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Medieval Itineraries: Major Shrines

Although there were large numbers of shrines in medieval Europe, not all were equally popular. The Holy Land remained pre-eminent, but as the centre of gravity of the Christian church moved further west and north, it became a difficult place for the average pilgrim to visit, particularly after it was overrun by Muslims. The Church itself gravitated to the important political centres of the time, first Rome, and later Constantinople, and these became important pilgrim destinations, particularly Rome with the supposed remains of Peter and Paul, plus various early martyrs. Of the apostles, Peter was the most important, but once the supposed body of James the Great was found in Galicia, it also became one of the most important pilgrim destinations. These three are widely referred to in medieval documents.

Most shrines remained of local importance only, but in between these two categories were numerous shrines of national or even international importance. Shrines such as Canterbury or Walsingham in England, Cologne or Wilsnack in Germany, Mont St Michel or Le Puy in France, Einsiedeln in Switzerland, Assisi or Monte Sant’Angelo in Italy attracted pilgrims from far and near, particularly at the time of the feast day of the saint or relic concerned. Many of them could also be visited en route to one of the major shrines. On an overland pilgrimage to Rome, those going through Germany could visit Cologne, Switzerland Einsiedeln, France La Motte (now St Antoine l’Abbaye). The 12th-century Book of St James lists various shrines in France that pilgrims to Santiago could visit en route. Pilgrims carrying on from Rome to the ports of Apulia in order to sail to the Holy Land could easily visit Monte Sant’Angelo or St Nicholas at Bari, or, if they sailed from Venice, they could venerate the relics of St Mark there.

Although the choice of which shrines were the most important is inevitably to some extent arbitrary, here’s a map of those which feature in the itineraries.

Map of main shrines