Friday, 23 January 2015

Godric's travels and the pilgrimage of Margery Kempe

Pilgrimage accounts rarely discuss their travels in detail. For the wealthy and educated people who composed such accounts, frequent travel was a permanent fact of life. Yet because Reginald of Durham wants to show us how much Godric suffered in the service of God, he tells us a little bit more about Godric’s journey. Godric took no money with him. He subsisted on the alms given to him by other pilgrims. On these donations, he lived off dry bread and barley and a small can of water, keeping them in his bag of provisions until so hardened and old that they could barely be eaten.  Used to living a solitary life, Godric was unlikely to be an entertaining fellow-traveller, willing to tell or listen to the kinds of stories we see in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, supposedly told by a group of pilgrims to pass the time on their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury.  

Geoffrey Chaucer shown as a pilgrim on his travels in a fifteenth-century copy of the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Godric did not want to change his clothes until he reached the Holy Sepulchre and nor did he wash. Being in close proximity to him on a cramped ship or in a crowded pilgrim hostel would have been disgusting!

 Depiction of the Merchant from the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Reginald also talks a lot about the pain of Godric’s sore, suffering feet: tormented by stones and feeling much better when he was walking on the sand.  As Reginald had got to know Godric as an old man, one wonders if Godric used to talk about his foot problems many times to him, and perhaps in too much detail! 

Reginald tells us that Godric was not prohibited from entering any place, despite his clearly disgusting, sore and stinking appearance. But we don't hear anything else about Godric's fellow pilgrims. Reginald does not record any pilgrims journeying with Godric recognising or admiring his great holiness.  But nor does he recount the treatment that a later self-proclaimed holy woman and mystic visionary, Margery Kempe, received. 

Wealthy mercantile women from the fifteenth-century glass of All Saints North Street, York. Copyright of the CVMA picture archive

Margery Kempe was another member of England’s mercantile elite. The wife and daughter of wealthy merchants in King’s Lynn, she was even also from Norfolk. After a troubled worldly life, including an unsatisfactory marriage and the birth of fourteen children, she embarked on a life of pilgrimage, visiting Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Rome and Assisi, Danzig, Aachen and Santiago de Compostela. Margery’s anti-social level of piety and frequent mystic visions caused debate among her neighbours. Most saw her as ill or mad, and a handful of others believed her to be a holy woman. At a time of anxiety in England over heresy, she was frequently arrested when travelling around England on her pilgrimages. 

Pilgrimage meant travelling with a great variety of people: a depiction of the Canon's Yeoman from the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikipedia Commons

One characteristic of Margery’s meditations and visions on the Passion was extremely loud, prolonged and hysterical weeping at the thought of the suffering Christ. Understandably, this made those around her extremely annoyed!  On a trip to Jerusalem made around 1413, Margery records her fellow pilgrims refusing to eat with her, refusing to let her join with them on a trip to the River Jordan and refusing to help her climb to Mount Quarentayne, the site of the wilderness.  By the time Margery was travelling in Palestine, all pilgrims were escorted to the holy places by a compulsory Islamic escort. Margery records that the ‘Saracens’ as she calls them, were extremely polite, taking her anywhere she wanted to go and helping her to climb the holy mountains.  Margery is telling us this to deliberately shame her fellow pilgrims. We don’t know if Godric experienced similar treatment. In general, Reginald’s vita stresses how Godric’s holiness was publicly recognised by all around him. He may not have wanted to include too many tales from Godric about those who doubted and misunderstood him. In any case, there is much more important material for Reginald to turn to: Godric’s arrival at last in Jerusalem. 

View of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Further Reading:

Libellus de Vita et Miraculis S. Godrici, Heremitae de Finchale. Auctore Reginaldo Monacho Dunelmensi. Surtees Society 20 (London, 1845)
The Book of Margery Kempe (various editions)

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