Throughout the centuries it is nearly undisputable that Christianity has played a major role in shaping the history of Europe. Whether it was personal pursuit of religious enlightenment, proving your devotion to Christianity, infighting debate or more cynically as a method of control it has been a driving force of so many events. Pilgrimage is one uniquely interesting aspect of Christian history that we can see marked changes in over the course of the early modern age, which can both illustrate in its own right and explain the changing social ideals and political standings. Rome itself had suffered a tragic decline in power and respect from its former place as an imperial heart of a great empire, however in this period we see it finally gaining a new form of influence. Rome regenerates to become a secular center for Western Christendom. It is in part thanks to its keen focus on marketing the prestige of Rome as a sacred city dripping with the spiritual and physical remnants of the saints. However this was by no means an easy undertaking. Rome’s new status was a delicate one that would require protection and array of the rivalries that would come about to pose a challenge. Whether it be the social climate of those surrounding people’s commitment and changing attitudes towards both the aints and Rome itself or the political matters that its newly re-established power would become embroiled there is no disputing that Rome was back and would fight harder than ever to maintain its prestige once again.

Firstly we should consider what draws a person to undertake or even consider a pilgrimage and by extension; why Rome? In early medieval Europe Christianity was still trying to find its feet. Despite many nations naming themselves as Christian there were still inklings toward the pagan past as well as conflicting views on how to practice the faith itself, leading for a feeling of disharmony under the supposed shared faith.  It is over this period we begin to see some semblance to a more uniform ideology developing for the Western Church.  With this in mind we can perhaps, in part, reason that the importance and power of The Cult of Saints began to boom due to making a more worldly and relatable model for faith to be united under. The Stories histories of the saints and still occurring miracles being experienced the presence of their shrines, belongings or remains began to spread like wildfire.  People across the continent where remained of these great Christian figurers in tales of great bravery and devotion in a way that could have been compared to legendary pagan hero’s and divine powers being felt on Earth. Whether this played a conscious or subconscious role  in the public’s mind when they gravitated to the idea of saintly power there is no disputing that there certainly was a climb in the promotion and interest of The cult of Saints.

Where else but was better to start this revolution from then Rome? The city may have been heavily laced with the remnants of the once great pagan Roman Empire (Which at face value is rather counterproductive) but it was also dripping with an abundance of valuable saintly relics, remains and historic links. Rome was in no way ignorant of what was at their disposal, the papacy put a huge effort into finding these relics and in some cases moving them so as to accommodate the masses that would flock to them. Furthermore we see that this even goes as far as placing these relics in new expensive shrines (Or salvaging what once was). The bulk of these relics lay just outside the walls of course due to the basic hygiene reasons bodies where not buried within the city itself. Therefore it was no mean feat to uncover these burial sites and bring them back from obscurity via consulting old records. Gregory the Great was quick to respond to the growing cause for pilgrimage and assuring that there was no mistake that the shrines and sites where unmistakably tied to Rome’s ideals. He set about massive building projects. The clearest example concerns one of Rome’s most key shrines; the shrine to Saint Peter. Previously Constantine had erected a shrine to the saint at Vatican hill, the design naturally was of course influenced by the Byzantine model. Which for Gregory was enough of a reason to remodel the structure radically. The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern seat of Christianity, its own rise in power and influence arguably being the reason for Rome having fallen inward in the first place. A sacred shrine that oozed reminders of the Eastern Empire and the Great Constantine was something that the papacy wanted to disassociate from. Changes where so intense that any traces of the Constantinian shrine where practically erased and the additions where certainly suited to catering not only to the Western churches designs, namely the inclusion of an alter and an annular crypt but there was also obviously built with the idea of pilgrimage in mind. The increased size of the shrine and functional shape of the crypt served as a means to help increase the volume of pilgrims able to easily pass though at any one time. This prevented damage to the interior as well as a more controlled flow of patrons. This can be seen in both a political and social light. It speaks for a demonstration of dissociation anti-byzantine feeling that ran so deep in the west who thereby sought to carve their own western definition to the famed shrine and make it their own once again, after all, laying claim to Christianity’s leading saint was something to boast of. Socially it can be seen as opening up the shrine for an open access that was not as possible before hand, inviting all the more pilgrims to pay homage to the shrine rather than the more select pool that had previously been able to visit and serve as a class transcending visual tale of their ideas as western Christians. These efforts for a visual message to their patrons grew all over the city, refurbishing forgotten churches that had been the first attempts of making the city a Christian centre before Constantine moved his focus to the east.

As well as the social importance of the saints for the faithful there was also increasing political building around then around these sacred relics. Namely the concerning the ownership and ambiguity of what the right treatment of the sacred objects entailed. As the early middle ages progressed shrines to local saints erupted all over Europe, meaning a man could potentially take a shorter, cheaper and less dangerous pilgrimage to one of such sites. Although this did not ruin Rome by any means it served in making it glance over its shoulder.  It became apparent that while some of the saints outside Rome where not endorsed by the papacy, there was still a strong reverence for them by local communities and increasingly outside of them. The issues thus came from the possible fragmentation of views and saintly importance, once again potentially throwing Rome into a difficult position. Lengthily fights for the concerning the ownership of the saints remains therefore coloured the age. Socially it showed the place of these saints to the people themselves, concerning the loyal ties they claimed to them, however political reasons where underlying many of these debates. As previously mentioned, Rome’s wish to control via having the saints close to them or at the very least have them acceptable under its ideals and rule. Such an incident is referenced by Chris Wickham in ‘The inheritance of Rome’, the account concerns the remains of Saint Martin of Tours. The saint had been laid to rest in Poitiers, however was soon stolen back to his region of Tours. The thieves somewhat smugly having reasoned that if their action of taking the Saints remains was in anyway unjust God or saint Martin himself would have shown an intervention though a miracle to show his desire. This would be the reasoning that many grave robbers and relic thieves would use this very reason to justify their actions, much to the frustration of many a clergy man and the local residents of said saint. 


Fresco showing cutaway view of Constantine’s St. Peter’s Basilica as it looked in the 4th century

Robbery was a major issue for the tourism surrounding saints, pilgrims where keen on bringing home a little piece from their travels that may serve not only as a reminder of their acomplised pilgrimage but also as a method of sealing some of the saint’s power with them. With this weakness it was all too easy for conmen to exploit, littered around these sacred sites (Both Rome and beyond) where so called authorities offering relics that ranged from simple items from clothing, lamp oils from the catacombs to as grand a claim as bones and blood. This lead to many travellers returning home to find they had no more than tattered cloth or apparent finger bones that turned out to be nothing more than chicken bones. This speaks of an uncontrollable weakness, the popularity of the saints swelled to the extent that trying to control these forgeries was impossible. The desire of the people to purchase relics was not something that could be quashed, the only option the Church had was to cater to the demand. Although that was nothing to be sniffed at, there was a significant profit to be made. The clerical powers where in no way ignorant of this and used it to their own benefit. There where regulated relics that one could purchase at the shrines such as lamp oils that where given from the sacred catacombs of Rome or spersifically the tombs of Peter and Paul.

Turning to the more political aspects of the ownership of relics and placement of shrines there was indisputably a level of power a place could attain from sacred sites it may house.  The curious eyes of pilgrims from near and far would be drawn for the promise of saintly power or a more convenient site to visit. In addition there was the aspect of a Saints personal appeal. As the cult of saints grew there became a wide array of saintly figures becoming associated with specialist matters, reflecting the previously mentioned pagan link the Cult of saints bore. For this very reason there was a heavy disease caused in the papacy and those loyal to their saints. Rome sought to reason these questionable pagan aspects into its perspective in order to avoid any unwelcome accusations or awkward links to supernatural forces they aimed to break from. This of course lead to a form of hierarchy in saints; at least as far as the church was concerned. Despite the possible links it shared with paganism they were determined to make the miracles that of the saints, not ancient magic. As evident in Gregory’s struggle in the 6th century to separate the medical miracles of Saints and pagan rituals.

The reasons for pilgrimage also changed over the centuries, primarily religious reasons drove them. Religious convictions could come across in the form of choice influenced by the stress of it as a method of absolution of sins, penance or in hopes of overcoming illness. But these was not the only reason. There was also a draw in the pursuit of knowledge. Intellectual figures of the day came to Rome to meet or base their communications, all in the reverence of the sacred surroundings.  Considering all the factors weighted against them this speaks its importance to the people. Rome was surrounded by marshland and therefore well known for malaria and unclean water, resulting in death for a significant amount of Pilgrims. Rome was also dangerous from the crumbling ruins of the old city and frequent flooding from both the failures in aqueducts as well as the unfortunate landscape. However thanks to pilgrimage this changes. The ascetics of the areas also tell us a great deal about the changing structures. From the volumes of pilgrims to their social standings. Rome’s invested a lot of time and money into not only fixing the ruins of the city but also into building upon them to suit the visitors. A great volume of hostels, bath houses and farming land was brought about spersifically to cater to the needs of the travellers. Which varied from lavish housing that gave income to the church offices to the free villas and catering or the poorest of the pilgrims (Domusculate). These projects where made possible by the willingness of the finance of the faithful, again as something the church would state as a method of cleansing ones immortal soul.

 In addition there was also an increase in the number of immigrants in Rome. This was to such an extent that settlements of those as far afield as England would spring up, much to the anger of the natives. Such as the fact the wooden buildings of the Saxon’s would regularly cause fires that then rippled over the community (Known as Borgo’s ). Visitors to Rome increasingly began to report more disharmony caused by these new residence, such as the reported high volume of prostitutes from the Saxon settlements. Other residence are recorded as Greeks, Lombards and Frisians. Naturally these peoples brought with them their own diversity that would subtly melt into Rome, making for a diverse if partially messy range of voices in addition to a chance for a greater appeal of the city as a destination for those from the lands they’d left behind to prompt visitation and to a more beneficial degree to Rome; stronger relationships with these outside lands.

The patterns of pilgrimage and increasing role of the papacy in the lives of the Christian west can tell us a great deal about the society and political atmosphere of the early middle ages. Not only though the obvious matters of documentation, political voice and numbers but also though more subtle means. The focus on building work within the city and the product itself speaks volumes for political intent and just who they were made to serve. The shrines, re-designed churches and salvaged ancient structures reshaped to use to the advantage of modern needs are infused with messages to the pilgrims to communicate the culture and messages of a faith that was becoming more solidified but also a clear act in removing themselves from Byzantine’s ideals that may serve to undermine them or question the papacy’s own authority as a Christian power.


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