The spiritual, moral, physical, and pecuniary aspects of pilgrimages were the subject of debate throughout the Middle Ages, but contention intensified in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England as it did on the Continent. Archbishops, bishops, and others encouraged the view that pilgrimages were effective in remitting sins, while popular belief in the efficacy of visiting shrines of saints for curative reasons remained strong. On the other hand, arguments arose against physical pilgrimages and for the superiority of an exclusively spiritual journey, which may include enclosed or private forms of asceticism and hardship as well as penance that did not involve travel. Also, geographic pilgrimages as penance were not always voluntary during this period, and it became increasingly common for people to be sentenced to perform pilgrimages for violations such as adultery, disturbing the peace, theft, assault, poaching, and even more serious crimes.
These actions fed tensions about class inequities as well as led to concern about the danger caused by involuntary pilgrims. Corruption and excesses associated with pilgrimages also received criticism; how important for contrition was the buying of badges, likenesses of saints, relics, wax talismans, candles, and other paraphernalia? That both willing and sentenced pilgrims could pay off their pilgrimage through various forms of donation or by having a proxy perform the pilgrimage also raised questions about penance as well as social justice. Uneasiness about the veneration of saints and physical representations of spiritual figures logically became associated with discussions about pilgrimages, especially from Lollards. Their criticism of the many aspects of pilgrimages is one of their most distinctive and common objections (see “Lollard Trials,” p. 59, and “Plays and Representations,” p. 262). William Thorpe was educated (possibly at Oxford) and took orders as a priest. Some time between 1382 and 1386 Robert Braybrooke, bishop of London (1382–1404), tried Thorpe for heresy and imprisoned him there. In 1397 he was released from that imprisonment (or possibly a second term in prison). Ten years later on August 7, 1407, Thorpe was examined before Thomas Arundel (archbishop of York 1388–97, archbishop of Canterbury 1396–7, 1399–1414) and three clerks in Saltwood Castle in Kent. According to a “litil rolle” in the archbishop’s hands, a bailiff from Shrewsbury claimed that Thorpe had preached that the sacrament remained material bread after consecration, that images should not be worshipped, that people should not go on pilgrimages, that priests have no right to receive tithes, and that it is not lawful to swear in any manner. Thorpe denies the specific charges in his Testimony and submits himself to God and the Church as long as they accord with his ideas; his account ends with him being sent to prison. Thorpe’s Testimony survives in four versions; Rawlinson C.208 is the earliest. Whether the events recounted in Thorpe’s text are truthful or not is open to debate, and the issue becomes even more interesting because of his realist style: dramatic arguments, detailed depictions of the actions of those present, descriptions of Thorpe’s own thoughts and feelings. The reasons why a person would openly proclaim in writing his continuing adherence to Lollard beliefs are difficult to understand, especially if he recanted. If Thorpe wrote his account in prison, it is puzzling how such a manuscript would have circulated.
And thanne the archebischop seide to me, “What seist thou now to the thridde poynt that is certefied agens thee, preching at Schrovesbirie opinli that pilgrimage is unleeful? And over this thou seidist there that tho men and wymmen that goen on pilgrimage to Cantirbirie, to Beverleye, to Bridlyntoun, to Walsyngam, or to ony suche pilgrymage ben acursid and madd foolis spendi[n]ge her goodis in wast.”1 And I seide, “Sere, bi this certificacioun I am acusid to you that I schulde teche that no pilgrimage is leeful. But, ser, I seide nevere thus, for I knowe that there is trewe pilgrimage and leeful and ful plesynge to God. And therfore, ser, howevere myn enemyes have certified to you of me, I toolde at Schrovesbirie of two manere of pilgrimagis, seiinge that ther ben trewe pilgrimes and fals pilgrimes.” And the archebischop seide to me, “Whom clepist thou trewe pilgrimes?” And I seide, “Sere, with my forseid protestacioun, I clepe hem trewe pilgrymes travelynge toward the blis of hevene, whiche in the staat, degree, or ordre that God clepith hem to, bisien hem feithfulli for to occupie alle her wittis, bodili and goostli, to know treweli and to kepe feithfulli the heestis of God, hatynge evere and fleynge alle the sevene dedli synnes and every braunche of hem; reulynge vertuousli, as it is seide bifore, alle her wittis; doynge discretli, wilfully, and gladli alle the workis of mercy, bodili and goostli, aftir her kunnynge and her power; ablynge2 hem to the giftis of the Holi Goost; disposynge hem to resceyve into her soule and to holde therinne the eighte blessingis of Crist,3 bisiynge hem to knowe and to kepe the sevene principal vertues. And so thanne thei schulen deserve herthorugh grace for to usen thankfulli to God alle the condiciouns of charite, and thanne thei schulen be movyd with the good spirit of God for to examyne ofte and bisili her conscience, with that neither wilfulli ne witingli thei erren in ony article of bileve, havynge contynuely, as freel kynde wole suffre, al her bisinesse to dreede and fle the offence of God, and to love over al thing and seche to done ever his plesynge will. Of these pilgrymes I seide whatever good thought that thei ony tyme thenken, what vertues worde that thei speken, and what fructuouse werk that thei worchen, every such thought, word, and werk is a stap noumbrid of God toward him into hevene.
These blessid pilgrymes of God, whan thei heeren of seyntis or of vertuouse men or wymmen, thei bisien hem to knowe the lyvynge of seyntis and of vertues men and wymmen, how thei forsoken wilfulli the prosperite of this lyf, how thei withstoden the sugestiouns of the fend, and how thei ref[r]eyneden her fleischli lustis, how discreet thei weren in [penaunce doynge, how pacient thei weren in] alle her adversitees, how prudent thei weren in conselynge of men and of wymmen, movynge hem to haten evere al synne and to fle it, and to schame evere greetli therof, and to love alle vertues and to drawe to hem, ymagynynge how mekeli Crist and his sueris4 bi ensaumple suffry[d]e[n] scornes and sclaundris, and how pacientli thei aboden and token the wrathful manassynges of tirauntis, how homely5 thei weren and servysable to pore men for to releve hem and conforte hem bodili [and gostli] aftir her kunnynge and her power, and how devoute thei were in preieris, how fervent in hevenli desiris, and how thei absentid hem fro spectaclis and fro veyn sightis and heeringe, and how stable of contenaunce thei weren, how herteli thei weileden and sorewiden for synne, how bisi thei weren to lette and to distroie alle vicis, and how laborouse and joieful thei weren to sowe and to plante vertues. These hevenli condiciouns and suche other have tho pilgrimes either thei bisien hem to have, whos pilgrimage God acceptith. “And agenward,” I seide, “as her werkis schewen, the moost part of hem, bothe men and wymmen, that gon now on pilgrimage, have not these forseide condiciouns neither loven to bisien hem feithfulli to have hem.
For, as I wel knowe, sith I have ful ofte assaied, examyne (whoevere wole and can) twenti of these pilgrimes, and there schulen not be founden ofte three men or wymmen among these twenti that knowen thriftili oon heest of God, neither thei cunnen seien the Pater Noster, neither the Ave, neither the Crede in ony manere langage. And, as I have lerned and also I knowe sumdel bi experience of these same pilgrimes, tellinge the cause whi that manye men and wymmen now gon hidir and thidir on pilgrymage, it is more for the helthe of her bodies than for the helthe of her soulis, more for to have richessis and prosperite of this world than for to be enrichid with vertues in her soulis, more for to have here worldli or fleischli frendschip than for to have frendschip of God or of hise seintis in hevene; for whatevere thing man or womman doith, neither the frendschip of God ne of ony seint mai be hadde withouten kepynge of Goddis heestis. “Forthi with my protestacioun, I seie now as I seide in Schrovesbirie, though thei that have siche fleischli willis traveilen soore her bodies and spenden myche moneye to sechen and visiten the bones either ymagis, as thei seien thei don, of that seint or of that, siche pilgrymage is neithir preisable ne thankful to God neither to ony seint of God sith in effecte alle siche pilgrymes dispisen God and alle hise seyntis. For the heestis of God thei wolen neither knowen ne kepe, neither thei wolen conforme hem to lyve vertuesly bi ensaumple of Crist and of hise seyntis. Wherfor, ser, I have prechid and taughte opinli and privyli, and so I purpose al my lyf time to do with Goddis helpe, seiinge that siche madde peple wasten blamfulli Goddis goodis in her veyne pilgrymageyng, spendynge these goodis upon vicious6 hosteleris and upon tapsters, whiche ben ofte unclene wymmen of her bodies, and at the laste tho goodis, of the whiche thei schulden do werkis of mercy aftir Goddis heeste to pore nedi men and wymmen, these pore men goodis and her lyflode these renners aboute offren to riche preestis, whiche have moche moore lyfelode than thei neden.
And thus tho goodis thei wasten wilfulli and spenden hem unjustli agens Goddis heeste upon strangeris, with the whiche thei schulden helpe and releeven aftir Goddis wille her pore and nedi neighebores at home. Yhe, and over this foli, ofte tymes dyverse men and wymmen of these that rennen thus madly hidir and thidir on pilgrimagynge, borow[e]n herto mennys goodis, yhe, and sumtyme thei stelen mennes goodis herto, and thei yelden hem nevere agen. “Also, sire, I knowe wel that whanne dyverse men and wymmen wolen goen thus aftir her owne willis and fyndingis out on pilgrimageyngis, thei wolen ordeyne biforehonde to have with hem bothe men and wymmen that kunnen wel synge rowtinge7 songis, and also summe of these pilgrimes wolen have with hem baggepipis so that in eche toun that thei comen thorugh, what with noyse of her syngynge, and with the soun of her pipinge, and with the gingelynge of her Cantirbirie bellis,8 and with the berkynge out of dogges aftir hem, these maken more noyse than if the king came there awey with his clarioneris and manye other mynystrals. And if these men and wymmen ben a monethe oute in her pilgrymage, manye of hem an half yeere aftir schulen be greete jangelers, tale tellers, and lyeris.” And the archebischop seide to me, “Lewid losel,9 thou seest not fer inowgh in this mateer, for thou considrist not the grete traveile of pilgrymes, and therfore thou blamest that thing that is preisable. I seie to thee that is right wel don that pilgrimes have with hem bothe syngeris and also baggepipes that, whanne oon of hem that gon barefot smytith his too agens a stoon and hurtith him soore and makith him blede, it is wel done that he or his felowe take thanne up a songe either ellis take out of her bosum a baggepipe for to dryve awei with siche myrthe the hurt of his sore, for with siche solace the traveile and werinesse of pilgrymes is lightli and myrili brought forth.”
And I seide, “Sere, Seint Poul techith men to wepe with men wepinge.And the archebischop scornede me and seide, “What janglist thou agens mennys devocioun? Whatevere thou and siche other seyen, I seie that the pilgrimage that is now usid is to hem that done it a preparacioun and a good m[e]ene to come the rather11 to grace. But I holde thee unable to knowe this grace, for thou enforsist thee to lette the devocioun of the peple sith, bi autorite of holi writt, men mowen lefulli have and use siche solace as thou reprevest. For Davith in his laste psalme techith men to usen dyverse intrumentis of musik for to preise with God.