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The story

Egeria and the other
Holy Land pilgrims

 Egeria e le altre pellegrine di  Terrasanta   DCM-003
05 March 2022

Journeys lasting months, often years, until their lives changed in Jerusalem.

And so we travel, one might say, to look at the phenomenon of Christian pilgrimages, which developed in the Holy Land from the time of Constantine. One sets off out of devotion, and we are not discouraged despite the innumerable difficulties we encounter along the way, whether that be bandits, pirates, meteorological obstacles, hunger, thirst or cold. These impediments would severely test anyone’s will, especially those who, like women pilgrims, do not seem to have the necessary physical means. However, the history books document hundreds of instances of women, who were driven by their love for Christ, to travel for months, often even years, to change their lives in Jerusalem.

This was what happened to Mary of Egypt, a prostitute redeemed by the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The patriarch Sophronius (550-639) has handed down, her hagiography in the oldest version. Upon finding herself blocked by a mysterious force when about to enter the Holy Sepulchre, the pilgrim turned to the Virgin, who showed her the point of the Baptism in Jordan. Mary Egyptian crossed the river and on the opposite bank, began her new hermitic and ascetic life. Pilgrimage is a rite of passage; it purifies and regenerates.

In Late Antiquity, high society women were among the protagonists of pilgrimages at the time of their first great development. Egeria is the author of an Itinerarium in which she recounts her journey to the holy places of Christianity. In the text, she writes and addresses the dominae sorores, who belonged to a high social class, which has been proven by various data. The details therein include: the deference with which she is received by the highest religious authorities; the escort of soldiers and imperial officers that accompanies her in some parts of her journey; the duration and cost of the journey; the use of well-equipped wagons and mounts; the possession of a diploma (a sort of ante litteram passport) that permitted her to move along the cursus publicus.

Egeria set off from Galicia for a pilgrimage across the Red Sea and Arabia, which led to Antioch and Constantinople, after it had passed through Palestine. In Jerusalem, the pilgrim describes in precise detail the Constantinian basilicas and the liturgies of the Holy Places, transmitting the atmosphere of the festivities. The fortune of the Itinerarium Egeriae is an exceptional case in the historiography of the pilgrimage. Her diary was discovered “barely” a century and a half ago in the library of the Fraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia in Arezzo. Only a decade after the discovery of the codex, there were already five editions and four complete translations: Russian (1890), Italian (1890), English (1891), Danish (1896), followed in the next years by those in Greek, German, Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan and Hebrew. However, Egeria was neither the only nor the first pilgrim to Jerusalem.

It was the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, who started the tradition of pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Upon the conclusion of the Council of Nicaea, St Helena visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem where, accompanied by Bishop Macarius, rediscovered the places of the Passion and - so state Ambrose and Paulinus of Nola - the True Cross. Eusebius of Caesarea, who emphasizes the role of Constantine, notes the convergence between the desires of the mother and the operations of her son, who initiated the construction of the then tripartite Holy Sepulchre, consisting of a basilica with five naves, triportico with an atrium, and the Anastasis rotunda.

The pilgrims Elia Eudocia Atenaide, wife of Theodosius II; Eudossia, daughter of Elia Eudocia and Theodosius, who married Valentinian III; Licinia Eudocia, daughter of Eudoxia and Valentinian; Anicia Giuliana - the patron par excellence -, daughter of Placidia the Younger and Flavius Anicius Olibrio, were also from imperial families.

A halo of holiness surrounded Eudocia in particular. The recovery of the relics of the protomartyr Stephen and the chains of Saint Peter contributed to this, as did her intense building activity. After her daughter Eudoxia’s marriage, which was celebrated in Constantinople on October 28, 437, Eudocia decided to fulfill a vow, that of a pilgrimage. She departed around the years 438-439, went a second time to Palestine in 443 and remained there until her death. While there, she founded two monasteries, three oratories and a convent with an adjoining hospice. She financed the construction of the Praetorium church -St Sophia-, St Peter’s at the palace of Caiaphas, St John the Baptist south of the Holy Sepulchre and the St Stephen basilica where she was buried in 460.

Then there is the Saint Jerome circle of matrons. During his Roman years, the then secretary of Pope Damasus – here we are in the fourth century - met a group of clarissimae (women of high social ranking) on the Aventine, to whom he inculcates the ideal of detachment from the world. A letter from his epistolary is addressed to the young Eustochius after the death of his mother, Saint Paula. Jerome recalls Paula’s pilgrimage, who arrived at the port of Ostia accompanied by relatives, friends and servants. The separation from her affections makes the embarkation dramatic. The woman tries to dissimulate her emotion. On the other hand, the faith that urged her to leave was stronger than anything else. Paola visited Palestine and monasteries in Egypt, and founded a hospital in Bethlehem. In their letter to Saint Marcella, Paula and Eustochius urged their addressee to join them. In doing so, mother and daughter contrasted the wealth and grandeur of Rome with the parvula Bethlehem. The noble Paola had dressed in silk robes, had been served by slaves, now she edifies herself through the hardships of pilgrimage and the rigors of monastic life.

Saint Melania Seniore’s pilgrimage dates back to the middle of the fourth century. Melania was in Palestine when, on hearing the news of her niece’s marriage, she decided to return to Rome. However, it was not long before she sold all her properties and returned to Jerusalem, where she founded a monastery. Saint Melania Iuniore and Piniano also led a life of faith opposed to the worldly model of Rome. They were an aristocratic Christian couple, who travelled from Italy in 410-411 to Tagaste, the city of Numidia, and then, taken by the call of Jerusalem, left everything for the Holy Land.

The many pilgrims who arrived in the Holy Land during the Lower Empire seem to have vanished by the end of the fifth century. Ugeburga, who was not a pilgrim, but the nun relative of the German bishop St Willibaldo, wrote her travel journal in the 8th century, and would seem to be the only female presence in the history of the Jerusalem pilgrimage during the High Middle Ages.

After the year one thousand, the overall picture changed radically. Instead of discouraging pilgrimages, the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre by the Caliph Fatimid al-Hakim (1009) caused a development in interest.  In the medium term, connected to the new geopolitical framework of the Balkan Peninsula that favored the land route and an eschatological longing that was constant and intense between 1033 and 1099, the year of the Crusader takeover of the Holy City. This was when there was a shift from travelling alone or in small companies to large groups of pilgrims who in some cases included a few thousand faithful. Among those who departed, many women are named in the documentation. Indeed, there is reason to believe that there are many, who have remained unnamed, among the components of those multitudes of which Rudolph the Glabrus, the monk who was one of the greatest chroniclers of the medieval age speaks. There are lay and clerics, rich and poor, knights and hermits, all who set out on a pilgrimage to the East. Instead, there are those who may have grasped at the chance of a somewhat surrogate more accessible form of sacred travel, which in their eyes, was nonetheless meritorious, and went to visit the many Jerusalems that are established in Europe.

Many pilgrims departed for the last pilgrimage. On the eve of the Crusade, Hildegard of Anjou, went to die in Jerusalem secundum desiderium cordis sui and asked to be buried near the tomb of the Savior.

The theme of pilgrims is a timeless one. In the late Middle Ages, there are the examples of Bridget of Sweden and Margery Kempe, who were both married and mothers, yet in the second part of their lives, chose to leave on a pilgrimage. St Bridget, a daughter of pilgrims, was born into a high aristocratic family, and could afford a retinue for protection. After the death of her husband - with whom she had already been to Compostela - she decided to go to Rome and Jerusalem. Kempe had a more difficult experience. After a vision, she departed alone, and without means, for the three peregrinationes maiores, and wrote a travel diary known as the Book of Margery Kempe.

To conclude, even if it does not do so specifically, in the history of pilgrimages, the female presence defeats the conventional image of “male Middle Ages”.

by Giuseppe Perta
Professor of Medieval History, University of Naples Suor Orsola Benincasa