In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pilgrimage in Early Modern Catholicism

  • Introduction
  • Background: The Middle Ages in the Latin West
  • Pilgrimage in the Catholic Reformation
  • Histories of Shrines
  • Jerusalem
  • Rome
  • Loreto
  • Compostela
  • Local and Regional Sanctuaries
  • The Religious Orders and Pilgrimage
  • Global Catholicism and Pilgrimage
  • The Pilgrimage Experience
  • Pilgrimage Infrastructure: Hospitals, Hostels, Charities, and Confraternities
  • The Journey: Place, Landscape, and the Natural World
  • Pilgrims’ Accounts
  • Souvenirs and the Material Culture of Pilgrimage
  • Spiritual Pilgrimage

Renaissance and Reformation Pilgrimage in Early Modern Catholicism
Elizabeth Tingle
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0503


Pilgrimage—a journey to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion—was one of the great traditions of medieval Christianity, in the Latin and Greek churches and the Eastern and African traditions. Pilgrims of all social stations, from King Louis XII of France to the housewife Margery Kempe of King’s Lynn, traveled to holy places for a combination of physical healing, spiritual devotion, material requests, thanksgiving, and simple curiosity. Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela in Spain were important international sites of pilgrimage, but there were numerous regional and local shrines as well. Most Christians visited a shrine at some time in their lives; many did so repeatedly. With the Reformation, from the 1520s, pilgrimage declined in Europe. Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and Jean Calvin denied the efficacy of saintly intercession, the existence of sacred space, and the need for good works for salvation. In regions that became Protestant, shrines were destroyed, and religious journeys ceased, although there were some illicit survivals such as the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg in Ireland. But from the later sixteenth century in Catholic Europe, pilgrimage expanded again, a result of the Council of Trent’s confirmation of the validity of saints’ cults and relics in 1563, the great Roman jubilees of 1575 to 1650, and the readoption of traditional devotional activities by an increasingly confident and militant Catholic Church. Thousands of people visited healing shrines such as Sainte-Reine in Burgundy, and the jubilee years in Rome saw vast crowds in attendance. Medieval shrines such as the Mont Saint-Michel and Compostela were revived, but there were also new developments. There was an increased focus on local sanctuaries and many new shrines were founded, such as Sainte-Anne-d’Auray in western France. Shrines contributed to the building of confessional identity in regions of religious conflict such as Scherpenheuvel in the Low Countries and Altötting in southern Germany. Satellite or franchise shrines also expanded across the Catholic world: the Holy Land was recreated on mountainsides in Italy, and Guadalupe and Loreto traveled to the Americas with the Spanish and Portuguese imperial administrations. The new Catholic territories in the Americas and Asia developed their own pilgrimage traditions. An important role in pilgrimage was played by the new and resurgent religious orders of the Counter-Reformation; the mendicant orders in particular were active pilgrims in theology and practice, and also acted as shrine guardians in many places. Pilgrimage continued to be a popular practice in Catholicism across the globe down to the eighteenth century, when state regulations imposed greater restrictions on travel and new religious ideas became prominent. Only then did the flow of holy travelers slow.

Background: The Middle Ages in the Latin West

Studies of medieval pilgrimage and saints’ cults in western Christianity are numerous and include Bartlett 2013, Chelini and Branthomme 1982, and Webb 1999 as good examples of general works. They give an overview of the evolution of shrines, the motives of pilgrims, the logistics of journeys, and experience of the holy sites. Kuuliala and Rantala 2020 also presents a collection of essays on different aspects of pilgrimage across the Christian Middle Ages. Any study of early modern pilgrimage needs to take account of medieval practice, with which there were many continuities, as Dyas 2001 shows. As well as general works, there are many accounts of regional pilgrimage, as local shrines were immensely important; see, for example, Orme 2018 on southwestern Britain, Oldfield 2014 on southern Italy, González Paz 2015 on Galicia, and Juckes 2011 on Hungary. Taylor 2009 is an interdisciplinary reference work with short essays covering many aspects of the history of Western pilgrimage across the Middle Ages to the Reformation.

  • Bartlett, Robert. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400848782

    An indispensable survey of the history of saints’ cults through the Middle Ages, including relics, shrines, and pilgrimage. Demonstrates changing practices over time but also the enduring importance of sanctity in medieval religious life.

  • Chelini, Jean, and Henry Branthomme, eds. Les Chemins de Dieu: Histoire des pèlerinages chrétiens des origines à nos jours. Paris: Hachette, 1982.

    A multi-authored work examining the history of Christian pilgrimage, focusing on two themes: the geography of sacred travel and the nature of practices of the pilgrim. It provides good details on the sociology of pilgrims, across time.

  • Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700–1500. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

    Explores how the development of three types of pilgrimage was related to a variety of texts, ranging from the Bible to popular devotion. The author then proceeds to show how multiple interpretations of pilgrimage were reflected in spiritual beliefs and practices as well as in writing.

  • González Paz, Carlos Andrés, ed. Women and Pilgrimage in Medieval Galicia. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015.

    An analysis of Galician women from a range of social strata who became pilgrims. The author argues that medieval women were actively involved in devotion. The essays examine pilgrimage activity to places such as Rome and Jerusalem, and the local shrine of St. James at Compostela.

  • Juckes, Tim. The Parish and Pilgrimage Church of St. Elizabeth of Košice. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011.

    An architectural and art-historical analysis of the church of St. Elizabeth, and an assessment of how it was used as a parish and pilgrimage church. The church was rebuilt in the fifteenth century as part of an important civic project by the burghers of Košice and the book explores the motives behind the patronage of the work.

  • Kuuliala, Jenni, and Jussi Rantala, eds. Travel, Pilgrimage and Social Interaction from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 2020.

    A collection of fifteen essays on travel—its mechanisms and motives—from the Roman world to the Middle Ages. The majority of the essays are case studies of pilgrimages, principally from the Italian peninsula, France, Spain, and Scandinavia. It also puts pilgrimage into the wider context of travel and argues that the two were often intermingled modes of journeying.

  • Oldfield, Paul. Sanctity and Pilgrimage in Medieval Southern Italy 1000–1200. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511719936

    An examination of southern Italy as a locus of pilgrimage centers and as a transit point for pilgrims and commercial traffic. The work uses a range of sources related to pilgrimage, hagiographical material, martyrologies, charters and pilgrim travel guides to examine the concept of sanctity and how it interacted with pilgrimage, in this important geographical region.

  • Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Pilgrimage: With a Survey of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Somerset and Bristol. London: Impress Books, 2018.

    This book explains how pilgrimage originated, what it involved, and what it meant to those who practiced it. The study explores pilgrimage through local journeys within the southwest of England as a case study. The book includes a detailed survey of the west of England and lists over eighty sites, ranging from great churches like the cathedrals at Bristol, Exeter, and Wells down to small rural chapels and holy wells.

  • Taylor, Larissa, ed. Encyclopaedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2009.

    A large and multidisciplinary collection of short essays covering many aspects of the practice and places of Western Christian pilgrimage up to the Reformation, from saints’ cults to votive objects. As an encyclopedia, it is a good starting point for different aspects of pilgrimage.

  • Webb, Diana. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999.

    A good overview of pilgrims and pilgrimage across the central and later Middle Ages, covering their motives, journeys, shrines, and infrastructure. There is good detail on Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela, and some discussion of Eastern Orthodox pilgrimage.

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