Reflections on the first round of fieldwork: pilgrimage scene in our case study cathedrals

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Created on Tuesday 10th November 2015 by:
Dr Tiina Sepp

I am a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of York and Research Fellow at the University of Tartu.

My role on the ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals’ project is to research... [Read more...]

We are now into the second year of our project and we have carried out at least one month of fieldwork at each of our case study cathedrals. Among other things, we were interested to see what model of pilgrimage the cathedrals are presenting. In the Western world, the popularity of the Camino de Santiago seems to have led to the domination of one pilgrimage model – when we say ‘pilgrimage’, we mean ‘Camino de Santiago’. This has led to the revival of ancient pilgrimage routes as well as the development of new ones (predominantly) by people who have either walked the Camino de Santiago or are planning to do it. ‘Caminoisation’ (a term coined by Marion Bowman) refers to the process of introducing various aspects of the Camino pilgrimage to other pilgrimage sites. The main features of Caminoisation seem to be the ideas that real pilgrimage is done on foot and that journey is more important than arrival as well as issuing pilgrim passports to future pilgrims and Compostela-like certificates to people who have completed the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago (click to enlarge)

Canterbury Cathedral is the destination for those who travel along the pilgrim paths from Winchester and other places; it is also the beginning of the route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the Via Francigena to Rome. Pilgrims are blessed on arriving or on departing for pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela. You can buy a Via Francigena passport that looks very similar to the credencial de peregrino that is used by Santiago pilgrims for proving one’s pilgrim’s identity and collecting stamps during the journey. We met several volunteers at Canterbury Cathedral who were really enthusiastic about the Camino. Passing our desk and seeing the poster of our project, they would often stop for a chat and mention that they had either walked or were planning to walk the Camino. For example, Victoria Field is a volunteer welcomer, who has written a book about her pilgrimage to Santiago. Volunteer John told me about the Winchester-Canterbury pilgrimage, and how struck he had been by how attached one became to the fellow pilgrims – how they became kind of family. There is also another type of pilgrimage in Canterbury – the Canons and the Dean lead ‘pilgrimage within pilgrimage’: people are taken on a candlelit pilgrimage inside the Cathedral. These can only be attended by invitation of the clergy. I suppose it is also important to consider the role of Chaucer and T.S. Eliot in popularising Canterbury pilgrimage. Thanks to them Canterbury remains associated with pilgrimage and continues to keep its major position on the pilgrimage map. Contemporary pilgrims do not usually go to Canterbury with a sole aim of venerating Becket, but his famous martyrdom still attracts huge crowds of people.

When I first went to York Minster, I was really moved to find a simple plaque next to the tomb of St William, which had the following text: ‘Remember St William of York and all pilgrims’.
Regarding pilgrimage, York Minster is quite different from Canterbury: as it is not connected to a wide pilgrimage network, you are not likely to meet many pilgrims there. As soon as I started conducting fieldwork at the Minster, I had an interesting chat with a volunteer guide, who told me that he had done ‘proper pilgrimage’ – the Camino de Santiago. He has done it twice, both times on a bike. When I asked him to clarify what he meant by ‘proper’, he said it was proper because it lasted longer and involved movement. Guide and Chaplain Clive, who leads pilgrimage groups around in the Minster, suggested that we could start a Northern pilgrimage which would include, for example, York, Beverly and Durham.

Pilgrimage in Westminster Cathedral is completely different again. It seems that very few of the Westminster people see their Cathedral as a place of pilgrimage. They go on pilgrimage to ‘places of pilgrimage’, like Lourdes, Walsingham, and the Holy Land. I also met some Camino enthusiasts in Westminster – people who were planning to do it in the near future.

When we asked the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, if there has been more continuity or more change in the way that the Catholic Church regards pilgrimage, he said he saw more continuity and emphasised the importance of the journey. He said: ‘That has always been a crucial part of any pilgrimage, whether it’s people going to Canterbury, or people going to Walsingham, or people going to Compostela, or wherever. Whether it is Chaucer’s version of events or anybody else’s. [---] So the journey, I think, still has many of the human connotations for the whole pilgrimage. Obviously, on the whole we go by air, so the journey is shorter. But the pilgrimage itself is also a continuing expression of the journey of getting there.’

Unlike Canterbury, Westminster and York, it was really difficult to meet any Camino enthusiasts at Durham Cathedral. The phrase ‘When I say pilgrimage, I mean Camino de Santiago’ – which is so common at many places across Europe – does not apply to Durham. At a meeting with the staff members of Durham Cathedral in January, we were told about a Scandinavian couple who had arrived recently with a pilgrim’s card that they wanted to get stamped. In Durham they did not have a pilgrim’s stamp yet but were thinking about making one. One volunteer told me that she found our project a bit surprising as she doubted we would find out a lot about pilgrimage in Anglican cathedrals: ‘It’s a Catholic thing, you know. People who come in are mostly tourists. Very few pilgrims’.

A Pilgrim’s Guide to Durham Cathedral (available for £2 at the Information desk) is intended to ‘prompt reflection by suggesting connections between the various parts of the Cathedral and our human journey. It offers a meditative journey round the church with the invitation to stop, reflect and pray at key stages on the way’. Several people referred to the Dean (who has now retired) and his expertise in pilgrimage related matters. There seem to be considerably more pilgrimage tours taking place inside Durham Cathedral than in our other cathedrals. As some volunteers noted, these pilgrimage tours are basically like ordinary tours ‘with a few prayers thrown in’ – there is a prescribed prayer recognising God in the Cathedral and the great holiness of St Cuthbert.

To sum up – pilgrimage to and within our cathedrals comes in very different forms. The first round of fieldwork was spent mainly inside cathedrals; in the future, it would be lovely to step out – not only to the precincts but further and do, for instance, St Cuthbert’s Way (Melrose to Lindisfarne); the Pilgrims' Way (Winchester-Canterbury) and St Martin’s Homeless pilgrimage; the Minster Way (between Beverley and York) and Catholic History Walks in London.

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