What Pilgrimage doesn’t know about the medieval Church [SPOILERS] #richardarmitage

Don’t read this if you are waiting to see Pilgrimage during its general release, as this post involves spoilers. Seriously. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this.

I tend not to have very high expectations of how films represent historical Christianity any more, but Pilgrimage was a bigger disappointment in this regard than usual. Maybe it was that I had only recently seen Silence, a movie about Jesuits that had several Jesuit script consultants, and which is an amazingly accurate portrayal of Jesuit missionaries, not only on the superficial level but also on a much deeper one: in a scene that’s key to understanding the whole piece, the film focuses our attention immediately on the spiritual lives of the brothers by showing us a brother engaged in the Spiritual Exercises.

Or maybe it was that I thought people who were making a film that centered on relic piety and Crusade indulgences might bother at least to check out the degree to which their plot was plausible. Very little about this plot is.

So, I don’t understand this comment at all, frankly.



Here’s a list of things I noticed, arranged topically. This may not be all of them. Some are more important than others. This post is preliminary to writing a review, since I didn’t want to explain these things in the review. And I want to preface this by saying: I’m trying to be very careful of saying something “couldn’t have happened,” because one of the most fascinating things about medieval Christianity is its extreme diversity and complexity. When I speak about the likelihood of something happening, or the relative strangeness of something, that’s as far as I am going. However: I also make a few more emphatic statements than that.

I. The relic and related backstory

  1. The cross in the first scene (the staurogram) is seen roughly four centuries before it came into common iconographic usage outside of cemeteries. This doesn’t matter much for the plot, but it’s symptomatic of the film’s problems in general, and it’s an issue when a film that is focused at least in part on the problem of the significance of religious symbols is lax in this regard.
  2. The story the film tells about the martyrdom of St Matthias here is off, insofar as Geraldus asserts that he was “elevated into Heaven” (explaining why there is no body in the flashback scene — which is, I am convinced, intended polemically; the film seems to be saying that if there’s no body maybe there was no martyrdom, and thus everyone is engaged in a fool’s errand). That’s never been a part of the many conflicting traditions of Matthias’ life. In fact, there are bodily relics of St Matthias at Trier — by tradition, they were brought there by St Helena — and at a location in Georgia where he was supposedly buried. None of the early martyrs were physically “elevated into Heaven,” even the most famous ones, like Stephen. The term for bodily transportation to Heaven is usually “assumption,” and it’s reserved for people taken there alive (in Christian tradition: Enoch, Elijah, and among Catholics, Mary). Jesus is said to have been “resurrected” after his death and burial and to have “ascended” into Heaven.
  3. The stone used to martyr St Matthias is an unusual item to designate as an officially known, powerful relic. In practice, all kinds of holy objects survived in odd places, but a relic is more than an object with which a superstition is connected. Relics were divided into categories according to their significance, with the highest meaning reserved for relics that touched the body of Jesus or real body parts of saints. The way the film tells the story, there can’t be a first-class relic of Matthias (body part) because his body was “elevated” into heaven. A martyr was inspiring in the first place because his/her body was tortured, so the most notorious relics associated with martyrs are always parts of their bodies. A second class of relics was reserved for items that the martyr had used, but the rock doesn’t qualify in that sense, either. So the rock used to kill Matthias, as something that had touched his body, would be at best a third class relic and not worthy of that much attention, comparatively speaking.
  4. The movement of a relic was a specific procedure, not an ad hoc event. It happened quite a bit, always publicly, and so was given a formal theological designation: it’s called a translation. Translations didn’t happen in secret, because that would have dishonored the relic and the whole point of getting it was the spectacle and or charisma attached to that spectacle. What Innocent III would have wanted from a relic translation was the symbolic value of its ownership in power — not a fly-by-night transfer. Of course, there were relic thefts — something that has also been extensively studied in the last thirty years; that’s more like what seems to be happening here. Usually a relic theft went in the other direction, though — a newly founded church or monastery tried to obtain a relic that would enhance its authority. As the pope was at the summit of the Church, it wasn’t entirely clear to me how appropriating this relic would help him at all. However, the film seems to be unaware of this material entirely.
  5. Had Innocent III had a strong need for a relic, he would hardly have focused on a third class relic from faraway Ireland. His pontificate was known for the condemnation of relic thefts and a crackdown on relic trafficking of any kind, limiting even further the kind of actions that were possible as part of a translation, in decrees formulated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Italy was awash in relics after the end of the Fourth Crusade in 1204; one of its consequences had been the massive movement of first-class relics from Constantinople into the West. There were already at least four relics of the True Cross available in Rome, for instance, and the Fourth Crusade had brought another one there, which he would preach a sermon about in 1215 at the opening of the Fourth Lateran Council. It’s true that Innocent’s pontificate tried to extend the command of papal authority over relics in general, but primarily in order to make a specific point about the Crusades. (David Perry’s Sacred Plunder is a valuable book on this topic, especially the epilogue.)
  6. We see the relic “at work” the first time around when lightning strikes it. This is a weird scene. For one thing — according to medieval tradition, a translation or a theft could only be successful if the relic wanted to go. So it’s possible that if a strike like this had occurred, the monks would have concluded that the relic didn’t want to go to Rome and they’d have gone back for consultation. This isn’t why the script makes the lightning strike the relic, though — the point is to demonstrate that the monks misunderstand what’s going on, for various reasons. The lightning strikes the reliquary and then the sheepskin catches on fire — a purely random sequence of events that the monks see as magical (the reliquary doesn’t burn although it scalds Rua’s hands) either out of naivete and sincere belief (the Irish monks) or out of some mixture of fanatical belief and calculation (Brother Geraldus).
  7. The idea Geraldus states, that the relic would give the pope the power to separate the faithful from the unfaithful, as if he would use it like a divining rod, or as the “sword in the stone” determined the future king of England, is ridiculous. This is not how medieval people thought relics worked. Popular sermons of the middle ages did describe what sorts of activities “activated” a relic’s considerable supernatural powers, which certainly could be destructive at times, and Rua’s miracle story about how the relic protected the earlier monks is not off-key. Still, a relic didn’t attract random atmospheric energy or burn people who touched a reliquary, unless they did so with malice. According to these sermons, a relic would primarily “defend itself” in a situation where someone was either using it improperly, for the wrong purpose, or if it or the doctrine it was associated with became the object of doubt. More common miraculous powers attributed to relics (of which testimonies can be found in “miracle books,” listings kept by monks of events attributed to the influence of relics) were things like healing, pregnancies, the return of missing relatives, or inspiration for a change of life. But the real significance of going on pilgrimage to see them, or venerating them, related not to life on earth, but to the efficacy of those experiences in the various stages of the after-life.
  8. When the relic is separated from the reliquary, Diarmuid decides that he will carry it in his satchel. This is a glaring inconsistency of the script — either the monks believe the relic is magical, in which case he should be afraid of it; or they don’t believe it will harm them, in which case he shouldn’t. His actual pragmatic attitude is historically accurate but doesn’t really fit in the script.
  9. Although it was widespread and popular, engaging in relic piety was never a requirement of the Latin Church; it was seen as a potential source of inspiration, a concrete way to think about the saintly person connected with the relic or the event it commemorated. Even relics that were not “real” were considered efficacious if the person who believed in them did so out of ignorance and sincere piety. The film condescends to the monks’ beliefs in a way that the medieval period never would have.
  10. Similarly, the film presents Raymond’s disdain for the relic as a huge transgression that stuns the monks, and as an attitude that everyone else considers frivolous if not dangerous. However: relic suspicion was common in the Middle Ages. It was perhaps most common among those who had been in the Holy Land (pilgrims and crusaders), not only because relics were for sale there on every corner, but because the long journey carried the risk of exposing the traveler to “repeat” relics. For example, up to eighteen foreskin relics of Jesus were held by European churches in the Middle Ages. The inability of the Church to eliminate such duplication and the political factors involved in any “authentication” are perhaps two reasons why the Church never made relic belief a necessary doctrine. So there’s nothing really troubling or surprising about Raymond’s cynicism about the relic. The monks would have been accustomed to this sort of thing. As a plot device, it falls flat.


II. The monks, their relic, and the Church hierarchy

  1. Jamie Hannigan supposedly said, in response to a question, that these are “generic monks.” That’s a bit strange as a designation for a thirteenth-century monk, because one of the defining features of a monastery is that its inmates follow a monastic rule. While the initial monastic foundations of Ireland were eremetic and possibly organic to Ireland, they quickly began to follow anchoritic practices (the so-called Thebaid pattern); this was gradually supplanted by the rule of St. Columbanus; and it, in turn, was gradually succeeded by the rule of St. Benedict.
  2. What kind of monks they are is important for plot reasons, as regards the status of The Mute, whose vague backstory doesn’t make much sense from a religious perspective. The main reason to think that the monks are Benedictines is his repeated designation as a “converso, a lay brother”; the term “converso” is used this way primarily in the Benedictine Order. However, a lay brother would typically have been required to take vows, which the Mute could not do. Lay brothers were rare before the fourteenth century, and as lay people not bound by the rule, they usually lived outside monasteries. They were typically expected to support themselves, which the Mute doesn’t do; instead, he labors for the monastery, which is more typical of an oblate (someone given as a gift to the monastery, usually in their childhood). Raymond’s jeer about how the Mute can’t confess his sins is a non-issue from the perspective of the Church. It was exactly Irish monks who were the progenitors of a genre of religious literature known as “penitentials,” directions for how to conduct confessions and lists of which penances to assign for them. They had developed a system for confessing those who could hear but not speak; the confessor ran down a list of common sins and the penitent indicated by signs when he had committed those particular sins. Penance was assigned on that basis.
  3. Diarmuid’s status is also unclear. The script calls him “the novice,” but a novice was not simply a very young person, but someone who sought to enter the community. The script implies Diarmuid’s been at the monastery for several years (because he discovered the Mute, washed up in a boat on the beach, several years earlier), but the Benedictine novitiate typically lasted only a canonical year. There were also rules about entrance to a monastery that prevented those below the age of reason from taking initial or final vows (although these rules were frequently broken in practice). He wears the same gear as the other monks when a novice typically would have been dressed differently, so it seems he is a full-fledged monk, but the lack of backstory is concerning insofar as he would certainly have been a younger son of a local family that would have sponsored his entrance to the monastery. The script seems to imply (“all he knows is the monastery”) is that he is an orphan or something, but had this been the case, he wouldn’t have been able to become a novice because he couldn’t have supplied the entrance fee.
  4. In general, the film seems to assume that people could simply wash up at a monastery and be taken in; in fact, strict entrance regulations for individual monasteries typically barred both the extremely poor and those who were disabled or physically marred in any way. Monasteries were in general hierarchical places where every person had a specific status regulated by the rule and their entrance conditions; they did not just take in stray people.
  5. The Irish monks in the film (Benedictines?) are wearing boots. All monks took a vow of poverty so in the middle ages. They typically went barefoot or, if on a journey, shod in rope sandals. Leather was expensive in the middle ages and as a sign of wealth and luxury, it would have been forbidden to the rank-and-file monk. In this light, it’s also interesting that the Mute wears calf boots and elaborate breeches. Irish monasticism was said by observers to be particularly ascetic and more rigorous in its observances than those of the continent; Irish monks are the last ones who should be wearing boots, especially for normal work around their monastery.
  6. Irish monks were also more highly educated than most of their continental counterparts; for this reason, it’s strange that Geraldus speaks to the monks only in French (or English — which they probably would not have spoken) when their common language would certainly have been Latin (which the film uses only for prayer, although it was the lingua franca of Europe in the period). This point is important insofar as it’s an axis of the plot that some in the monastic party don’t understand Geraldus at crucial points. It’s also a bit odd that he’s so condescending to the Abbot, given the generally high regard in which Irish monasteries were held, even if the Cistercians were on the rise in Ireland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
  7. This monastery does not appear to be wealthy (which would also make it atypical of Irish monasteries in the period), as its main buildings seem to be in ruins. The implication is that it was destroyed in the Norse raids that Rua speaks of while the monks are on the road, but it’s still strange. Early and high medieval Irish monasteries were generally neither especially isolated nor very poor as, like all monastic institutions, their charters gave them the legal right to collect various taxes from the countryside around them. A monastery with a significant relic had no reason to be poor. These items were displayed it for the purpose of pilgrimage, because pilgrimages were an important source of income. A ruined monastery would have wanted to rebuild as quickly as possible.
  8. So it’s strange that these monks are so occupied by hiding their relic. The Irish and Celts in general were said to be more interested in relics (albeit in a period slightly prior to this one) than other Europeans. This doesn’t mean that they would have displayed it constantly — usually a pilgrimage was proclaimed at either regular or irregular intervals, and the relic would be displayed to the public for veneration at these times. The highest draw for these pilgrimages came from the immediately surrounding countryside. This raises the problem that the location of this monastery seems to be not very convenient for pilgrimages, which required infrastructure (and this is why many if not most significant relics sufficient to inspire a pilgrimage were not located in such remote locations).
  9. Even if they were not regularly proclaiming a pilgrimage, assuming the relic is as important as it claims to be, the monks still would have celebrated feasts involving its veneration several times per year. So, it’s weird that they have it packed away so deeply that they have to use a crank to get it out of the earth.
  10. Laying aside the question of the official ways to move a relic (see above), it’s unclear why a Benedictine abbot living in the middle of nowhere and guarding a relic would acquiesce to any request by a random Cistercian with no credentials who simply appeared at his monastery, let alone such an unorthodox one. There was certainly no requirement or incentive to do so. The point in the script seems to be the decision to make Geraldus an avid opponent of Catharism and his pursuit of the so-called “secret mission.”
  11. When the Abbot asks for proof, since he’s heard nothing about the request through other channels, Geraldus gives him a bizarrely anachronistic piece of paper rolled up as if it had been in a scroll. In contrast, you see below what an actual communication from Innocent III would have looked like (and it would have been easy to google this, as I did). Click to enlarge.

    The bull of Pope Innocent III declaring Magna Carta null and void (British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra E I, ff. 155-156). Image courtesy of the British Library.

  12. Looking above, you’ll see a particular type of handwriting that is not the weird, spirally, ornate face of the letter in the movie. Secondly, it is written not on paper, but on parchment, and folded rather than rolled — so that it would survive the rigors of the long trip from Rome (and over 800 years in an archive). Paper was not in common usage for important matters in the thirteenth century; it’s really the fifteenth century that makes its production take off. Finally, and this is probably the most important point: when the Abbot is looking for proof that the request to move the relic is coming from Rome, without any affirmation from one of his superiors in the Benedictine Order, or the bishop of his diocese, what he would have looked for is the official “signature” — that thing dangling from the bottom of the document. This is the official seal of the papacy, which ensures the authenticity of the document. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter that much — but I did spend several minutes wondering why the Abbot simply complies with Geraldus’ order.
  13. Given how the papal bureaucracy worked, it would have been really hard for the pope to make an order like this one and get it obeyed without it being noticed by someone besides the Cistercian who was working for him directly. The pope didn’t write his own letters; they were produced and approved by a group of diplomats and a chancery. When I saw this initially, it took me a while to shake the impression that Geraldus was a renegade charlatan of some kind.

III. Methods for the forgiveness of sin and indulgences

The central, vital question of Christianity, one might argue, is how sinful, flawed man might be saved from eternal punishment (the theological term for this question is soteriology). Although the film correctly establishes that the hope of salvation is a sufficient motive for action on the part of medieval people, the matter is often presented incorrectly, in ways that make the plot implausible to viewers who know anything about the medieval Church.

  1. The first step toward salvation is the sincere confession of sins and performance of penitence / satisfaction for these, which in turn generates forgiveness of sins; this sequence is why the point about the Mute above [II.2] is significant. Raymond seems to be implying that the Mute has committed a mortal sin, but in practice, assuming the monastery followed the widespread practice for confessing those who could not speak, described above [II.2], he certainly could have confessed a mortal sin or indeed any other one (assuming that murder was not a reserved sin in this particular diocese). It’s unlikely that the monks would have allowed him to persist among them unconfessed, particularly if he was indeed a lay brother, as the film emphasizes. The Church expected that a lay person commune at least twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter, and this expectation would be formally legislated in the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which took place shortly after the events of this film. Receiving the Eucharist required confession in advance. But the film relies, plot-wise, on the idea that the Mute cannot communicate anything about his past, including his sins; otherwise, he would not be able to play the role he does for the monks. It also seems to want us to accept in the final scene that the Mute is motivated to attack the Normans in part because of his hope of salvation, as he runs to attack after a salvo of promises from Geraldus; but if he died unconfessed, he would have no hope of salvation, whether or not he had been promised remission of sins via an indulgence. (This assertion should become clearer below.)
  2. Throughout the film, Geraldus promises different people (the Baron de Merville and his soldiers, the Mute, Diarmuid) forgiveness of sin for deeds undertaken on behalf of the Church that will take the place of or wipe away the required penance and the temporal punishment (i.e., time spent in Purgatory) for their sins. The technical term for such a promise is an indulgence, a word no one in the film actually uses. This is a truly complex matter (when I lectured on this topic and its relevance to the history of the Reformation, it took me four hours to cover it), not least because the content and meaning of the indulgence changed over time. It is complicated even more that in some of these cases we are speaking of what we today call “crusade indulgences,” the content and meaning of which changed substantially over time after their first proclamation in 1095 by Urban II. For readers interested in the technical theological details, I recommend the excellent book by Ane Bysted on the topic. Segments of it are available on Google Books.
  3. However, some things about how indulgences are portrayed in the film are definitely wrong. First, indulgences required papal approval; even bishops who proclaimed an indulgence did so under the aegis of papal authority and after prior negotiations. Had the pope agreed to offer indulgences to those who took the relic to Rome, the scope of these offers would have been detailed in a charter or some other document (like the weird letter Geraldus proffers). Indulgences could not be offered by random Cistercians on the spur of the moment, as Geraldus does repeatedly. An actual Cistercian would have been well educated about the limits and conditions on this particular kind of offer of remission of sins.
  4. Second, Geraldus’ contention that soldiers would not be saved due to their horrific deeds and his belief that they needed additional “help” via indulgences is anachronistic. By the thirteenth century, Christian theologians had largely settled this question via the development of “just war theory,” the list of conditions under which Christians would be able to undertake a war or violence in the name of the state or the Church without sinning. Similarly, the question of whether individual soldiers could be saved was debated by theologians throughout the Crusade period (and in the period before, which was heavily violent), with the consensus that combatants in a just war were not sinning when they killed. Soldiers as a category were hence not in greater need of pastoral care than others, and it is questionable that the indulgence offer was even the central motivation for Crusade participants; the primary motivations are thought by scholars to relate to emerging ecclesiastical and state political conflicts rather than religious fervor.
  5. One of the complications of understanding the Crusade indulgences is that (as Bysted details) it’s not entirely clear what was on offer in any specific case, even to the point that the pope and Church theologians either did not know what was being proclaimed, or disagreed about it. Was penance being forgiven? Time in Purgatory? The doctrine of Purgatory itself was relatively new in the period of the film. Adding to that is confusion among the recipients of the indulgence about what they were getting, as well as the potential malfeasance of unscrupulous preachers. However, it was relatively clear that the crusade indulgence on offer in the High Middle Ages was not the “get out of jail free” card that the common mind holds it for today. Medieval people knew this. Just as sins someone planned to commit could not be absolved ahead of time, indulgences were not offered in advance for future sins; they were not valid for unconfessed sins in general, nor for unconfessed mortal sins (like killing) in particular. While no text of the sermon survives, what was preached at Clermont in 1095 (and proclaimed variously elsewhere at the time and in the periods afterwards) was certainly not a license to murder; rather, it was a promise that in the case where a soldier committed a sin and confessed it, he would be freed from either penance or temporal punishment for his actions.
  6. For specialists: some question might be raised about the plenary indulgence (an indulgence that covers all sacramentally absolved sins); it is not clear that the crusade indulgences were plenary, and certainly not at the beginning. However, even a plenary indulgence covers only those sins that have already been committed, confessed and absolved. It cannot be applied to sins that occurred after the plenary indulgence was granted, or sins that someone is contemplating.
  7. Crucially for the plot, indulgences could not be obtained for other people at all at this point (much later, in 1476, Sixtus IV would make them accessible to souls in Purgatory who had living relatives who fulfilled the requirements in a relative’s place, although technically this is an act of intercession and not a grant of indulgence, as the Church had no jurisdiction over the souls of the dead). Geraldus cannot offer the Baron de Merville an indulgence for something that his son or his soldiers do; indulgences were granted for the actions of the individual, to that individual. All the Baron can do is support, pray for, or fund the action; the indulgence is granted for these things and is thus valid once they are completed.
  8. Similarly, one individual could not prevent another individual from obtaining an indulgence for which he had fulfilled the requirements. Crusade indulgences were not contingent on the successful completion of the Crusades — they were offered for sins committed and confessed in progress of the Crusades. They were not only valid if the crusaders took back the Holy Land and meaningless otherwise. For these reasons, Brother Ciaran’s caution to Raymond that his decision to divert the relic will interfere with his father’s salvation is ridiculous. Assuming an indulgence had been offered for his father’s efforts (doubtful), it would have been for supporting the relic’s journey with money and men and not contingent upon the successful arrival of the relic in Rome.
  9. In general, we might note that the tone of Geraldus’ preaching about the potential destruction of Hell and the need for indulgences is anachronistic. In the thirteenth century, indulgence piety was relatively new and undeveloped and anxiety about salvation was not acute. This mood had changed by the fifteenth century, and Geraldus’ insistence that confession or an individual’s actions were insufficient would be more appropriate in a film about indulgence preachers in the late fifteenth century — by which time indulgences were indeed being openly hawked to the public for money.
  10. Similarly, the film uses the language “on faith alone” repeatedly. “Sola fide” is a sixteenth-century term associated primarily with Lutheranism, and it’s not clear what that phrase means here. The pope did not call a crusade “on faith alone”: he had reason to believe that he would be supported by various European rulers for political reason, and he was right. Belief in relics was not really a matter of “faith” so much as it was a social and ritual practice of medieval Christianity. The use of this term is really jarring — even if it is central to what Hannigan seems to have his monks doing. I’ll try to say more about this in the next post on the film.
  11. I hope it’s clear from the above that Raymond’s “closing statement” about why he doesn’t care at that moment about his salvation (paraphrasing: “there will be another Crusade someday and another absolution”) doesn’t fit with what thirteenth-century people believed or knew about indulgences. (Crusade was also not the sole way to obtain an indulgence.) There’s an additional point here that the movie doesn’t really consider, which is that Crusade sermons tended to suggest that crusader violence would be redemptive in some way, the soldier’s path of pilgrimage. On that level, if Raymond understood anything at all about what he was involved in (and he’s a noble, after all), his concern about participating in the Crusade wouldn’t have been about the way that violence stood in the way of his salvation.
  12. The culmination of the confession of sins and completed penance is the celebration and consumption of the Eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper are some other synonyms). If a person has confessed in a state of true repentance, and done penance assigned at the end of the confession, that person receives the absolution pronounced by the priest and is in a state of grace, upon which he can consume the elements (bread and wine) of the sacrament. A lot of things about how the film portrays this ritual are odd. First, we don’t see a priest anywhere; the monks are all brothers. So it’s not clear who would be celebrating this mass and consecrating the elements, although perhaps the Normans have a priest along with them who we don’t see. Second, the soldiers wouldn’t have been taking Communion at all had they not confessed and done penance; perhaps it’s just that this is not shown, but the spontaneous nature of the mass and the rapidity of the encounter suggest that they had not. Because it was relatively rare both to confess and to commune in this period, most congregants at mass would have observed the consecration and elevation of the elements rather than consuming them. Third, it was unusual by the beginning of the thirteenth century to offer congregants both elements; laymen were typically limited to consuming the bread out of concerns that related to the emergent doctrine of transubstantiation, which would be formally legislated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

IV. Symbolism

The plot of the film is heavily contingent on the question of what a religious symbol is or means. I’ll say more about this in a subsequent post; but the key thing to understanding an important difference between medieval and modern thinking on this issue is that symbols were not symbolic in the Middle Ages; they were real. A religious symbol like a relic didn’t represent something else (like a flag today represents our nationalist sentiment); in a real way, it was that thing, fully contiguous with it. This is a difficult thing to parse (like the difference between saying “that is true” and “I believe that it is true”), but medieval people stood one meta-cognitive step closer to their symbols than we do today. (I’m vaguely referencing the work of Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger in these claims.) I simply want to note this here; I’ll explore it more, I hope, in my final review of the film.

V. Catharism and thirteenth-century heresy

I don’t want to say a lot about this because my own work has only taken me into the area superficially (essentially, I know what I needed to know to lecture about the topic in my course on heresy and witchcraft). Some thoughts, though:

  1. The fact that the Mute has a cross tattooed on his back is supposed to be suggestive of something. While some crusaders did get tattoos in the Holy Land, it is unlikely that they were so spectacular as this one; the attitude of the Church toward tattoos (sometimes seen as a pagan practice) was ambivalent, although of course many people would have had them. I was wondering if it was that he’s supposed to be a member of a military order (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights — which in turn raises the question of whether he understands anything the brothers are saying, if they speak mostly in Gaelic; he clearly understands French, though). I looked superficially and didn’t find any evidence that tattooing was standard practice in any of those orders. But the implication of the film in general is that he’s militarily trained and somehow connected with the Church. Perhaps someone knows more about this than I do. But the tattoo seemed off to me, particular given the insistence of the orders and of canon law on consecrating only monks of sound and unmarred body.
  2. As it comes out in the end, it sounds as if Geraldus is the son of a nobleman who was either a Cathar or defended Cathars (the date of the film in 1209 is probably intended to place it just after the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade — Perry hypothesized about the relevance of this material in a brief post here). At the same time, he seems to articulate a key Cathar belief — the notion that the Devil could be present on Earth (he suggests at least twice that Diarmuid has something devilish about him). There’s nothing wrong about this, particularly, it’s just tacked on in a way that makes the point seem both confusing and a throwaway.

V. Minor points

  1. No one used the word “crusade” to describe Christian aggression in the Holy Land in the period of this film.
  2. The monks are singing Salve Regina in full daylight. Even given the longer light in this part of the northern hemisphere, this doesn’t really wash. Compline is the last service before the Great Silence and going to bed.
  3. The music that accompanies the trudge through the swamp toward the end of the film is polyphonic in a style that comes from after the early thirteenth century (when the organum was the height of style). I’m sure the composer knows this, though, and was simply trying to “sound medieval”.

OK, yeah, I really needed to write 6k words about this. Sigh.

[edited for typos]

~ by Servetus on June 25, 2017.

12 Responses to “What Pilgrimage doesn’t know about the medieval Church [SPOILERS] #richardarmitage”

  1. That was really interesting. I was not raised in any church whatsoever so my knowledge is pretty basic. I am glad to know such detail before seeing the movie. It’s always good to know fact from fiction – I will enjoy the movie regardless of whether or not it is factually correct but it is nice to not come out of the movie thinking something is fact when it is not – it’s good to know the difference.

    • It doesn’t work well as a specifically medieval film, but it is a good film. In the end I noticed all these things but they didn’t spoil the film for me.

  2. Thanks for the mention. I posted a few posts on possible Pilgrimage history, one of which included this paragraph “Oh, if only the Armitage blogosphere could boast an historian with expertise in medieval western European religious history, one who wasn’t dependent on internet research, who cuold swivel her desk chair and pull down the right tombs, and who was also interested in playing with the plot ideas we may or may not see in Pilgrimage. Well, it’s a lot to ask.

    • Huh, I thought I read them all but maybe not. I’m not such a one for advance speculation. However, Hannigan really should have had a specialist read this script. It’s pretty clear this is a film about modern belief, reasoning and doubt that has little to do with the Middle Ages as such, but he could have avoided some really glaring problems.

      • I had to look back – there were 3 or 4, with speculation ( I like it). For me, it would have been as easy to write a factually correct script as one that wasn’t. No error you pointed out was critical to the plot. ( I mean, I can see why they wanted to give monks boots, but OK) From the Q & A after the film, it seemed clear to me ( unless they were just lousy public speakers) that the history wasn’t important. They had an ” idea” and then got the writer. They even had the choice to pick whatever sort of relic for whatever martyr they wanted. Also, I thought the film lacked explanation for some of the plot, as I mentioned in my review.

        • I think it depends on how important the question of relic piety is for the viewer. I just didn’t find the relic in particular believable and didn’t think medieval people would have either, so that story line (carrying the supernatural object to Rome) was dead for me. If you can accept that they’re all fawning around this non-relic, it probably doesn’t bother you. I also think that the film’s failure to comprehend that theme makes Diarmuid’s attitude in the second half of the script (is he going to carry the relic? why? and with what attitude?) disjointed. And the indulgence issue is a big deal to me. If you want to say people are motivated by their salvation, fine, but it wasn’t clear that anyone in this film was clear on how they’d actually have gotten salvation in 1209. Again, that killed the plausibility for me but probably wouldn’t for some people. But soteriology is probably the existential issue of my life, at least until I was 45 or so, so take that for what it is worth.

          I still haven’t listened to the Q&A or read anything else; got one more piece to write and then I’ll go back.

        • Or to elaborate on that — we don’t believe in relics (most of us don’t anyway), so the fact that the relic story is implausible bothers us less as we don’t expect to believe it anyway.

        • Or, for example, I saw this review today and it exemplifies a bit of what I’m talking about:


          313 has little to do with understanding what the Church was doing in 1209. I mean, imagine if someone said to you today that something that happened in the 12th century was somehow strongly related to things happening now. You’d never believe them. For viewers ignorance of the specificities, none of the errors will be a problem. For the rest of us, though …

  3. Thanks for all the information you packed in that post. Very interesting and educational. I will reread it when/ if I have the opportunity to see the film. I won’t retain much beyond next week, unfortunately.

    • No worries. This was one of those “I have to write it b/c I have to write it” posts.

  4. […] Post assumes you have seen the film or are aware of the detailed summary, as well as the list of errors in the portrayal of religious history in the film. And I assume you have thought at least a little about “how relics […]

  5. […] actually researched theses (oh my, Jamie Hannigan, you’re right, it’s so much work, so much more than you ever bothered to do — actually the amount of research you put into this film would not suffice for an […]

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