Making “Sense” of the Pilgrim in the Late-Medieval and Reformation English Church

Medieval pilgrimage was undoubtedly a sensory affair; patrons, artists, and even worshippers continually explored ways so that churches could physically and mentally “touch” visitors through powerful reciprocal and transcendental means. Expressions of this type of worship offered a panoply of the senses to the cult infrastructures of cathedrals and parish churches, permeating the architectural elements of these patronal shrines and the sacred locales: the sight of a magnificent façade or tomb-shrine of a martyr, the aural sounds of bells and polyphony, and the smells and tastes of Christian hospitality as pilgrims waited for their blessed time with relics. What was it like to be a pilgrim worshipping within a church during the Middle Ages? Indeed, what exactly does the historical record convey in terms of those past experiences, and can we use our modern senses to engage with the medieval world? While many scholars recognise the bodily senses as fundamental to human experience, there is an innate questioning of the feasibility of exploring sensorial spatial arenas. An acceptance of this perspective has often led to analyses that are anaisthitoi, or “insensitive”—even adiaphoric. Making “Sense” aims to redress this imbalance while offering a strong corrective to the argument through an experiential (phenomenological) account of ecclesiastical architecture from the perspective of pilgrims, both royal and lay. In turn, it explores how English religion sought to reflect changing ideas surrounding the senses and their place in cult devotion throughout late-medieval to reformation-era England. It therefore presents the first interdisciplinary study of the sensory experience of the pilgrim in the cult church.

Formal, architectural approaches tend to produce rather arid results which do little to explain the motives of patrons or the responses of religious visitors, yet the expectations and mindsets of elite and low status pilgrims were very different, and it is important not to generalise. This study views the cult church through the eyes of high and low statuspilgrims in order to reflect the multiple societal interpretations and intentions of pilgrim worship and redress the often-neglected attention paid to the uses of religious space in the material, cultural and experiential discourse of worship of medieval men and women but discounting external aspects such as the journey itself. To do so is inevitably to take an interdisciplinary and context-focused approach. The book thus marks a departure from the “traditional” practice of art/architectural history and buildings archaeology, and concept of the senses in the modern Western world, with radical implications for these disciplines. It presents an alternative interdisciplinary socio-sensory approach as a new lens through which to understand late-medieval cult sites up until sixteenth-century devotional reform, and considers three English cathedrals and several parish churches, not only as complete multi-sensory structures or “synaesthetic”, but also how their construction was directly linked to the experience of pilgrim visitors.

The study illustrates that liturgy did not merely shape ecclesiastical space and experience. It examines pilgrimage as a real source for the programmatic cult schemes created at these cathedrals and explores how both the religious authorities and pilgrims themselves manipulated the decorative and architectural schemes for their own pious needs and agendas. The study also examines the dialectic between individual and “collective” or group experience (as well as economic variation alongside many other variables), and implicitly critiques oppositional approaches to experience in the humanities and social sciences. It breaks new ground in several ways, providing a much-needed fresh analysis of the “age of pilgrimage” in the medieval English church, while also focusing on the neglected area of sensory experience in this field.