The new British Museum show, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, reveals the religious propaganda machine that existed to mythologise the cult of Thomas Becket. One highlight is a copy of John of Salisbury’s chronicle of the events following the most notorious murder of the Middle Ages. It is accompanied by one of the earliest known images of Becket’s murder from the mid-1180s.
Kneeling before his assassins, Becket is dealt a brutal blow to his skull by the knight “carrying a red shield” while Edward Grim has his arm hacked off and we see a broken sword. As Grim states: “With this blow, the sword itself was dashed on the pavement.” According to the catalogue, medieval pilgrims to Canterbury were “offered the relic of the broken swordpoint to kiss” in a chapel now called the Martyrdom.
The exhibition displays an example of the lead alloy pilgrim badges that could be bought (circa 1300-1400) of the scabbard of the chef de bande of the assassin-knights Reginald Fitzurse’s sword. Murder was a good tourism business.
My theory is that the enduring saintly appeal of Becket in our secular world today mirrors that of the revival of walking pilgrimages, with increasing numbers of soi-disant “pilgrims” “making pilgrimage” – to use the phrase favoured by the British Pilgrimage Trust – without any religious meaning other than it is a “journey of purpose”, or journey of self – not “soul” – discovery.
Yet religious belief does not seem to be the main spur to walking the 400-odd-mile route. In the centuries after Becket’s death, the very opposite was the case, and the British Museum exhibition shows just how profitable a tourist business pilgrimage was in the Middle Ages. Not just for the souvenir and pilgrim badge sellers in Canterbury but for the whole pilgrimage circus that existed along the pilgrims’ road.
I walked much of it with Adam Dant last summer only to find that it was mainly under asphalt, and forgotten other than a few ancient street signs and the odd pub or church with a nod to Becket, when as many as 100,000 pilgrims (according to those attending the fifth Canterbury Jubilee of 1420) flocked to Canterbury every year to pay homage to Becket because they believed he could cure them, or perform miracles. No more.
The irony is that for all the talk of pilgrimage revivalism, I rarely have encountered Christian religious pilgrims on my pilgrim travels. The boom in numbers is in secular “pilgrims” who get something entirely different out of their adventures and walking experiences.
Yet today’s hardy backpacker pilgrims are so very different from those who paid homage to Beckett. The journey itself was an excuse to swap stories and enjoy oneself, not push yourself “out of your comfort zone” and treating the great pilgrimage routes like an outdoor gym. In the Middle Ages, the idea of walking to Canterbury if you could afford to hire horses at the Tabard Inn (where Chaucer’s 24 holiday pilgrims set off from) was absurd. A blue plaque marks where the inn once stood in Southwark but it is tucked down an alley without any tourism fanfare.
The truth is that pilgrimage today is largely seen as a way to get fit, or to get into the mental “zone” of escape from modern life, or a way to “push oneself” physically and mentally. As former lawyer turned travel writer Robert Martineau describes in his acclaimed and admittedly wonderful walking odyssey Waypoints (about walking 1,000 miles across Africa), his motivation is about the primal ritual of putting one foot in front of another and breaking oneself, physically and mentally, down to nothing, so as to reinvent oneself, or become reborn; a way of letting go. “I need the struggle to help me make sense,” he writes at the end.
The book is a personal offering to the idea of struggle and pain as a form of personal redemption. But although the publisher boasts on the jacket that the book is “about how a walking pilgrimage can change a person”, Martineau’s inner journey is not that of purgation of the soul, but rather the flagellation of body and mind.
The memoir tells of his brutal, dusty, five-month desert trek through his personal African Iliad. He walks through Ghana, Togo and Benin, witnessing bloody calf sacrifices, staying with monks and phoning his mother in Oxford once a week on an old Nokia. When he finally reaches his pilgrimage coastal destination of Ouidah, he follows a dirt road to the square of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic Church built in 1989, under the Archdiocese of Cotonou.
A man in a blue suit with a python stands outside. “C’est magnifique, notre église,” he says. And then nothing more. Martineau has walked 1,000 miles and we don’t even get a sense that he walks inside the church, let alone prays. At least he doesn’t say he does. He is soon on to the next village where he is more fascinated by a goat skull nailed to a gate. Such is the modern pilgrim.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.