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A Virtual Pilgrimage: Felix Fabri’s “Sionpilger” and the Unicorn

Dr Kathryne Beebe
Dr Kathryne Beebe

Blog-post author Dr. Kathryne Beebe is  Assistant Professor of Medieval History and Digital Humanities, University of Texas at Arlington (US),


A short musical exploration of the “virtual” or “imagined” pilgrimage guide known as the “Sionpilger” written by the Dominican pilgrim and preacher, Felix Fabri (1437/8-1502). Runtime: 10.14 min.


Saewulf’s Lost Arabic Map

Professor Sebastian Sobecki, U Groningen NL
Professor Sebastian Sobecki, U Groningen NL

Blog-post author Sebastian Sobecki, Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture, University of Groningen NL


The Latin narrative of Saewulf’s voyage to the Holy Land in 1102 is so significant because his account of Jerusalem is one of the first to have reached us after the city’s conquest in 1099 during the First Crusade. His report is therefore a remarkable snapshot of emerging Crusader Jerusalem – not unlike the Western rediscovery of this region through the industrial lense of the daguerreotype images from 1844 shown here – these are some of one of the first photographs taken of Jerusalem.

Saewulf’s report forms part of a small group of pilgrims’ accounts that mark the beginning of European an explosion in the production of itineraries and guidebooks to Palestine. His account and material practices therefore represent a notable point of comparison for accounts written by later pilgrims. Yet despite the significance of this text, little attention has been paid to Saewulf as a writing pilgrim.

This otherwise unidentified Englishman has left behind a remarkably detailed and informed account of his travels to Palestine and back. His voyage came only three years after the Crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem, when demand for pilgrim transport was so high that he could not find a ship in southern Italy to cross the Mediterranean. Instead, he had to settle for an arduous coastal voyage along the Adriatic and through Greece.

In July 1102, Saewulf sailed from southern Italy for Jaffa, while his return voyage took him to Ereğli in Anatolia, where his narrative breaks off in September 1103.[1] We do not know, for that matter, whether he himself indeed returned to England. The text of Saewulf’s only known work has survived in a single manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 111, a vellum and paper codex formerly owned by Archbishop Matthew Parker.[2] Saewulf’s Latin text has been written out in a twelfth-century hand and occupies pp. 37 (second column)-46 (second column). Nothing else is known about Saewulf, though he may have been the merchant Seuulfus of Worcester mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta pontificum Anglorum.[3]

I first came across this intriguing text when, many years ago, I surveyed insular works that engaged with the sea and maritime elements. Saewulf, despite his dedicated focus on spiritual destinations, offers two well-crafted voyage tales full of lively glimpses of a long-distance pilgrim’s life on the road: the account of his actual voyage to the Levant and back includes details that at times turn him into a proto-tourist, an engaged beholder of the strange world around him. Recently I returned to Saewulf, when annotating the text in translation for an anthology Anthony Bale and I are editing (Medieval English Travel: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)). Our text is essentially a slightly updated and modernised version of the serviceable translation Thomas Wright published in 1848 in his milestone anthology Early Travels in Palestine.[4]

Although our text is based on Wright’s translation, unlike R.B.C. Huygens’ modern edition of the Latin text in the Corpus Christianorum series,[5] we have decided to gloss every place or locality, event, individual, and textual reference. As a result, I worked on the text with a map at my side, and it became clear to me that we can learn a great deal more about Saewulf’s library and his use of material sources during his visit to the Holy Land.

Most scholars believe that Saewulf’s account actually consists of three elements, that is, a guidebook to the Holy Land that is bookended by Saewulf’s reports of travelling to and returning from Jaffa[6]. While the two voyage narratives are thought to have been written or dictated by Saewulf, the embedded guidebook is usually assumed not to have been his work. And there seem to be good arguments for this surmise: unlike the first and third parts of the narrative, the guidebook is not written from a first-person perspective. Most of the guidebook’s passages are indeed impersonal, and many are derived from its primary source of information on Palestine, Bede’s eighth-century De locis sanctis / On the Holy Places. And there are further parallels between the guidebook embedded in Saewulf’s report and three existing texts of the same genre, commonly referred to as The First Guide, Qualiter, and The Ottobonian Guide, all three of which are roughly contemporary with Saewulf’s text, though in all probability precede his guidebook by less than a handful of years or even months.[7]

But on closer inspection, these guidebooks are much shorter than the report embedded in Saewulf; in fact, his text is longer and more detailed than all three of them put together. There is, I should add, no evidence that any of these three surviving guidebooks have been read by the author of Saewulf’s guidebook; on the other hand, the many verbatim echoes and details of Bede’s On the Holy Places clearly served as the basis for the text of Saewulf’s guidebook. On closer inspection, though, it seems to me that it was actually Saewulf who modified the existing guidebook (or a copy of Bede’s text) on-site in Palestine. The arrangement of his guidebook is such that, in the case of most paragraphs, a line or two with broad directions and biblical detail opens the account of a particular location, but this is then often followed by a contemporary update or impression. For instance, when introducing Jericho, Saewulf’s guidebook mirrors the skeletal account in the Ottobonian Guide by sharing with it the information on distance to Jerusalem and the reference to Elisha’s fountain before inserting a sentence not found in the Ottobonian Guide or in Bede for that matter: ‘The plain is indeed beautiful wherever you look’ (John Wilkinson, Joyce Hill, and W. F. Ryan, Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099-1185 (Hakluyt Society, 1988), 109). Similarly, the description of Bethlehem opens with a sentence found in the Qualiter guide and contains information from Bede, before Saewulf’s guidebook adds: ‘Nothing habitable is left there by the Saracens, but it is all ruined, exactly as it is in all the other places outside the walls of Jerusalem’ (Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099-1185, 108). Again, the same occurs when Saewulf’s embedded guidebook describes Nazareth. The prefatory material is mostly sourced from Bede, but then Saewulf’s text inserts the following update: ‘But the city of Nazareth is wholly ruined and all pulled down by the Saracens’ (Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099-1185, 110).

To my mind, the emerging pattern is one of almost interlinear blocks where the authoritative biblical identification of a place is sourced from Bede, with Scriptural support, only to be followed by eyewitness corroboration and, more often than not, the contrasting contemporary state of dilapidation of the respective place. Using Ockham’s Razor, there is no reason to suppose that this latter information has been provided by another traveller who had just seen Palestine after the end of the First Crusade in time for Saewulf to have obtained access to this new knowledge. Instead, the guidebook section as it stands now was most probably updated and written by Saewulf himself. The specific pattern that I have described strongly suggests, in my opinion, that Saewulf had copied out from Bede and perhaps from another guidebook the basic and very brief identifications of the most important places in the Holy Land, to which he then added concise information on site. The brevity and conciseness of both components suggests a portable text, most likely a vellum quire, bound or otherwise.

Saewulf’s reading was of course wider than just Bede, and betrays a solid grounding in the Bible and patristic literature, primarily Jerome and some Augustine. I don’t want to speculate here whether Saewulf or someone writing for him had had access to a library in Palestine, so soon after the First Crusade. It is rather more likely that any such information, and access to physical books, came after his return to England. This includes consultation of the Vulgate, Jerome’s Sentences and his Liber de situ et nominibus locorum hebraicorum, as well as Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. But the manner in which Saewulf has modified the information his guidebook shares with Bede and similar texts may suggest that he took notes on site, and that he had with him a physical booklet into which he inserted his own additions.

The second observation I have made when annotating Saewulf’s account is that he inverts east and west on a few occasions. However, this only occurs when describing places outside of Jerusalem and when he introduces material not found in his sources and analogues. For instance, his topography of the wider area of the Sea of Galilee is confused. Saewulf does not say in which direction Galilee lies; he only states that it is three days from Jerusalem which corresponds to the information given in the First Guide. But Saewulf believes that Galilee is not only a lake but also a city, clearly departing here from his main source, Bede, and other surviving early guidebooks. More importantly, he places Nazareth east of Mount Tabor, on the sea of Galilee, instead of its actual location west of the mountain.

Saewulf’s difficulties arise with larger scale directions that involve travel planning. Locations within walking distance or those that he had actually visited are usually correctly placed. Once he reaches Nazareth, his description is relatively detailed and precise:

The city of Nazareth is entirely laid waste and overthrown by the Saracens, but the place of the annunciation of our Lord is indicated by a celebrated church. A clear fountain bubbles out near the city, still surrounded, as formerly, with marble columns and blocks, from which the child Jesus, with other children, often drew water for the use of his mother. From Nazareth we proceed about four miles to the east, to Mount Tabor, on which the Lord, having ascended it, transfigured himself openly before Peter, John, and James. The mountain is covered in an extraordinary manner with grass and flowers, and rises in the middle of the green plain of Galilee as to exceed in altitude all the mountains which, though at a distance, surround it. On the summit still remain three ancient churches.[8]

Another example concerns the monastery of St Saba. Writing about its location, Saewulf says that:

About three miles to the west of the church of the Holy Cross is a very fine and large monastery[9] in honour of St Sabbas,[10] who was one of the seventy-two disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. There were above three hundred Greek monks living there, in the service of the Lord and of the Saint, of whom the greater part have been slain by the Saracens, and the few who remain have taken up their abode in another[11] monastery of the same Saint, within the walls of the city, near the tower of David, their other monastery being left entirely desolate.[12]

Mar Saba, the Holy Laura of St Sabbas the Sanctified, is actually in the West Bank, that is, in the opposite direction. Saewulf’s inversion of east and west could of course be accidental, the result of sloppiness or – worse – a cultivated lack of interest. However, throughout his account he endeavours to be reliable and accurate, especially where it concerns topographical detail, so such a series of mistakes would be uncharacteristic of Saewulf’s style. Furthermore, the pattern that emerges is not one of random mistakes, but of an inversion of the cardinal directions. East does not become north or south; the confusion is always an inversion. Even his phrasing of the location of Bethlehem six miles to the south of Jerusalem is sufficiently unclear to have made Thomas Wright translate the sentence by assigning to Bethlehem a northern direction.

Given this pattern, I would like to propose the possibility – offered here with all due caution – that Saewulf may have seen a map of the region with a southern orientation. I understand that this is a speculation, and I do not wish to estimate its probability here. We could of course point out that since the T-O world maps common in Latin Christendom were oriented toward the east, Saewulf would have needed to see a map with a western orientation in order to be diametrically confused, as it were. But T-O mappae mundi were either skeletal when they travelled in books – usually in copies of Isidore’s Etymologies – or they were enormous presentation objects displayed in selected cathedrals – in any case, they were not meant for travel, much less for travellers. Mediterranean and coastal travel relied on portolan charts, maps of ports and coastal landmarks to enable cabotage. Such maps were virtually exclusively oriented toward the north. Saewulf’s long and arduous voyage across the northern Mediterranean and Greece is detailed – so much so that it is usually considered to be the highlight of this entire account; aboard multiple vessels, Saewulf would have been able to view and study such maps. On arriving in Palestine, he had therefore the same geographical orientation as we do now – expecting a northern-oriented map. Seeing the opposite – a southern-orientation map – would explain his inversion of the cardinal directions.

As many of you will know, the majority of Islamic maps of the world – especially those following the Balkhi school, recently re-named the KMMS model by Karen Pinto[13] – are oriented toward the south [examples of such maps can be found here: Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, prepared for Roger II of Sicily only fifty years of Saewulf’s text, is also oriented toward the south:

The Tabula Rogeriana, drawn by al-Idrisi for Roger II of Sicily in 1154. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The Tabula Rogeriana, drawn by al-Idrisi for Roger II of Sicily in 1154. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

No satisfactory explanation has been found for this phenomenon, though the most likely reason lies in pre-Islamic Arabic tradition, perhaps reinforced after the conversion to Islam by the location of Mecca and Medina in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. As with Latin T-O or Beatus maps, it is not likely that Saewulf would have seen such learned books. Furthermore, KMMS-type maps share their macro-level zoom with T-O maps, and save for continents, some countries, and select cities, there is hardly anything of topographical relevance or use for Saewulf. However, more applicable and relevant were maps of the Levant and the Arabian peninsula, often designed for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. These maps were of the simplest kind, essentially not much more than itineraries superimposed on a rough geometrical shape. They were, however, oriented to the south. [I am specifically thinking here of the maps reproduced on pp. 118 and 124 in Gerald R. Tibbetts, ‘The Balkhi School of Geographers,’ in J.B. Harley and David Woodward, eds., History of Cartography, vol. II, Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), pp. 108—36 – viewable here:

We know that knowledge of Arabic was more widespread throughout the Crusader kingdom than was once assumed, and although the early Kingdom of Jerusalem was not a Cordoba or a Naples, there was nevertheless pragmatic exchange, and there were certainly Arabic-Latin translators (even the grossly exaggerated Middle English romance Richard Coer-de-Lyon has ships with translators – Latiners – on board). Simple itineraries or regional maps must have been valuable, and in the first months after the conquest of Jerusalem such maps, either drawn in Arabic or in Arabic and Latin, may have provided a useful tool for a pilgrim such as Saewulf.


[1] Saewulf’s routes are discussed in John H. Pryor, ‘The Voyages of Saewulf’, in Peregrinationes Tres: Saewulf, Iohannes Wirziburgensis, Theodericus, ed. R. B. Huygens, CETEDOC (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1995), 33–57.

[2] For a description of the manuscript, see M. R. James, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 1, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), 236–47.

[3] Peter Damian-Grint, ‘Sæwulf (fl. 1102–1103)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). []

[4] Thomas Wright, ed., Early Travels in Palestine (London: Bohn, 1848).

[5] Peregrinationes Tres: Saewulf, Iohannes Wirziburgensis, Theodericus, ed. R. B. Huygens, CETEDOC (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1995).

[6] The established view on Saewulf’s use of guidebooks is best captured in Margaret Elizabeth Garnett’s remarkable BA dissertation, ‘“The Longed-for Place’: Saewulf and Twelfth-Century Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’ (BA thesis, College of William and Mary, 2000).

[7] These texts, together with Saewulf’s account, are available in modern translations issued by the Hakluyt Society: John Wilkinson, Joyce Hill, and W. F. Ryan, Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099-1185 (Hakluyt Society, 1988).

[8] From Bale and Sobecki, ed., Medieval English Travel: An Anthology, forthcoming.

[9] monastery: Mar Saba, the Holy Laura of St Sabbas the Sanctified, is in the West Bank. Saewulf confuses east with west here.

[10] St Sabbas: St Sabbas the Sanctified (d. 532), Cappadocian-Syrian monk. Saewulf appears to be thinking of Cephas of Iconium, one of Christ’s seventy or seventy-two disciples.

[11] another … Saint: the metochion or branch of Mar Saba was indeed near the Tower of David (personal communication from Andrew Jotischky).

[12] From Bale and Sobecki, ed., Medieval English Travel: An Anthology, forthcoming.

[13] Karen C. Pinto, Medieval Islamic Maps: An Exploration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

A Rabid Pilgrimage

Professor Kathryn Rudy
Professor Kathryn Rudy

Blog-post author Professor Kathryn Rudy, University of St Andrews UK. @katerudy1


In Bruges in 1463 the court scribe David Aubert wrote a copy of Hubert le Prevost’s Vie de St. Hubert for Philip the Good (d. 1467), Duke of Burgundy (The Hague, KB, 76 F 10). It stayed in the ducal Library until the 17th century. Next to Aubert’s distinctive and controlled batârde handwriting are 13 miniatures executed by the court illuminator Loyset Liédet, who largely invented the pictorial programme for this previously unillustrated text. While the first of these depicts the famous hunting scene, in which St Hubert saw the crucifix between the antlers of a stag, the rest concentrates on his miracles, both during his life and after his death.

One of his early miracles involved St. Lambert: Hubert had the saint’s coffin exhumed and he translated Lambert’s relics to Liège. Thereafter, Hubert cured the murderers of St. Lambert of their madness (fig. 76 F 10, fol. 25v; fig. 1).

Figure 1.The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms. 76 F 10, fol. 25v [Source:, 2017]
Figure 1.The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms. 76 F 10, fol. 25v [Source:, 2017]
In the image, a pair of guards forcibly accompanies one of the murderers to an altar. Wearing a tight green jacket over a mottled pink tunic, the murderer also wears a curious white bandage on his head. A second murderer, wearing red, also approaches the altar with a similar bandage. The column in the centre of the composition divides it temporally, so that in the second moment of this scene, the possessed man kneels before the bishop Hubert, who makes a blessing gesture over the cured man. Meanwhile, the man has ceased struggling, and now holds the bandage between his clasped hands.

Clearly a ritual involving the bandage has taken place, but what kind of ritual? Ghent University Library, Res 1074 sheds light on what is happening in the miniature. This item is a folder containing one item: a printed page concerning the cult of St. Hubert, dated 1516 (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Res. 1074 [Source: Kathryn Rudy, 2017]
Figure 2. Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Res. 1074 [Source: Kathryn Rudy, 2017]
A woodcut at the top shows St Hubert at his moment of conversion, with the stag in the forest. The text below does not describe his vita, but rather instructs victims of ‘madness’ to undertake a course of therapy. The single-sheet self-help guide specifies: [1]

Anyone who is cut and has received the holy stole of St Hubert shall confess his sins and go to Our Dear Lord for nine days. He shall sleep alone.
Item, he
-shall only sleep in fresh linens or clothed.
-may drink white or red wine mixed with water, or pure water.
-may eat white bread or brown bread
-pork of a pig that is a year old
– capon or hen that is more than a year old.
– herring and all fish with scales, he may eat, and hardboiled eggs.
– He may eat all of these foods cold but not hot.
– He must drink alone, and he must hold his head upright when he drinks.
– he shall not comb his hair for nine days.
– if the person is attacked again by a rabid beast, he shall continue this abstention for three extra days, without coming back here.
– on the tenth day he shall have a priest take off his bandage and have it burned in the waterbowl [an object used to cleanse sacred objects for mass].
– he shall celebrate the feast day of the great lord St Hubert in eternity.

The Third of November, 1516

The reason he couldn’t comb his hair for nine days was that he had a bandage on his head, the bandage that apparently covered the wound made when he was ‘cut’. In other words, an incision was made in his head to increase the penetration of stole of St Hubert. This ‘stole’ was probably a contact relic that had touched the shrine of St Hubert. It was formed of a length of cloth so that could simultaneously serve as a bandage and a contact relic. As this text makes plain, people understood that mad dogs carried a horrific disease.

According to his vita, St Hubert cured St Lambert’s murderers, who suffered from ‘madness’. This story must have been conflated with stories of St Hubert curing people of rabies, which was a disease that also resulted in ‘madness’. Hubert’s jurisdiction over rabid dogs stemmed from his vita, since he called back his hounds from killing the hind at the moment when Hubert witnessed the crucifix between his quarry’s antlers.

If the patient were to be bitten again during the nine-day treatment period, he should continue the treatment ‘without coming back here’. This language suggest that broadsheets like this one were dispensed at the shrine of St Hubert, where patients suffering from rabies could be ‘cut’, then receive this sheet of dietary instructions, and return on the tenth day to have the bandage—which was both a relic and a piece of medical waste—removed and ceremonially burned.


  1. Soe wat persone die ghesneden es vander heylegher stolen van sinte Hubrecht sal hem biechten ende tonsen heere ghaen ix daghe lanc, zal alleene slapen. Item, in verssche laken oft al ghecleet. mach drincken witten oft roen wijn gheminghet met watere oft puer watere. mach eten wit broot ende bruyn broot. verckens vleechs van eenen berghe op dat een jaer out es. Item, van eenen capoene of van eende hinnen meer dan i jaer out. Item, harinck ende alle visschen die scellen hebben mach hij eten ende herde eyeren. Alle deser spijsen die mach hij eten cout ende anders nyet hij moet drincken allene. Hi moet recht houden sijn hoeft als hy drinct. Item hi en sal sijn hoeft niet kammen in xl daghen. Item, wordt die persoen noch eens ghequest van eender rasender beesten, hi sal dese abstinencie doen noch iij daghe lanc sonder hier weeder te comen. Item, den x sten dach sal hi den bant of doen doen van eenen priestere ende doen bernen in een piscine. Item, hi sal vieren eewelic den dach des groten heere sinte Hubrecht. Den derden dach in novembre Anno domini xv[c] xvj.


A World of Knowledge

Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp
Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp

Blog-post author, Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp, BE


A couple of months ago, I decided to take a spontaneous trip to Prague. At my host’s charming turn-of-the-century apartment, I found a Dutch guidebook containing historical background information on the city, which I soon found myself reading in the comfort of a rocking chair beside the piano. While visiting the city, I had no use for the guidebook: I like to discover for myself. It dawned on me that I have much in common with the two travellers who have accompanied me on the journey of my Ph.D. research. They, too, wished “to see with their own eyes what they had heard and had read in several books,” as we can read in their travel report (c. 1490). They were the Flemish nobleman Joos van Ghistele (†1516), and his chaplain, Jan Quisthout († 1489). Together, they travelled the Middle East for four years (1481-5).

Like me, they had left in a flurry. Once they reached Cologne, Joos sent his chaplain back to Flanders to fetch three more travel companions who had already agreed to join them. While waiting for his travel companions to arrive in Cologne, Joos visited the cathedral, where he found “a little book with the Legend of the Three Kings”. The ‘little book’ was most likely the Historia Trium Regum (ca. 1364-1375) by the German Carmelite monk John of Hildesheim (†1375). The Latin text circulated widely, having just appeared in print in Cologne in 1477 and 1478. The Three Kings were the first pilgrims, following the star of Bethlehem to visit the Infant Jesus. In the Historia, we read that each of the Three Kings ruled over one of the three Indias: Melchior over Nubia and Arabia; Balthasar over Godolia and Saba; and Caspar over Tharsis and Egrissula, the island where St. Thomas was buried. [1] {2]

In this book, Joos read about the legendary Land of Prester John, a priest-king ruling a Christian empire in Abyssinia (Ethiopia), otherwise Islamic territory. This inspired him to visit the Land of Prester John and the tomb of St Thomas. According to the legend, after Christ’s Ascension, the apostle Thomas travelled to India, where he baptised the Three Kings, and later enthroned them as archbishops. As none of the Three Kings would have any offspring, they created a post for a worldly ruler, the holder of which would take the name John, in honour of both John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. This ruler would not be called a king or an emperor, but a priest: Prester John. Each successor to St. Thomas, the spiritual leader, would assume the name of the patriarch Thomas.[3]  Despite considerable efforts, the travellers never reached the land of Prester John. Still, it is due to this ambition that their voyage lasted four years and took them to the far north of Iran and the far south of the Red Sea.[4]

Besides a chaplain, Joos’ travel companion Jan was also a playwright: he would have been the ideal author of the journey’s report. But, he was not to be. Given that Jan passed away in 1489, we can assume that he fell ill shortly after their return and was unable to write the account. The actual author, who introduces himself in the preface of the travelogue, was called Ambrosius Zeebout. Integrating information from a large assortment of learned texts, Zeebout created from Joos’ testimony and Jan’s travel notes an exceptional Dutch text: a 400-page long behemoth that is praised for its extraordinary wealth of information, its detailed character, and its sense of criticism.

It is easy to tell from its size that it was not a take-along guidebook like the one I read in Prague. In fact, contrary to the average guidebook, which offers only some background knowledge and mainly practical guidelines, Zeebout’s text contains mostly general information and only very little travel advice. Just a brief first chapter of seven pages told prospective travellers of the preparations they needed to make. This was followed by a thirty-eight-page exposition on Islam, Eastern Christianity, and Judaism. The bulk of the text is made up of the description of and historical background of the visited areas, strung together by the route the travellers followed. Joos and Jan remain anonymous. Joos’ identity was only revealed in 1557, when his granddaughter handed the original copy of the text to Hendrik Van den Keere, who published it in print. The printer highlighted the traveller’s status, contrary to the manuscripts, which relied on the text’s stylistic features to attain credibility. In my Ph.D. research, I have identified these textual features as used by Zeebout and compared them to three other prominent contemporary travel accounts: those of Anselm Adorno, Bernhard von Breydenbach, and Felix Fabri.[5]

The treatment of the text in the oldest known manuscript – not the original – testifies to its use as a source of information: in the margin of the text, one of its readers wrote the words “cinnamon tree” and “where the storks go in winter”, making the places where these subjects were treated easier to find.

Whereas in the manuscripts with the text, these indexes were highly occasional (they can be found only in one known manuscript, and only twice), the presentation of the text when it was printed took this type of use a couple of steps further. In the first edition, in 1557, an index of the cited authors made the text even more searchable.

Image 5: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1557 edition, by Hendrik Van den Keere, Antwerp, 5r. Brussels, Royal Library, 25.994 A.
Image 5: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1557 edition, by Hendrik Van den Keere, Antwerp, 5r. Brussels, Royal Library, 25.994 A.

In the 1572 edition an index of topics was added, turning the book into a full-blown encyclopaedia. [6] The function of Zeebout’s book had everything to do with the way in which I had read that Prague guidebook: not to guide my travels, but instead to explore a world of knowledge.

Image 6: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1572 edition, by the widow of Gheeraert Van Salenson, Ghent, 11v-12r.
Image 6: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1572 edition, by the widow of Gheeraert Van Salenson, Ghent, 11v-12r.


  1. E. Christern (ed.), John of Hildesheim, Die Legende von den Heiligen Drei Königen. Cologne, 1960, 159.
  2. C. Horstmann (ed.), John of Hildesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne. An Early English Translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”. London, 1886, xiii and 225-7
  3. U. Knefelkamp, ‘Pape Jan, tussen Geschiedenis en Fantasie’, in: D. De Boer, Kennis op Kamelen. Europa en de buiten-Europese wereld (1150-1350), Amsterdam, 1998, 124-32 : 137.
  4. Renaat Gaspar (ed.), Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele. Verloren, Hilversum, 1998.
  5. Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele1557, Ghent, Hendrik Van den Keere.
  6. Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele. 1572, Ghent, by the widow of Gheeraert van Salenson; printed in Antwerp by Aegidius vanden Rade.

Travel Sickness

Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen.
Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen.

Blog-post author, Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen, NL.



Finding relief of sickness can be a compelling motivation for undertaking a pilgrimage. Millions of Catholics find their way to healing waters of Lourdes each year, while Sufi Muslims visit dargahs in hopes that they will be cured of mental afflictions. In twelfth- and thirteenth-century Britain, pilgrims would drink to their health with the diluted ‘blood’ of St Thomas Becket, which could be bought in a vial at his shrine in Canterbury. 

Image 1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Physician on his way to Canterbury, from the Ellesmere Manuscript [Source:]
Image 1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Physician on his way to Canterbury, from the Ellesmere Manuscript [Source:]
Yet, on the other side of the same coin, a pilgrimage could also take a serious toll on one’s physical constitution. Whereas inland trips to nearby shrines and sanctuaries were relatively safe, the danger of contracting a serious illness on a long-distance pilgrimage was all too real. In his 1565 travelogue, Adriaen de Vlaming describes how one of his companions died in Bethlehem and notes that “many more, who were also ill, should have stayed at home”.[1] Arent Willems, in 1525, mourns the loss of two fellow pilgrims, who died shortly upon arrival in Jaffa without ever setting a foot ashore.[2] Recent archaeological findings, moreover, suggest that a medieval English pilgrim contracted a foreign strain of leprosy in the Holy Land and died of the complications back at home.

Medieval people were certainly concerned with their own health and wellbeing, as the abundance of medical recipes in household manuscripts attests. It thus seems likely that pilgrims would take medical precautions to reduce the risks of falling ill en route to Jerusalem. However, we know little about the possibility that pilgrims took medical texts with them or whether medical information was brought back from the East. A recipe for a “drink of Antioch”, which can be found in several medieval manuscripts, might either be a relic of the crusades or a feigned remedy that invokes the authority of Eastern medicine. Moreover, as Anthony Bale explains in this recent blog post about a medical miscellany containing a pilgrimage itinerary, it is near impossible to ascertain whether its owner actually travelled to the Holy Land.

Image 2. A medieval pharmacy depicted in the Tacuinum sanitatis, an illustrated herbal based on the "Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah" of Ibn Butlan. [Source:]
Image 2. A medieval pharmacy depicted in the Tacuinum sanitatis, an illustrated herbal based on the “Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah” of Ibn Butlan. [Source:]
Several pilgrimage accounts do offer some insight into health and safety precautions that were taken before going east. William Wey (1456), for example, suggests purchasing medications and a chamber pot in Venice in case one would become too sick to climb to the upper galley of the ship. A contemporary account, now at the Wellcome Library (MS 8004), lists good resting places, spas, and churches with healing relics that can be visited along the way. Joos van Ghistele (1481-1485) is adamant that pilgrims must pack purgatives and dried rhubarb root before going on board, and restock their medical kit at foreign markets. Venice was the best place for this: Jan Aerts (1481) advises to buy medicinal spices and laxatives there, as well as a panacaea made from diluted violet syrup. In his 1520 account, Geert Kuynretorff urges his reader to visit a professional physician before leaving the Venetian harbour. The pilgrim must ask this doctor to prescribe medication against fever, diarrhoea, and indigestion, and Kuynretorff provides a number of recipes that can be taken to the apothecary.[3]

Some high-profile travellers did not wish to take any chances and had their personal medics write instructions for them. King Philip VI of France, for instance, ordered a health regimen that was particularly tailored to him visiting the Holy Land as a ‘senior’ man (aged forty-two) in 1335. The Italian physician and inventor Guido da Vigevano, who is perhaps best known for designing the first prototype of the automobile, compiled the work which now known as the Liber conservationis sanitatis senis. The first half of the Liber follows the ancient doctrine of dietetics and concerns finding the right balance between food and drink, sleep and wakefulness, motion and rest, replenishing and emptying. The second half of Vigevano’s tract describes the influence of the air, accidents or ‘moods’ of the soul, prevention of afflictions of the eyes, ears, teeth, and memory. Lastly, Da Vigevano addresses the harmful liquids and food that are to be avoided during travel. Despite this well-researched medical advice, no records attest that the king ever made the journey. The tract survives in two manuscripts. The first, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 11015 contains another of Vigevano’s works about warfare in Outremer and can thus be placed in a crusader context.[4] The second, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1251, is a collection of medical writings and includes other gerontological works, suggesting that the compiler was mainly interested in medicine. It is thus unclear whether Da Vigevano’s tract was ever read in preparation for an actual pilgrimage.

Image 3. 'A snake attack'. British Library, Harley MS 3244, f.59v [Source:]
Image 3. ‘A snake attack’. British Library, Harley MS 3244, f.59v [Source:]
Another medical tract that was likewise made at the behest of a rich patron is Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s treatise for the pilgrimage to Mecca, written for a secretary of the caliph. Like Da Vigevano’s regimen, this treatise is informed by the works of Galen, Avicenna, and Hippocrates, but it also contains advice that is specific to the Middle-Eastern climate, fauna, and landscape. Ibn-Lūqā (820-912), a Christian scholar from Baalbek, pays particular attention to the sourcing of water, improving the quality of contaminated water, and quenching one’s thirst in the absence of drinking water. Furthermore, the scholar discusses the prevention of parasites such as roundworms, a prophylactic against snakes, and the treatment of snakebites and the stings of other vermin. Moreover, he writes about curing eye- and earaches caused by fluctuating temperatures and the dusty desert wind. Most of these ailments can be prevented by a turban, if worn correctly. Yet, in case one suffers from earache caused by the heat, dripping one of various substances into the ear will prove effective: lukewarm egg-white or lamb-gall mixed with rose oil, for instance, or olive oil in which earthworms or molluscs in their shells have been cooked (though honey and almond-oil will work equally well). One chapter from Ibn-Lūqā’s regimen will have sounded more appealing to pilgrims regardless of their destination: different kinds of foot massage (except hard rubbing, which is only good for thick-skinned or idle people who have eaten too much) he argues, are “useful for someone who has been walking much or standing still frequently”.[5]


[1] Ben Wasser, Dit is de pelgrimage van het Heilig Land en daaromtrent, (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014), 112.

[2] Wasser, 62.

[3] Wasser, 45.

[4] Marilyn Nicoud, Les Régimes de Santé au Moyen Âge: Naissance et Diffusion d’une Écriture (Rome: Publications de l’École Française de Rome, 2007), 226.

[5] Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca, ed. And trans. Gerrit Bos (Brill: Leiden, 1992), 39.

Whose words?

Dr Mary Boyle
Dr Mary Boyle

Blog-post author: Dr Mary Boyle, Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow, Maynooth University IE


The co-opting, or re-presenting, of other pilgrimage or travel texts is an integral aspect of pilgrimage writing. This doesn’t mean that pilgrim writings are simply generic – in fact this essential repetition could be seen as getting to the heart of the practice by re-personalising the words of another. The words have become part of the new account, while the repetition itself is crucial in validating the experience. Conformity denotes authenticity. With the advent of print in the second half of the fifteenth century, it was easier and faster than ever to ensure this conformity. One chain, or web, of pilgrimage accounts, stretching at least from Nuremberg to Norfolk, via Mainz, Cologne, Koblenz, and Kent, and covering German, Latin, and English, illustrates the opportunities offered in this area by the new technology.

Image 1. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the pilgrimage account of Bernhard von Breydenbach (f.28v). Source: Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Image 1. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the pilgrimage account of Bernhard von Breydenbach (f.28v). Source: Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The key printed accounts are Hans Tucher’s Reise ins Gelobte Land, Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, and the Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde. Associated manuscript accounts include Peter Fassbender (or Fasbender)’s Betuartt nahe dem heiligen Grabe zu Jerusalem and the Pylgrymage of Syr Rychard Torkyngton (usually now spelt ‘Torkington’), as well as the Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harff. The connection between most of these accounts comes as no surprise, but it’s nonetheless worth looking at and considering what it means for these men’s written experience of pilgrimage, and how that was affected by print. These accounts span the period 1479-1517, and the sections which made it all through this chain belong to the heart of the pilgrimage: the holy places.

Hans Tucher (1428-91) was in the vanguard of German published pilgrims. He travelled from Nuremberg in 1479 with Sebald Rieter (1426–1488). Rieter also produced an account which is in places so similar to Tucher’s that it’s not clear which sections originated with which man, although it’s probably safe to assume that the Rieter family’s accounts of previous pilgrimages were consulted. Rieter’s account, however, wasn’t printed until the nineteenth century, whereas in 1482, Tucher’s appeared from the press of Johann Schönsperger in Augsburg. Over the next two years it was reprinted several times.

Bernhard von Breydenbach (c. 1440-1497) needs little introduction. A canon of Mainz Cathedral, he departed on pilgrimage in 1482. Publication must have been in his mind from the start, for he took an artist with him to Jerusalem. It took around three years for Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, which he misleadingly described as a ‘bůchlyn’ (little book), to reach the press. This work drew on a large number of other texts, of which Tucher’s was only one. In 1486 it appeared in Latin (February), and then in German (June). It wasn’t long before it had been translated into Flemish, French, and Spanish as well.

Only part of Peregrinatio made it into English (from Latin), and it didn’t do so attached to Breydenbach’s name, but as part of the Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde, which was printed in 1511, four years after the pilgrims’ return. Guylforde himself, though, had died shortly after arrival in the Holy Land. Until 2013, the identity of this account’s anonymous author was unknown, but he has now been identified by Rob Lutton as Thomas Larke, the man whose book on Jerusalem was recommended by Robert Langton, when his pilgrimage ‘to saynt James in Compostell and in other holy places of Crystendome’ was printed in 1522.

By virtue of being printed, these texts were widely distributed and able to influence other accounts in turn – we will probably never know how many. I’d like to outline some examples of manuscript accounts which borrowed from this tradition on the way.

Firstly we have an offshoot midway through the chain: Peter Fassbender (c. 1450-1518), a Jerusalem pilgrim from Koblenz in the Rhineland. When he returned, Fassbender produced an account of his 1492 pilgrimage, which survives in only one manuscript. This certainly draws on Bernhard von Breydenbach, and perhaps also on Hans Tucher.

At the English end of the line, we have Richard Torkington, a priest from Norfolk, who wrote a manuscript account of his pilgrimage in 1517. This work is heavily indebted to Larke’s, and wasn’t printed until 1884, when it managed to obtain the title Ye Oldest Diarie of Englysshe Travell.

I’d also like to point to the knight Arnold von Harff (c.1471-1505), a knight from near Cologne, because his use of Breydenbach is quite different from Fassbender’s, Larke’s, or Torkington’s. He took little from the descriptions of holy sites, but he drew inspiration from Breydenbach’s images and alphabets, as well as some text. Harff’s account circulated after 1499, along with a set of illustrations, amongst the Rhineland nobility, and fifteen manuscripts survived into the modern era. He called on many previous travel reports and other sources in addition to Breydenbach, amongst them John Mandeville (probably in Michael Velser’s translation), Marco Polo, and Odoric of Pordenone.

With each step, changes in the copied sections were introduced. These could be omissions or additions, and some of these changes are simply the result of switching languages or dialects. On several occasions, the chain passed back out of print, but print was key to its spread. Breydenbach, for example, drew on the manuscript of Paul Walther von Guglingen, a fellow traveller, when describing the non-Christian inhabitants of the Holy Land, but for the visits to the holy places themselves, he chose Tucher’s published work rather than the manuscript account of his acquaintance – it mattered that he was conforming to an image already widely distributed.

Print, of course, was by no means the only reason for the conformity of pilgrim writing. What it did was make that conformity quicker and easier to spread, and easier to present to a wide audience. The works circulating in Europe upheld and broadcast the experience of the Franciscan package deal in Jerusalem.

A Pilgrim’s Book in Acre: John of Joinville and the Credo

Dr Laura Morreale
Dr Laura Morreale

Blog-post author, Dr Laura Morreale
Fordham University



It was the year 1250 and John of Joinville — who in his golden years would write the monumental Life of St. Louis—was sick. In 1248, a young John had joined Louis IX of France in Cyprus during the first of the King’s ill-fated crusades to the Holy Land, a trip that John later characterized in his writings as a pilgrimage, and in which he regularly identified himself as a pilgrim.[1] 

Joinville presents his writings to King Louis X. Source: BNF Fr. 13568, f. 1r.
Joinville presents his writings to King Louis X. Source: BNF Fr. 13568, f. 1r.

By 1250, however, it was clear that the campaign was not going well. The French troops, who had successfully invaded Egypt in June of 1249, were compelled to retreat from their advanced positions on one of the Nile tributaries early in April of 1250, and Louis, John, and their noble companions were captured by enemy forces on the fifth of that same month. The royal entourage was held prisoner in Egypt for several weeks, then finally ransomed on May 6, 1250. Once released, they journeyed to the port city of Acre and arrived, exhausted, a week later. At this point the French King and his troops reassessed whether to remain in Palestine and resume their efforts, or abandon their cause in the Holy Land and return to France without delay. John counselled Louis to stay, and it was this advice that the King ultimately heeded. Following this decision, Louis, John, and a sizable French contingent remained in residence in Acre until 1254.

From his own reports, however, John was not just ill upon his arrival in Acre in 1250; he feared he was near death. He was so weak he could no longer dine with the King, who had repeatedly requested his presence during mealtimes. John was instead compelled to convalesce at the nearby parish church of St. Michael, where he lodged at the church priests’ house, located between the Hospitaller palace and the northern wall of Acre’s old city.[2]

The City of Acre in the Thirteenth Century. Source: British Library, Add MS 27376, f. 190 r
The City of Acre in the Thirteenth Century. Source: British Library, Add MS 27376, f. 190 r

Perhaps in response to his frail condition, or because he could hear a steady stream of final blessings pronounced over the Christian dead coming from the chamber adjacent to his own sickroom, Joinville created a devotional work based on the tenets of the Apostles Creed, now generally known as his Credo.[3] This highly interactive book, created between August of 1250 and April of 1251, was replete with images, scriptural passages, and personal recollections designed to draw Joinville’s reader-listener into a full articulation of each article of the Christian faith. [4]

The work Joinville created was no simple undertaking. The Credo featured a point-by-point presentation of words and images crafted to work together to reinforce each successive tenet of the Creed. The integrated program served as a kind of backstop of faith that Christians would consume both aurally and visually at their hour of death.[5]  Joinville himself notes that he designed the Credo to be read aloud to the Christian faithful, “so that in the final moments, when temptation to sin was at its greatest, Christian believers might fill their eyes and ears with the tenets of the faith and thereby be saved.”[6]

Image from Facsimile edition the Credo. Source: BNF Nouv. Acq. Fr. 4509
Image from Facsimile edition the Credo. Source: BNF Nouv. Acq. Fr. 4509

Through the Credo’s words and images, reader-listeners were drawn into a physical, sensory, and spiritual engagement with each article of his faith. The author indicated repeatedly that the book’s consumers would see (verrés) each of the elements of the faith depicted in accompanying images, and hear the scriptures that elucidated the meaning of each point read aloud. He mentions, among many others, “The prophesy of deeds on the cross, that is Isaac, that you will see hereafter illustrated,”[7] or “The prophesy of the works of he who was placed in the tomb, that is concerning Jonas, that you see illustrated here.”[8]

Although he does not explain why the hour of death was the moment when a Christian’s faith might be severely tested, Joinville did place the Credo within the arc of his own personal experience, narrating events that had occurred during his imprisonment in Egypt just a few months before. Joinville recounts that

In reference to His [Christ’s] resurrection I will tell you what I heard of in prison the Sunday after we had been captured … We heard a great number of people cry out. We asked what it was, and they told us that it was our people whom they had placed in a large field, encircled with an earthen wall: those who did not want to renounce [their faith], they killed, those who did renounce, they left alone. [9]

After this alarming scene, Joinville explains that he and his fellow prisoners also feared for their lives shortly thereafter, when negotiations with their captors had come to an impasse and several young Saracens crowded into their quarters, heavily armed. Thankfully, he reports, they were delivered from harm by an elderly man who entered the tent shortly thereafter, assuring Joinville and his fellow prisoners that they would be saved if they remained steadfast in their faith. It is in this passage particularly that we see how Joinville’s Credo can, in some ways, be understood as a pilgrim’s book, and his trip to the East, a journey of faith.

While it is remarkable to hear of Joinville’s own struggles, to see his attention to the needs of his fellow Christians pilgrims and his acknowledgement that death was a real possibility during such a journey, it is also striking to consider the material realities that would have been required to create a work like the Credo in thirteenth-century Acre. Although we no longer have Joinville’s autograph from the 1250s, three manuscripts of the Credo remain, one which was created in Acre in the 1280s, thereby attesting to the continued presence and impact of the work in the East.  But even without the author’s own copy, the Credo’s text, required images, and stated format reveal how Joinville imagined his book would be fabricated and consumed in the context of the Latin Christian community of Acre.

Joinville assumed he would have access to the materials, skilled scribes, painters, and illuminators to transform his words and the images that accompanied them from the vision in his own mind into an actual, physical book. He also anticipated an audience of fellow believers who would receive and use his book according to his design. This was clearly not an outlandish presumption, as Louis IX also commissioned at least one costly book during his time in Acre, a translation of the New Testament into Old French, now known as the Acre Bible.

Image from the “Acre Bible,” Source: BNF Nouv. Acq. Fr. 1404 f. 56r
Image from the “Acre Bible,” Source: BNF Nouv. Acq. Fr. 1404 f. 56r

The fabrication of both the Credo and the Acre Bible would have required skilled interpreters or writers of French as well as artists, illuminators and sources for parchment and the other material needs of book production.  All of these resources were clearly available at this time in Acre, and formed part of the local pilgrim economy, even if the pilgrims who commissioned these works were of exceptionally high status.

The story of the Credo does not end in Acre in 1251, however. John eventually regained his health, and remained in the East with the King until his departure in 1254. Back in France in 1287, Joinville returned once again to his Credo, this time appending to his original text a prologue that explained how and why the work was first produced. [10] Thus the Credo is precious evidence not only of the creation of pilgrim’s book in Acre, but also of the memories of that same pilgrim, returned safely to France, who looked back on his writing and on the book he had commissioned in the East some thirty years earlier.

Thanks to Jamie Doherty and Caroline Paul for their help with the Credo.


  • [1] Caroline Smith, Crusading in the Age of Joinville (2006), 114-15.
  • [2] Denys Pringle, Churches of the Crusader Kingdom, Volume 4, (2009), 57.
  • [3] Text and Iconography for Joinville’s Credo, ed. Lionel Friedman (1958).
  • [4] Aden Kumler, Translating Truth (2011), 68.
  • [5] Michael Curschmann, “The performance of Joinville’s Credo,” in Medieval and Early Modern Performance in the Eastern Mediterranean, ed. Arzu Öztürkmen and Evelyn Birge Vitz, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014) 63-76 at 63.
  • [6] Credo, ed. Friedman, 51; Image from Credo du sire de Joinville, ed. and trans. Artaud de Montor (1837),
  • [7] “La profecie de l’evre suer la crois, ce est de Ysaac, qu vous verrés ce après point,” ibid., 35.
  • [8] “La profesie de l’euvre de ce qu’il fu mis ou sepulcher si est de Jonas, que vous veez ci point,” ibid., 37.
  • [9] Ibid., 39-40.
  • [10] Joinville’s prologue explains, “Et je, pour esmovoir les gens a croire ce de quoi il ne se pooient soffrir, fit je premier faire cest euvre en Acre,” Credo, ed. Freidman, 30.

Rome for the Italian Pilgrim: Giuliano Dati’s ‘Stazioni e indulgenze di Roma’

Dr Matthew Coneys
Dr Matthew Coneys

Blog-post author, Dr Matthew Coneys, Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London.


Today’s travellers have access to a wide range of reading material to accompany them on visits to new places. I was reminded of this a few months ago when browsing online for a guidebook ahead of a trip to Rome. Among the well-known brands, my eye was drawn to the Wallpaper* City Guide: a slim volume, full of stylish photographs but rather light on text. The customer reviews were decidedly mixed. One of several consumers to give the guide a single star exclaimed: ‘the maps are useless, the travel information is non-existent and the information on the city is patchy to say the least!’ Many of the more positive reviewers highlighted the fact that the guide looked good on their bookshelf, suggesting that they bought into the philosophy of this ‘design-conscious guide for the discerning traveller’.

Pilgrims travelling to Rome in the late Middle Ages could also choose from an assortment of books to prepare them for and accompany them on their journey. The most popular guide of its day was the Latin Mirabilia Urbis Romae, written in the twelfth century and subsequently translated into most European vernaculars. The original Mirabilia was a largely secular guide to Rome’s monuments and history, but generations of scribes and printers updated it to include lists of the holy sites, as well as the indulgences that could be gained by visiting them. In the fifteenth century, pilgrims from all over Europe also produced their own guides to the city. One such text is the Englishman William Breywn’s Guide to Rome, discussed by Anthony Bale in another post on this blog. There are relatively few examples of these guides written in Italian, a fact that has been connected with the familiarity of Italian pilgrims with the eternal city.[1]

Giuliano Dati, 'Stazioni e indulgenze di Roma' (Rome: Andrea Freitag, 1492-3). The frontispiece depicts Gregory the Great, who formalized the Lenten pilgrimage in the fifth century. Source:
Giuliano Dati, ‘Stazioni e indulgenze di Roma’ (Rome: Andrea Freitag, 1492-3). The frontispiece depicts Gregory the Great, who formalized the Lenten pilgrimage in the fifth century. Source:

One exception to this trend is the Stazioni e indulgenze di Roma (Stations and Indulgences of Rome), written in the early 1490s by Giuliano Dati, a priest at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Printed in Rome as a cheap pamphlet, the Stazioni offers a short guide to the Lenten station pilgrimage, in which pilgrims celebrated mass in a series of different churches over the course of Lent and Easter. Dati’s text is a useful reminder of the extent to which pilgrimage guides differed in this period. Opening with an invocation to the Muse, it is written in flowery ottava rima verse – a metre usually reserved for epic poetry and rarely associated with devotional texts. Somewhat surprisingly given the title of his work, Dati states in the opening stanzas that he will avoid any mention of indulgences so as not to ramble (‘non vorrei nel dire esser prolisso’).

Rather than the practical guide that it appears to be, the Stazioni in fact offers literary portrait of Rome and its churches based around the framework of the Lenten pilgrimage. In addition to hagiographic and historical information, it focusses in great detail on the architectural aesthetics of Rome’s churches. Dati’s interest in this area is attested in several of his later works, including his Aedificatio Romae, a treatise on the city’s architectural history. Although the inclusion of this kind of information in a pilgrimage account is far from unusual, the extent to which it dominates the text is surprising. Dati’s relegation of devotional matter is made particularly clear in his description of St Peter’s Basilica:

And know that, as well as miraculous indulgences,
This church contains many other things;
To tell of them all would make for a long sermon,
And too many words are boring.[1]

How then did the Stazioni’s author intend it to be read? Early in the text Dati declares that he will describe the holy sites in partial detail, leaving the pilgrim to follow the stations in full (‘ch’io narri parte delle cose sancte/poi segue la stazone tutte quante’). Those who purchased the Stazioni in Rome may therefore have read it alongside a more detailed guide, or used it to familiarize themselves with the station churches before embarking on their pilgrimage. Such a conclusion is supported by a comment in the description of Santa Maria Maggiore, where Dati offers a reason for the brevity of his work:

I have many more things to say
But I don’t want to bore my readers
Who will want to finish my work
So they can visit all the stations.[2]

Italian pilgrims may have read Dati’s pamphlet for a general overview of the Lenten pilgrimage, but it is also possible that it enjoyed a second function. Just as today we keep travel guides once we have returned home, lining them up on bookshelves to remind ourselves of our journeys (and others of our wordliness and sophistication), medieval pilgrims kept souvenirs of their experiences. These could be physical objects, such as the traditional pilgrim badges described in George Greenia’s post on this blog; but for many pilgrims the books that had accompanied them on their travels also retained a special value. The Stazioni may well have been written with this kind of afterlife in mind. A brief, accessible and enjoyable read, it serves first and foremost to create an image of Rome in the reader’s mind – one that they could revisit long after their pilgrimage, as Dati hints in the final stanzas of the poem:

When you have seen these things
And you return home
You will still see a church on a hill
Where St Peter was crucified.[3]

Was the Stazioni the Wallpaper* City Guide of its day? The comparison may not be perfect, but there is evidence to suggest that the fifteenth-century guidebook occupied a similar niche within the panoply of late medieval pilgrimage literature. Through further research into Dati’s pilgrim readers, focussing in particular on surviving copies of the Stazioni, I hope to shed further light on how and why this unusual text was read.

A digitized copy of the ‘Stazioni e indulgence di Roma’ can be accessed through the Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC): (search ‘Giuliano Dati’).


[1] ‘E sappi che oltre a mirabil perdoni/in detta chiesa son di molte cose/che tutto dire sarian lungi sermoni/elle molte parole son noiose.’

[2] ‘E di molte altre cose harei da dire/ma non vorei le persone tediare/e vorren ch’ora la mia opra finire/volendo li stazon tutti trovare.’

[3] ‘Quando le dette cose vedut’ai/e che tu torni a casa stara fixo/a mezzo el monte una chiesa vedrai/dove fu Santo Pietro crocefisso.’

[1] Diana Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage, c.700-c.1500 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p.178.

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