you could even buy them from good guys if they were desperate enough for funds to keep their parishes working and their buildings standing..The amount of “time off” earned at each shrine was advertised. Indulgences were even printed up and distributed. (The first commercial job completed on Guttenberg’s new printing press was a line of indulgence forms, which had blank spaces for the faithful to fill in their name and to get it signed.)
The guys who made a living hawking indulgences were called “Pardoners,” and one of them was on the road with the Wife of Bath. By Chaucer’s time the marketing of false relics and the selling of indulgences had become common enough that we find Chaucer’s Pardoner selling a pillow case as the Virgin Mary’s veil, and pigs’ bones as saints’ bones. He wears St. Veronica’s handkerchief on his cap, the symbol of a pilgrimage to Rome, and he admits freely that he takes advantage of the willingness of his victims to believe.
But of his craft, from Berwick unto Ware,
Ne was there such another pardonere,
For in his mail he hadde a pillowbere
Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl:
He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl
That Seint Peter hadde, whan that he wente
Upon the see, til Jhesu Crist hym hente.
He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.
But with these relics, whenne that he fond
A poore parson dwelling aupon lond,
Upon that day he gat him more money
Than that the parson gat in moneths tway;
And thus with feigned flattering and japes,
He made the parson, and the people, his apes.
As the profusion of fake relics made all relics suspect, indulgences continued to bring pilgrims, until indulgences also became suspect. The cult of relics, and the obvious abuse of them, was, not surprisingly, one of the things pointed to by reformers like Martin Luther as a rationale for dumping Catholicism. John Calvin attacked false relics, but not the practice of venerating the real thing. John Hus and John Wyclif said the whole thing was idolatrous and within a century of the Reformation that was the accepted Protestant line. The abuse of indulgences was another of the factors regularly pointed to by reformers. In fact, the document nailed by Martin Luther to the door of the castle church in 1517 was a condemnation of the practice.
Among Catholics, relics continued to be venerated, but the Church hierarchy clearly needed to exercise some control over the marketplace in which they were traded. In 1588 the authentication of relics was centralized by the Pope, and in 1669 a special “Congregation of Indulgences and Sacred Relics” was created to control the flow of relics and to provide standards for identifying and authenticating them. Included in the process of canonization is the exhumation and examination of the nominee saint’s corpse.
Though a great number of important relics were lost in the Reformation and in the wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new relics are still being produced. According to the NCE, “the wars of religion, the revolutions, and occasional uprisings in missionary territories, occasioned many martyrdoms among both missionaries and converts, thus providing modern relics whose authenticity cannot be questioned.”
The generation of new relics is important because even today a church cannot be sanctified without one. The most recent Code of Canon Law specifies that the “ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved.” In the Code of 1917 this was described as a small space or sepulchre “cut into the altar or altar stone which contained the (usually very small) relics of saints.” The 1970 Code states that “the relics intended for deposition should be of such a size that they can be recognized as parts of human bodies. Hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be deposited.”
Relics came under renewed attention in the wake of Vatican II, the 1962 conference that modernized the Catholic liturgy, with new guidelines specifically addressing relics appearing quietly in 1994. The local Catholic paper in Rhode Island, The Providence Visitor reported in March 1996 that the Vatican was “gently putting the brakes on the distribution of relics,” despite the fact that Pope John Paul II had “made sure” that plenty of new saints and martyrs were entering the pantheon.
“‘They were being passed around like candy,’ said Msgr. Piero Marini, the papal master of liturgical ceremonies.” Henceforward, the Vatican’s Apostolic Sacristy, which is responsible for the official distribution of relics, would limit them to venues of public veneration, and would attempt to keep them out of the hands of individuals. “The new rules are not a sign that the Catholic Church is moving away from the veneration of relics, but it is an attempt to restore order, dignity and meaning to the practice [according to] Vatican officials.”
By the time the Vatican brought the practice of relic distribution under control, the relics of saints were long gone in England. In 1577 Henry VIII, having formed his own Protestant sect and set himself at the head of it, ordered the dissolution of Catholic religious houses and the destruction of all relics. In injunctions written at the time, the men who undertook the destruction, and who approached their task with a disgusting enthusiasm, were instructed to “take away, utterly extinct, and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables (engraved pictures), candlesticks, trindals and rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition, so that there remains no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows, or elsewhere within their churches and houses.” The reliquaries with precious metals or gemstones were hauled back to London, the bones were burned.
My destination of Canterbury had come in for the most vigorous assault because the inhabitant of the shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, Thomas Becket, had been the rival of his king. Henry VIII actually had him tried posthumously and condemned in civil court, in addition to having his remains decimated and his shrine pulled down. All along my route I would find the destruction, at Glastonbury, Shaftesbury, Winchester, and Faversham, especially. But I also found something interesting.
Just because the bones of saints are gone does not mean that English people have lost their desire to seek the magnificent and the historical in the tangible. At the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the coat that Admiral Nelson was wearing when he was shot at Trafalgar, the bullet that killed him, and his bloody socks are all on exhibit. They are viewed with a fascinated horror by crowds of English people who have grown up with a Nelson cult that is not all that different from the Becket cult that flourished all those centuries earlier.
The end of the relics was the end of the medieval pilgrimage in England. The question I asked myself several times was whether or not it made the pilgrimage less meaningful for me, and the answer was a definite no. I am a firm believer in the power of artifacts, but I am also confident that most of the relics venerated in England in the Middle Ages were fakes. Would it have been meaningful to go to Glasgow to venerate the mouth of St. Ninian if I don’t know who St. Ninian was, and I don’t believe or care if the mouth really belonged to him or her? And, in fact if I’m suspicious about it even being a mouth?
In truth, I’m too much of a skeptic on issues of religion to suspend my disbelief and rely on faith. It brings me back to the history pilgrimage. The past is tangible along my route. The ruins speak volumes. The landscape becomes the artifact, and it is powerful. To walk where the faithful have walked for a thousand years is a spiritual experience even if one doesn’t share their faith. Onward History Soldiers!