Symeon of Trier: a roaming recluse

Professor Ora Limor
Professor Ora Limor

Blog-post author Professor Ora Limor, The Open University of Israel


Travel is part and parcel of hagiographic literature. Hermits and monks made journeys to holy places, to graves of martyrs and to holy men before settling down in a monastery or hermit’s cell. From the start, the merit of these travels was debated hotly among monastic thinkers. Many criticized mobility as a monastic practice and wondered about the importance of place as a conduit of sanctity. This debate notwithstanding, for many monks and hermits travel to holy places and to holy men served as kind of preparation for monastic life. Unfortunately, most of the vitae that recount these travels leave rather vague the protagonists’ itineraries and destinations. Adding to the opacity, the hagiographic literature can be careless with respect to time and space. Yet, bearing these difficulties in mind, we can extract much historical information from hagiographical literature, including information on travel before the age of the Crusades. The biography of Simon of Trier is a fine example.

Simon was an avid traveler. The distance he covered is quite astonishing for an age in which travel was known to be hard and hazardous. Born in Byzantine Sicily, Simon ended up as a saint in Catholic Trier. His extensive trips, his knowledge of languages, and his acquaintance with different cultures, made him a mediator between East and West. It would seem that Simon’s journeys did not obstruct his long-life ascetic quest; on the contrary: travel and ascetic life were for him two means of religious perfection.

Symeon being attacked by demons (Source: Wikiimedia Commons, Simeon_of_trier.JPG)
Symeon being attacked by demons (Source: Wikiimedia Commons, Simeon_of_trier.JPG)

Simon’s Vita was commissioned by Poppo, Archbishop of Trier, in order to promote Simon’s sanctity. It was written down by Eberwin, Abbot of Tholey, who met Simon on his way back from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Written shortly after Simon’s death, the work was based on conversations with him and with others who knew him. The Vita was published by Mabillon in 1701 (Acta Sanctorum, Junii 1:89-95). Around thirty manuscripts of the Vita are known today; most of them date to the 11th-13th centuries, attesting Simon’s popularity at the time. As far as I know, a more recent edition does not exist. The first part of the vita, describing Simon’s life until he became a hermit at Trier, was translated into German by Peter Thomsen in the ZDPV 62 (1939). I am not aware of a full translation or a translation to other languages.

While the Vita is quite detailed, it does not tell us the dates of Simon’s travels, how long he spent in each place, nor any information about the places themselves. Yet, some of his meetings with known people enable us to reconstruct loosely the course of his life and travels.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Source: Wikimedia Commons, BethlehemInsideCN.jpg)
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Source: Wikimedia Commons, BethlehemInsideCN.jpg)

Simon was likely born in late tenth-century Sicily. His father was Greek, his mother Calabrian. At the age of seven Simon’s father brought him to Constantinople, where the child was subsequently educated. Later, he joined western pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and got to know the holy places so well that he spent seven years guiding pilgrims (per septem annos ductor peregrinorum fuit). Simon then became a disciple of a hermit on the bank of the Jordan, lived for several years as a monk at Bethlehem, and then several years at the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai. From the latter, Simon left for a small cave on the bank of the Red Sea, where he lived for a few years as a hermit on bread supplied every Sunday by a monk from the monastery. Seeking respite from the many visitors to the cave, Simon returned to Saint Catherine.

Monastery of St Catharine, Sinai (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Katharinenkloster Sinai BW 2.jpg)
Monastery of St Catharine, Sinai (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Katharinenkloster Sinai BW 2.jpg)

After living some time in the remote small cloister on top of Mount Sinai and as a hermit in the desert, he was asked by the abbot of St Catherine to go to Normandy to collect the yearly donation promised by Duke Richard II (963-1026), who was a great supporter of the holy places. En route, in Antioch, Simon met the large group of pilgrims led by Abbot Richard of Saint-Vanne, Verdun, on their way back from the Holy Land (1026). He became attached to Richard, whom he adopted as “father”. Traveling with the pilgrims through Rome and Aquitaine, Simon reached Normandy but found that the donation could not be collected, as Duke Richard had died. Simon then traveled to Angouleme, where he met Ademar of Chabbanes (a meeting that probably spurred in Ademar the decision to set out on pilgrimage to the holy places) and to Verdun, where he again encountered Abbot Richard.

Porta Nigra, Trier (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Trier Porta Nigra BW 1.jpg)
Porta Nigra, Trier (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Trier Porta Nigra BW 1.jpg)

Simon then arrived at Trier, and, at the request of Poppo, Archbishop of Trier, joined him on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Returning at last to the East, although without the money he was supposed to collect, we would have expected that Simon would head back to St Catherine, from where he was sent. But Simon opted instead for the West, returning to Trier with the archbishop (1030). There, he asked to be enclosed in a small cell up the Porta Nigra, the old Roman tower gate of the city.

Tomb of Symeon of Trier (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Simeon Trier 3.jpg)
Tomb of Symeon of Trier (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Simeon Trier 3.jpg)

For five years, Simon lived there as a recluse, praying and fasting, a holy hermit in the noisiest part of the city, utterly detached from the hubbub of life pulsing beneath and around his cell. Renowned in the region for his extreme asceticism, he died in 1035 and was buried in the cell where he was enclosed. Simon was soon sanctified, after miracles took place near his tomb, which became a pilgrimage destination – pilgrimage to a life-long pilgrim.


Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony, Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Alfred Haverkamp, “Der heilige Simeon (gest. 1035), Grieche im fatmidischen Orient und im lateinischen Okzident”, Historische Zeitschrift 290 (1), 2010, 1-51

Tuomas Heikkila, Vita S. Symeonis Treverensis: Ein hochmittelalterlicher Heiligenkult im Kontext, Helsinki: Buchhandlung Tiedekirja, 2002

Peter Thomsen. “Der heiliger Symeon von Trier”, ZDPV 62 (1939), pp. 144-161

Santa Maria di Foro Cassio: a recently recovered pilgrims’ place on the last stretch of the Via Francigena

Dr Daniela Giosuè
Dr Daniela Giosuè

Blog-post author Daniela Giosuè, Researcher of English Language and Translation, Università degli Studi della Tuscia, Viterbo, DISUCOM

Much of the information in this blog-post comes from an article on the church of Santa Maria di Foro Cassio published in 2008 by palaeographer Carlo Tedeschi and art historian Simone Piazza (see Piazza, Tedeschi 2008). The article contains an extensive and, for the time being, updated bibliography on the church (omissions, if any, are entirely my own) to which reference is made for any further details. It also proved to be an effective contribution to a years-long sensitisation campaign aimed at saving from utter ruin what at that time Carlo Tedeschi rightly termed «the poor remains of […] one of the noblest monuments in Tuscia» (28).

As a result of the campaign, which put an end to several decades of complete abandonment, the structure has recently been secured and the roof and the frescoes restored. These interventions will hopefully help safeguard what remains of the wonderful frescoes dated between the 11th and the 12th centuries described in the article [see images 19 to 20 and 21 to 31 below] (29-33, passim). Other frescoes, mainly dated to a later period and up to the 15th century, and still extant before the restoration, went in the meantime completely lost.

I am much indebted to Carlo Tedeschi for most of the photos and for many clarifications on the state of the art in the studies on the monument.

For those who can read Italian or are interested in the bibliography, the article is available here.

Dating back to the 2nd century BC, the origins of the Roman settlement of Forum Cassii are probably contemporary with the construction of the consular road Cassia. Lying between Viterbo and Vetralla, at about 44 miles northwest of Rome and 0.6 miles from the current route of the road Cassia (SR2 on the map below; image 4), the area on which it stood still retains its name, in Italian Foro Cassio.

Image 4. Aerial view of the area and its surroundings. Source:
Image 4. Aerial view of the area and its surroundings -Source:

While the site originally owed its importance to its being a station on the old Roman road, after the foundation of the early medieval church of Santa Maria di Foro Cassio, the only monument which is still extant, it continued to maintain a key role as pilgrimage station on the Via Francigena throughout the High Middle Ages.

Here are an aerial view and some photos of the exterior of the church after the restoration:

Of the Roman forum, of which – according to contemporary sources – many vestiges were still visible until the 17th century (Serafini 1648: 44-47), nothing remains on the surface.

As well as in many other parts of the surroundings, slabs of the ancient road Cassia can still be seen or found a little under the ground. For more in this regard, see the results of a survey carried out in 2003 by the British School at Rome, available here.

The relevance of Forum Cassii in the course of many centuries is attested by the fact that it is mentioned in four very famous ancient itineraries, namely the Antonine Itinerary (2nd-3rd c. AD) (see Parthey, Pinder 1848: 137), the Peutinger Table (4th-5th c. AD) [here & here],  the Ravenna Cosmography (7th c. AD) (see Parthey, Pinder 1860: 285, 488), and the year 990 Itinerary of Archbishop Sigeric (see Ortenberg 1990) contained in BL MS Cotton Tiberius B V/1, ff. 23v–24r, available here.

It appears respectively as Foro Cassi in the first two texts, as Foro Casi in the third, and as Furcari in the fourth.

A bull issued by pope Leo IV (847-855) on 22nd February 852, in which Forum Cassii is mentioned as massa (great land property), testifies its continuing economic importance during the early medieval period.

Its subsequent history after the foundation of the church, reconstructed with extreme difficulty through rare documents, confirms the function of Forum Cassii as economic stronghold of the Roman Tuscia until the modern age (Piazza, Tedeschi 2008: 28).

The below fresco from the left absidiole, showing Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – c. 547) on the right (35-37), suggests that for a time the site was run by Benedictine monks.

Although it is well known that in the modern age the church belonged to the Knights of Malta, who held the property until 1807, there is in this respect a question of great interest which is still unresolved; it concerns the lack of authentic evidence for the donations of Forum Cassii to the Knights Hospitallers (28).

Several modern authors, the first of whom was Paolocci, mention three pontifical diplomas by which the church and its lands would have been donated to the Hospitallers (Paolocci 1907: 67). The first diploma would have been issued by Pope Innocent II in 1130, the second by Celestine II in 1144, the third by Eugene III in 1145. The donation would later have been confirmed by Pope Anastasius IV (1153-1154).

The documents cited by Paolocci are unfortunately not published in major collections of papal privileges (Piazza, Tedeschi 2008: 28, n. 7). For this reason, investigation into these sources has not yet been taken further, but it would definitely be worth other attempts.

As the church used to be the property of the Knights Hospitallers, it must have had, as a rule, a hospice for pilgrims built alongside. A will dated 29 December 1276, which is one of the few documents available for the High Middle Ages, proves that a leper hospital was also annexed to it (Egidi 1906: 236; Piazza, Tedeschi 2008: 28).

Another interesting element highlighted by Carlo Tedeschi is the inscription visible under the striking crucifixion scene on the counterfacade of the church, on the right of the door, reading as follows:

[- – -]s orate p(ro) nobis.

Image 21. Santa Maria di Foro Cassio, counterfacade, particular © 2009 Carlo Tedeschi
Image 21. Santa Maria di Foro Cassio, counterfacade, particular © 2009 Carlo Tedeschi

He states that it is the final part of a common and widely attested formula of apostrophe to the reader which is found in various contexts, including monuments connected with the practice of pilgrimage, and assumes that the complete formula might have read as:

Vos qui transitis / intratis / legitis orate pro nobis

According to the scholar’s epigraphic analysis, the inscription may be assigned to a period between the end of the 10th and the first decades of the 12th centuries (34).

The restoration brought to light new portions of the inscription and fresco, on which studies are still underway.

For the more curious, here are some videos of the church before the restoration:



  • Egidi, Pietro (1906) ‘L’archivio della Cattedrale di Viterbo’, Bullettino dell’Istituto storico italiano 27: 7-382.
  • Ortenberg, Veronica (1990) ‘Archbishop Sigeric’s Journey to Rome in 990’, Anglo-Saxon England 19: 197–246.
  • Paolocci, Francesco (1907) Raccolta di notizie e documenti relativi alla storia di Vetralla, Vetralla: Gerardi-Zeppa.
  • Parthey, Gustav and Pinder, Moritz, eds. (1848) Itinerarium Antonini Augusti et Hierosolymitanum, Berlin: Nicolai.
  • Parthey, Gustav and Pinder, Moritz, eds. (1860) Ravennatis Anonymi Cosmographia, Berlin: Nicolai.
  • Piazza, Simone and Tedeschi, Carlo (2008) ‘Le più antiche pitture di S. Maria di Foro Cassio a Vetralla (XI-XII secolo). Nuove indagini in vista della campagna di restauro’, Informazioni 20: 27-39.
  • Serafini, Luigi (1648) Su Vetralla antica cognominata il Foro di Cassio, Viterbo: Mariano Diotallevi.

William of Rubruk’s Manuscripts on the Route to the Mongol Khan

Irene Malfatto
Irene Malfatto

Blog-post author Irene Malfatto, Società Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino, SISMEL, Firenze.

Acre, spring 1253. The Franciscan William of Rubruk says goodbye to his friend and protector, the French king Louis IX, and starts a journey towards the Golden Horde khanate and its sovereign, Sartaq. William’s task is both a missionary and a diplomatic one: the Franciscan’s familiarity with the French monarch gives him a sort of protection during the trip, which consists however – in William’s words – in the humble attempt to give some help to the European captives in Tartary.

The undeniable main goal of the mission, anyway, was to inquire about the attitude of the Khans towards Christianity. This issue, besides its missionary implications, was indeed a crucial factor in Louis’ crusader plans: a possible alliance with the Mongols against the Turks would have meant a great help in the recovery of the Holy Land. The trip’s pious purpose was then strictly connected with the French crown’s interests.

Back in Palestine in 1255, William writes a long letter to king Louis, in order to report the outcomes of his travel experience. This letter is indeed a book, a travel account known with the latin title of Itinerarium, recently edited by Paolo Chiesa and translated in English by Peter Jackson.

Some passages in the Itinerarium refer to certain manuscripts William took with him on his trip to the East. Some of those books stayed with him all the time, some other were lost along the road. These information, anyway, give an insight into what could have been the “book baggage” of a missionary on the Silk Road in the 13th century.

When William gets to Sartaq, who was said to be a friend of Christians or even converted to Christianity himself, he is immediately asked for gifts to give him. William soon has the sense of the distance between his Franciscan ideal of poverty and the Khan’s greedy attitude.

The meeting with Sartaq was supposed to be the mission’s final purpose, but it turns out to be just its starting point. The friar’s ambiguous diplomatic status concerns the Golden Horde ruler, who sends him to his powerful father Batu first, and later all the way to Karakorum, to meet the Great Khan Möngke. This is how William describes his first meeting with Sartaq and his entourage:

We met up with Sartach, then […] our guide began to ask what we were going to take for him and was highly outraged on seeing that we were not getting ready anything to take […]. I further explained, by way of apology, that I was a monk and neither owned nor accepted nor handled gold or silver or anything of value, with the sole exception of the books and the liturgical items with which we worshipped God, so that we were bringing no gifts for him or for his master: as one who had relinquished his own belongings, I could not be the bearer of what belonged to others. (Itinerarium XV, 1-2)

William does not have any gift for the king, but he carries with him some objects which are related to his religious status: liturgical tools and manuscripts. When officially summoned by Sartaq, he tries to show what he has:

I myself put on the more expensive vestments, and held against my breast a very fine cushion, the Bible you [king Louis] had given me, and a most beautiful psalter given me by my lady the Queen [Margaret of Provence], containing very fine illuminations. My colleague took the missal and the cross, while the clerk, dressed in a surplice, took the thurible. […] We were told to chant a blessing for him. (Itinerarium XV, 6)

Sartaq shows a special interest in the manuscripts, and asks questions about their contents:

He took […] the psalter, which he and the wife sitting next to him scrutinized closely; and after that, the Bible. He asked if it contained the Gospel. “Yes”, I said, “and the complete Holy Scripture”. (Itinerarium XV, 7)

The Mongol sovereign does not understand the religious value of those objects, nor their liturgical function. He asks William to leave the books at his court in order to “have a closer look” to them; eventually, the friars would have been able to take them back on their return journey.

Tunc necessaria fuit michi patientia, “I had to be patient then”, writes William when reporting of this humiliating experience. Cleverly, the friar tries to minimize the loss by hiding some books, in order to save them from an inevitable fate:

I had one consolation, in that anticipating their greed I had removed from among the books the Bible, the Sentences, and other volumes to which I was more attached. But my lady the Queen’s psalter I had not dared remove, as it had attracted too much attention by reason of the gold illuminations it contained. (Itinerarium XVI, 3)

Indeed, the Queen’s illuminated psalter will never be returned. This is what William writes about his return journey in the following year:

He returned the books, with the exception of my lady the Queen’s psalter: this he had my permission to keep, since I was in no position to withhold it, for he said that Sartach had been very much taken with it. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 10)

Together with the psalter, many other books “disappeared” in the process. William gives a little list:

I failed to recover the bible in verse, a book in Arabic which was worth thirty bezants, or numerous other items. (Itinerarium XXXVIII, 13)

It would be extremely interesting to know more on these books and where did they end up. Unfortunately, William does not give enough information. Anyway, it is clear that the manuscripts raised the interest of the Mongol Khan mostly as beautiful material objects. Sartaq showed even some sort of curiosity for the practical making process of parchment:

He had also asked me, should I happen to revisit those parts, to bring them someone who knew how to make parchment […]. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 11)

Even though the questions here are so much more than the answers, William’s account offers an example of the circulation of manuscripts on the missionary routes to the East. Certainly, his case was not isolated and it shines light on the role of travel accounts in the attempt to reconstruct a network of book mobilities in the context of the pax mongolica.


  • The Mission of William of Rubruck, trans. Peter Jackson, Hakluyt Society, London 1990
  • Guglielmo di Rubruk, Viaggio in Mongolia, ed. Paolo Chiesa, Mondadori, Milano 2011

Pilgrimage and the Economy of Salvation

Professor George Greenia
Professor George Greenia

Blog-post author, Professor George Greenia, College of Wiliam & Mary, Virginia, USA.

One of Spain’s most intriguing world heritage sites is a first-to-second century Roman gold mine called Las Médulas. Compared to modern mines the concen­tra­tion of gold was scant, but over nearly two centuries Roman engineers successfully moved 93 million cubic meters of soil to extract more than 4½ thousand kilos of gold for their principal coin­age, the aureus.  The mine was eventually abandoned not because the gold ran out but because inflation debased Roman cur­ren­cy, pure gold coins now adulterated with silver or copper fill.  Essentially, the ‘government’ minted money without something of true value to back it up, so gold lost much of its buying power in the late Empire and returned to where it started, as a metal for jewelry.

The caves and mining remains of Las Médulas, province of León. Photo Ryan Goodman
The caves and mining remains of Las Médulas, province of León. Photo Ryan Goodman

Something similar happened to the spiritual indulgences granted for pilgrimage.

An increasingly systematized, bureaucratized medieval Church found itself needing yardsticks for spiritual short­comings: what sorts of pe­nance would balance out a specific evil deed and encourage better conduct? Peni­tentials – manuals for con­fes­sors that listed categories and instances of sin and the ap­pro­priate correctives required for absolution – multiplied.  Pil­grim­age was an ideal punishment, easily calibrated to fit the crime by imposing longer or shorter distances, or punitive con­ditions like during mid-winter or barefoot journeys.  Assurances of redemption could not be meted out in material form, of course, so the penitent settled for a pro­mise of benefits payable after death, usually “time off” from one’s sentence of punishment for the residue of sin left on the soul, tallied up and rewarded by days or years off in Purgatory.

The positive side of these calculations was also codified: courageous journeys were counted as spiritual attain­ments. In the Middle Ages, local bishops readily granted various amounts of credit redeemable in the afterlife for “acts of piety and reverence” such as visiting shine sites and the relics they contained.  Medieval pilgrims willing adopted this form of pious book­keep­ing, reckoning the time they would get off when they passed through Purgatory.  They trusted God to keep score for when the time came.  Meanwhile they anxiously sought out shrines that offered generous indul­gen­ces and planned their trips accordingly.  This quantification of grace and reward – all derived from Christ’s redemptive intervention in history – became known as the “economy of salva­tion”, and with the Church functioning as sole banker for the “treasury of merits” the faithful invested energy and resources, even risked their lives, to make deposits toward their invisible balance sheet of merits.

1497, University of Edinburgh, Creative Commons
1497, University of Edinburgh, Creative Commons

This single sheet is a telling example of imagined, even “borrowed” pilgrimage. Printed with papal approval and in large press runs by Wynken de Worde of Westminster, it asked for donations to expand (“pro reedificatione”) the Great Hospital in Santiago de Compos­tela. The stated purpose was to gather funds for new chapels, one for men and another for women, in the new royal Hospital of the Reyes Católicos where Masses would be said for the deceased relatives of the subscriber.  Alexander VI (1492-1503; the text mistakenly says “octavus” instead of “sixtus”), followed the lead of his predecessor In­nocent VI (1352-1362) in authorizing the collection of funds.

Alfonso de Losa, an apostolic notary apparently based in London, has his name both printed in the last line and calligraphed in the bold signature to the right. The two blanks in the body of the printed field were intended for writing in the names of the benefi­ciary and then the donor.  Copies were issued in duplicate, one for the donor, the other with its cash donation to take to Santiago where the Masses were to be offered.  This speci­men is undoubtedly the purchaser’s copy, already countered-signed by the appro­priate author­i­ties.  The donor perhaps meant to have his and his relative’s names formally inscribed by a skilled calligrapher later on.  The writing in the scroll surrounding the figure of St. James, dressed as a pilgrim with his emblematic walking stick, is from Psalm 23: “Virga tua, et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt” or “Thy rod and thy staff, these comfort me.” In a sense, the donation would make the trip to Santiago in place of the donor and generate prayers whose graces could be reassigned to benefit the deceased.

The quantification of merit through indulgences, converting time itself into a spiritual trade good, eventually debased confidence in the market for merit. New “finan­cial instruments” were offered whereby grace became a fungible com­mo­dity.  A murderer in northern Europe might be sentenced to two pilgrim­ages to Santiago, one in penance for the sin committed and another whose graces could be transferred to the aggrieved family as a form of compensation.  Some would-be travelers paid others to perform pilgrimage in their stead in order to receive the graces gained by their envoy.  A village in need of rain might collect funds to commission and outfit a pilgrim to ask St. James or another saint for this material benefit.

In late medieval Spain when the heirs gathered around to hear the will and testa­men­tary bequests of a deceased relative, they often found they could not collect their inheritance until they completed a pilgrimage to benefit the soul of their benefactor. This practice became so common in territories where pil­grim­­age to Santiago de Com­postela was the premiere destination that an adage emerged that “En vida o en muerte has de ir a Santiago” (In life or in death, you’re bound to go to Santiago).

It’s easy to see how modern economies based on symbolic currency, rather than material barter or a precious metal, ended up imposing their quantitative models on spiritual perform­ance both bad and good. Pilgrimage’s “currency” was debased, just like Roman coin­age backed up with polluted gold.  The late medieval practice of selling indulgen­ces for monetary contributions converged with fungible pilgrimage to crash the economy of salvation.

Until the late nineteenth century.

Popes Pius X and Leo XIII were affronted by the growing inroads of modern­ism. The papacy itself was barricaded within its recently shrunken papal estates, with the pope com­monly labeled by his defenders a “prisoner of the Vatican.”  The Popes turned to the saints for help.

Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903)
Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903)

One means of extending the Church’s reach was to enhance the traction of its shrine sites by resurrecting a now demonetized practice of offering indul­gen­ces for visiting them. This increased traffic and the spiritual value of those centers enhanced the power of central Church author­i­ties as the arbiters for grant­ing spiritual emoluments.  The tombs of saints were reopened as a gesture of re­leasing their energies, as happened at the sepulchers of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi.  When the remains of St. James were rediscovered in 1879 after centuries of concealment,[1] pilgrimage to Com­pos­tela gained fresh endorsement and even urgency.  But for the many who could not make the trek to northwest Spain, nor to Rome or the Holy Land, there emerged an option for spiritual pilgrimage.  For a small, mostly symbolic dona­tion, faithful subscribers could gather at a local church to receive all the graces and indulgences granted for a physical trip to an otherwise inaccessible shrine.

Galicia is the region of northwest Spain best known for sheltering the remains of the only apostolic tomb other than those of Peter and Paul in Rome. It has always been remote and poor, and few of its residents could journey to other major sites either old (Jerusalem, Loretto, Turin) or new (Lourdes, Fatima).  Starting in the late nineteenth century, diocesan decrees and Galician newspapers began announcing virtual, rather than physical, pilgrimages to the Holy Land or other, newly popular shrines.  In return for a modest, sometimes optional enrollment fee, virtual pilgrims were invited to travel to a specific local chapel or church and engage in a short retreat or series of guided prayers.  They would receive all the blessings and indulgences of a physical trip to Rome or elsewhere, and in some cases their names would be read aloud during a special Mass at the target shrine to honor the collective virtual trek conducted at their remote home base.

Announcement of a spiritual pilgrimages to Lourdes, France and the Holy Land from the Boletín Eclesiástico del Obispado de Mondoñedo Num. 13 (01/07/1899)
Announcement of a spiritual pilgrimages to Lourdes, France and the Holy Land from the Boletín Eclesiástico del Obispado de Mondoñedo Num. 13 (01/07/1899)


'Boletín oficial del Arzobispado de Santiago', Año XXIV Núm. 1003 (23/05/1885)
‘Boletín oficial del Arzobispado de Santiago’, Año XXIV Núm. 1003 (23/05/1885)

The period of greatest fervor for these “stay-at-home” pilgrimages spanned about fifty years from the 1870s until the opening decades of the twentieth century. Pilgrims other­wise unable to make the journal were invited to join virtual traveling companions in a sacred place and perform rites that demonstrated their inscription in the journey.  Some­times that meant special prayers that invoked the destin­a­tion, such as invocations of saints Peter and Paul if they were bending toward Rome, or Marian hymns if their spiritual goal was Lourdes.  For the Holy Land, they made the most symbolic travel replica of all, a Way of the Cross to recall Christ’s own journey toward his crucifixion.  They were lectoral assemblies, spreading the Good News by the social media of the period, the official publications and proclamations of the Church and steady repetitions in the popular press.

In 1937 during Spain’s devastating Civil War, a newspaper in Galicia used the phrase “peregrinación espiritual” in a new and clearly political way. Coronel Mos­­cardó and his young recruits defending the Alcázar in Toledo held out against attack­ing Republican forces.  Even when Moscardó received a phone call from his besiegers threat­ening to kill his captive son, the commander held firm.  He and his troops resisted despite massive bombardment and eventually delivered their near­ly crushed stronghold to Generalísimo Francisco Franco.  The caudillo recog­nized its value as propaganda for his cause.  The Correo Gallego reported that “The humble nest of heroes that was the home of Coronel Moscardó in Toledo … will be in the future a place of spiritual pilgrimage for those who gird the sword and the goal of those who wish to write the history or narrate the epic deeds of our age.”[2]  The Alcázar of Toledo became a national – and openly Fascist – shrine well past the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

The old economy of merits had shifted from virtual religious journeys of pilgrimage to include the creation of sites of patriotic commemoration.


“La peregrinación forzada.” Las Peregri­na­ciones a Santiago. Eds. Luis Vázquez de Parga; José María Lacarra; Juan Uría Ríu.  3 vols.  Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1948-1949. Rpt. Pamplona, 1997. 155-67.

Swanson, Robert. Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise?  Cambridge UP, 2007.

–, Editor. Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe.  Brill, 2006.

Many Galician publications including newspapers and ecclesiastical documents may be accessed at the autonomous region’s website Galiciana. Biblioteca Digital de Galicia.

I would like to thank Carlos Andrés González Paz of the Instituto de Estudios Galle­gos “Padre Sarmiento” in Santiago de Compostela for his help documenting nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spanish spiritual pilgrimage. Also Fr. Francisco Buide and Arturo Iglesias of the Cathedral Archives for their insights on the imprint of 1497.

[1] The bodily remains of St. James and his companions had been hidden in 1569 out of fear of Francis Drake and his bold raids on Spanish coastal cities.  The secret of precisely where the relics were hidden was kept so well that eventually no one knew where they were.

[2]  “El humilde nido de héroes que fue el hogar del coronel Moscardó en Toledo, prototipo del infante español sobrio, sencillo, sereno, valeroso y callado, con temple para el sacrificio hasta lo sublime, será en el porvenir lugar de peregrinación espiritual para los que ciñan espada, y allí de ir cuantos quieran hacer historia o narrar los hechos épicos contemporáneos.” Correo Gallego (March 10, 1937): 1. This newspaper was published in Ferrol, Francisco Franco’s home town in coastal Galicia.

Much Eaten by Mice: a fragmentary pilgrimage itinerary by Sir Gilbert Hay?

Dr Marianne O'Doherty
Dr Marianne O’Doherty

Blog-post author, Dr Marianne O’Doherty, Associate Professor in English, University of Southampton, UK 

Anthony Bale’s recent blog-post  ‘A fifteenth-century itinerary through Europe to Jerusalem‘ points out that pilgrims’ itineraries in the Middle Ages can turn up in surprising places — sometimes in entirely unconnected books. I wanted to follow up with an interesting example found in the back of a copy of Walter Bower’s fifteenth-century Scotichronicon:

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 171b, fol. 368v. Described by M. R. James in 1912 as ‘much eaten by mice’ (p. 390). Image used with kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 171b, fol. 368v. Described by M. R. James in 1912 as ‘much eaten by mice’ (p. 390). Image used with kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The handwriting of this scrap is particularly difficult to read, and made more so by the loss of much of the left-hand margin to hungry mice (a not uncommon medieval problem). But this is what makes it a useful text to test with a new, experimental, mapping and annotation tool: Recogito.

Recogito: A tool for transcription and annotation

Part of the Pelagios Linked Open Data infrastructure, the Recogito online platform  – designed by Rainer Simon  at the Austrian Institute of Technology –allows any registered user to upload a text or image (including maps) into a personal workspace. Users can then mark out place names in their text or map by selecting them with boxes, transcribe the place names, link them up to known past or present place names, and (for places with geocoordinates), quickly and easily visualize or plot them on a modern map:

Pick out a place name with a box and click to insert a transcription – here ‘Tangere’. Link to the place name and geocoordinates for Tangiers to enable mapping. Add comments (e.g. recording transcription uncertainties), and tags (e.g. categories such as ‘port’ or ‘holy site’ ) that you might want to use to categorise your data later. Here, I’ve numbered the place as point 4 in the itinerary.
Pick out a place name with a box and click to insert a transcription – here ‘Tangere’. Link to the place name and geocoordinates for Tangiers to enable mapping. Add comments (e.g. recording transcription uncertainties), and tags (e.g. categories such as ‘port’ or ‘holy site’ ) that you might want to use to categorise your data later. Here, I’ve numbered the place as point 4 in the itinerary.

The system has a map visualizer, which makes it easy to see the places in the world to which a particular text refers and check transcriptions. Users can hover over a place to see the relevant excerpt of transcribed text, the transcription, and the place to which it’s mapped:

Granada’ in the text, transcription, and mapped.
Granada in the text, transcription, and mapped.

One particularly useful feature of Recogito, however, is its potential as a tool for collaboration. Recogito allows users to share documents privately with other users and collaborate on them, for instance to complete a partially-transcribed place name, or identify an obscure toponym:

An unidentified place name could be resolved through collaboration
An unidentified place name could be resolved through collaboration

Once users have annotated, tagged, and mapped place references in Recogito, it’s easy to download the data created to analyse. For instance, one question this text excerpt raised was the extent of its reliance on the popular fourteenth-century account Mandeville’s Travels. The itinerary talks about a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary at ‘Sardonade’ (Saidnaya) that Mandeville describes in detail (p. 58). However, when both texts are ‘mapped’ (here using the free online Carto DB platform) it becomes clear that there is not much overlap beyond this one distinctive element.

Places mentioned in Mandeville in blue and those on the Hay itinerary in orange. Accessed 8 May 2017.
Places mentioned in Mandeville in blue and those on the Hay itinerary in orange. Accessed 8 May 2017.

The Corpus Christi 171b itinerary may, perhaps, be a version of the kind of splicing together of sources about pilgrimage– possibly including personal experience – with Mandeville that Anthony Bale has recently observed in other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sources (Bale 2016).

Working on itineraries using Recogito opens up new possibilities for tracing trends over time. It might allow to compare itineraries easily, using one to shed light on another. In the longer term, it’s planned that the Recogito infrastructure will enable this kind of work by allowing for searching and comparison of place references across a wide range of sources.

Whose itinerary is it anyway?

But there are still some unanswered questions. Who wrote these strange scraps of itinerary? Are they records of the writer’s personal experience, things he has heard, things read, or a mixture of all of these?

We can at least identify the writer of these notes, because an accident of the book’s history means he has left us his name. At some point in MS 171a’s early history, somebody cut out half one of its empty leaves (folio xix, MS 171a), presumably to use the purloined paper for other purposes. This has precipitated a ‘book curse’ directed at the thief, written on the remainder of the damaged folio in the same messy handwriting as the itinerary notes. The ‘curser’ signs himself ‘Gilbert ye Hayes’ (fol. xixv).

Gilbert was a fairly common name among the Hays, an important Scottish family, in the later Middle Ages (Brown, p. 21), yet we can be fairly sure who this one was. As Watt noted in his edition of the Scotichronicon (IX: 50-53), the same ‘large, untidy’ hand is responsible for additions and corrections to what the Chronicle has to say about a Gilbert Hay active France in the early fifteenth century, where he became chamberlain to, and was knighted by, Charles VII. This Sir Gilbert (d. 1465) can in turn be firmly identified as the author of a number of mid-fifteenth-century writings, including a verse Buik of King Alexander the Conqueror.

Did Sir Gilbert embark on any of the journeys that he sketches out in this note? The fragment provides no clue. But another, longer itinerary fragment of Gilbert’s in the same book suggests that Hay collected details of journeys he had not himself undertaken. It features an itinerary from Rome that stretches as far east as the Empire of the Great Khan of Cathay (MS 171b, fol. 370r), but this empire had fallen nearly a century before Sir Gilbert wrote. Hay’s biographers have, however, noted gaps in his biography in the late 1440s and early 1450s, and after 1460 (ODNB; Brown, p. 20). Might Sir Gilbert, perhaps,  have undertaken or contemplated a Jerusalem pilgrimage during any of these periods, prompting him to note down this pilgrim’s itinerary?


  • —–, Pelagios Commons. Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Online Resource. Accessed 8 May 2017
  • A. Bale,  ‘A fifteenth-century itinerary through Europe to Jerusalem‘. Pilgrim Libraries: books & reading on the medieval routes to Rome & Jerusalem. 20 April 2017. Online resources. Accessed 8 May 2017
  • A. Bale, ‘“ut legi”: Sir John Mandeville’s Audience and Three Late Medieval English Travelers to Italy and Jerusalem’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 38 (2016),  201-37
  • W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987–98)
  • M. Brown, ‘The stock that I am a branch of”: patrons and kin of Gilbert Hay’, in Fresche fontanis: Studies in the Culture of Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, ed. by Janet Hadley Williams and Derrick McClure (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), pp. 17-30
  • C. Edington, ‘Hay, Sir Gilbert (b. c.1397, d. after 1465), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Online resources. Accessed 8 May 2017
  • M. R. James, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press, 1912)
  • J. Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels, ed. by Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • N. Wilkins, Catalogue des manuscrits français de la bibliothèque Parker.  (Cambridge: Parker Library Publications, Corpus Christi College, 1993
  • T. Porck, ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’. Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth Century. Institute for Cultural Disciplines, Universiteit Leiden, NL. 22 February 2014. Online resources. Accessed 8 May 2017
  • R. Simon, Recogito: Linked Data annotation without the pointy brackets  Austrian Institute of Technology. Online resource. Accessed 8 May 2017
  • J. H. Stevenson, ed., Gilbert of the Haye’s prose manuscript (AD 1456), 2 vols., STS, 44, 62 (1901–14)

Travelers’ Texts: pilgrims and their textual accessories

Professor George Greenia
Professor George Greenia

Blog-post author, George Greenia, Professor Emeritus, College of William & Mary, US

Medieval pilgrim badges were among the most common souvenirs brought home from visits to European shrine sites. They were worn at eye level on hats and shoulder capes, sewn into prayer books, and adorned pilgrim bodies laid in their graves.  Today’s trekkers to Santiago mark their backpacks with the traditional scallop shell and purchase endless variations of that icon emblazoned on kitchen tiles, refrigerator magnets, jewelry and even their hiking socks.  Insignia are public announcements, billboards for piety or bragging read at a glance.

Other historic pilgrim accessories appeal to literacy at least as a cultic gesture. Many short texts were never read at all.  They simply served as visual scripts for their bearers’ good intentions.  Pilgrims – or any travelers wishing to make their journey sacred – could take along some­thing written even if only as an amulet.  Here are a small selection of such objects from various historical moments and contexts.

The Orthodox Crescent arcs from northern Egypt to Finland with numerous shrine sites along that vast geographical span. They are normally work­ing monasteries with Mount Athos island in Greece the best known clus­ter of religious communi­ties in one of the most spectacular settings.  Monastics them­selves often become pilgrims who jour­ney to venerate the icons and sacred images that compete for honor with bodily relics and tombs.  Professed religious often carry por­ta­ble devo­tional objects with them, some­times just for the imagery and some­times with textual reminders of the prayers they may recite along the way.  Some artifacts that include writing with their imagery help prompt live storytelling of miraculous events or episodes from scripture.

This small metal box has a short chain, so the case could hang on a vendor’s rack, the traveler’s kit, or be left as a votive offering at a shrine site. A sliding metal tab along the top seals an inner compartment which could contain a personal relic, blessed oils preserved in wax, or a small packet of written material.  The writing on the outside of this case simply names the saints on either side.

The palm-size metal triptych is also scaled for private devotions on a home altar or espe­cially for travelers because of its minimal weight and because it folds up so readily to protect the devotional surface. The wri­ting is limited to the names of the figures or the scenes depicting the life and miracles of St. Nicholas.

This small vessel is a pilgrim’s flask destined to contain water, oil or sand from a sacred site. St. Menas flanked by camels was the icon for the saint’s shrine west of Alexandria where pilgrims took oil from the sanctuary lamps to carry home with them.  Flasks were formed from clay disks pressed into molds to capture images and script.  These disks were sealed together and loop handles pasted on.  The interior volume is irrelevant.  Just possessing some of the material substance gathered at the shrine site was enough for travelers and proof of the completion of their mis­sion.  Those on a quest are the first beneficiaries of the power of their souvenirs but they function as a boon for their home communities as well.  The first image shows a well preserved, museum-quality St. Menas flask but thousands more survive as travel-fatigued items in private collections, as in the second image.

The Christian West and Orthodox East in general have rates of lay literacy higher than in the Middle East, especially in liturgical languages. They also boast a vast range of iconography in the plas­tic arts. Medi­eval scrip­toria flourished in admini­strative centers, both lay and ecclesias­tical, in­creasingly around universities and for a growing late-medieval lay market as well.  Their pilgrim sojourners came from every social class lay and professed, and they collected souvenirs such as ampules of water and oil, pilgrim badges, carvings and icons.

Ethiopian prayer scroll, late 19th cent., goat skin, 8 cm wide by up to a meter in length, prepared for named woman Wälättä Maryam:
Ethiopian prayer scroll, late 19th cent., goat skin, 8 cm wide by up to a meter in length, prepared for named woman Wälättä Maryam:

Ethiopian travelers represent a distinct class of pilgrim. Like their Orthodox coun­terparts, they retain a unique liturgical language, in this case written in Ge’ez, the ritual idiom of Christian Ethiopia much like Old Church Slavonic or antique forms of Greek for portions of the East, or Latin for the Christian West.  Mastery of Ge’ez remains confined to a literate priestly elite.  Ethiopian reli­gious books don’t just contain sacred texts, they are sacred objects in themselves, and their images are strikingly apotro­paic: they produce and induce the spiritual realities they illustrate.  The portraits of Christ, Mary and the saints and especially the endlessly repeated angels’ eyes make those forces effective in the real world.

Within the Ethiopian catchment regions, religious books are routinely hand crafted by individual monks, not the output of organ­ized shops. Individual monks pro­duced written texts as a sacred craft, rarely as an industry increasingly dominated by laymen as in the West.  Their books commonly stay in the possession of monks who use them for daily prayer and carry them on their errands and journeys.  With literacy more confined to a monastic caste in Ethiopia and work­ing with a smaller repertoire of iconography, devotional objects on goatskins and as worked brass are scaled down in size.

Lay people tend to collect “prayer scrolls” carried as amulets. Many of these scrolls are talismans whose prayers address specific needs and protect against disease.  The person who commissioned the manuscript is as often as not a named woman and the prayers she requested include petitions concerning feminine ailments or to ward off dangers like the evil eye, or a prayer for catching demons in Solomon’s Net.  These women wanted written prayers even though they could not read them and wore them under their clothing and in contact with their flesh.

Unfairly called “magic scrolls,” they are simply invo­ca­tions to God and the saints for shelter from harm. The illustration shows a scroll containing the following prayers: “(1) Prayer of Susenyos, (2) Prayer for the “expulsion” of disease and the demon Shotalay”, (3) prayer against the evil eye, (4) prayer against rheumatism and sciatica, (5) prayers against haemorrhage, (5) another prayer against demon Shotalay, (6) prayer against Zar Wellaj.” (Reed, 2011)

Some scrolls were sewn tight in leather pouches, never to be opened again. The fact that no one would ever read these prayers aloud did not trouble their owners who themselves became “mobile shrines” as they carried sacred objects about on their persons.  The texts on these inaccessible strips of animal hide were placed in the sight of God alone and entrusted to His readership.  These believers converted their textual accessories into moveable shrines and made of themselves pilgrims in a self-referential way, carrying the sacred forward to sanctify all the places they visited and worked, accompanied by the transcendent inscribed on parchment scrolls nestled next to their skin.

Yemeni devotional case for prayers or sura of the Qur’an. Mid-20th cent., copper and silver alloy with paste glass “rubies,” 7.5 cm wide x 11 cm tall with bells, metal chain approx. 30 cm in length, photo © George Greenia.
Yemeni devotional case for prayers or sura of the Qur’an. Mid-20th cent., copper and silver alloy with paste glass “rubies,” 7.5 cm wide x 11 cm tall with bells, metal chain approx. 30 cm in length, photo © George Greenia.

Finally, an example from Yemen. This rectangular case is similar to the first object but comes from the Islamic tradition.  It bears passing resemblance to the Jewish mezuzah which is affixed to the doorpost of a home and never travels at all.  Composed of a handcrafted alloy of silver and copper set with glass “rubies,” this Yemeni case’s bells suggest movement, either processional or on pilgrimage.  It too is outfitted with a chain for personal wear or placement in a devotional setting.  Although now completely sealed, the box has a hollow interior for a short passage from the Qur’an.


What Real Clerical Spell Scrolls Look Like. Ge’ez and Amharic Examples‘ by R. D Reed, in Cyclopeatron. Friday  17 June 2011. Web resource, accessed 17 May 2017.

Building imagined pilgrimage experiences and pilgrim libraries in the medieval world

Phillip Booth
Phil Booth

Blog-post author, Phil Booth, Associate Lecturer at Lancaster University, UK

Creating tools of contemplation and remembrance

When talking about Christian pilgrimage in the medieval period, there exists a tendency to divide pilgrimage into geographic types: the local, the national, the transnational and the international (for example). Each of these “types” of pilgrimage exhibit different qualities and were performed for different reasons at different times. The motivation, for example, for undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem might be vastly different from undertaking a pilgrimage to any number of local shrines which existed in Europe (and elsewhere) at this time. Yet one thing these “types” had/have in common was a belief in the benefit that could be derived from movement towards, and interaction with, a sacred space.

c15 image produced to accompany a translation of Burchard of Mt Sion’s 'Descriptio Terrae Sanctae'. Images like this were crucial for facilitating imagined or virtual pilgrimage experiences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
c15 image produced to accompany a translation of Burchard of Mt Sion’s ‘Descriptio Terrae Sanctae’. Images like this were crucial for facilitating imagined or virtual pilgrimage experiences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Increasingly, however, historians have recognised that pilgrimage did not require any sort of movement or travel at all; that there existed, in medieval Europe, a belief in what has been variously described as virtual, imagined or armchair pilgrimage. Simply put, people imagined themselves going to or seeing specific holy places believing they would benefit from the exercise. Paramount in facilitating an imagined pilgrimage experience were books, or other material objects, that could evoke an image of sacred space and associated events. Through ritual movements, physical touching of material objects, and simple contemplation an individual could experience a pilgrimage from the comforts of their own homes (or convent/monastery as was usually the case).

In this regard it is interesting to note that when pilgrims who wrote accounts of their pilgrimages sat down to do so they often express a very clear appreciation that their accounts of pilgrimage could be used in such a way. They were to be used as tools of contemplation and remembrance. Indeed, for many it was this very aspect of medieval spirituality which inspired them to record their pilgrimage experiences for posterity. Some examples.

John of Würzburg who travelled to the Holy Land in around 1160 stated:

I believe that this description will be valuable to you [i.e. Dietrich, the individual to whom the account is written] if … you come to everything which I have described and see them [i.e. the holy places] physically … But if you happen not to go [to the Holy Land] and you are not going physically to see them, you will still have a greater love of them and their holiness by reading this book and thinking about it.

The best example of these trends from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries occurs in the account of Burchard of Mount Sion, a Dominican friar who spent several years in the Holy Land in the late-thirteenth century. The introduction of his account is replete with references to the imagined experiences which pilgrimage to the Holy Land could provoke. Most noteworthy for our present considerations, however, is his statement that:

Seeing, however, that some people are affected by a desire to picture for themselves in some degree at least those things that they are unable to look upon face to face and wanting to satisfy their wish as far as I can, I have … described … that land [i.e the Holy Land] through which I have frequently passed.

These pilgrims were clearly producing these accounts to facilitate an imagined or remembered experience once back at home. However, it should be noted that this was not a uniquely “Catholic European” preoccupation. Daniel, a Russian abbot, and therefore an Orthodox Christian, who travelled to the Holy Land between 1106 and 1107, also wanted his account to enable people to think on or remember the holy places:

… for the love of these holy places I have set down everything which I saw with my own eyes, so that what God gave me, an unworthy man, to see may not be forgotten … I have written this for the faithful. For if anyone hearing about these holy places should grieve in his soul and in his thoughts for these holy places, he shall receive the same reward from God as those who shall have travelled to the holy places.

c14 depiction of Xuanzang returning from India laden with Buddhist texts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
c14 depiction of Xuanzang returning from India laden with Buddhist texts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Even more fascinating is that it does not seem to have been a uniquely Christian preoccupation either. Other religious cultures in the Medieval world expressed and practiced their spirituality in diverse ways. Pilgrimage, whilst possessing many universal qualities, was and still is performed in different ways, by different peoples, groups and religions. And those cultures which wrote about pilgrimage did so for sometimes different reasons. Nevertheless, when reading the Record of the Inner Law sent home from the South Sea, composed by the Buddhist monk Yijing, who travelled to India from China between 671 and 695, we read:

My life may sink with the setting sun this day, still I work to do something worthy of the promotion of the Law; … If you read this record of mine, you may, without moving one step, travel in all five countries of India, and before you spend a minute you may become a mirror of the dark path for a thousand ages to come.

While this is the only such reference of which I am aware of, what it shows is that imagined pilgrimage was not something peculiar to Christians or Europe. Furthermore, the experiences of these remarkable Buddhist pilgrims were intrinsically bound up with textual records. They travelled from China to India in the hope of recovering the original texts of Buddhism and they themselves were inspired to produce texts to help individuals become better Buddhists. They were also interested in building libraries of their own. Xuanzang who travelled in the seventh century (and whose travel account influenced Yijing’s own journeys) brought back to China some 657 Buddhist texts, Yijing himself some 400 texts, which were translated into Chinese and formed new libraries of knowledge connected to pilgrimage and Buddhism. The pilgrimages of the likes of Faxian, Yijing and Xuanzang were all about libraries, reading, the betterment of oneself and imagined journeys.

Overall it demonstrates the important link that existed between pilgrimage, text and imagination in multiple “medieval” cultures.

The Presbyter Jachintus in the Holy Places

Professor Ora Limor
Professor Ora Limor

 Blog-post author Professor Ora Limor, The Open University of Israel

Dating the pilgrimage of Presbyter Jachintus

When did the Presbyter Jachintus make his pilgrimage to the holy places? We have in hand only one page of an only copy of the text he wrote to recount his visit, and it is of little use in answering this question. The surviving fragment holds only a description of Bethlehem, a mention of Rachel’s Tomb and part of a description of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a great pity, as the traveler had a sharp eye and was more interested in architectonic elements than any other known traveler of the Early Middle Ages. Deeply impressed by the monuments he had seen, the Presbyter Jachintus penned the only Holy Land itinerary from Iberia we possess after Egeria’s letter in the late fourth century.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Jachintus’ fragment, written in a Latin that reveals constructions close to Romance languages, was discovered by Zacarías García Villada in the library of the Cathedral of León. García Villada dated the fragment, after its paleographical data, to the tenth century. The date of the pilgrimage is more difficult to establish. At the beginning of his narration, Jachintus writes that the city of Bethlehem is destroyed (Civitatem Bethlem destructa est). García Villada, followed by Wilkinson in his translation of the text (Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, 1972, pp. 11, 123, 205), took this detail as key for dating it. García Villada believed that the destruction was caused either by the Persian or by the Muslim conquest (614, 637) and thus placed the visit sometime between the seventh and the tenth centuries. Wilkinson connected the destruction to an earthquake, perhaps the one that occurred in 746, and thus dated the pilgrimage to the eighth century. Both suggestions are problematic. It is well known that the Holy Land churches were rehabilitated soon after the Persian sack and that the Muslim conquest was not violent. As for the 746 earthquake, Theophanes writes that it caused destruction mainly in the Judean Desert, and Agapius mentions Tiberias, but none relate to Bethlehem in particular.

While these earlier works take Bethlehem as a guide, a new dating was suggested after the Holy Sepulchre description. Martin Biddle (1994, 1999) has argued that Jachintus is clearly describing the aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre as rebuilt in the eleventh century, in the course of the renovations following the destruction caused in 1009 by the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim. The aedicule remained in this form for centuries, but its precise date of construction is unknown. It had to have been built before 1047, however, when the Persian traveler Naser-e Khosraw wrote about it in its new form.

The aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
The aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Biddle recruits Jachintus to solve the problem. He suggests that Jachintus visited the church in the eleventh century, after the building of the aedicule, and that the León manuscript was copied later in that century. Following this notion, in his new edition of his Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (2002), Wilkinson changed the dating of the text to the eleventh century. Biddle’s suggestion is based on a single sentence at the end of the fragment, describing three windows (fenestre tres) on which the mass is celebrated. Biddle claims that these fenestre are the three windows in the marble covering the tomb, described by the Russian monk Daniel in 1106-1108, and thus exhibit the aedicule as constructed in the eleventh century. Nevertheless, as Biddle himself notes, the reference to the three fenestre comes at the end of the description of the aedicule, after the roof, and thus is out of sequence. If the three windows are indeed those known from Daniel’s treatise, they ought to have been mentioned within the aedicule and not in its exterior. As such, it is hard to know exactly what Jachintus is discussing. The dating of the text thus remains an open question.


  1. Catedral de León, Codex 14, fol. 5.
  2. Zacarías García Villada, “Descripiones desconocidas de Tierra Santa en códices españoles”, Estudios Eclesiásticos 4 (1925), pp. 322-324.
  3. Julio Campos, “Otro Texto de Latin Medieval Hispano: El Presbítero Iachintus”, Helmantica: Revista de filología clásica y hebrea 8 (1957), pp. 77-89.
  4. John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 11, 123, 205; John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Warminster, 2002), pp. iii, 27, 404.
  5. Martin Biddle, “The Tomb of Christ: Sources, Methods and a New Approach” in Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology, ed. Kenneth Painter. Series:  Occasional Papers from the Society of Antiquaries of London, 16 (London, 1994), pp. 73-147, at p. 140, n. 14; See pp. 106-8.
  6. Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Stroud, 1999), pp. 85-88, 152, n. 61, 153, n. 68.

William Brewyn’s medieval pilgrims’ guidebook

Professor Anthony Bale

Blog-post author Professor Anthony Bale, Birkbeck, University of London

The medieval pilgrimage guidebook of William Brewyn of Canterbury.

Medieval map of Rome (in Limbourg brothers 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry', c.1415)
Medieval map of Rome (in the Limbourg brothers’ ‘Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’, c.1415)

In the library at Canterbury Cathedral there is a small vellum volume dating from the later fifteenth century: a guidebook for pilgrims to Rome (now Canterbury, Cathedral Library & Archives, Add. MS 68). It is, plausibly, a book made both for travellers and for travelling – its small dimensions (the size of a paperback, 14cm high and 9.8cm wide) and its contents (almost all of which are concerned with pilgrimage, relics, and travel) suggest as much. This little book has long been thought to be the personal pilgrimage guidebook of William Brewyn of Canterbury, whose name appears at several points throughout the book. Parts of Brewyn’s book were edited and translated in 1933 by the Kent historian C. Eveleigh Woodruff;[1] most modern scholars who have mentioned Brewyn have relied on Woodruff’s incomplete and inaccurate edition, so I took the train to Canterbury to spend the day with the manuscript itself.

Wenceslas Hollar (1607-77) Canterbury Cathedral
Wenceslas Hollar (1607-77)’s view of Canterbury Cathedral

Almost nothing secure is known about Brewyn, other than what he tells us about himself in this manuscript. Brewyn evidently spent a great deal of time in Rome in the 1460s, and was at Canterbury in 1470. Brewyn’s name appears in the text, for example at the end of his account of the Church of S. Cecilia in Trastevere: ‘Deo gracias quod Willelmo. Brewyn capellano’ (f. 37v): ‘Thanks be to God, says William Brewyn, chaplain.’ He says that he was personally present at Pope Paul II’s excommunication of various reprobates which took place at the door of St Peter’s at Easter 1469 (‘Michi Willelmo Brewyn Capellano tunc temporis ibi existenti et audienti’); he goes on to say that he copied the excommunication himself from the bull that the pope hung on the door (ff. 38v-40v). The miraculous gilded pine-cone from the Pantheon, which the devil sought to hurl at the Vatican, ‘can still be seen to this day’ (f. 21v), says Brewyn, in the courtyard at St Peter’s. At some points in the manuscript, the text does indeed read as if Brewyn is locating himself, devotionally, at each site he describes; for instance, at the end of his account of the church of S. Maria in Trastevere he writes ‘Jhesus miserere mei’ – ‘Jesus have mercy upon me’ (f. 37v). The perspective, voice, and soul of the individual pilgrim seem to be present.

Canterbury Cathedral Library (2013) [License: CC BY-SA 3.0]
Canterbury Cathedral Library (2013) [License: CC BY-SA 3.0]
The eye-witness status of Brewyn’s book is suggested more compellingly by his itinerary from Calais to Rome (f. 40r). Here, Brewyn’s annotations certainly suggest not only a local familiarity with the route but also ongoing process of editing and correcting. At the German town of Bonn, Brewyn mixes Latin and English to say that ‘ibi fals shrewys summe’ (f. 40v), with another tart comment added above: ‘nisi meliorantur’: ‘unless they have improved’. At ‘Ulmys’ (Ulm) it pays to show one’s tonsure (‘monstra coronoam capitis pro tributo’) to evade the tax. At Memmingen, a comment has been added in the top margin (f. 41r) that the road is said to be fairly good, but further on the mountains begin (‘incipient montes’). In a list of currency exchanges, Brewyn’s authorial ‘I’ appears: ‘Ego Willelmus Brewyn capellanus’ (f. 42v), who got 2 Roman ducats for 9 English shillings.

William Brewyn's 'Guide to Rome'. CCA-AddMS/68,f.6r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury
William Brewyn’s ‘Guide to Rome’. CCA-AddMS/68,f.6r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

Intriguingly, the index to Brewyn’s book includes an itinerary of Jerusalem and the Holy Land (f. 4r). Here, Brewyn writes that he will describe the pilgrimages to be made in Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Zion, Acheldama, the Valley of Jehosophat, the Temple, Bethlehem, Bethany, the River Jordan, Jericho, Mount Quarantine, ‘Galgala’, Cairo (‘Kaer’), Alexandria, Caesarea in Palestine, Acre (‘Acra’), Tiberias (‘Tybiriadis’), Arabia, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut (‘Baruta’). In addition, he says he will include the names of the stations of Jerusalem in English for those who wish to visit and gain the indulgences. He describes how he had read about the pilgrimage sites and indulgences in the Holy Land ut inveni in rotula – that is, found them on a scroll (f. 4r) – and there’s no evidence, or even suggestion, that he made it to Jerusalem himself.

Indeed, the places he mentions in his table of contents – including Acre, Tiberias, Beirut, Sidon, Tyre – would have been difficult to reach for a clerical traveller in the 1460s and ‘70s and suggest an inherited itinerary from an earlier book – such as Mandeville’s Travels – rather than an eye-witness account. Galgala, or Gilgal, appears in several written itineraries but was not a late medieval pilgrimage site of any status, but rather a town near Jericho mentioned in the Book of Joshua.

William Brewyn's 'Guide to Rome'. CCA-Add MS/68,f.10r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury.
William Brewyn’s ‘Guide to Rome’. CCA-Add MS/68,f.10r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury.

The pages relating to the Holy Land have been excised from the book – there are stubs where the folios have been removed (after f. 39 and after f. 94). Perhaps this speaks to Brewyn’s own assertion of the primacy of pilgrimage to Rome over that to Jerusalem: ‘if people only knew how great are the indulgences at the Lateran church, they wouldn’t think it necessary to go overseas (‘de ultra mare’) to the Holy Sepulchre’ (f. 16r). It also seems that some of the things Brewyn included in his account of Rome are also places he hadn’t seen himself: in an account of ‘snow balls’ (pilae nivis) on the walls on what was on the entry into Rome, Brewyn says ‘satis credo’, so I believe, or I believe well enough (f. 35r); at the Church of St Laurence outside the Walls in Rome are ‘plures alie quas nestio notiarum’ – ‘many other things I am unable to name’ (f. 35v).

Old St Peter's basilica (H.W. Brewer, 1836 – 1903)
Old St Peter’s basilica, Rome (H.W. Brewer, 1836 – 1903)

Brewyn’s book seems to be both a record of travel and of reading; it is at once a personal record of a journey made and a guide for others yet to make their journey. Large sections of Brewyn’s book are taken from key texts, especially saints’ lives from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (ff. 58r-94r) and geographical notes from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon (ff. 44r-49r), both of them widely-read and much-cited authorities. To be a traveller was not only to take to the road, but also to read and cite the correct authorities, and accordingly to order one’s experience of the world around an established body of textual knowledge.

Further reading

[1] C. Eveleigh Woodruff (ed. and trans.), A XVth. Century guide book to the principal churches of Rome compiled ca. 1470 by William Brewyn (London: The Marshall Press, 1933).

Online images of the manuscript are available to view on the Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library website.


Pilgrims versus Venetians

Laura Grazia Di Stefano
Laura Grazia Di Stefano

Blog-post author Laura Grazia Di Stefano, University of Nottingham, UK

Pilgrims vs Venetians: a history of hidden truths. The inspections of the galleys and the “visits” to the Arsenal.

Since the thirteenth century, each pilgrim who departed from Venice towards the Holy Land was involved in that social and economic process seen by Venetians as the “normal administration” of business. The transportation of pilgrims, initially treated as an occasional form of income linked to Mediterranean trade, became a permanent activity after its official regulation by the Doge Jacopo Tiepolo in 1233. From that moment onwards, the Venetian government needed to organize pilgrims’ arrivals and departures according to official laws as well as to handle unexpected problems such as the curiosity of pilgrims not only towards the “religious side” of Venice, but also towards its naval industry.

Venice, Porta Magna or Land Door of the Arsenal.
Fig. 1 – Venice, Porta Magna or Land Door of the Arsenal. © 2017 Laura Grazia Di Stefano.

Because of the length of the journey and the dangers of the sea-crossing from Venice, pilgrims often raised concerns about the construction of the galleys, their safety and the sailing experience of the crew, asking to check the means of transport with their own eyes. For that reason, the Venetian government formalised a double inspection of the galleys intended for the Holy Land. Indeed, by the end of the fourteenth century pilgrims were authorised by the Venetian senate to inspect the allocated pilgrims’ galleys and choose the one they retained as “trustable” not only according to the physical appearance of the vessel, but also to the condition of travel offered by the Venetian patron (e.g. route followed, number of meals on board etc.). Prior to this inspection, officials of the Venetian government checked that each galley was bona et sufficientia pro peregrinis. Nevertheless, the legislation does not specify whether the Arsenal was considered as the location where the inspections were to be carried out and, in this regard, no information is given about the authorisation of pilgrims to visit the Arsenal either as part of a touristic visit, or as part of the galleys’ inspection process. However, some of the most famous fifteenth-century pilgrims such as William Wey, Bernard von Breydenbach and Pietro Casola stated they were able to visit the Arsenal. In fact, this was only partially true. Indeed, while the entire Venetian lagoon ran into open waters, the Venetian Arsenal was the only part of the city protected by walls and military personnel.

Fig. 2 – Venice, Guard Towers of the Arsenal Sea Door.
Fig. 2 – Venice, Guard Towers of the Arsenal Sea Door. © 2017 Laura Grazia Di Stefano.

During the Middle Ages, it was considered the heart of the Venetian military industry and commercial sea power; guided visits within were usually strictly forbidden, and granted, with permission, only to illustrious and trustworthy personages. Furthermore, due to a huge expansion of the Arsenal in the late fifteenth century, Venetians became even more protective of their “construction secrets” and the government did not trust even its own merchants and craftsmen. As proof of this distrust, at the end of fifteenth century the Senate enacted different laws to avoid the construction of “foreign Arsenals” even in places under the same Venetian control such as Candia or Cyprus. The legislation was addressed to those families of merchant and Arsenal workers who went in terre et luoghi alieni per guadagnare […] a grandissimo danno della signoria nostra (in foreign places to make money to the detriment of Venice). The punishment for revealing the Arsenal’s secrets or for construction of vessels out of Venice was banishment from the city and a fine of 500 ducats. Therefore, due to these restrictions, visits to the Arsenal were rare for common pilgrims who were likely authorised to explore only the zone just beyond the Arsenal’ s monumental “land door” that operated the passage of people and vessels since the mid-fifteenth century (Fig. 1).

Fig. 3 - Venice, Arsenal military area.
Fig. 3 – Venice, Arsenal military area. © 2017 Laura Grazia Di Stefano.

It is likely that the Venetians, in order to satisfy the curiosity and needs of pilgrims, organised the inspections of the galleys as well as “visits” to certain more accessible areas of the Arsenal. For instance, the English pilgrim William Wey wrote, “In the city they have a large area where they build the galleys to defend our Faith. I saw eighty galleys there, either completed or still under construction. Below that place, they have huge buildings for stores of all types. These are full of the various kind of equipment needed to defend our Faith”. William Wey’s description gives the idea of a panoramic tour of the Arsenal rather than a detailed visit of the various pavilions. Similarly, Pietro Casola, who gave a more precise description of his visit, described seeing in the Arsenal “three large sheds […] where the galleys are placed all together” and “a great crowd of masters and workmen who do nothing but build galleys or other ships of every kind”.

Venice, Arsenal military area.
Fig. 4 – Venice, Arsenal military area. © 2017 Laura Grazia Di Stefano.

Vague descriptions of the Arsenal in such fifteenth-century narratives confirm that what pilgrims described as “visits” were actually basic tours of the “less military” Arsenal’s areas, probably the ones with the production warehouses and disposition of the galleys scheduled for departures. This emerges clearly from the description made by Breydenbach, who states that he experienced in the Arsenal “the power and circumspection of Venice” conveying to his readers that despite being allowed to witness a measure of its inner working, Venetians were too prudent to reveal their military secrets to foreigners such himself. Indeed, until now, the Arsenal’s military zone remains a separate, inaccessibile and patrolled area despite its proximity to the public area (Fig. 3-4).


  1. Venice, Marciana Library, Statuta Domino Jacobus Teupolus 1233, Codice Membranaceo cxxx, Classe V, c.37
  2. Venice, Archivio di Stato, Ufficiali al Cattaver, Busta 2, Volume C, Pro Tholomagys et Peregrinis, folio lxxv
  3. Venice, Archivio di Stato, Archivio proprio di Giacomo Contarini, Folder 22, Leggi vecchie circa la fabbrica delle navi, Doc. 2
  4. Von Breydenbach Bernard, Peregrinationes. Un viaggiatore del quattrocento a Gerusalemme e in Egitto (Roma, 1999)
  5. Casoni Giovanni, Breve storia dell’Arsenale (Venezia, 1847)
  6. Davey Francis, The itineraries of William Wey (Oxford, 2010)
  7. Davis Robert C., Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the Preindustrial City (Baltimore, 2009)
  8. Lane Frederic C., Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance (London, 1992)
  9. Sanudo Marino, Venice, Cità Excelentissima. Selections from the Renaissance Diaries of Marin Sanudo (Baltimore, 2008)
  10. Newett Mary Margaret, Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 1494, (Manchester, 1907)
  11. Sacerdoti Adolfo, R. Predelli, Gli statuti marittimi veneziani fino al 1255 (Venezia, 1903)