Detailed Information

Medieval Journeys - Travel and Pilgrimage

What was it like to be a medieval pilgrim? Where did they go? What happened on the way? Any journey to a sacred place undoubtedly held a spiritual dimension. Pilgrims bought souvenirs from continental shrines dedicated to familiar Irish saints and visited other religious sites to fulfil vows, for penance or to cure sickness. However, evidence exists of more worldly experiences as well. Roadside hostels provided rest while entertainment existed in the form of taverns and even the occasional Church-run brothel. This course explores individual pilgrim writings uncovering what motivated Irish people to travel, the routes they followed and their experiences on the road.

Medieval Christians often engaged in physical travel as a means to bringing themselves closer to God. These journeys could serve a wide variety of spiritual functions: to fulfil a vow,  as a penance, to cure sickness, or simply to expand their own faith. However, at a time when few people travelled beyond their own birthplace, those who did viewed the opportunity as an adventure, a chance to see the wider world and engage in new and often very worldly experiences. Pilgrims shopped for souvenirs at the shrines of familiar Irish saints on the continent and also visited other important local sites. Hostels were established to provide rest and there was ample entertainment in the form of taverns and even the occasional Church-run brothel.

This course will investigate the mechanisms by which Irish people decided to undertake pilgrimage and travel in the middle ages. We will investigate what it was like to be a pilgrim, where they went and what happened along the way. Classes will emphasise the experiences of individual pilgrims through reading and discussion of the primary sources they produced – texts which reveal tales of piety but also adventure, vice and even murder on pilgrim trails.

Students will also be introduced to the sacred places pilgrims travelled to, both in Ireland and abroad, leading to an understanding of the medieval experience of these sites and also the development of sacred space from the pre-Christian period through to the modern revival of pilgrimage.

Dates Venue/Location Fee €
07 Mar 2018 to 25 Apr 2018 National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street


8 Wednesdays, 10:30am - 1:00pm 

Mar 7,14,21,28, Apr 4,11,18,25

  • Introduction: What is a pilgrim? Why do they go and what do they do on the way?
  • Early Irish tradition: Motivations for pilgrimage; Peregrinatio Pro Christo; Exile and asceticism
  • The Irish abroad: Pilgrim experiences; Pilgrim Sites/routes from Ireland to France, Germany and Italy
  • Irish saints, cults and shrines on the continent
  • Early medieval pilgrimage in Ireland: Sacred space; pre-Christian to early medieval adaptations
  • Continental revival: Munster and the Schottenklöster in Bavaria and Austria
  • Late medieval Irish pilgrimage: On the roads to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago
  • Late medieval Ireland: Folklore, literature and pilgrimage
  • Pilgrimages, Art and Architecture: Cult objects and their function
  • Outline the historical, social and religious background to pilgrimage in medieval Ireland
  • Evaluate primary source documents, maps, and art relating to pilgrimage
  • Discuss the Irish tradition of pilgrimage within the wider European perspective
  • Explain the changing developments  and perceptions of pilgrimage over the middle ages
  • Discuss the theological importance of holy objects and sacred spaces in the Christian tradition

Dr Nathan Millin holds a PhD in Medieval Irish History with a focus on the religious and social connections between Ireland and the continent. He teaches at UCD in the School of History and School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore. Previous lectures and publications on pilgrimage include Irish Pilgrimage to Rome in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Dublin, 2014) and Irish Peregrini and the Struggle for Power in Carolingian Italy (Cork, 2014).

  • Peter Harbison, Pilgrimage in Ireland: The Monuments and the People (London, 1991).
  • Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West (London, 2001).
  • Diana Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage 700-1500 (London, 2002).
  • Barbara Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages, 3rd edition (Toronto, 2009).
  • Kathleen Hughes, “The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage”, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 11 no. 02 (October 1960), pp 143-151.