Talk on Mass Pilgrimage at the IKGF’s Conference on Pilgrimage

Talk delivered at On the Road in the Name of Religion. Pilgrimage as a Means of Coping with Contingency and Fixing the Future in the World’s Major Religions, Erlangen, November 11, 2011

Mass Pilgrimages:

Voluntary and Prescribed, Yearly and Apocalyptic-Messianic

Richard Landes


I’d like to contribute a problem to the issues raised by this conference on the role of contingency, future, and freedom in pilgrimages by discussing the question of mass pilgrimages. I define a mass pilgrimage in terms of two phenomena: first, that the pilgrimage has already become a massive group on the way. As opposed to more routinized forms of pilgrimage – the overwhelming majority of the cases we find in our documentation – mass pilgrimages have an infectious quality, picking up pilgrims almost spontaneously, gathering steam as they go. Second, that upon arrival at the pilgrimage’s goal, the holy site, there are again massive numbers of participants. All of this is of course relative. Certain pilgrimage sites like the Maha Kumbh Mela at the Ganges and the Hajj at Mecca draw millions of pilgrims over a specific period of days and weeks, either annually or in some regular yearly cycle.

There are, broadly speaking, three major sources for mass pilgrimage: 1) prescribed annual pilgrimages, and 2) apocalyptic pilgrimages, and 3) closely related to apocalyptic matters, “political” pilgrimages – really messianic or what I call millennial pilgrimages. Here the two most obvious traditions are monotheistic. The earliest recorded mass pilgrimages were the Israelite ones to Jerusalem, three times a year, starting, allegedly, in the 10th century BCE. Obviously not all of the three were equally observed (Passover more than Tabernacles and Pentecost), and more by those close than those far away. But this seems to be the earliest example of a religiously prescribed, mass pilgrimage. The still current form of this is the Meccan Hajj about which we have already heard, and to which I will return in my concluding remarks.

What I’d like to do here is explore the second type of mass pilgrimage, what we might call the “spontaneous mass pilgrimage.” Such a pilgrimage is not prescribed – indeed, we will see in one case that it was vigorously disapproved of by the religious authorities – but rather something much closer to a mass religious movement. And accordingly, let me begin with what Carl Erdmann called “die erste religiöse Massenbewegung im Mittelalter,” the Peace of God.

The peace assemblies were clearly – by my definition – mass pilgrimages. Monks and clerics from may sites took relics from their crypts and paraded them – delationes – through the countryside to gather with others at a given open-air site where, before hundreds and thousands of participants, the peace assembly, replete with public vows from the milites not to attack unarmed people – took place. The relics were magnets, drawing huge crowds along the way – peasants, dropping their plows and rushing to the unwonted sight of so powerful a reliquary out of the crypt where, by Carolingian statute, they were jealously kept by their guardians. When these relics and their attendant crowds arrived at the peace assembly, they were so numerous that one hagiographer, writing a generation later, described the scene as if “you were viewing the children of Israel, leaving Egypt and preparing the enter the Promised Land.” In virtually every account of the peace assemblies held from the late 10th to the early 11th centuries, these crowds play a particularly powerful role.

This reference to “entering the promised land” which appears in more than one source on the peace, suggests a millennial theme – that those participating in these events believed that they were ushering in a new and glorious future. Another biblical image invoked in reference to the peace spoke of the coming of the age in which sword would be beat into plowshare and spear into pruning hook. Christian Lauranson-Rosaz has even speculated that for participants, seeing the huge crowds approach the assemblies, surrounding a bier with a larger-than-life bust reliquary of the saint, might well have thought that he witnessed the “resurrection of the saints.”

Thus, I would venture to postulate, an attempt to literally change the future (or bring a distant future into the present) may have empowered many a participant to join these pilgrimages. Indeed, I’d call the Peace of God not merely the first mass religious movement of the middle ages, but the first mass messianic movement of the MA. In that sense, it fits in my category of political pilgrimages: the sites were not intrinsically holy, they were made holy by the temporary presence of relics which themselves had been assembled for sacred political goals.

And yet, we also find an apocalyptic dimension as well: it is not by accident, I have argued, that this happened right around the advent of the year 1000, and peaked in the second millennial year by contemporary reckoning, 1033, the millennium of the Passion. Radulfus Glaber describes what happened:

But at the millennial anniversary of the passion of the Lord… in the region of Aquitaine bishops, abbots, and other men devoted to holy religion first began to gather councils of the whole people. At these gatherings the bodies of many saints and shrines containing the holy relics were assembled. From there through the provinces of Arles and of Lyon, then through all of Burgundy, and finally in the farthest corners of France, it was proclaimed in every diocese that councils would be summoned in fixed places by bishops and by the magnates of the whole land for the purpose of reforming both the peace and the institutions of the holy faith. When the news of these assemblies was heard, the entire populace (tota multitudo universae plebis) joyfully came unanimously prepare to follow whatever should be commanded them by the pastors of the church. A voice descending from heaven could not have done more.

That last remark was somewhat ironic: in fact we know that the bishops of north-eastern France carried “letters from heaven” commanding the peace oaths. Later in the passage, Glaber tells us that the assembled masses raised their palms skyward shouting “Peace Peace Peace” and that in doing so, they thought they were forming a covenant with God.

Interestingly enough, this same year saw a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Glaber describes it, the monk historian Ademar of Chabannes not only wrote about it, but joined it as a one-way pilgrim:

At this time an innumerable multitude of people from the whole world greater than any man before could have hoped to see began to travel to the holy sepulcher of the Savior in Jerusalem. First the order of the inferior plebs then those of middling estate, and after these, the great men, that is kings, counts, marchlords and bishops, and eventually, and this was unheard of before, many women, noble and poor, undertook the journey. Many wished to die there before they returned to their own lands even prayed on the Mount of Olives for Christ to take him up. When a number of people consulted some of the more anxious (sollicitioribus) of the day, as to what so many folk, in numbers unheard-of in earlier ages, going to Jerusalem meant some replied cautiously enough that it could portend nothing other than the advent of the accursed Antichrist who, according to divine testimony, is expected to appear at the end of the world. Then a way would be opened for all peoples to the east where he could appear, and all nations would hasten to meet him, thereby fulfilling that prophecy of the Lord, that even the elect will, if it is possible, fall into temptation. We will speak no further of this matter, but we do not deny that the pious labors of the faithful will be then rewarded and paid for by the Just Judge.

Glaber’s remark that this began with the inferior plebs suggests just the kind of infectious, spontaneous element I think characterizes apocalyptic pilgrimages. The disapproval of the solicitiores, suggests that more conservative ecclesiastical figures did not hesitate to use Antichrist imagery to discourage such a subversive phenomenon.

This kind of apocalyptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem ran through the entire 11th century and beyond, acquiring more and more acceptance among the ecclesiastical elite. In 1064, a date which for computistical reasons was apocalyptic, the bishop of Bamberg led a large contingent of pilgrims to Jerusalem:

At that time many nobles went to Jerusalem to visit the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, having been deceived by a popular (vulgar) opinion that the Day of Judgment would occur when Easter fell on the 6th of the Kalends of April (March 27)… Moved by such fear not only the common rabble but also the most honored and noble leaders of the people, from various cities they left their homeland, their relatives and their wealth and followed the narrow path, bearing the cross, they followed Christ.  The leader of this was Guntherus bishop of Bamberg in whose county many of the men, clerical and lay, as much from Eastern Francia as from Bavaria came.

And of course, the most famous of all mass pilgrimages to Jerusalem, again – at least according to some readings of the texts – originating among the masses and this time encouraged by the pope, set out in 1096. Over this century a major mutation occurred, during which pilgrims went from pedestrian penitents to mounted warriors, from the “peace of God” to holy war.

Before concluding, I’d like to say something about mass pilgrimages in modern, politico-millennial movements (what Eric Voegelin called “political religions”). As gatherings aimed at shaping the future, as expressions of messianic dreams, as “pilgrimages” to sites made holy by millennial projects, I’d include both the (rather short-lived) French revolutionary festivals (1791-2), and, still more striking, the Nuremberg Parteitage of the pre-war Nazi period (1929-38). These latter showed all the characteristics of mass pilgrimage, from the growing size of the pilgrims (every year larger), to the collective enthusiasm of participants at the site.

This brings me to a more contemporary phenomenon. The Hajj, which is a prescribed annual pilgrimage has, in recent years, gained momentum. Thanks to modern means of travel, but also, I’d like to suggest, an apocalyptic momentum which was first set in motion in 1400 AH (1979 to we Westerners) by the Shiite Khoumeini, but since picked up by Sunnis, the Hajj has now reached its logistical limits at almost 3 million. As we saw yesterday, plans to enlarge the capacities of the site are now underway, with an architecture redolent – at least to me – of the dystopian totalitarian architecture of the mid-20th century.

What we can and should make of this phenomenon is unclear. Video footage that I wanted to show you today but was taken down from Youtube yesterday, shows pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba, chanting prayers that embody a kind of angry and invidious supersessionism:

O Allah, vanquish the unjust Christians and the criminal Jews, the unjust traitors; strike them with your wrath; make their lives hostage to misery; drape them with endless despair, unrelenting pain and unremitting ailment; fill their lives with sorrow and pain and end their lives in humiliation and oppression; inflict your tortures and punishments upon the unjust Christians and criminal Jews. This is our supplication; Allah, grant us our request!

Are we witnessing a politicization – Wahabbization – of a previously a-political annual prescribed pilgrimage? I, for one, would argue this is something that bears close attention.

Let me present the following thoughts in conclusion:

1)   Apocalyptic time – a sense that the end is near – can have a galvinizing effect on pilgrimage. In the Christian tradition, the eschatological role of Jerusalem makes it a natural magnet for Christians who think Jesus is returning to his holy city. In Islam, the prescribed tradition of Hajj to Mecca makes that a natural magnet.

2)    Similarly, a sense that one’s participation is linked to future events of import for one’s society, or all mankind can inspire mass pilgrimage. Millennial movements gain momentum with mass numbers. Only under conditions where the sense of participating with others in a vast project, can millennial hopes seem attainable.

3)    At certain critical levels, the mass phenomenon becomes infectious and draws in people who would ordinarily not participate, join in. One might think of this as a kind of tipping point. Once achieved, the momentum can lead to astonishing (and often extremely destructive) deeds.

4)    In both the messianic and the eschatological cases, disappointment is an inevitable dimension of the longer-term results. In the case of the 1033 pilgrims, we know of some who died in Jerusalem, who, when Jesus did not descend, prayed fervently that they be “taken up.” We have two extended reports of the “failure” of the holy fire to descend in the church of the holy sepulcher – 1033 and 1100 – both, I’d argue, narratives about apocalyptic disappointment.

5)    Freedom is a mirage: every free choice brings new constraints and is subject to contingency. Every imagined future turns out to be different from the one ardently hoped-for. All too often utopia becomes dystopia, glorious Parousia becomes bitter disappointment. A day before the greatest of all Parteitage – ironically dedicated to the theme of Peace – Hitler invaded Poland, and to all those German pilgrims who had already set out for a Nurnberg prepared – at huge expense – to receive a million participants, he issued a laconic announcement: “According to the press offi ce of the NSDAP, the planned party rally from September 2 to 11 this year will not take place. Whether the meeting will be held later depends on political circumstances.” The party never held another.

6)    But free actions – spontaneous deeds that break with routine, e.g., peasants leaving their plows to follow relics and crowds, whether to political gatherings or one-way pilgrimages – can have a decisive impact on cultures. In exercising their freedom to go to holy sites in vast numbers, the masses actually step on to the stage of history. In the 11th century, the masses in Western Europe went from “Peace Peace Peace” in 1033 to “Deus le volt” in 1096. In their own minds at least, they were God’s chosen people, the center of salvation history, performing God’s deeds: Gesta dei per francos.

Nor was this the only “stream” of religious enthusiasm unleashed by the outrageous hopes and profound disappointments of the Peace of God. The disappointment of the pilgrims to peace assemblies in France in 1033, that story is, at least in my view, the story of the 11th century in France and some of Western Europe and of the 2nd millennium in the Western world.

The world has not been the same ever since.

One Response to Talk on Mass Pilgrimage at the IKGF’s Conference on Pilgrimage

  1. usman says:

    hi there

    i just wanted to say something in regards to above comment on what you heard people say while circling khaba.

    I’m not to versed but am aware muslims are suppose to say:

    At the beginning of Tawaf, it is recommended for the pilgrim to face the Ka’bah such that the Black Stone is on his right. Then he moves to position himself before the Black Stone and intends Tawaf (either the Tawaf of ‘Umrah or Tawaf Al-Qudum).
    He starts from the brown marble line saying:
    ” In the name of Allah, Allah is the Greatest. O Allah! Having faith in you, confirming the truthfulness of Your Holy Book, fulfilling Your promise and following the Sunnah of Your Prophet (peace be upon him)”.
    The pilgrim touches the Black Stone and kisses it if possible.
    If it is too difficult to kiss it, he touches it with his right hand and kisses his hand.
    If that isn’t possible he stands facing the Black Stone and points to it with his hand once while saying: “Bismillah, Allahu Akbar” (in the name of Allah, Allah is the Greatest).

    Nothing about christians or jews, hope that is insightful

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