Did you ever wonder what people used to do for vacation before there was a Disney World or condos at the beach? Back in the Middle Ages, travelers used to visit piles of bones, among other things. Of course, during the Middle Ages only the royalty or nobility could afford to travel for pleasure (basically to visit each other) but people of other social classes sometimes would take a trip for a special purpose – they would go on a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage is a voyage to a holy place. For Christians, the ultimate pilgrimage might be a trip to Jerusalem or Bethlehem. But those far off lands were not the only option.
If you were too timid or too poor to undertake a trip to the Middle East, you could make a pilgrimage to a church offering relics of a famous saint. Soon after Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, pilgrimages to Canterbury became all the rage. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are stories told amongst a band a pilgrims traveling to Canterbury to pay homage to the former archbishop.
Many pilgrims had to walk every step of the journey, so it was no small undertaking. If you were going to travel the long miles to Canterbury, you might as well take in the sights along the way.
And if you were traveling across the English channel from France, you might well land in the port of Hythe, not far from the cliffs of Dover. That’s where the bones come in. St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe is the natural place for a pilgrim to stop and give thanks for a safe crossing. Especially since it had a tourist attraction. The ossuary in the crypt at St. Leonard’s, decoratively arranged piles of bones that include over 2000 skulls and 8000 leg bones, has been attracting visitors since the 13th Century. Legend says the bones were left from a battle with the Vikings. However, legend provides no evidence of a battle or battle injuries, and many of the bones come from women and children. Another legend says the bones come from plague victims, but the bodies of plague victims tend to be dumped rather than nicely cleaned and stacked. The most likely explanation is that they were bodies dug up from the church yard when the church was expanded in the 1200s. Evidence indicates that some may date back to Roman occupation. They may have even stacked decoratively just to attract tourists, who came in droves and left so much money in tribute that the neighboring parish became jealous and demanded a share of the relics.
They didn’t get them. The bones are still there today, and people like me still pay to see them.
Not as much fun as Disney, maybe, but definitely more authentic.
To learn more about the ossuary at St. Leonard’s Church
(which they refer to as a “bonehouse”), visit http://www.stleonardschurchhythekent.org/History/HouseofBones.html