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Rich Pickings from Medieval Pilgrims

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Pilgrims were a lucrative source of income for the Church and miracles did not come free. Adrian Bell and Richard Dale discover some striking parallels with modern marketing tactics in the management of shrines in the Middle Ages.

A woodcut of Pope Leo X selling indulgences from Passional Christ und Antichristi, a pamphlet by Philipp Melanchthon published in 1521.At the end of the 12th century the monks of Reading Abbey compiled a collection of miracle stories designed to advertise the healing powers of the abbey’s most prized relic, the hand of St James. Among these miraculous accounts is the story of a man with a broken arm who vowed to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James, if the saint would mend his limb. St James duly obliged but when the man failed to fulfil his vow the saint intervened again and broke the man’s other arm. The point about this anecdote is that miracles were not free goods: they had to be ‘purchased’ through a devotional journey and a suitable offering. By successfully invoking the name of St James the unfortunate individual with the broken arm had incurred a debt that had to be honoured. Failure to do so prompted the saint to exact divine retribution in a manner not far removed from the behaviour of modern debt collectors.

The story also demonstrates that medieval pilgrimage was one side of an implicit contract between the pilgrim and the Church. The pilgrim gave proof of his or her commitment by making a devotional journey, worshipping at a saint’s shrine and donating an offering – which might be in the form of coins, jewellery or even wax, which was always in demand for tapers. In return pilgrims were offered two main benefits: first, the possibility of miraculous intervention by the saints whose shrines were venerated; and, second, the prospect of indulgences (remission from purgatory) according to a fixed scale sanctioned by the pope.

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