The Pilgrim's Staff of Faith

One of the essential pieces of kit for the medieval pilgrim was a staff to walk with.  Here's us in the quire of Chester Cathedral, formerly the Abbey of St Werburgh with our oaken friend the Chester Pilgrim between us, a 14th century bench end carving.  I'm holding one of my pilgrim staffs, with a cheeky little medieval chap as the finial at the top. 
The Chester Pilgrim carving itself has a hole cut through his fist to hold a staff, but the staff isn't there most days, sometimes a modern replacement is put there.
A staff proved very useful to a pilgrim, to help them climb hills, or ford streams and rivers in an age when bridges were rare.  They might also be used to fend off wild dogs.  Hieronymus Bosch depicted a wayfarer using his staff for just this purpose on the closed panels of his Haywain Triptych.  There are other hazards to the pilgrim in the picture; In the background, robbers attack another traveller whilst a bagpiper encourages another to a lusty dance with a woman.
Although the staff might scare off wild animals, it was little or no use against brigands, a perpetual problem for pilgrims.
 Before a pilgrim set off on their journey, a priest would bless their staff.  The Sarum Missal has the words of an appropriate prayer;
"Take this staff as a support during your journey and the toils of your pilgrimage, that you may be victorious against the bands of the enemy and safely arrive at the shrine of the saints to which you wish to go and, your journey being accomplished, may return to us in good health."
Along with his scrip bag, the staff was one of the ways by which a pilgrim might be recognised.  It was also so important to some pilgrims that they would keep it all their life.  The famous Worcester Pilgrim was buried with his staff.  In 1986, archaeologists undertaking work in the Cathedral discovered the body of a 15th century pilgrim, believed to be Robert Sutton, a wealthy dye merchant of that city who had been to Compostela on pilgrimage.  This was such a significant event in his life that he was buried with his long pilgrim boots, a cockleshell in lieu of the scallop shell of St James and his staff complete with double pronged spike and ferrule.  I always think it is a shame that these items were separated from him for scholars and tourists of today to see, after he had been so determined that he should be buried with them.

It's a few years since we saw these items on display in the crypt of the cathedral, as in the photograph above, but they've been conserved since and were back in a new display earlier this year.  Maybe it's time we set off on a new pilgrimage to see them...


Ghost Stories

As the nights grow longer, it feels the perfect time to share creepy tales.  It's an odd thing that we find being unsettled so comforting.  But perhaps it's our ancient way of dealing with those troubling fears, whilst we're in company and then within a story which ends and we're safe.
Tom telling creepy tales from the past at the Water Tower, Chester
Through our historical work, spanning the ages from medieval to Victorian, we've come across many different approaches to the ghost story.  In medieval times they are often a vision of souls trapped in purgatory, urging their loved ones to make amends for some small demeanour they committed in life.  The spirits in these instances are not terrifying, but sad reminders of what people felt could happen if sins were not atoned for.  A moving tale from Hulme, near Haydock in south Lancashire, from 1373 tells how a man met a beautiful red-haired woman, fell in love with her and they lived together out of wedlock.  Some years later the woman died and was buried.  The man then saw her ghost, appearing exactly as in life, except with black hair.  She told her lover she was suffering in purgatory and that he should pluck hairs from her head and arrange a mass to be said for each hair he held.  The man took the hair and fixed them with a pin to his door frame.  He paid priests to say masses for her soul, and as they completed each mass he witnessed each hair turn back to the original red.  When they were all red, he knew his lover was in heaven.
After the Reformation these ideas of purgatory changed and with the religious tensions that continued right through the later 16th and into the 17th century, the ghost and spirits seem to become malevolent, bringers of ill-will, perhaps connected to witches.  In dealing with these threats, people used all sorts of apotropaia, protective devices such as "witch bottles", markings on doorways, holly bushes in hedgerows, and so on.  I'll write up some thoughts of these apotropaic objects in Cheshire at some point, there are many!  One of the more curious ghostly tales from our area involves a ghostly duck (!) which is trapped in a bottle by a priest, then walled up, all of which might have been inspired by the discovery of one of these witch bottles.
From those times and on into the 18th century we get the ghost stories we're more familiar with in folk tales.  In my native Cheshire ghosts were called boggarts, and for someone to be frightened we might have said they "took boggart", rather as we might say a horse was spooked today.  Some of my favourite stories from this time try to explain how such things are made, what they do and how they might be dealt with.
Tom emerging as a ghostly tale teller just before three sell-out performances at Port Sunlight on Halloween night.
Moving into the 19th century everything gets a bit more gothic and leave you thinking after the tale is done.  When most people think of ghost stories today, they tend to think of this era, and when I'm telling creepy tales I do find it makes things a lot easier to do it in Victorian gear.  These ghost stories are particularly well suited to Christmas and the depths of winter, so I'll be out telling tales in various historic buildings around that time, do come along if you like goosebumps and spinetingles.