A medieval pilgrim, whether travelling overseas or within his own country, was aware that the pilgrimage may cost him his life. Travel in medieval times was dangerous and being away from home for any length of time carried many risks.
Practical Preparations for a Medieval Pilgrimage
Before a pilgrim began his journey, his first duty was to ensure that his home and household would be secure whilst he was away. Debts must be settled (and so some debts were cancelled when a person undertook a pilgrimage) and any disputes over matters such as land or property had to be resolved, so that those remaining at home were not left with any outstanding responsibilities.
A pilgrim of means would draw up a will, stating the length of time he’d be away, who was his heir in the event of his death and who would inherit his property if he failed to return within a year and a day of his stated return date.
Spiritual Preparations for a Medieval Pilgrimage
Other preparations which must be made before a pilgrim set out concerned his spiritual welfare. He was required to gain the Church’s blessing before beginning his journey, and would attend a consecration ceremony in order to do so. He would make his confession to the parish priest and then would be sprinkled with holy water. A pious pilgrim carried a staff on his journey, to mark him out as a pilgrim rather than a traveller with less honourable motives. Pilgrims bound for the Holy Land, the ultimate destination for the Christian pilgrim, wore a red cross.
Medieval Pilgrimages to the Holy Land
In Europe during the Middle Ages, pilgrims bound for the Holy Land received certain privileges accorded only to them. For example, they could be immune from civil or criminal suits brought against them whilst away from home and would have access to special loans unavailable to anyone else.
It was necessary for a pilgrim to carry a certain amount of cash with him, although of course this made him vulnerable to robbers. Money was needed to pay tolls, make offerings at shrines along the way and purchase tokens and relics during the journey and at the pilgrimage destination.
A pilgrim was often revered in his home town and would be seen off at the town gates by his fellow townspeople, often receiving offerings of prayers and money to send him on his way.