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Medieval Christian guidebooks

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Itineraria (MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN GUIDEBOOKS: Lat. iter, gen. itineris, journey).—Under this term are comprised two kinds of works: travelers’ relations describing the places and countries visited by them, together with such incidents of the voyage as are worth noting; and compilations intended to furnish information for the guidance of travelers, i.e. works which we now distinguish as books of travel and guidebooks. Nearly all the itineraria of the Middle Ages have for their subject the journey to the Holy Land and neighboring countries. In those days, when traveling was beset with difficulties and dangers, long journeys were rarely undertaken except under the impulse of religious motives. The devout were especially attracted by the places hallowed by the presence of the Savior or famous in sacred story; and, because of the unusual interest attaching to these holy places, many wrote an account of their pilgrimage, while others gathered the information furnished by these writers for the use of future pilgrims or for the instruction of those who could not undertake the voyage. Though a number of these works, especially of the older ones, have perished, an extensive literature remains, and it is of the greatest value for the history of the Church and Christian archaeology as well as for the study of the Bible. The relations of pilgrims, who speak as eyewitnesses, are naturally of greater importance than the works of mere compilers.

The oldest extant pilgrim’s relation is the “Itinerarium Burdigalense”—or “Itinerarium Hierosolymitanum”, as it is also called—by an anonymous writer commonly known as “the Pilgrim of Bordeaux”, who visited the Holy Land in 333-4, going by land through Northern Italy and the valley of the Danube to Constantinople, thence through Asia Minor and Syria, and returning by way of Macedonia, Otranto, Rome, and Milan. The report of his journey outside Palestine is little more than a dry enumeration of the cities through which he passed, and of the places where he stopped or changed horses, with their respective distances. For the Holy Land he also briefly notes the important events which he believes to be connected with the various places. In this he falls into some strange blunders, as when, for instance, he places the Transfiguration on Mount Olivet. Such errors, however, are also found in subsequent writers. His description of Jerusalem, though short, contains information of great value for the topography of the city.

Very different from the above is the account of her pilgrimage written by a nun for the sisters of her community towards the end of the same century (c. 385). Gamurrini, who discovered it in the library of Arezzo in 1884, attributed it to Saint (?) Silvia of Aquitaine, the sister of Rufinus, prefect of the praetorium under Theodosius the Great and his successor Arcadius, whence it became known as the “Peregrinatio Sanctae Silviae”. Dom M. Ferotin, however, later showed (Rev. des Questions Historiques, October, 1903) that the real authoress is a native of Galicia, Spain, whose name is variously given as Etheria, Echeria, and Egeria. She seems to have been a lady of importance with friends at court, possibly a relative of Theodosius himself (who was a Galician). Wherever she went, the clergy, even bishops, attended her and acted as her guides, while imperial officers gave her a military escort where the road was unsafe. During her pilgrimage of over three years, she visited Western and Eastern Palestine, Idumea, Sinai, Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia. She is a keen observer, and writes with a certain charm in spite of her crude, provincial Latin. The work, unfortunately, exists only in a fragmentary state, though the lacunae at the beginning are partly filled up by extracts found in the treatise “De Locis Sanctis” of Peter the Deacon, a writer of the twelfth century (Geyer, pp. 107-21). While it furnishes very valuable topographical details about Jerusalem, its description of the churches and of the religious ceremonial then in use makes it of special interest to the liturgiologist. Its value in this respect is well brought out by Dom Cabrol in his work “La Peregrinatio Silviae: Les eglises de Jerusalem, la discipline et la liturgie au IVe siecle” (Paris, 1895). The text of the “Peregrinatio” has often been edited and studied. A study from a philological point of view was published in the United States by Professor Edw. A. Bechtel—”Sanctae Silviw Peregrinatio. The Text and a Study of the Latinity” (Chicago, 1902). The Spanish nun Egeria (for this is probably the correct form of the name) was followed in 386 by two other ladies of quality, the Roman matron St. Paula and her daughter Eustochium. The account of their pilgrimage through Palestine and Egypt, written by St. Jerome after Paula’s death (Epist. cviii ad Eustoch.), was intended to make known the virtues of the holy pilgrim, rather than to describe the places she visited; still it contains much useful matter.

No pilgrim’s narrative of the fifth century is extant. The author of the “Epistola ad Faustum”, or “Epitome de aliquibus locis sanctis”, commonly ascribed to St. Eucherius, Bishop of Lyons (d. A.D. 450), obtained his information by reading the accounts of, and conversing with, pilgrims. The relation of Theodosius “De situ Terrae Sanetae”, discovered in 1864, belongs to the first half of the sixth century (c. 530). It is written somewhat after the manner of the “Itinerarium Burdigalense”, with the valuable feature of indicating the distances between the different sites of the Holy City. Of Theodosius himself nothing certain is known.

Little more is known of Antoninus of Piacenza, who made the pilgrimage about 570. In manuscripts he is sometimes styled Antoninus the Martyr, through ignorant confusion of the writer with the martyr St. Antoninus who is venerated at Piacenza. He is the last writer who saw Palestine before the Moslem conquest. Although he covered in his travels nearly the same extensive territory as the Spanish nun, his work contains but few details not found in other writers; it is, moreover, marred by gross errors and by fabulous tales which betray the most naive credulity. A century later (c. 670) the French bishop Arculf was wrecked on the western coast of Britain after visiting the Holy Land. To this accident we owe St. Adamnan’s “De locis sanctis libri tres”. Having been hospitably received by St. Adamnan, then abbot of the famous Monastery of Iona, Arculf described to him his voyage and drew for him the plans of some of the churches of Jerusalem. Adamnan wrote down the narrative on tablets of wax, and later edited it in three books, adding, however, matter derived from other sources. The work is important, as it contains the first description of Jerusalem after the changes wrought by the Persian conquest under Chosroes (614), and the Arab occupation under Omar (637). It was long accepted as the authority on Palestine. Venerable Bede‘s “De Locis Sanctis” is mainly taken from Adamnan’s work. St. Willibald, nephew of St. Boniface and Bishop of Eichstatt, had travelled in his youth for eight years (721-729), three of which he spent in the Holy Land. In his later days he related his life and travels to the nuns of the monastery of Heidenheim. Two reports of his story have come down to us. The first, “Hodceporicon Sancti Willibaldi”, was written (c. 785) by a relative of the saint, a nun of the monastery, from notes which she took while he was speaking. The other, “Itinerarium Sancti Willibaldi”, was probably composed from memory, after Willibald’s death, by one of the two deacons who accompanied him in his visits to the monastery. Though better in style, it is less reliable than the first and contains details which the writer obtained elsewhere. The last itinerarium of any consequence before the Crusades is that of the French monk Bernard, who with two of his fellow-religious visited Egypt and Palestine (868-9). He is the first to make mention of the holy fire which is now such a conspicuous feature in the Greek celebration of Holy Saturday in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Of the unimportant works of the next two centuries, the relation of Ingulf, Abbot of Croydon, may be mentioned, because it shows to what dangers pilgrims were exposed at that time. Of the seven thousand persons with whom he started on his pilgrimage (1064) more than three thousand perished.

With the beginning of the Crusades the works on Palestine become very numerous, and after the loss of the country by the Latins they increase rather than diminish. Those which relate to the events of the crusading period do not concern us here. They may be found in such collections as Bongars, “Gesta Dei per Francos” (Hanau, 1611), “Recueil des historiens des croisades” (Paris, 1844-86), and “Publications de la Societe de I’Orient Latin, Serie Historique” (Geneva, 1877-85). Of the others, a long list of which is given by Tobler and Rohricht, only the more important can be noticed. The first of these is the relation of the Russian abbot (hequmenos) Daniel, the earliest extant record of a Russian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He came there shortly after the Christian occupation (c. 1106), and visited most of the holy places and sanctuaries, with a monk of the monastery of St. Sabas as guide. His description of what he himself saw is generally accurate, and he gives a fair picture of the country a few years after it was taken by the Crusaders. The Russian text with a French translation was published by Noroff (St. Petersburg, 1864); an English translation is given in “Palestine Pilgrims’ Texts”. The best medieval work on Palestine is beyond doubt the “Descriptio Terrae Sanct” of Burchard (also wrongly called Brocard, Bocard, etc.) de Monte Sion, a German Dominican, who spent ten years in the country (c. 1274-84). Burchard is an observer with something like the modern spirit of exactness, and is as careful in relating as he is exact in observing, distinguishing fact from mere conjecture, and what he has himself seen from what he takes on the authority of others. However, being the child of an uncritical age, he records many a legend. To the description of the land he adds a description of its fauna and flora, and a disquisition on the various religions professed by its inhabitants. The work was very popular in the Middle Ages, and because of its great value has often been printed. Burchard de Monte Sion must not be confounded with Burchard of Strasburg, a pilgrim of the twelfth century (1175), a fragment of whose itinerarium is extant.

Another Dominican, the Florentine Ricoldo da Monte di Croce, deserves to be noticed, less for the account of his visit to the Holy Places (1288-9) than for the interesting relation of his mission to Bagdad, where the Dominicans were then laboring for the conversion of the Tatars. His work consists of two parts: the first is the journal of his pilgrimage through Palestine, in which the exercises of piety of the band of pilgrims with which he was associated and his own personal emotions occupy a large place; the second contains a description of his adventures on his journey to Persia, and of the manners, customs, and religion of the Tatars. It is owing to this second part that the work was soon translated into Italian and French. The Latin text of the “Itinerarium” was first published by Laurent in his “Peregrinatores medii nevi quatuor” (Leipzig, 1864; 2nd ed., 1873). For an extensive notice of Ricoldo, see “Rev. Bibl.”, II (1893), pp. 44, 182, 584. “De Itinere Terrae Sanctae” by Ludolph, pastor of Suchem in the Diocese of Paderborn, is considered the best relation of the fourteenth century. The author spent five years in Palestine (1336-41). John Poloner—by some said to be a German, by others a Pole—is, as far as we know, the first pilgrim who drew a map (now unfortunately lost) of the Holy Land. His “Peregrinatio ad Terram Sanctam” (1422) is in many places copied from Burchard de Monte Sion. The best work of the fifteenth century is the voluminous “Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctie, Arabi ae et Egypti peregrinationem” of the Dominican Felix Faber, or Fabri. The author, who was twice in the East (1480 and 1483), is somewhat credulous, but reliable in what he himself observed. For travels to the Far East during medieval times, see Blessed Odoric of Pordenone; William Rubruck; Marco Polo.


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