The importance of the pilgrimage to Chartres was largely responsible for the extensive building work that took place in the 12th and 13th centuries to construct the cathedral we see today, with contributions from the faithful helping to fund the construction. The embellishments made in the 16th century, from the north tower to the choir screen, were also made possible by the influx of pilgrims, but after this period pilgrim numbers fell sharply and the Revolution put an end to the practice. Under the Second Empire, Christians again began to come to Chartres, but under very different circumstances. This significant resurgence was closely associated with the poet Charles Péguy, who began the tradition of Parisian students travelling to Chartres. The idea was sparked by his own personal pilgrimage, two of his accounts of which are cited here. The first is a passage from Péguy’s short description of his experience in prose. It is followed by excerpts from his famous poem, which in the 20th century paved the way for a renewed fervour for Our Lady of Chartres. On his journey to Chartres in 1912, Péguy was accompanied by just a handful of friends. In 1935, 15 students made the journey, with 6,000 doing so in 1950. In 1962 they were 20,000. This pilgrimage by students still takes place today, and is even growing in size.
Péguy and the pilgrimage to Chartres: the account in prose
“My son fell ill, contracting diphtheria in August as we arrived by the sea. And, my friend, I sensed that it was serious. I had to make a vow… I made a pilgrimage to Chartres. I was born in Beauce. Chartres is my cathedral. I walked 144 kilometres in three days. Ah! My friend, the crusades were easy. It is clear that we others would have been the first to leave for Jerusalem, and that we would have died on the way. To die in a ditch is nothing; I really felt that it was nothing. What we were doing was more difficult. We saw the spire of Chartres from 17 kilometres away, across the plain. From time to time it disappeared behind a swell in the landscape or a line of trees. As soon as I saw it I was in ecstasy. I felt nothing else; not the fatigue, nor my feet. All my impurities fell away at once. I was a different man…”
Péguy and the pilgrimage to Chartres: the account in verse (excerpts)
Star of the sea, here is the heavy plain
And the deep swell and the ocean of wheat
And the shifting foam and our laden granaries,
Here is Your gaze over this immense cope
Thus we sail towards Your cathedral.
Shimmering in the distance a string of millstones,
As round as towers, solid and solitary
Like a row of castles on the flagship.
Two thousand years of toil have made this land
An endless repository for the new ages.
A thousand years of Your grace have made these labours
An endless altar of repose for the solitary soul.
A man from our midst, from the fruitful glebe
Made spring up here in a single capture,
And from a single source and a single bearing,
Towards Your assumption, the spire unique in the world.
Tower of David, here is your tower of the Beauce.
It is the hardest ear of wheat that ever grew up
Towards the heavens of clemency and serenity,
And the most beautiful floweret within Your crown.
A man from our midst made spring up here,
From the ground up to the foot of the Cross,
Higher than all the saints, higher than all the kings,
The faultless spire which cannot flinch or fall.
It is the unblemished stone and the faultless stone,
The highest orison ever raised towards the sky,
The straightest reason ever cast forwards,
And into the limitless sky the highest line.
We shall feel neither our taut faces,
Neither hunger nor thirst nor our renunciations,
Neither our stiff knees nor our reasonings,
Nor our numbed legs inside our trousers.
And when tomorrow’s sun does rise,
We shall waken in the lustral dawn,
In the shadow of the two arms of Your cathedral,
Happy and unhappy and stiffened by the path trod.