Pilgrimage and Public Humanities

Pilgrimage and the social institutions that supported it spanned the many cultures and religions of the ancient and medieval worlds. Pilgrims undertook their journeys to fulfill religious obligations, to give thanks for healing, and to receive counsel from spiritual experts. Established routes led to sacred sites located on natural landmarks or along waterways, which were marked by temples, shrines, churches and mosques. Often pilgrims desired contact with a sacred object, like an image of the divine, believed to possess healing power.

In the Middle Ages, social institutions like hospitals and other charitable associations were established across Africa, Europe, and Asia to house pilgrims along their route and welcome them at their destination. On pilgrimage, medieval people encountered different cultures, and a rich literature developed as writers published accounts of their travels. Ibn Battuta, a Muslim jurist from Morocco, devotes much of his famous travel narrative to recounting visits with Sufi saints and Islamic scholars; as he made the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325, he sought out their learning and their blessing. Similarly, the English Christian merchant and author Margery Kempe emphasizes the positive relationships she fostered while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome in 1413. She finds help and support from Muslim tour guides who comfort her, a German priest who hears her confession, and wealthy Italian women who provide for her when she embraces voluntary poverty. Pilgrimage, for these writers, was as much about the journey as the destination.

Making a pilgrimage still appeals today to people religiously affiliated or not, and medieval routes continue to attract travelers. Moreover, pilgrimage is now being used in justice work as an embodied practice that can support liberation and healing. What are the common threads and important differences between the practice of pilgrimage in the deep past and our present moment? Can the long history of pilgrimage productively inform current theologies of encounter and liberation?

The Medieval Institute’s public humanities initiative for Spring 2023 will investigate pilgrimage as a global medieval phenomenon structured by practices of hospitality and cross-cultural encounter. Our “Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation” will, first, educate the public about the history, theology and liberatory praxis of pilgrimage and, second, sponsor two pilgrimage experiences. These events will help all who participate to understand how histories of violence and inequity have shaped our local environment in South Bend and to imagine how we might create a more just and inclusive community through systemic transformation. The participatory nature of pilgrimage lends itself to the work of public humanities as we partner with community organizations to “learn by doing.”

Beginning in January and continuing through March 2023, a series of webinars will present innovative research on cross-cultural approaches to studying the deep past as well as liberation theology and the arts. The first, “Pilgrimage in the Global Middle Ages: Hospitality and Encounter,” will compare medieval pilgrimage practices across the Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Chinese Buddhist traditions to explore commonalities and differences, with particular attention to the themes of hospitality and encounter. The second, “Pilgrimage and the Praxis of Liberation,” will examine theologies of pilgrimage and racial reconciliation. The third, “Sacred Art and Social Justice: Beholding the Holy Other,” featuring artist Kelly Latimore, will consider images of the holy encountered at pilgrimage destinations with a focus on Black/Brown iconography in the Christian tradition. Finally, “The Black Madonna for Racial Liberation: A Spirituality to Empower Sacred Activism” will feature Dr. Christena Cleveland, author of God Is a Black Woman, which tells of her pilgrimage to France to see Black Madonna statues. Dr. Cleveland’s public theology models how pilgrimage and story-telling can serve the work for racial equity.

This learning will prepare us to embark on two in-person pilgrimages in April 2023. One will take place in Chicago, where we will visit sites connected to Father Augustus Tolton, the first self-identified African-American man to be ordained a Catholic priest. He is currently one of the six African-American candidates for sainthood. By walking in his footsteps and visiting the site where he died, we will remember Tolton’s witness to the Gospel and his perseverance within the church despite its endemic racism. He strove to realize the church’s mission to be “truly Catholic” and inclusive of all people.

For the second pilgrimage experience, participants will walk through the city of South Bend by landmarks from local African-American and Civil Rights history. We are partnering on this event with the local chapter of Faith in Indiana, a non-profit organization that mobilizes faith leaders to work for racial and economic equity. The goal is to raise consciousness and foster conversation around issues such as access to housing, health care, education, employment, and capital. Along the way, we will hear from speakers immediately impacted by structural violence, make connections between the landmark sites and current issues in local politics, and imagine the kind of community we want to live in—one that is inclusive, equitable and just.

We invite all friends of the Medieval Institute to join us on the way.

Annie Killian, Ph.D.
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Bigger House: Cost of Living and Medieval Byzantium

Cost of living is a pressing issue faced by many people today. Inflation, gas prices, and housing costs all impact our quality of life. Recently these pressures have encouraged many people to move to areas where they hope to find better conditions. Large cities offer many conveniences. However, one’s home will not only be quite expensive, but also quite small. For the cost of a one bedroom condo in San Francisco, one could purchase a large house with a yard here in South Bend. Where one lives has a significant effect on the home they can have. This relationship between house size and location is not unique to today.

Those living in medieval Byzantium could not consult home listings from across the Empire. Nor was the freedom of movement that we have today in existence in the Middle Ages. However, there still existed significant variation in the size of village houses across regions. Villagers may not have simply been able to decide to move to an area that would provide their family with a larger house or greater resources, but clear differences in housing are preserved in the archaeological record.

Looking at the villages of the Byzantine Empire provides us with a fascinating glimpse of how location affected the houses of everyday people. Movement by villagers was restricted within Byzantium, but it did occur regularly. Most often this movement was spurred by necessity and not personal choice. After all, there was no simple way to compare houses from Anatolia and the Peloponnese. Further, the greatest impact on village houses was not the amount of money one could pay for them. The materials used to construct the house and local topography were the most significant factors. Most frequently, village houses were built by those who lived within them.

The physical location of one’s house would have a significant impact on its overall size. Often village houses were constructed on the slopes of hills or mountains. The steeper the incline, the smaller the house would be. Houses were most often rectangular in form and built perpendicular with the slope with the long sides of the house descending down slope. The short wall connecting these sides at the bottom of the slope served not just as a kind of retaining wall for the building, but needed to have a rather significant height in order to make a level platform for the second floor that was frequently included. If the incline on which the house was constructed was quite significant, this would limit the length that the house could be.

Holger Uwe Schmitt, The Byzantine ruined city of Mystras

For example, if the elevation along the slope changed by 5 meters after a 10 meter distance, then a house with 10 meter long walls would require a 5 meter high wall at the bottom in order to make a level area for second floor. That would be quite significant, and in some cases might be impossible to construct. Further, the short wall would need to be even higher to accommodate the height of the second floor and support the roof. A shorter house than would be required on the slope.

 Examples of how incline affects house size in the Byzantine village are found in the Mani peninsula. The Mani is the southernmost region of the Greek Peloponnese. The houses of the Byzantine village of Marathos are built along a steep mountainside. For the village of Sarania, the houses are built on a modest hill. While the houses of Marathos belong to a village that by all appearances had a longer and more prosperous life than Sarania, the houses here are generally smaller. In their original form, houses at Sarania are more than 10 m2 larger on average than houses at Marathos. Economic status of the settlements was not the determining factor in the size of the homes. Rather, it was topography that played the more significant role.

Camster, Modern village of Vathia in the Mani

In addition to their local topography, the physical material that houses were made from would impact their size as well. The houses of the Mani were built in the “megalithic” style. Large, roughly cut blocks of local limestone formed the walls of the house. Stone was even used to span the houses, forming support for additional floors or the roof. The use of stone for this purpose would limit the width of the village house. In theory, one could make their house as long as they wanted, but it would still be relatively narrow. Materials would limit size.

Moving across Byzantium to Cappadocia in central Anatolia, modern Turkey, we come to one of the most unique landscapes in the medieval world. Here, houses, churches, monasteries, and more are all carved into the volcanic rock of the region. Carving one’s house from stone would seemingly provide less limitations on the overall form and size. Building material did not need to be acquired and the physical limitations of built architecture were absent. There were other factors to consider however. While the volcanic stone of the region is considered soft as far as rock goes, it requires specialized tools and labor to carve. Different limitations then were placed on the houses of villagers here. It was not the building material that constrained the size of the houses, but the labor one could employ.

W. Bulach, Rock Carved settlement near Göreme in Cappadocia, Turkey

One can only imagine the thoughts that would go through the mind of a Byzantine villager who was able to observe the variation in housing within the Empire. How struck would they be by the different size of houses in one region compared to another? Would the rock carved homes of Cappadocia appear familiar or strange? Just as in the United States individuals working similar jobs can afford much different houses depending on their location, the housing of Byzantine villagers may be affected by similar dynamics. Other differences exist of course. Today, individuals working the same job may be paid differently based on where they live. However, anyone that has looked at house prices in the past year would see that these differences in pay are not proportional to the difference in the cost of housing. Villagers in one region of Byzantium may have had a better quality of life than those in another. The richness of Byzantine housing provides an important insight into these elements of daily life that reflect similarities of our experiences today.  

Mark James Pawlowski
Byzantine Studies Post-Doc
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Pawlowski, Mark James. “Housing and the Village Landscape in the Byzantine Mani,” PhD Diss. (UCLA, 2019)

Ousterhout, Robert. Visualizing Community, Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia (Washington D.C., 2017).

Bouras, C. 1983. Houses in Byzantium. Δελτίον τῆς Xριστιανικῆς ἀρχαιολογικῆς ἐταιρείας 11: 1-26

Grendel the Vampire?

Contemporary monsters associated with modern Halloween celebrations—such as vampires, werewolves and mummies—borrow heavily from the genre of Gothic Horror which takes shape during the early modern period in the hands of Romantic and Victorian authors.

“Gothic Horror Environment” by Unreal Engine (2021).

Indeed, Gothic Horror, the literary source of many monsters commonly associated today with Halloween, regularly draws inspiration from the medieval period. Authors from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allen Poe capitalize on the haunting way the past is often reimagined in the present as mysterious, unknown and full of terrors. This year’s Halloween special, in celebration of Samhain and All Hallows Eve, considers the characterization of one famous medieval monster sometimes associated with the modern concept of “the vampire” in popular culture.

One of the most well-known monsters from the Middle Ages, Grendel, the terrifying cannibal from Beowulf, is frequently regarded as a medieval vampire in contemporary vampire lore, despite that the Old English poem seems not to have been readily available during the Victorian period. Although, Beowulf was first transcribed in 1786, with an edition later printed in 1815 by Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin who also translated the poem into Latin, its influence remained obscure. Some verses from Beowulf were translated into modern English in 1805, and nine complete translations were produced in the 19th century, including one by William Morris, but it was only after the turn of the 20th century that an abundance of translations became available making Beowulf accessible to public audiences and leading to growing interest in the Old English poem during the period which helps establish Beowulf as central to English literary canons thereafter.

The iconic scene of Count Orlok on the stairs from F. W. Murnau’ film, Nosferatu (1922).

Nevertheless, when Lord Byron, John Polidori, John Stag and Bram Stoker were contributing to the development of tropes and stereotypes that inform modern representations of vampires, they self-consciously and explicitly looked to the past “dark ages” with a macabre, antiquarian eye. Often, these authors will cite unspecified ancient lore and legend in an attempt to ground their vampire literature in a mythologically (if not historically) authenticated past in which monsters and magic are possible. These possibilities, then, extend into the present as gothic monsters reach from the deep recesses of time into modern times so that they may haunt the living. Vampires like many gothic monsters are generally understood as an anachronism, able to exist now only because they existed then, thereby suspending modern sensibilities and skepticisms. Indeed, the longstanding affiliation between medieval corpses and modern vampires is mobilized in a recent blog centered on vampirism, succubi and women’s monstrosity.

Each of these Victorian authors reach to the medieval period in order to craft their modern undead monsters, sometimes even looking toward historical figures, such as Vlad III of Wallachia (better known as Vlad “the Impaler”) as an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, it seems that none would have borrowed directly from the Old English poem.

So why is Grendel considered a vampire? Is there any textual evidence to support this claim?

“Grendel” by KaRzA-76 (2005).

While Grendel’s monstrosity remains mysterious, and some might see little resemblance between the medieval monster and Victorian vampires, there is one passage centered on Grendel’s cannibalism, which serves as a major source for Grendel’s association with vampirism. The section reads as follows:

Geseah he in recede    rinca manige,
swefan sibbegedriht    samod ætgædere,
magorinca heap.    Þa his mod ahlog;
mynte þæt he gedælde,    ærþon dæg cwome,
atol aglæca,    anra gehwylces
lif wið lice,    þa him alumpen wæs
wistfylle wen.    Ne wæs þæt wyrd þa gen
þæt he ma moste    manna cynnes
ðicgean ofer þa niht.    Þryðswyð beheold
mæg Higelaces,    hu se manscaða
under færgripum    gefaran wolde.
Ne þæt se aglæca    yldan þohte,
ac he gefeng hraðe    forman siðe
slæpendne rinc,    slat unwearnum,
bat banlocan,    blod edrum dranc,
synsnædum swealh;    sona hæfde
unlyfigendes    eal gefeormod,
fet ond folma.

“He [Grendel] saw in the hall many warriors, the troop of kinsfolk slept, gathered together, a heap of kindred warriors. Then his mind laughed, because he, the terrible, fearsome marauder, intended to rend life from the body of every one of them before day came, when the expectation of gluttony came over him. It was nevermore his fate that he might eat more of mankind over the night. The very mighty kinsman of Hygelac beheld how the criminal destroyer would fare with its sudden grips. The fearsome marauder did not think to delay, but he quickly seized a sleeping man the first time, tore ravenously, bit his bone-locker, drank the blood from his veins, swallowed the sinful morsel; soon he had finished off all of him, unliving, feet and hands” (728-745).

Most often, emphasis is placed on Grendel’s cannibalism and specifically his consumption of flesh mentioned in the passage. Few modern adaptations of Beowulf—from Michael Crichton’s Eater of the Dead (1976) to John Tiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999) based on Crichton’s adaptation to Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007), or even Cartoon Network’s adaptation of the poem in Adventure Time’s “The Wild Hunt” (2018)—depict Grendel as especially fond of blod edrum drincan “drinking blood from veins” (742), despite that the poem describes this vampiric act in gory detail.

“Gangrel” by Ypslon (2019).

Although most Beowulf adaptations focus more attention on flesh-eating than on blood-drinking, parallels between vampires and Grendel have not gone unnoticed, and categorizations of vampire-types sometimes include a Grendelish category, as demonstrated by the ferocious and bestial Gangrel, known for being especially close the “the Beast” within, their association with medieval Scandinavia and their ravenous consumption of blood in the popular roleplaying game, Vampire: The Masquerade. Moreover, Cain’s association with vampirism often mirrors his role as progenitor of the Grendelkin and all monsterkind in Beowulf.

Grendel may not be a proper vampire in the technical, stereotypical, modern understanding of the term. Moreover, Grendel’s characterization in Beowulf apparently did not affect vampire stereotypes developed in the early modern period before knowledge of the Old English poem became mainstream. Nevertheless, the graphic image of the monster haunting at night, coming from the darkness, perhaps shapeshifting from a shadow to human form, and most importantly, sucking the blood from the veins of his victim, marks Grendel’s characterization as eerily close in certain aspects to modern vampires, who share his love of darkness, often possess shapeshifting abilities and likewise glut themselves on human blood.

Richard Fahey, Ph.D.
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame