Medieval pilgrimage was undoubtedly a sensory affair; patrons, artists, and worshippers continually explored ways so that churches could physically and mentally ‘”touch” visitors through powerful reciprocal transcendental means. But what was it like to be a pilgrim worshipping in a church during the Middle Ages? What did they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? What did you see around you? What did you hear, sense, taste and feel? The majority of men and women who ever walked through these grand edifices in search of miracles, salvation or even just in hope of a good harvest, left little trace within the records of history. Indeed, can we access those past sensory experiences, and use our senses to engage with the medieval world? An acceptance of this perspective has often led to analyses that are anaisthitoi, or ‘insensitive’. This study remedies this deficiency.
Between the late twelfth and fifteenth century, the role of the senses in medieval devotion altered dramatically. From a passive involvement in the creation of the “theatre” surrounding a cathedral cult, this transformation resulted in an association between the senses, the pilgrimage experience and the development of these edifices being repeatedly questioned. Was the development of the decorative and architectural cult infrastructures of cathedrals—whether initiated by the Church, external patrons, or transient visitors—manipulated by pilgrims, of varying statuses, for their own sensory needs and ideological agendas? In asking such questions this study goes beyond the written narrative of historical study; it allows us to access their active participation in the processes of patronage and design: in enriching a medieval sacred space with architecture, furnishings, artefacts, vestments and books; filling it with the sights, sounds and transient feelings of medieval worship; and populating it by being the men and women performing and attending medieval ritual and liturgies.
Worship affected and involved every level of medieval society, yet we still know little about how exactly it was conducted and experienced. Only through re-construction is it possible to analyse and evaluate the experiences of the distinct social groups engaged with that worship. To do so is inevitably to take an interdisciplinary and context-focused approach including methods of narrative and thick description as well as by drawing on a vast array of sources from literary, pragmatic, archaeological, material and visual objects, to saints’ lives, wills, probate inventories, letters, church documents, and manuscript illumination. Using an innovative approach towards the medieval church as complete sensory structures or ‘synaesthetic’, this book considers for the first time, the interrelationship between the medieval senses and the pilgrimage experience, a hitherto understudied area of research, but also how the construction of the cult cathedral church was directly linked to the experience of their pilgrim visitors. And by taking a long-term approach, the study is able to tackle fundamental questions regarding the changing role of the senses and their place in religious late-medieval and into early-modern English Christian life.