Pilgrimage as a Medieval “Vacation”

“What did you do and see on your pilgrimage?” This question was probably the medieval equivalent of “What did you do on your vacation?” If your curriculum includes history of the European Middle Ages, studying medieval pilgrimage can offer insight into the lives pre-industrial people as well as our own modern motivations for travel.

Mixed Motives of Pilgrims

Since pilgrimage is a journey to a religious shrine, we often assume that historical pilgrims had purely religious motivations. But most pilgrims also enjoyed seeing new places, meeting new people, and having new experiences. A twelfth-century French bishop commented on the mixed motives of pilgrims when he said “Some light-minded and inquisitive persons went on pilgrimage to the holy places, not so much out of devotion as out of curiosity and love of novelty, that they might travel to unknown lands, and with great toil . . .might prove the stories which they had heard about the East.”

St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim - a long tunic called a sclavein, a wooden staff, and scrip to carry his belongings at his waist. The broad brimmed hat turned up in the front, commonly depicted on pilgrims by the mid-thirteenth century, has a cockle shell badge, the symbol of his shrine. Bare feet were considered a type of penance, a self-punishment for one’s sins. He is also carrying a knife and a book, not typical for a pilgrim. The book symbolizes James’ status as an apostle; the knife symbolizes his role as Saint James, the Moor Slayer or may refer to the dangers on the pilgrim route. In the background, on the right, a pilgrim is being attacked. This painting is on the outside, left shutter of the three panel triptych entitled The Last Judgement painted in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
St. James as a pilgrim by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516. St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim.

Primary source texts and images give us clues about the motivation of medieval pilgrims. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales met new people and entertained themselves with stories on the journey to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Crusaders, armed knights who took the pilgrim’s vow to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land, were also inspired by the adventure, riches, and exotic sites and experiences in the East.

Medieval pilgrims, just like modern tourists, purchased souvenirs and showed them off to their friends back home. The most common souvenir sold was the pilgrim’s badge. These small tokens, usually metal and stamped with the symbol of the saint, could be worn on the clothing of the pilgrim to show where he or she had visited.

Modern tourists still make pilgrimages to religious and secular sites. The Camino De Santiago, or route to the Shrine of St. James in northwestern Spain, was popular in the Middle Ages, and a popular destination today. An example of a secular  “pilgrimages” are trips to the birthplaces, homes, or graves of presidents or other well-known people from popular culture. Elvis Presley’s home and grave site at Graceland has been visited by over 20 million visitors since it opened in 1982.

Medieval Primary Sources

More ideas and primary sources for teaching about medieval pilgrimage see Chapter 2 in Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Twelfth century quote above by Jacques De Vitry in The History of Jerusalem A.D. 1190, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, UK: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1885), 90. https://archive.org/details/cu31924028534422

Header Image: Medieval pilgrims from the Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1430s) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Note the pilgrim badges on the hat of the pilgrim on the left. The scallop shell was the symbol of St. James. For more detailed images of this work see http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/

The problem with asking students “What did you do on your summer vacation?”

Motion Picture Camera Ad, 1919
“Come back with a moving picture of the good times you have had.” This 1919 advertising message mirrors the purpose of vacation photos in social media – to tell your friends about your vacation. Vacation photos and stories promote vacation destinations and the idea that everyone should go on a vacation.

What did you do on your summer vacation? Teachers often start the school year by asking students about their summer vacations. Modern media is full advice about how, when, where, and what to do on a vacation. Vacationing is such a popular media topic that it appears everyone takes a vacation.

But many families are unable to travel for leisure. A recent poll found that 43% of Americans don’t plan to take a vacation this summer. Why? The cost and inability to take time off work are key reasons. Many working Americans in do not receive paid time off for holidays or vacations.

Time off from work for leisure is relatively new in human history. For most of human history, only the wealthiest could take time away from daily routines or afford to travel for leisure. Only with 19th century industrialization were a new middle class of workers earning enough to pay the expenses for a short vacation. Over time, those with white-collar jobs got at least one or two weeks of paid or unpaid vacation. Vacationing became a sign that one had achieved middle class status. But it was a luxury not typically available to working-class Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sadly, this is still true one hundred years later.

Vacation Primary Sources for the Classroom
Seneca Camera Ad, 1919
Vacations are promoted by advertisers in order to sell goods, services, and experiences. In this 1919 advertisement, readers are informed that a snapshot camera is needed to record and share a vacation.

Vacations required spending money – for transportation, accommodations, entertainments, vacation clothing, and equipment. Many primary sources from the 19th, 20th and 21st century promote vacation and vacation purchases. Student analysis of past and present advertisements and articles about vacation hones skills for historical critical analysis and those needed by modern informed consumers.

Snapshot cameras, first marketed in the early 1900s, were promoted as a vacation necessity.  Vacation photographs could be shown to friends and family and further promoted the idea of vacation and destinations in popular culture. Ask students to consider the impact of vacation snapshots on modern social media? What messages are conveyed about taking vacations? About where people should go and what they should do on vacations?

More Resources

More about vacation photographs in modern popular culture see The Tyranny of Other People’s Vacation Photos

More ideas about using vacations as a theme in the classroom see Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Hotels in the Nineteenth Century: Place-based Primary Sources

Hotel Advertising Cards, late 1800s, place-based primary sources

Your local library, historical society, or university archives is a treasure trove of primary sources from your community – letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, local publications, and all sorts of other ephemera. In most cases, these local institutions are thrilled to work with teachers developing place-based lessons. The staff will know about local history and have primary sources that you didn’t even know existed.
These hotel advertising cards, all from the late 1800s, are from a scrapbook in Eastern Kentucky University’s Archives. The scrapbook was created by French Tipton (1848 – 1900), a Richmond, Kentucky editor, lawyer, judge, IRS Revenue Agent, and journalist. These hotels existed in an era when railroads were the primary form of transportation for long distance travel. Hotels were located close to the railroad depot, instead of the interstate highway exit.
Teachers can create place-based education mysteries for students to solve. Do these businesses still exist? If not, are the buildings still there? If so, how have they been re-purposed? What changes in American vacationing, travel, and transportation caused them to close? Be sure to connect these wider trends to the present – why do businesses, like hotels, close in the 21st century?

Sanborn maps are valuable resources for locating old business in your town. These maps were created to assess fire insurance liability in towns and cities in the United States from 1867 to 2007. When you visit your local library, historical society, or university archives, ask for the historic Sanborn maps for your town. Many are also available on the internet.