Saints, Sickness, and Society: England, 1349-1500

Tutor: John Jenkins

Module type: Period Topic

Module code: HIS00066C

Pilgrimage, the journey to a holy place to seek help or give thanks, was such an important feature of medieval life that all Christian men and women, from the king to the lowliest peasant, were expected to undertake it at least once. Medieval England contained hundreds of pilgrimage sites, the most famous being the golden shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, each with its own saintly relic or miracle-working image. In a turbulent age where the causes of illness and disease were poorly understood and a year’s bad harvest could spell disaster for a whole community, the power of pilgrimage to secure a saint’s protection was believed to be very real. Yet by the later middle ages dissenting voices were attacking the sacred journey as another frivolous corruption of Christianity.

Through a host of characters real and fictional, from Chaucer’s pilgrims to a Scotsman with worms in his feet, this module examines the motives that drove men and women to go on often arduous journeys, where they went and how they got there, and how this reflects on wider medieval society. In particular we will look at how endemic disease and social changes following the Black Death brought large short-term increases in pilgrim numbers, but may have sowed the seeds for its demise. Original pilgrim accounts, guidebooks, miracle stories, and the surviving sites and their treasures provide a rich and vibrant window onto life in medieval England.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

  • Saints, shrines, and devotion 
  • Illness, disability, and disease
  • Saving souls
  • Holy sites and sacred routes 
  • The pilgrim experience
  • Margery Kempe: a female experience?
  • Pilgrim souvenirs and material culture
  • Lollardy: the decline of pilgrimage?


To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • Webb, Diana. Pilgrimage in Medieval England. Hambledon: London, 2000.
  • Finucane, Ronald C. Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England. J. M. Dent: London, 1977.


For more detailed information, please visit the module catalogue.