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...