What was it actually like to be a pilgrim at a shrine in the Middle Ages?
On February 23rd, Dr. Dee Dyas (Department of History, Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, University of York) complicated and enriched our understanding of pilgrims’ experience at the shrine by highlighting vivid accounts of tactile and bodily sensation in her lecture entitled The Dynamics of Pilgrimage: Sensory Experience and the Power of Place.
Dr. Dyas’ research focuses on the history, experience, and significance of pilgrimage from late antiquity to the present. She is also interested in the use of technology and interactive resources in teaching. She has edited three substantial interactive resources (on the Bible and Medieval Art, Pilgrimage, and the Parish Church in England) produced by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture in collaboration with an international team of scholars.
In her lecture, Dr. Dyas emphasized that an interdisciplinary approach to pilgrimage studies will shed light on the physical and multi-sensory aspects of encountering holy places in the Middle Ages. As pilgrims entered a church or approached a shrine, the sounds, physical contours, sights, and even smells the experienced brought nuance to their encounter with God and the Saints. Dr. Dyas pointed out that recent studies in neuroscience indicate that the act of looking up and down in a vast architectural space might create feelings of light-headedness and euphoria that deepened the gravity of the pilgrims’ perception of the shrine. Beyond the five senses, Dr. Dyas explained that feelings of pressure, temperature, and sensations of pain also may have affected pilgrims. Furthermore, she emphasized the interconnectivity of the senses, noting that vision is partly informed by tactile sensation.
Dr. Dyas showed that both pilgrim and shrine were transformed by contact, as many pilgrims sought to leave pieces of themselves behind or attempted to break off pieces and gather dust from sacred spaces in order to bring them back home with them. By refocusing on the pilgrimage space as the locus of liminal experience for medieval pilgrims, Dr. Dyas demonstrated that holy places were spaces of both revelation and transformation, as the site acted upon the pilgrim and the sensorial landscape fundamentally impacted the nature of revelatory experience at the shrine.
By Alexa Amore