Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sidney Heath on Pilgrimage: Don’t Expect Miracles

Sidney Heath was an Edwardian Anglican landscape artist and architectural illustrator (left). That is, he was neither a Catholic nor a historian. Nonetheless, something moved Heath to write Pilgrim Life in the Middle Ages

Heath’s book is largely dismissive of pilgrimage, and other medieval Catholic practices, as a lifeless relic of the dark ages. “To us the religious memorials of the past,” he writes, “the desecrated shrine and the dishonoured reliquary, are merely examples of ancient art, trinkets that supply a study for the jeweler, a subject for the lecturer, and most frequently of all, a specimen in the museum.”

And yet.

As an artist, Heath was confronted with the beauty of old Catholic churches and cathedrals in his native England; and at least once in Pilgrim Life he confesses to an appreciation of their beauty: “So many of our [English] mediaeval churches and cathedrals possess a plainly felt but indescribable atmosphere that permeates the material fabric, and which, by some mysterious and subtle influence, transforms the material house of man into the spiritual house of God, surely the highest and noblest ideal within the domain of architectural expression.”

Heath climbs mighty high in that long sentence before plunging back to earth. The “mysterious and subtle” one senses in a cathedral is really nothing more, he concludes, than pretty fine “architectural expression.” Still, like Henry David Thoreau visiting the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal on a single afternoon in 1850, Heath’s prejudice was at least momentarily overwhelmed by the experience of his heart.

I am now reading Jonathan Sumption’s more scholarly and comprehensive book, The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. But there are a few interesting things I want to make note of in Heath before leaving him behind:

Good definition Heath defines pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in a devotional spirit to some sacred place. The fundamental idea of the Christian pilgrimage was that the Deity exercised a benevolent influence operating through sacred media in some definite building or locality.”

Relics Medieval pilgrimage was motivated primarily by a need for relics, as Heath notes without much sympathy. The Second Council of Nicea (787 AD), he writes, “threatened with deprivation of office [bishops] should they consecrate churches without relics. . . . The natural consequence was that when no genuine relics could be obtained every kind of fraud was perpetrated. . . . [Also] the graves of the saints and martyrs became so ransacked, we are told by contemporary historians, that not so much as a finger-nail with any pretence to occult power remained. . . . A considerable business, too, was done in ‘faked’ relics.”

Ridiculous relics These fakes included items at which even the most devout would raise an eyebrow, e.g, a vial containing Christ’s tears and another His breath. “Most eagerly sought” were pieces of the True Cross and nails used at the Crucifixion, drops of the Holy Blood, and (wait for it) vials of the Virgin’s milk. Helena, mother of Constantine, located the bones of the Magi, which now reside in a reliquary in Cologne.

Canterbury Tales Concerned with English pilgrims and pilgrimages (including those to Rome, the Holy Land, and Santiago de Compostela), Heath writes at length of pilgrimages to Canterbury, where St. Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170. “The most celebrated pilgrim of them all was the proud Plantagenet himself [Henry II, who had ordered Becket’s murder in 1170], when, with bared back and streaming tears, the regale bowed before the pontificate, and so helped to rivet the English Church with a papal supremacy, until the light of scriptural truth broke out through Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, and increased in gathering strength until it culminate in the Reformation.” Heath notes that at the peak, two hundred thousand pilgrims per year visited Canterbury. No wonder Chaucer wrote about Canterbury pilgrims.

Pilgrim costuming In the chapter “Costumes, Tokens, and Badges,” we read, “The costume of a professional pilgrim consisted of a long, coarse, russet gown, with large sleeves, sometimes patched with crosses, a leather belt round the shoulders or loins, with a bowl, bag and scrip suspended from it, a large round hat decorated with scallop-shells, or small leaden images of the Virgin and saints; a rosary of large beads, hung round the neck or arm, and a long walking staff (the bourdon, hooked like a crosier or furnished near the top with a hollow ball, or balls, which were sometimes used as a musical instrument.”

Miscellany There are cool chapters on hermits, anchorets, and recluses; holy wells (pagan sites on which many churches and cathedrals were sited, the origin of our wishing wells); and the wandering bands of penitents known as flagellants and dancers.

Rood of Grace But the wildest chapter in Pilgrim Life concerns the Boxley Rood of Grace. Founded at Boxley, near Maidstone, in 1144, by William de Ipres, Earl of Kent, “this rood or crucifix is said by tradition to have been brought to Boxley by a horse which had strayed from its owner. The monks told themselves that this was a miracle and laid claim to the object.” The likeness of Christ crucified seemed to come to life: smiling, foaming at the mouth, turning and nodding its head, and even weeping. After the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the Rood was paraded around market towns and denounced as a fraud. Its works were exhibited and broken into pieces. Eventually the rood was burned in London along with other statues of saints. Although he is clearly skeptical, Heath calls the Rood “one of the unsolved problems of religious history.” He concedes that “at the Dissolution no more serious personal charge was brought against the monks [who had kept custody of the Rood] than that there were too many flowers in the convent garden, and that therefore they had turned [the rents of the monastery] into gilly flowers and roses.”

Heath concludes by discussing the end of English pilgrimage and monastic life in the Reformation. “In writing about the Reformation,” he begins, “the difficulty is to steer a middle course between the whole-hearted supporters of the monastic system, who describe Thomas Cromwell and his friends as ‘infamous wretches,’ and the equally biased persons to whom the word ‘monastery’ is synonymous with licentiousness and immorality, and who firmly believe that the religious houses were suppressed largely, if not entirely, because they were hotbeds of vice. . . . The greater number of the accusations brought against the abbots and inmates of monastic houses have been proved to be mere fictions, invented for the purpose of aiding the work of spoliation. . . . The methods adopted by the Reformers—the destruction of noble buildings, the burning of valuable manuscripts, the alienation of Church property—have never been excused.”

This seems quite even-handed. But then comes Heath’s justification for the “dissolution” (destruction, desecration): “At the same time, to condemn the methods employed does not imply that the continued existence of the monastic system would have been for the good of the Church or for the welfare of the realm. All impartial historians are now agreed that the system had reached its utmost limit of usefulness long before it was suppressed, that it had ceased to be a vital factor in religious life, and that its suppression could not have been achieved without at least the passive help of the people, by whom the destruction of the buildings was deplored, as the breaking down of the system was universally welcomed.”

It is not clear how a 20th-century Protestant felt qualified to say what was best for the Catholic Church in the 16th century, but Heath presses on: “The monasteries had lost caste and had become lax in many ways, although no student of history, can doubt that for many centuries they had played a splendid part in the development of civilization. . . . The outward forms of the faith, the ceremonials and processions, were as picturesque, as gorgeous, and as ascetic as ever; but they had lost vitality, and even the memory of their original power and significance had become dim and obscure.”

Like many moderns, Heath was clearly smitten with the myth of the Renaissance. “For centuries,” he writes, “[the monasteries] had been immeasurably in advance of the general standard of learning, but with the progress of the Renaissance they began to fall behind it. And the invention of printing made unnecessary one of their special forms of industry: the laborious copying of manuscripts was needful no longer.”

As for pilgrimages, “these had long ceased to be devotional, and for generations before the destruction of shrines and relics the blood-exuding crucifix and the weeping images of the Virgin were regarded with a healthy skepticism; and even such genuine relics as the Church possessed had lost a good deal of their miraculous virtue in the popular mind, with the result that they were of but little value as alms-drawing assets.”

To excuse the destruction of Catholic religious life in England by saying that it was no longer useful or effective seems to me a pretty base kind of cover-up, four centuries after the fact. But for all that, I found Pilgrim Life in the Middle Ages interesting reading.

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