Pilgrim Encounters

“We may have to turn around if the wind gets too strong,” our bus driver told me. It was pelting rain on the morning of Saturday, April 1, the day of the Medieval Institute-sponsored pilgrimage to Southside Chicago. The night before, a tornado warning had hit Notre Dame, and I thought, even when traveling by modern-day motor vehicle, pilgrims must brave tempests to reach their destination.

Happily, the weather did not deter our driver, and our busload of 50 people disembarked at the Cardinal Meyer Center to walk in the footsteps of Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognizably Black American Catholic to be ordained a priest. The members of our pilgrim band, ranging in age from their teens to their eighties, hailed from Saint Mary’s College, the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross School, and two local parishes, Saint Augustine’s and Saint Pius. We represented a cross-section of academic disciplines and communities from around South Bend.

Mrs. Valerie Jennings of the Black Catholic Initiative, Archdiocese of Chicago, talks with pilgrims on the 35th Street bridge where Fr. Tolton disembarked from the train on July 9, 1897, the day of his death.

The journey to Chicago marked the end of the MI’s Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation series. On my mind were lessons learned from the four webinars we hosted throughout the spring semester. First, the goal of the journey is to come home changed. Pilgrimage encompasses our experience en route to holy places and within sacred precincts, but it doesn’t end there. The pilgrim identity leaves an imprint that lingers once the journey is over. Muslims who make the hajj earn an honorific title when they return home, signifying that they have grown in wisdom from their sojourn to Mecca. In the panel discussion on “Pilgrimage in the Global Middle Ages,” Professor Mun’im Sirry shared that some Indonesian Muslims even take a new name to emphasize that the hajj has changed their very identity. Of course, our day trip to Chicago was not as momentous as a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. Nevertheless, as pilgrims we set out with intentionality, desiring new energy to animate our work for racial justice.

The second lesson: how we go is as important as where we go. Professor Layla Karst, in the webinar on “Becoming a Pilgrim People,” described making a pilgrimage as a liturgical act that forms us as church. By journeying together, the pilgrim community makes God’s presence visible in the world here and now. Karst challenged those of us making the pilgrimage to become the church that the world needs today. Between 2021 and 2024, Pope Francis has invited Catholics into a synodal process designed to intensify communion, participation, and mission in the life of the church. By gathering a mix of students and community members, our group witnessed to Pope Francis’ vision for a church of encounter and dialogue between people of diverse cultures, generations, and life experiences.

Deacon Mel and Annie Tardy (right), Tolton Ambassadors from Saint Augustine’s parish, South Bend, helped guide the pilgrimage.

The preeminent sacred site for Christian pilgrims is Jersualem, the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Professor Robin Jensen explained, Christian pilgrimage dates back to the fourth century when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. For nearly 2000 years, pilgrims have walked the Way of the Cross in Jesus’ footsteps. They recall the events of his Passion to draw close to him in his suffering. Death, though,is not the end of the story. The Holy Sepulchre marks the tomb from which Christ rose to new life, thereby liberating all creation from the power of death. What was once a place of trauma and violence has become sacred ground where compassion and freedom take root.

The destination for our pilgrimage was likewise the site of one man’s suffering and death. We walked to the bridge where Father Tolton returned by train from a priests’ retreat out of town. He began walking home in 105-degree heat but collapsed one block away from the station. Standing at the site of his collapse, we placed flowers and sang, lamenting the devastating impact of poverty, violence, and environmental racism on the people of Southside Chicago, where Tolton tended the sick and preached the Gospel. He died at a nearby hospital on July 9, 1897. In an American church that long denied his vocation because he was Black, Tolton persevered, shared his gifts, and made a way out of no way for Black Catholics. His life and ministry bore heroic witness to the promise of God’s Reign, where all are welcome and provided for abundantly.

A providential surprise awaited us at the end of our journey. The founders of Warriors 4 Peace, an Indianapolis non-profit, were in Chicago the same day to meet with Bishop Perry, the promoter of Tolton’s cause. Warriors 4 Peace opposes gun violence and promotes peaceful change to honor the memory of Jack Shockley, who was murdered by handgun in 2020 when he was 24 years old. Jack’s parents adopted Fr. Tolton as the patron saint of their peace-making work, and an artist friend of theirs had created two sculptures of Tolton, which were on display the day of our pilgrimage. The life-size bust of Augustus Tolton generated a powerful sense of energy and presence. The icons reminded me of sacred art’s capacity to bring us face to face with the holy witnesses who have gone before us and still accompany us in the struggle for justice and peace.

Bust of Father Augustus Tolton by Warriors4Peace sculptor.

Pilgrimages stage multiple encounters that have the potential to change people along the way. Through story, art, and places of memory, our pilgrim community encountered Fr. Tolton, a Black Catholic soon-to-be saint. We met our hosts at the Black Catholic Initiative of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who are carrying on the legacy of Tolton’s apostolate. We listened to the Shockley’s, who invited us into their grief. And throughout the day, while riding the bus and breaking bread together, each pilgrim encountered fellow travelers who had likewise given up their Saturday and defied stormy weather to make the journey. Pilgrimage both connects us with the religious practices of the deep past and forms us for a synodal church that can walk together into the future.

Sculpture of Father Tolton ministering to a woman and her child.

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

How Metal Detecting Can Help us to Uncover the Past 

In July 2022, metal detectorist James Mather was in a field in south Oxfordshire when he came face-to-face with medieval history. It was a warm summer’s day, the sun high in the sky. Mather knew the landowner well; it was not the first time he had detected here. Having recently recovered from a bout of COVID, Mather was enjoying being back out for what, so far, had been a normal day’s detecting.

James Mather, finder of an Anglo-Saxon brooch using metal detector, 2022.

A red kite landed in the stubble field, some distance away. As Mather himself says, ‘many detectorists are superstitious.’ He took the kite as an omen and began searching the area. He has training in landscape archaeology, and his reading of the site also told him that it was a logical place to look for metal artefacts.

He got a good signal. It was shallow, about four inches deep. He carefully began to dig away the topsoil. Before long, he uncovered the source: it was circular, crooked. It looked like it might be silver, and ancient. Whatever it was, Mather knew to follow protocol. He alerted the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), Dr. Ed Caswell, and sent over a picture on his phone. Caswell thought it might be early medieval, perhaps a decorative dress pin, but said he would need some time to confirm the object. In the meantime, Mather notified the landowner that he may have found treasure, and set up a grid pattern search extending thirty feet around the find spot to look for more.

Image of the Anglo-Saxon brooch found by metal detectorist, James Mather, 2022.

What Mather had found was a unique piece of Anglo-Saxon history. He reached out to Dr. Gabor Thomas at Reading University, who forwarded the photographs to Professor Elizabeth Okasha. The experts agreed that it probably dated to the 9th century, and was most likely a gilded silver brooch. Far from a plain metal disc, the brooch bears an intricate cross pattern with a raised centre, and an inscription around the edge. Sadly, the years have not been kind to the object, and several letters have been lost. However, it seems that the text is announcing the object’s owner: ‘Ælfgeo… owns me…’ Who is this mysterious Ælfgeo? The gendered end of the name is missing, so we may never know this crucial detail about them. Indeed, there is a lot we don’t know yet. This may be one of the earliest personally inscribed brooches found in the UK, however far more research is needed on the topic. But one thing is clear: this significant find in a field in sunny southern Oxfordshire is a tantalising contribution to our understanding of this early period.

Metal Detecting

Metal detecting is an increasingly popular hobby in the UK. As of 2021, there were around 20,000 detectorists in the nation, and the number continues to rise. Of the over 1,300 pieces of treasure found in 2019, 96% were discovered through metal detecting. Mather attributes this popularity to a number of things: the popularity of TV shows like The Detectorists (created by and starring Mackenzie Crook, who you might recognise from Pirates of the Carribean), the publicity surrounding major finds, and a general improvement in the public’s attitude towards detectorists. As Mather says, ‘people didn’t fully understand the responsibilities that go with the craft, and thought that detectorists were finding things and not declaring them.’ The perceived lack of regulation and stories about ‘Night Hawkers’ (the name given to those who metal detect illegally, without landowner’s permission or announcing their finds) fuelled public distrust.

The 9th-century Watlington Hoard, found by metal detectorist, James Mather, 2015. The Trustees of the British Museum ©.

In 2017 an enhanced Code of Practice was devised, which set out clear guidance for metal detectorists. Permission from the landowner must be obtained, and the landowner informed of any significant archaeological finds. Generally, objects found on the land belong to the landowner, so it is advised that detectorists create a formal, written agreement with the landowner deciding on future ownership of finds. Detectorists should report finds to their local FLO, to be added to the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. Guidelines should be given for detecting in different environments, like pasture, ploughed land, or coastlines. This all supplemented the very comprehensive 1996 Treasure Act, which covers the law relating to detecting and defines exactly what counts as ‘treasure,’ and how to report it.

Thanks to these regulations and the dedication of detectorists across the UK, the last few decades have seen significant contributions to our historical knowledge of medieval Britain. For example, the Marlow Warlord, an Anglo-Saxon warrior, was found by detectorists Sue and Mick Washington in 2018. In 2021 in Cookham, detectorists from Maidenhead Search Society assisted archaeologists from the University of Reading to uncover the lost monastery of Queen Cynethryth of Mercia, of which she became abbess after the death of her husband, King Offa.

 Image of the reverse of the 9th century ‘Two Emperors’ coin from the Watlington Viking Hoard, found by metal detectorist James Mather, 2015.

Mather himself made a major discovery in 2015, when he uncovered the Watlington Viking Hoard. The hoard of about 200 Anglo-Saxon coins and Viking elements, including seven jewellery items, and fifteen silver ingots was found near Watlington, Oxfordshire. Thirteen of the coins were rare: ‘Two Emperors’ pennies, representing Kings Alfred of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia sitting side-by-side beneath a winged figure. This suggests that the two kingdoms were allies and successfully challenged the belief, long held by historians, that Ceowulf was merely a Viking puppet, dismissed in the A version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as a ‘foolish King’s thegn’. Thanks to the presence of a ‘Two-Line’ penny, the hoard can be dated to after the Battle of Edington in 878. Such a discovery has seriously shifted our understanding of the politics of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the period.

Becoming a Detectorist

What drives detectorists out into the fields in all weathers, scanning the ground and hoping for a signal? For Mather, though it is a very practical process. There is something magical about it: ‘to find something interesting and significant that no one has held for thousands of years is pretty remarkable.’ The value to the individual is immense. It has plenty of physical and mental benefits: ‘green exercise is especially beneficial, you get close to nature, and it’s great psychologically.’ This may be why several veterans groups have picked up the craft, Mather suggests. You can do it in solitude, or with like-minded buddies. Then there’s the value to landowners and to national heritage. ‘Some finds really can rewrite history,’ like the Watlington Hoard.

Of course, it takes both financial and time commitments. To buy a mid-range detector would set a UK detectorist back £500 (about $600 USD) not to mention the spade and other tools you need. It takes resilience, and you need to be comfortable spending hours on unforgiving terrain. Success is a function of how long you spend doing it. You need a decent site, suitable kit, good technique and a big slice of luck! Plus, you need to be able to at least roughly identify the materials you find. After all, you don’t want to throw away scraps of metal that may be significant.

 A curious button with a sun design on the face, found by metal detectorist, James Mather.

In a place like south-eastern England, with its accreted centuries of history, you can find plenty of archaeological artefacts. Mather has found a curious 18th century button with a sunburst face—‘when light strikes it, the eyes follow you around’—a Palaeolithic stone hand axe (found ‘eyes only,’ without using a detector), several religious pendants, a 13th century seal, and plenty of shotgun shells and bottle caps to boot. For 28 years he searched for an Anglo-Saxon sceatta, a tiny silver coin. He finally found one on the excavation for Queen Cynethryth’s monastery. ‘I finally did it. You never know when you’ll find something.’

For Mather, there are still many more finds on his bucket list. Top of the list is Bronze Age ring money. ‘They were worn decoratively and may have been used as a form of currency. But they’re very difficult to find.’ A complete Bronze Age axe head is another one. By those standards, his last bucket-list item is practically cutting-edge modern. ‘A cartwheel tuppence,’ he says. ‘They were only made in one year, 1797, under George III.’ These huge coins can sometimes be found in antique shops, repurposed as small containers. But to find one in the wild would be a significant moment.

Responsible metal detectorists like Mather have contributed significantly to our knowledge of history. Without their expertise, and their dedication, finds like the Watlington Hoard, the Marlow Warlord, and countless others would still be sitting below ground, gradually corroding or sinking beyond reach. History is a living thing, always taking on new shapes as more information about the past is discovered. Mather, and other detectorists like him, remind us that we can help shape that history, and we can all become part of it.

Will Beattie
Ph.D. Candidate in Medieval Studies
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Medieval Justice: Reconciliation and Revenge in a Fifteenth-century City

Gerard David’s painting The Judgment of Cambyses was placed in the town hall of Bruges at the end of the fifteenth century. This diptych graphically depicts a gruesome tale from Herodotus in which King Cambyses II ordered a corrupt judge named Sisamnes to be flayed alive and the detached skin draped over his chair, as seen in the background of right panel. The image and its placement were part of the tradition of exempla iustitiae, providing moral lessons (or warnings) to urban administrators through images from legend and history.[1] As a late medieval alderman, one should strive for impartiality so that one does not end up in Sisamnes’s position!

Gerard David, The Judgement of Cambyses, Groeninge Museum, Bruges, Belgium.

To my knowledge, no corrupt judges were even flayed alive in Bruges. Nor did the judges themselves ever sentence anyone to be flayed. However, rituals of bodily punishment could still involve visual spectacle. In 1488, around the time the town commissioned this painting and in the midst of a revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (himself briefly imprisoned in the city), Bruges executed several high-ranking officials who had been loyal to Maximilian. Some suggest that the likeness of one such official, Pieter Lanchals, appears in this painting as Sisamnes.[2] Although the real Pieter Lanchals was not flayed, his decapitated head was displayed on the city gates.[3]

A rebellious city displaying the decapitated head of a detested politician fits well into popular stereotypes about the brutality of medieval justice. But was this representative of everyday judicial practice in Bruges and other Flemish cities in the fifteenth century? My research project is interested not in the infamous executions of political figures, or the iconography of imagined justice, but instead, ordinary judicial procedures and quotidian violence.

Late medieval cities in Flanders did practice capital punishment, but relatively few criminal cases ended at the gallows. Instead of bodily punishments, the urban aldermen who served as judges sentenced many of those who most passed through their courts to fines, temporary banishments, or penitential pilgrimages.[4] Medieval justice was characterized by multiple routes of resolution and not all disputes ended in this type of formal sentence. Many cities had designated legal officials who helped disputing parties negotiate peace agreements, both temporary and perpetual. In the Low Countries, formal reconciliations (called verzoening) culminated in a ceremony where both sides swore friendship, resolving enmity even after a feud had escalated to homicide.[5]

Additionally, many cases did not end up before an urban court because a composition payment halted the prosecution.[6] A composition payment was a type of financial settlement that bailiffs accepted from a suspect on behalf of the state in exchange for not bringing formal charges against them. The amount of this payment varied because it depended on a negotiation between the bailiff and the suspect. Composition could resolve a wide variety of offenses, including those eligible for capital punishment. Homicide cases, in fact, appear in records of bailiff composition far more often than they do in records of execution.[7]

A successful composition payment for homicide depended on several factors: the good reputation of the accused, the context of the killing (self-defense or revenge), the bad behavior of the victim (he started it), and, most importantly, that peace had been made with the family of the victim. In 1451 in Bruges, the bailiff (called the schout in Bruges) accepted a composition payment of 32 livres from Pol de le Haye because “he was suspected of having injured Cornille le Baenst so grievously that death ensued”. The record notes that if convicted the punishment would have been banishment on pain of death. However, an agreement to pay a composition payment was reached because the event “happened in defense of his body from which he could not easily escape without avenging himself” and the opposing party forgave him “in view of his poverty and because he had always been a good man.”[8]

Bailiff account from Bruges, May 10, 1451 – September 20, 1451.

At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, these patterns were changing, and composition payments and peace agreements gradually lost their importance in Flemish urban justice.[9] The more “medieval” practices that emphasized negotiation and peacemaking were gradually edged out by formal judicial procedures more oriented towards punishment than reconciliation. My book project, The Invention of Homicide, examines this transition and shows how changing cultural perceptions of honor, killing, and the common good contributed to the rise of early modern punitive justice. Though the flaying of Sisamnes was allegorical and not representative, the painting was created in a time when judicial spectacle was beginning to play a larger role in everyday legal practice.

Mireille J. Pardon, Ph.D.
Mellon Junior Faculty Fellow
Medieval Institute

[1] Hugo van der Velden, “Cambyses for Example: The Origins and Function of an exemplum iustitiae in Netherlandish Art of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Simiolus 23, no. 1 (1995): 5-62.

[2] Helene E. Roberts, ed. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art (New York: Routledge, 1998), 457.

[3] Marc Boone, “La justice en spectacle. La justice urbaine en Flandre et la crise du pouvoir « bourguignon » (1477-1488),” Revue historique 625, no. 1 (2003): 59-62.

[4] Ellen E. Kittell, “Travelling for Atonement: Civilly Imposed Pilgrimages in Medieval Flanders,” Canadian Journal for Netherlandic Studies 31, no. 2 (2010): 21-37; Marc Boone, “Mécanismes de contrôle social: pèlerinages expiatoires et bannissements,” in Le prince et le peuple : Images de la société du temps des ducs de Bourgogne 1384-1530, ed. Walter Prevenier (Amsterdam: Fonds Mercator, 1998), 287-293.

[5] Hans de Waardt, “Feud and Atonement in Holland and Zeeland: From Private Vengeance to Reconciliation under State Supervision,” in Private Domain, Public Inquiry: Families and Life-styles in the Netherlands and Europe, 1550 to Present, ed. Anton Schuurman and Pieter Spierenburg (Hilversum: Verloren, 1996), 15-38.

[6] Guy Dupont, “Le temps des compositions. Pratiques judiciaires à Bruges et à Gand du XIVe au XVIe siècle (Partie I),” in Préférant miséricorde à rigueur de justice: Pratiques de la grâce (XIIIe-XVIIe siècles), ed. Bernard Dauven and Xavier Rousseaux (Louvain-la-Neuve: Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2012), 53-95.

[7] Mireille Pardon, “Necessary Killing: Crime, Honour, and Masculinity in Late Medieval Bruges and Ghent,” in Patriarchy, Honour, and Violence:Masculinities in Premodern Europe, ed. Jacqueline Murray (Toronto: Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies, 2022), 71-91.

[8] Archives générales du Royaume, Chambres des comptes, 13776, f. 1r.

[9] Mireille Pardon, “Violence, The Nuclear Family, and Patterns of Prosecution in Late Medieval Flanders,” Medieval People 37, no. 1 (2022): 37-59.