James HARPUR. The Pilgrim Journey. A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World. Katonah (New York) BlueBridge, 2016. pp. 202. $15.95 hc. ISBN 9781629190006. Reviewed by Péter TÖRÖK, Hungary 2120.


If you are interested in what devout Christian pilgrims could do on an island where the only place providing accommodation was a brothel, or if you want to know what horrible things undercover monks did to obtain a relic, or if you would like to read an interpretation of the Fatimá apparitions in the mentality of our nuclear age, then this book is definitely recommended. These ‘exotic examples’ in the review serve solely the purpose of indicating that Harpur’s work is anything but listing dry facts or presenting abstract theological tractates.
The principle aim of this extremely readable book is “to describe the course of Christian pilgrimage over the last two thousand years and place it in a historical context” (p. 2). The structure of the book serves this purpose well. Harpur begins with definitional clarifications, such as what makes a pilgrimage shrine different from other holy places and who can be considered pilgrims. The second chapter examines the possibility of “pilgrimages” in prehistoric societies and classical times.

Chapters Three to Six describe the beginnings of Christian pilgrimages: Rome, the Holy Land, Ireland, the spread of Islam, and the Viking incursions set the framework for pilgrimages in this era and for the High Middle Ages. The next three chapters might be considered the heart of the book. They explain not only the historical circumstances of the new millennium (Chapter 7), but also the ideological considerations (Chapter 8) and, perhaps most interestingly, the practical details of the execution of the pilgrimage itself (Chapter 9).
Chapters Ten to Fourteen present the most important destinations, such as Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury, and Jerusalem with the Holy Land. The reader might find these chapters somewhat odd, because they are hardly classifiable. They are a mixture of geography, history, and mostly tourist information.

Not so Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen. The former introduces the changing attitudes toward shrines and pilgrimages, while the latter accounts for the events of Reformation and Romanticism. The following chapter also discusses a different position, namely the position of pilgrimages in Orthodoxy.

The last three chapters indicate how pilgrimage was revitalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These chapters focus almost exclusively on Marian shrines both in the Old and the New Worlds. Finally, the Afterword envisions the future of pilgrimage through the presentation of what the experiences of traveling to and living in Taizé in France or those of the El Camino to Santiago de Compostela might mean for the participants in contrast with the virtual online pilgrimages without physical efforts.

Although the book is about the history of pilgrimages, it is not only for historians; students and scholars of several other disciplines might find it useful. Ethnographers and sociologists studying pilgrimage can turn to it with considerable benefit. In Harpur’s presentation of “The Religious Pilgrimage” by Erasmus (p. 130), sociologists, for instance, can find an additional argument for the role of Protestant ethics in the rising of Capitalism, as Max Weber pointed out.

In spite, or because of the potential interdisciplinary usage, one cannot help thinking that this book is to provide a popularizing historical background of the revived phenomena of pilgrimage. Apart from the exotic stories, Harpur secures the readability of his book by referring to his scientific sources without ‘disturbing’ footnote or endnote numbers in the text only at the end of his book by indicating whose work or what sources he used on a certain page. The same potential intention makes it ideal for main or additional reading in introductory courses of different disciplines.

Notwithstanding the introductory nature or the popularizing intent, the book is a small gem, recommendable to many.