Part of the problem was that to go on any sort of a journey was seen to some extent as an abandonment of responsibility at home. No mater how holy the intent, it was seen as selfish, even if she only left for a day. There were also concerns that, considering women’s supposed lightness of mind, even a short pilgrimage might be made more out of a desire for a day off than for any truly holy purpose.
An added difficulty for married women was the fact of childbearing. It was not only difficult, but also frowned upon for a most women to travel long distances when pregnant. Some married women did go on pilgrimage during their childbearing years, but these were mostly shorter journeys. A longer trip to Santiago de Compostela, Rome, or Jerusalem was usually out of the question until later in life, when many were too old to do so.
Nuns who wished to visit holy sites had to deal with two sets of concerns, since they were not only women but also cloistered religious. Some are known to have gone on pilgrimage, mostly abbesses accompanied by a few nuns, but this was something churchmen generally advised against, out of fear for their vows of chastity and stability, out of concern for the communities left behind,** and in some cases out of a desire to control the nuns.***
Despite all of this, there are women known to have gone on pilgrimages long and short. They flocked to local shrines showing their piety and seeking miracles. They traveled with their parents, husbands and children, and in groups of other women from their hometowns. Some, like Margery Kempe, attached themselves to whatever group would have them. Whatever their reasons, some women found a way.
*One could simply say that women almost always traveled in groups without the qualification that they usually knew their companions, but this was true of male pilgrims as well and would be disingenuous.
**A monastery without its abbess/abbot was often left somewhat vulnerable.
***For all that they had vowed obedience, many abbesses were not known for simply going along with their superiors, especially if they came from a noble background.
Webb, Diana. Medieval European Pilgrimage. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Jewell, Helen M. Women in Late Medieval and Reformation Europe 1200-1550. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Stalley, Roger. Early Medieval Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.