The Catholic church has always presented a series of intriguing enigmas to anyone with the time or interest to look beneath the surface. But most interesting of all, perhaps, is the road that was taken on its journey toward ever-increasing decay. That road is illustrated no where so well as the medieval pilgrimages. Sumption has done an excellent job of bringing to life the people and places that were so prominent in the religious lives of everyone, peasant and prince, during the middle ages.
In a tone light enough to engage any reader, but which never lends itself to frivolity, Sumption expounds on the origins of the popular pilgrimages, beginning with the "cult of the relics" and the almost idolatrous adulation of the saints as encouraged by the papacy. Miracles, healing, penitential pilgrimages - all are opened up to the modern mind with astounding clarity and lucidity.
Sumption closes with a salvo of chapters on the "great age" of the pilgrimages, in which pious humility gave way to mere curiosity and even stylistic fads. His descriptions of the holy destinations - Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury - sing with vibrancy, as he invites us to partake of the crowded streets of the Jubilees, the writhing crowds engaged in mass flagellation, and the combined adoration and skepticism exhibited in the widely varied thousands of pilgrims traversing the roads to the Holy Land.
An excellent read, not only for those interested in the defined subject matter, but also those seeking the little gems about daily life and social mores in the middle ages. In this tidy volume, originally published under the title PILGRIMAGE, Sumption has set the bar very high indeed.