The Pre-Christian Origins of European Pilgrimage

In the long ago epoch of the 5th through the 3rd millennia BC, a mysterious megalithic culture developed across much of western and Mediterranean Europe. This grand culture, characterized by enormous stone temples and celestial observatories, was not destined to endure however. In the centuries following 2500 BC a series of events began which shook megalithic culture at its foundations, thereby initiating its decline. These events were long-term climatic changes and the arrival of new cultures. Yet while the arrival of new cultures contributed to the decline of megalithic era it did not erase the influences of that era but instead perpetuated them. The religious and scientific endeavors of the megalithic era had conditioned prehistoric Europe for more than two millennia and would continue to influence subsequent cultures all the way up to and through Christian times. The great stone structures of the megalithic era would no longer be erected yet those already standing would continue to be used as religious centers for a variety of succeeding cultures.

Climactic changes were to adversely affect megalithic culture in two ways. Europe's climate during the earlier years of the megalithic era was warmer than it is today. Because of this, productive agricultural communities were possible in far northern latitudes. When the climate began to cool in 2500 BC, however, farming became increasingly difficult, living conditions worsened and people migrated south in search of warmer climates. As a result, many megalithic communities in northern Europe were abandoned. The second way that worsening weather affected megalithic culture was by hindering or preventing the use of the celestial observatories. As the weather cooled and the rainfall increased, the skies clouded over and astronomical observations were no longer possible on a consistent basis. Given the importance of these observations in predicting periods of increased energy at the power places and the sacred nature of those periods to megalithic people, it is easy to understand how poor weather would have had a debilitating effect upon the spiritual life of a community. Coupled with harsh living conditions and decreasing food supplies, these religious stresses would have severely affected the social cohesiveness of the community and thus led to further abandonment of megalithic sites in northern Europe.

The southern European megalithic culture also began to decline during the 2nd millennium BC. While this decline was caused by the climactic conditions which affected northern Europe, an equally significant influence was the influx of new cultures into southern and central Europe and the effect those cultures had in altering megalithic people's understandings of the customs their own culture had been founded upon. The new cultures, such as the Beaker people from 2500 BC and later the La Tene Celts from approximately 700 BC, brought about the continuing decline of the indigenous people's sensitivity to and understanding of earth energies, even while these newer cultures continued to use the sacred sites where the earth energies had long been experienced. It may seem unbelievable that veneration of particular places could occur across centuries and different cultures without people really knowing why a place was first considered sacred. This is not so difficult to conceive, however, if one understands the developmental dynamics of the megalithic communities which were experiencing the dilution of their cultural customs by the infusion of new ideas.

The developmental dynamics of the post-megalithic social centers were a result of the population growth caused by the influx of new peoples. With the growth of population came a corresponding development in the diversity of individual occupations necessitated by the goods and services infrastructures that are an unavoidable part of larger social centers. This occupational diversity resulted in task specialization, social stratification and, thereby, a gradual disassociation for many people from the earth-based wisdom traditions of early megalithic times.

This process occurred over long periods of time, and it was during this time - before writing and historical analysis were yet practiced - that the ancient reasons for settlement at and veneration of particular places were forgotten. Legends and myths remained, but these changed emphasis over hundreds of generations until most people no longer knew why they held certain places sacred. Shrines, megalithic constructions, earthen mounds, remote forest glens and thermal springs were still visited and venerated, yet the priestly elites of the early pagan (Beaker and Celtic) proto-religions had for the most part lost deep sensitivity to the subtle earth energies, and thus stressed magic, ritual and socio-religious conditioning rather than the simple, individual communion with the power place energies which the ancient hunter/gatherers and their megalithic descendents had practiced.

The Arrival of Christianity and the Age of Medieval Pilgrimage

This then was the situation encountered by Christianity when it began arriving in (what is often called) ‘pagan’ Europe during the 2nd through 8th centuries. Upwards of 3000 years had passed since megalithic times yet the influences of that era were still felt. Larger social centers had developed around many of the ancient megalithic settlement sites and the archaic stone rings, dolmens and earthen mounds continued to play a significant role in the religious life of the different pagan communities. While the pagan’s understandings of earth energies were perhaps diluted by thousands of years of cultural infusions, their mythologies and religious traditions were very often still associated with the megalithic sacred sites, and particular periods in different solar, lunar and astrological cycles (discovered during the megalithic era) were celebrated with festivities, maypole dancing and fertility goddess holy days.

This continuing and powerful attraction which pagan people felt for their sacred places deeply disturbed the Christian authorities. This is evidenced by an edict of Aries in 452 AD:

If any infidel either lighted torches, or worshipped trees, fountains, or stones, or neglected to destroy them, he should be found guilty of sacrilege.

In the early centuries of the Christian era there was a wholesale destruction of pagan shrines at the sacred places. However, as the Christian church slowly recognized they could not catholicize the pre-existing cultures merely through the use of brute force, they developed the method of securing religious control of the people by placing churches and monastery foundations upon the pagan's sacred sites. An excerpt of a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus in 601 AD illustrates that this reasoning had become policy for all of Christendom:

When, by God's help, you come to our most reverend brother Bishop Augustine, I want you to tell him how earnestly I have been pondering over the affairs of the English: I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which, relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well built temples by purifying them from devil worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God. In this way, I hope the people, seeing their temples are not destroyed will leave their idolatry and yet continue to frequent the places as formerly.

Usurpation of pagan holy ground for the building of Christian churches was not limited solely to the British Isles but was practiced throughout Europe. Historical investigation will reveal that nearly all pre-Reformation cathedrals were placed upon sites of ancient pagan shrines, that these cathedrals were directionally oriented according to the astronomical alignments of the shrines and celestial observatories they replaced, and that they were dedicated to Christian saints whose feast days coincided with the days which local pagans had traditionally recognized as important. This policy was carried out primarily at major pagan shrines which could not be destroyed because of their location in villages and large towns. Venerated power points in remote, uninhabited places, however, were still destroyed according to decree of Nantes in 658 AD:

Bishops and their servants should dig up and remove and hide to places where they cannot be found, those stones which in remote and woody places are still worshipped.

The locations of many pagan sacred sites were lost due to the religious fanaticism of early Christianity. All was not lost however, for the Catholic church, in erecting their religious structures upon the foundations of the ancient megalithic ruins (even using the broken up dolmen and menhir stones in their church walls), insured a continuing knowledge of the locations of the major sacred sites. Some students of (what I shall call) the megalithic earth energy tradition may suggest that the architectural structures of these early churches were not as effective at concentrating and expressing the earth energies as were the stone rings, dolmens and other megalithic structures which they replaced. While this is true in some cases, the designers of the larger churches and cathedrals were very often skilled in sacred geometry and therefore built their structures with the universal mathematical constants of that arcane science. A perceptive understanding of sacred geometry was given by the earth mysteries scholar Paul Devereux:

“The formation of matter from energy and the natural motions of the universe, from molecular vibration to the growth of organic forms to the motions planets, stars and galaxies are all governed by geometrical configurations of force. This geometry of nature is the essence of the sacred geometry used in the design and construction of so many of the world’s ancient sacred shrines. These shrines encode ratios of creation and thereby mirror the universe. Certain shapes found in ancient temples, developed and designed according to the mathematical constants of sacred geometry, actually gather, concentrate and radiate specific modes of vibration.”

Upon completion, the churches would be consecrated according to the practices of Roman Catholicism and the relics of the saints or (if available) Jesus and Mary would be placed within the high altars and reliquaries. Because many of these churches were placed upon ancient power places recognized for their healing influence, incidents of healing continued to occur. The Christian authorities, seeking every avenue to further their psychological and social control over the masses, attributed these healing incidents to the power of the saints' relics and perpetrated the idea that relics and personal possessions of the saints exuded a mysterious essence which granted requests to prayers and other miracles. Thus began the era of medieval pilgrimages.

Though pilgrimages had been a facet of Christianity from as early as the 4th century when Helena, the mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, had supposedly found the ‘True Cross’ in Jerusalem, it was not until the 9th century discovery of the relics of St. James in Compostela, Spain and the enormous influx of relics following the 11th and 12th century Crusades that European Christian pilgrimages really began. As these relics, often of dubious authenticity, were brought back to Europe by returning French, German and English crusaders and distributed to the major and minor churches across Europe, a 400 year period of feverish religious wanderlust took hold of people's minds.

To understand the enormous popularity of pilgrimages during the late medieval period of the 12th to 15th centuries, it is necessary to recognize the forces which had been shaping people's minds for many hundreds of years. The entire medieval period, beginning in the 6th century, had been a time of relentless war, abject poverty, devastating famine, near total illiteracy and ignorance. Infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low, and medicine was almost non-existent. Life - even for the nobility - was extraordinarily difficult and demoralizing. (There had been a thriving tradition of natural and herbal healing based upon five thousand years of learned experience but the Christian church suppressed this tradition, often times torturing and murdering the practitioners, especially the women.)

The psychological conditions of these times were even more onerous than the physical. Medieval Christians had been conditioned to believe that human beings were essentially evil and that the difficulties they experienced on the earthly plane were the unavoidable consequences of their fallen nature. The afterlife was believed to be more of the same: Eternal damnation in punishment for a life of sin.

In these times of famine, plague, back-breaking physical labor, and fear of eternal damnation, medieval people had only one hope: Christ and the Church. Though an individual was born into a life of sin, the church promulgated the idea that by lifelong dedication to Christian dogma one could make an appeal to Christ for a remission of personal sins and entrance into the kingdom of heaven. While this appeal had to be made with one's entire life, it was believed that pilgrimages to the places where Christ and his disciples had lived would be seen by Christ as an especially impassioned plea for salvation.

There were not, however, very many places where Christ and his disciples had been, and furthermore, those places where they had been were far too distant for the majority of medieval people to visit. The solution to this dilemma was for the church to increase the number of pilgrimage places. To increase the number of pilgrimage places, it was necessary to increase the number of saints. The church accomplished this by the canonization of hundreds of dead Christians. Many of these supposed martyrs had little, if any, claim to sanctity, yet the illiterate peasants, having no recourse to historical documents, could do nothing but blindly accept the assertions of church leaders. The new saints' relics - the authenticity of which was as questionable as the saints themselves - were distributed to the churches of Western and Mediterranean Europe thus multiplying the number of pilgrimage sites.

Soon a lively trade in relics began amongst church officials and monastery abbots. Enterprising ecclesiastical authorities recognized that the number of pilgrims visiting a shrine was directly proportional to the quality and quantity of relics at the shrine. Better than the ‘new’ saint's relics were relics of the 12 apostles and better still were relics from Christ or his mother Mary. The only problem was that there had been only one Christ, one Mary and 12 apostles. This, however, was an easy obstacle for the church to overcome. Again, the peasant population had no way of verifying church claims, so the church was free to multiply its relic hoard. The proliferation of relics became so astronomically absurd that Luther, the great religious reformer, was moved to say, "Enough pieces of the true cross exist in the monasteries of Europe to build an entire ship and enough thorns exist from Christ's crown to fill an entire forest."

Sometimes this duplicity in the duplication of relics could cause confusion to the peasant pilgrims. Numerous ‘skulls of Christ’ existed in pilgrimage churches throughout Europe. A monastery abbot would need to have his wits about him if a peasant, upon being shown a skull of Christ, asked with sincerity how it was possible that he had seen another skull of Christ at another pilgrimage church only a few months before. The monastery abbot would very convincingly explain to the ignorant peasant that one skull was Christ's when he was a boy while the other skull was Christ's when he was a man. (It is not within the scope of this essay to chronicle the religious history of the Middle Ages, yet interested readers may consult the books listed at the end of the essay to learn of the extraordinary corruption which plagued the Catholic Church during the medieval era.)

Rich and poor, nobleman and peasant were drawn to the pilgrimage shrines. Kings and knights would go to pray for victory in war or give thanks for battles just won, women would pray for children and ease in childbirth, farmers for crops, diseased persons for miraculous healings, monks for ecstatic union with God, and everyone for a remission of the burden of sin which medieval Christians believed was their preordained lot in life. Richard the Lion Hearted visited Westminster Abbey, Louis IV walked barefoot to Chartres, Charles VII visited the shrine at LePuy five times, Pope Pius I walked barefoot through the snow to a shrine in Scotland, and hundreds of thousands of peasants, merchants and monks undertook year long ambulatory pilgrimages through bandit infested territories and foreign lands.

Pilgrims visited these relic shrines primarily in the hopes that by their prayers they could induce the shrine's saint to intercede with Christ or Mary on their behalf. As more and more pilgrims visited the shrines, miracles did indeed begin to occur. Word of a shrine's miracle causing ability began to spread to the surrounding countryside and then to the far corners of the European continent. With the extraordinary numbers of pilgrims visiting the shrines, often as many as 10,000 in a single day, church coffers increased in wealth, monasteries became politically powerful and the enormous cathedrals of Canterbury, Lincoln, Chartres, Reims, Cologne, Burgos and Santiago rose towards the heavens. Larger cathedrals attracted even greater numbers of pilgrims and thus followed more and more reports of miracles.

Medieval pilgrims were told that the miracles were caused by the saint's relics, but this was not the case. As noted earlier, the pilgrimage cathedrals were very often situated at pagan sacred sites which had been visited and venerated for many thousands of years. It was therefore the energies of the power places, the sacred geometry of the structures built at those sites and the religious devotion of the pilgrims - not the relics - which caused the miracles to occur.

The age of medieval pilgrimages was not destined to last however. Similar to megalithic culture 4000 years earlier, it began to decline as its spiritual foundations were weakened by the emergence of new ideas. The latter part of the 15th century had already seen a waning of interest in pilgrimages due to the growth of scientific awareness and the questioning of Christian dogma, yet the final blow to the medieval pilgrimage era was dealt by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. So intense was the impact of the Protestant Reformation that by the end of the 16th century, pilgrimages in Britain and large parts of central Europe had completely ceased. To be sure, local people continued to visit pilgrimage shrines, but the custom of pilgrims walking thousands of miles across Europe on multiple-shrine pilgrimages was never to be seen again.

For further information on pilgrimage in Medieval Christian Europe consult the following books:

Hall, D.J.
English Medieval Pilgrims

Gimpel, Jean
The Cathedral Builders

Heath, Sidney
Pilgrim Life in the Middle Ages

Hell, Vera and Hellmut
The Great Pilgrimage of the Middle Ages: The Road to Compostela

Kendall, Alan
Medieval Pilgrims

Stokstad, Marilyn
Santiago de Compostela in the Age of Great Pilgrimages

Sumption, Jonathen
Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion

Watt, Francis
Canterbury Pilgrims and their Ways

Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study of pilgrimage traditions and sacred sites around the world. During a 40 year period he has visited more than 2000 pilgrimage places in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide at is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.