rating: +1+x

When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.

The Canterbury Tales (trans) Geoffery Chaucer

Basic Information

A pilgrimage is a long journey to a place of religious significance, such as an important shrine or place where a relic of a religion is located. Someone who undertakes a pilgrimage is called a pilgrim.

Pilgrimage could often be assigned as a penance to atone for sins or an act of grace for someone seeking a favour from God and occasionally might be the fulfilment of a "bargain" the pilgrim had struck.

In some ways, the journey itself was as important as the destination, serving as a sort of ritual purification prior to arrival at the sacred site. Or at least that was the theory - practice, as usual, was somewhat different, but especially on an assigned pilgrimage the pilgrim might have specific conditions to meet regarding forms of transport, routes, what luggage he might take and so on. Those engaged in a pilgrimage assigned to them as penance or punishment were particularly likely to have conditions assigned to their journey (such as carrying a heavy wooden cross, walking barefoot and/or sleeping outdoors).

In theory the First Crusade was a "pilgrimage in force" and this should serve as a reminder that not all pilgrims need be humble supplicants - indeed the idea of a "passive attack" by pilgrimage might be just the thing for a religion with no doctrinal basis for religious warfare (as, indeed, it proved for those involved in the First Crusade).

Especially in the European middle ages a pilgrim might well collect a token from his destination to show that he had visited and to serve as a sort of minor relic of the site. Famous examples include the palm frond (from Jerusalem) and the scallop shell (from Compostella).

The Reformation lead to something of a falling off in pilgrimage - Protestants in general do not hold with the veneration of relics or attach any mystical significance to particular places (not to mention that with the sectarian violence that came from the counter-Reformation, moving between jurisdictions could become dangerous) and pilgrimage was transformed into a more metaphorical and internal exercise (see, for example, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which expresses the adoption of pilgrimage as a metaphor rather than a reality). The falling off eventually transmitted to the Romanists as well, and remained like that until very recently. The 21st century has recently seen a revival, particularly in the Camino de Santiago, where the pilgrimage has been reinvented as a sort of meditative experience - something of a fusion of the Clerical and Protestant ideas, where the journey, rather than the destination is emphasised.


2. Book: Canterbury Tales Chaucer, Geoffery (various editions, including translations to modern English as in the flavour text); a pilgrimage to the city of Canterbury is used as a framing device for a series of stories told by the various pilgrims to pass the time on the journey.

Game and Story Use

  • Many pilgrims will need protection on their long and often dangerous journey. This can be a good job for PCs, especially if they are members of the same religion.
  • The closure of a pilgrimage route could spark war - that, after all, was what the First Crusade was about. Alternatively - especially in wars between states with the same religion - pilgrims might be permitted to cross an otherwise closed front line freely. This was frequently the case in medieval Europe and even today many Islamic states who otherwise restrict travel make special exceptions for Haji.
    • As stated below, this provides a great cover for smugglers, refugees, spies, aid workers, and others with a secular motive for crossing the border.
  • Major pilgrimage sites and routes will also often be major places of commerce, as lots of industries, organizations, and facilities will spring up to support pilgrims and their needs. And as the pilgrims often come from faraway lands, such locations can also be very cosmopolitan. In other words, they can make for great adventure towns.
    • Certainly being a target of pilgrims was a boon to the local economy - many otherwise holy institutions stooped quite low to set themselves up (including faking miracles and stealing or counterfeiting relics) in hope of prestige and donations and usually with the connivance of civil authorities eager to collect tolls and sell services to the expected pilgrims. If nothing else, publishing the historical equivalent of good TripAdviser review from previous pilgrims (especially where miraculous cures were involved) could be considered more or less compulsory.
  • A pilgrimage might also need to be made under specific conditions - a great way to strip over equipped PCs of their gear.
  • Just as often, a pilgrimage had the air of a modern holiday tour about it - as per the Chaucer cited above.
  • Pilgrim is a good disguise for a traveller with less holy motives - there were not that many excuses for travel in the middle ages and being a pilgrim was one that would allay suspicion (sometimes). Even if the traveller was off the main routes he could pose as a seeker of obscure local holy places - especially if he already had the badges of some of the more famous sites.
  • A character who has recently returned from a pilgrimage might have picked up all sorts of things:
    • News from foreign parts
    • Holy relics which might become MacGuffins
    • Ideas which the local religious ideas consider heretical
    • Diseases, such as the Black Death
      • Or diseases contracted during less holy pursuits
  • Having once gone on a pilgrimage might be an interesting part of a PC's backstory.
    • Or his name … modern Muslims will often add the honourific "hajji" to their names after completing a pilgrimage to Mecca, whilst the English surname "Palmer" indicates an ancestor who had made the long and dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem (and back).
  • Presumably someone could be found to sell a fake pilgrim badge or two, for those who hadn't been on a (successful) pilgrimage but wanted to pretend they had been.
  • Where theurgy is in play, a pilgrimage may be a source of spiritual merit/mana, or repayment for a boon already granted.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License