(Middle English, pilgrime, Old French, pelegrin, derived from Latin peregrinum, supposed origin, per and ager—with idea of wandering over a distance).
The idea of a pilgrimage has been traced back by some (Littledale in "Encycl. Brit.", 1885, XIX, 90; "New Internat. Encyc.", New York, 1910, XVI, 20, etc.) to the primitive notion of local deities, that is, that the divine beings who controlled the movements of men and nature could exercise that control only over certain definite forces or within set boundaries. Thus the river gods had no power over those who kept away from the river, nor could the wind deities exercise any influence over those who lived in deserts or clearings or on the bare mountain-side. Similarly there were gods of the hills and gods of the plains who could only work out their designs, could only favour or destroy men within their own locality (1 Kings 20:23). Hence, when some man belonging to a mountain tribe found himself in the plain and was in need of divine help, he made a pilgrimage back again to the hills to petition it from his gods. It is therefore the broken tribesmen who originate pilgrimages.
Without denying the force of this argument as suggesting or extending the custom, for it has been admitted as plausible by distinguished Catholics (cf. Lagrange, "Etudes sur les relig. sémit., VIII, Paris, 1905, 295, 301), we may adhere to a less arbitrary solution by seeking its cause in the instinctive notion of the human heart. For pilgrimages properly so called are made to the places where the gods or heroes were born or wrought some great action or died, or to the shrines where the deity had already signified it to be his pleasure to work wonders. Once theophanies are localized, pilgrimages necessarily follow. The Incarnation was bound inevitably to draw men across Europe to visit the Holy Places, for the custom itself arises spontaneously from the heart. It is found in all religions. The Egyptians journeyed to Sekket's shrine at Bubastis or to Ammon's oracle at Thebes; the Greeks sought for counsel from Apollo at Delphi and for cures from Asclepius at Epidaurus; the Mexicans gathered at the huge temple of Quetzal; the Peruvians massed in sun-worship at Cuzco and the Bolivians in Titicaca. But it is evident that the religions which centered round a single character, be he god or prophet, would be the most famous for their pilgrimages, not for any reason of tribal returns to a central district where alone the deity has power, but rather owing to the perfectly natural wish to visit spots made holy by the birth, life, or death of the god or prophet. Hence Buddhism and Mohammedanism are especially famous in inculcating this method of devotion. Huge gatherings of people intermittently all the year round venerate Kapilavastu where Gaukama Gaukama Buddha began his life, Benares where he opened his sacred mission, Kasinagara where he died; and Mecca and Medina have become almost bywords in English as the goals of long aspirations, so famous are they for their connexion with the prophet of Islam.
Granting then this instinctive movement of human nature, we should expect to find that in Christianity God would Himself satisfy the craving He had first Himself created. The story of His appearance on earth in bodily form when He "dwelt amongst us" could not but be treasured up by His followers, and each city and site mentioned became a matter of grateful memory to them. Then again the more famous of His disciples, whom we designate as saints, themselves began to appeal to the devotion of their fellows, and round the acts of their lives soon clustered a whole cycle of venerated shrines. Especially would this be felt in the case of the martyrs; for their passion and death stamped more dramatically still the exact locality of their triumph. Moreover, it seems reasonable to suppose that yet another influence worked to the same end. There sprang up in the early Church a curious privilege, accorded to dying martyrs, of granting the remission of canonical penances. No doubt it began through a generous acceptance of the relation of St. Stephen to St. Paul. But certain it is that at an early date this custom had become so highly organized that there was a libellus, or warrant of reconciliation, a set form for the readmittance of sinners to Christian fellowship (Batiffol, "Etudes d'hist. et de théol. posit.", I, Paris, 1906, 112- 20). Surely then it is not fanciful to see how from this came a further development. Not only had the martyrs in their last moments this power of absolving from ecclesiastical penalties, but even after their deaths, their tombs and the scenes of their martyrdom were considered to be capable also—if devoutly venerated—of removing the taints and penalties of sin. Accordingly it came to be looked upon as a purifying act to visit the bodies of the saints and above all the places where Christ Himself had set the supreme example of a teaching sealed with blood.
Again it may be noted how, when the penitential system of the Church, which grouped itself round the sacrament of the confessional, had been authoritatively and legally organized, pilgrimages were set down as adequate punishments inflicted for certain crimes. The hardships of the journey, the penitential garb worn, the mendicity it entailed made a pilgrimage a real and efficient penance (Beazley, "Dawn of Modern Geography", II, 139; Furnival, "The Stacions of Rome and the Pilgrim's Sea Voyage", London, 1867, 47). To quote a late text, the following is one of the canons enacted under King Edgar (959-75): "It is a deep penitence that a layman lay aside his weapons and travel far barefoot and nowhere pass a second night and fast and watch much and pray fervently, by day and by night and willingly undergo fatigue and be so squalid that iron come not on hair or on nail" (Thorpe, "Ancient Laws", London, 1840, 411-2; cf. 44, 410, etc.). Another witness to the real difficulties of the wayfaring palmer may be cited from "Syr Isenbras", an early English ballad:
"They bare with them no maner of thynge
That was worth a farthynge
Cattell, golde, ne fe;
But mekely they asked theyre meate
Where that they myght it gette.
For Saynct Charyte."
(Uterson, "Early Popular Poetry", I, London, 1817, 83). And the Earl of Arundel of a later date obtained absolution for poaching on the bishop's preserves at Hoghton Chace only on condition of a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Richard of Chichester ("Archæologia", XLV, 176; cf. Chaucer, "Works", ed. Morris, III, 266). And these are but late descriptions of a practice of penance which stretches back beyond the legislation of Edgar and the organization of St. Theodore to the sub-Apostolic age. Finally a last influence that made the pilgrimage so popular a form of devotion was the fact that it contributed very largely to ease the soul of some of its vague restlessness in an age when conditions of life tended to cramp men down to certain localities. It began to be looked upon as a real help to the establishment of a perfectly controlled character. It took its place in the medieval manuals of psychology. So John de Burg in 1385 (Pupilla oculi, fol. LXII), "contra acediam, opera laboriosa bona ut sint peregrinationes ad loca sancta."