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Egeria - some background information


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(adapted from the book Egeria's Travels by John Wilkinson)

Egeria's Travels was lost for seven hundred years. And when, in the late nineteenth century, a manuscript copy was found in Italy, it proved to be only the middle of the book. No doubt the name of the pilgrim and some clue about her date would have appeared either at the beginning or the end, but, since both are missing, we are left to rely on our own ingenuity. Plenty of guesses have been made, but at present it seems most likely that the pilgrim was called Egeria and that she visited the East between AD 381 and 384.

The bishop who met Egeria at Edessa was impressed by the fact that she had come "right from the other end of the earth" and she herself compares the colour of the Red Sea with that of the "Ocean". It is therefore safe to assume that her home country, and that of the beloved sisters for whom she wrote, was on some Atlantic coast. She may have been a Gaul from Aquitaine, or a Spaniard from Galicia. But equally she may have come from some other westem province of the Roman empire....

A byzantine Christian lamp with inscription

A byzantine Christian lamp with inscription

There are teasing gaps in our knowledge about Egeria. But what we have of her text - possibly about a third - is enough to give a vivid idea of her personality and enthusiasms. She is an eager tourist with plenty of time at her disposal and, as she herself says, of unbounded curiosity. So it goes without saying that her book is full of enthusiastic comments on views (vast), buildings (famous), mountains (steep), and plains (fertile). But this traveller is decidedly Christian, and the things which interest her most are those which have to do with her understanding of the faith.

Apart from her overriding eagerness to record the special characteristics of the East, its paragon monks, its holy places, and its model liturgy, she is on the look-out for every detail which will help her and her sisters to keep abreast of modem developments.

So she is delighted when the Bishop of Edessa gives her a manuscript of the Letter of Abgar, since she rightly suspects that it is different from the text they have at home And she picks up all the details she can which will enable her sisters to picture what they read in the Bible: thus you cannot see the summit of Sinai till you are well up it, and this must surely have been intended by God. This is a "marvel" which makes a considerable impression on her, but on the whole she speaks of "miracles" in a way which is little more than matter-of-fact. The sycamore at Rameses "does good" to those who pluck its shoots, but Egeria is just as interested in the fact that it is very ancient. Nor is she credulous. She treats her guides with unvarying courtesy, and never expresses doubts about what she is shown. But in writing down what she has seen she often qualifies the story she has been told: the sycamore is "said to have been" planted by the patriarchs.

Inside the tomb of Jesus which Egeria calls  'The Cave'

Inside the tomb of Jesus which Egeria calls "The Cave"

Between Egeria and the modern Christian traveller there are two striking differences. The modern tourist comes to the East mainly to see buildings and places, but Egeria is equally interested in the local church. Indeed some of her most enthusiastic descriptions are those of monks, nuns, and bishops. Then again the modem traveller spends much time viewing non-Christian sights, and admiring a non-Christian civilisation. But Egeria, as a Roman citizen within a Roman and still largely pagan world, displays an almost complete indifference to anything non Christian. It is of course impossible to say with confidence what Egeria did not describe, since we now have only a fraction of what she wrote. But the part we have is enough to show that for her the non-Christians are usually important only when they affect the Church - like the people of Carrae who outnumber the Christians or the Isaurians who raid them. The only surviving remark which treats pagans as having an interest of their own is that about the men who live in the desert of Paran, a place where her guides probably had little else to describe.

Egeria has a keen eye for liturgical arrangements, especially for those she finds exceptional. But while she is full of admiration for the marathon course of services held in Jerusalem at the great festivals, she is also sensitive to the fatigue of those who attend them. Energetic, observant, determined, appreciative, Egeria punctuates her narrative with acknowledgements of her gratitude both to the people who were her guides and her hosts, and also to God, who has allowed her, humble and unworthy as she is, to carry out her wonderful journey. "Journeys are not hard when they are the fulfilment of hopes", and her hopes were amply fulfilled. Despite her many excellent qualities Egeria gives no evidence that she had studied the Latin classics. Indeed the unusual Latin in which she writes has set many problems for scholars, and some (for example, the writer of the first translation into English) have dismissed it as so "slipshod and tedious" that it did not deserve to be put into good English. But this judgement has not been unanimous; another critic finds in her language a "hieratic grandeur", enhanced by her frequent repetitions.

A raised plan of Constantine's edifice of the Holy Sepulchre

A raised plan of Constantine's edifice of the Holy Sepulchre

The present translation has been made on the assumption that Egeria wrote much as she spoke. By classical standards her writing is deplorable, but so is conversation in any language if it is judged by criteria which are inappropriate. And, if Egeria intended to do no more than pass on to her sisters as accurately as possible what she had seen, we may forgive her haphazard syntax and also, it may be, begin to appreciate her rich vocabulary, and her eye for the pointed word and phrase.

It would be a mistake to see in Egeria's style no more than conversation. Egeria was steeped, if not in the Latin classics, at least in those of the Church, and her language often echoes that of the Bible or of formal prayer. It is also larded, like that of most travel books, with foreign expressions (all Greek) which she picked up. Egeria's dependence on the Bible affects not only her style, but also much of the content of her work. When she quotes it, she uses titles for the books which indicate that she knew it in one of the Old Latin versions translated from the Greek. For the Old Testament this means that she was familiar with a text which had received a number of additions not found in the Hebrew. The Septuagint was completed in Alexandria by about 130 BC., and sometimes provides contemporary Greek names for places....

Egeria gives no sign that she used any other reference book apart from her Bible. But she gives a useful clue to her method of writing when she tells how she met a presbyter at Sedima, and goes straight on to say, "Later on we became acquainted with a good many bishops who spoke highly of the way he lived." In this case it is clear that she did not write her description of the presbyter till a good deal later, and we should probably assume that on her journeys she made notes as she went along, and wrote them up later. We know that some of her writing was done during her stay in Constantinople.

Egeria's unassuming account of her travels and the services in Jerusalem would be less important if any similar accounts had survived. As it is, however, we must depend on her information alone for many questions of fourth-century topography and liturgical arrangements. We are fortunate that she was at such pains to be both communicative and accurate.

Discovery and Publication

The one surviving manuscript of Egeria's Travels was copied out in the eleventh century, probably in the renowned monastery of Monte Cassino. It later passed into the hands of the Community of St Flora at Arezzo, perhaps in I 599, when Ambrose Rastrellini came from Monte Cassino to be Abbot at Arezzo, and at Arezzo it stayed, though in 1810 it became the property of a Lay Fraternity in the city. When it was taken into this library, it was bound up with a treatise, On the Mysteries: with three Hymns, by St Hillary.

A byzantine Christian lamp with inscription

A byzantine Christian lamp with inscription

The importance of the manuscript remained unrecognised till 1884, when it was discovered, fortunately by the great scholar J. F. Gamurrini, who immediately began to prepare it for publication. His first edition appeared in 1887, and the second, considerably corrected, followed in 1888. In the following year it had already been translated into Russian, and was first published with an English translation by J. H. Bernard in 1891.

Since then the Travels (under a variety of titles) has become widely known, and translations exist in most European languages.....

In its present state the manuscript consists of three quaternions (sections of eight folded leaves making sixteen pages). But the middle one has lost its outside leaves, and thus comprises only six leaves (or twelve pages). What remains of the text divides into two nearly equal sections, of which the first describes journeys beginning with an approach to Mount Sinai and ending at Constantinople, and the second the services of the Christian year in Jerusalem.

Early references to Egeria

When Egeria finished writing her Travels, she doubtless sent or took the original manuscript back to her sisters in the West. It must have reached them towards the end of the fourth century.

Near the end of the seventh a monk called Valerius wrote a letter to his brethren at El Vierzo in north-western Spain. He described a courageous pilgrim whom he called "the blessed nun Egeria''. The letter is specially valuable since it speaks of several places which must have been mentioned in the original manuscript, but are missing from the copy we possess. The Letter is written in the style of a sermon, and makes no attempt to quote verbatim what Egeria herself may have said, so it does not enable us to reconstruct her text. But it is at least a due to her name, though unfortunately not to the place where she lived.

A Glossary of the eighth or ninth century quotes from a passage in the manuscript as we have it and ascribes it to "Egeria", and an anonymous and unnamed Madrid manuscript of the ninth century quotes two passages we still have, a third which must come from the missing leaf which occurred in Travels, chapter 16, and a fourth which is hard to place.

The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre

The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre

In 1137 Peter the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino and the abbey's librarian, wrote a book on the holy places, in which he made extensive quotations from the Travels. Some can be placed beside passages from the manuscript of the Travels, and they show how slightly he altered Egeria's style. But others correspond with some of the places which are missing from our manuscript, but are mentioned by Valerius. These provide not only a valuable rendering of what Egeria said, but also a much better view of the general pattern of her travels. No more such clues are given us after Peter's time. There are some references to her name but no further information.



© Text prepared by John Abela ofm based on articles and research by Virgilio Corbo ofm, Michele Piccirillo ofm and Eugenio Alliata ofm
Hi-Res pictures prepared by Michael Olteanu - Other pictures prepared by John Abela ofm and Michael Olteanu
B&W pictures courtesy of SBF-Jerusalem Archives - A joint project betweeen the Franciscans and Christusrex

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Created / Updated Wednesday, December 26, 2001 at 20:31:29 by John Abela ofm
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