Archive | January, 2017

Ego flos campi: on the ‘Flowery Field’ near Bethlehem

29 Jan

A few weeks ago I was privileged to give a keynote lecture at the excellent Gender and Medieval Studies conference at Canterbury Christ Church University. The theme of the conference was on ‘Gender, Places, Spaces, Thresholds’, and I presented a lecture about a space that has long intrigued me from medieval pilgrims’ accounts: the Campus Floridus or ‘Flowery Field’ that numerous later medieval pilgrims mention near Bethlehem.  The story of the Campus Floridus connects gender and space in intriguing ways, and I thought I’d offer a few of my thoughts here, as it is likely to be some time before I can write them up in a more forma way.

That most illustrious but nebulous of medieval pilgrims, Sir John Mandeville (fl. c. 1356), describes the Campus Floridus thus:

Between this church [the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem] and the city [of Bethlehem] is a flowery field, and it’s called Campus floridus or the Flowery Field on account of a beautiful virgin who was wrongly accused of fornication, for which she was sentenced to be burnt in that place. She was led there, and, as the faggots began to burn, she prayed to Our Lord that He would help her make it known to everyone that she was not guilty. When she had said her prayer thus, she entered the flames, and immediately the fire was extinguished. The burning branches became red rose-bushes, and the branches that were not burning became white rose-bushes full of flowers. These were the first roses and rose-bushes that any person ever saw. And so the virgin was saved through the grace of God, and that’s why the field, full of blooming roses, is called Flowery Field [Campus floridus].[1]

It is a remarkable story about gender and space. There are many different interpretative directions we could take from it. As a narrative, it is pithy, succinct, moving swiftly from exemplary injustice – a beautiful virgin wrongly accused – to a miracle of divine intervention in control of the natural world (‘these were the first roses and rose-bushes that any person ever saw’). This is not an eastern world of wonder, but rather a botanical landscape authored by God through his law and his martyrs. The story’s direct source is the Latin Itinerarium of pseudo-Odoric, which was one of Mandeville’s favourite sources, and it appears in Mandeville’s Book during a guided tour of the mainholy sites of Bethlehem, including the Church of the Nativity. It became, therefore, part of the body of knowledge available to western pilgrims travelling the Holy Land, and the site was exported back to the west as a fact of the holy landscape.

Later pilgrims, like Arnold von Harff travelling in 1499 and Thomas Larke, travelling in 1505-6 with Sir Richard Guylforde, mention the site; Larke writes

And bytwene þe Cytie and þe sayd church is þe felde  Floridus, where þe fayre maydon shuld haue ben brent and was saued harmelesse by myracle of fyre chaunged into roses

For Larke, the ‘myracle of fyre chaunged into roses’ has the ring of a well-known narrative, something that Larke is merely summarising because the death of ‘þe fayre maydon’ was well known. Larke, like other pilgrims who mention the Campus Floridus, seems to have actually visited the site: but what do we think he saw there? Are we to believe that he saw an informal cultic shrine, or that he was told the story by his Franciscan guides? Or did he merely know the story from his own reading of Mandeville, whose book we know was one of his major sources.

Pilgrims locate the Campus Floridus between the Church of the Nativity – the preciously holy site of Christ’s birth – and the town of Bethlehem.

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The Shrine of the Nativity at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Palestine), November 2016. Photo: Anthony Bale

That is, the Campus Floridus was probably the square now known as Manger Square, directly outside the entrance to the Church. This picture is taken from near the entrance to the Church and shows Manger Square/Campus Floridus with the old town across the square behind the mosque:

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Manger Square, Bethlehem (Palestine), November 2016. Photo: Anthony Bale.

The Campus Floridus thus filled a gap in religious space, between the Church of the Nativity – precious to western Christians – and the Arab (then largely eastern orthodox Christian) town of Bethlehem nearby. The Campus Floridus thus effectively westernised and sacralised an otherwise fraught and alien zone on the threshold of the Church of the Nativity. That this gap was filled with a story of virginity, female sexuality ,and the iconic image of the rose brings western European Christian religious imagery into this eastern space.

At precisely the same time – from the late thirteenth and through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – not one but two other sites called Campus Floridus existed: one was near Jerusalem and was associated with Elijah’s ascent; the other was in Jerusalem at the Church of St Saviour in Gethsemane. Here, pilgrims record the ‘Campus florum’ as the place where the apostles slept and where Jesus was arrested. Detailed histories of these sites are yet to be written.

Moreover, there were similar sites to the Campus Flordius elsewhere, which, like the Campus, never seem to have had a formal church or monument but were visited by pilgrims. From the second half of the fifteenth century several pilgrims describe a field near Hebron where God was said to have created Adam. The wonderfully loquacious pilgrim Felix Fabri described the medicinal qualities of this earth, that if a pilgrim carried it with him neither he nor his beast would not tire. Thomas Larke said the earth was ‘rede and flexible and toughe as wex’. According to Fabri, the miraculous nature of this field was that it constantly refilled itself with earth, a kind of generative, living landscape. In practice, the pilgrims seem to have been shown a field, without structures like a cross, shrine or church, and their written guides and Franciscan chaperones explicated the place according to a ‘new’ narrative which combines ancient biblical history with a late medieval belief in the efficacy of earth as a place relic.

Another field nearby worked in an opposite direction: rather than being miraculously generative, it was miraculously barren. This field, by the route between Bethlehem and Jerusalem near Rachel’s Tomb, was filled with ‘countless’ stones shaped like sesame or three-cornered peas’ (as described in 1499 by Arnold von Harff). These stones had miraculously been made in the time of Jesus: Jesus is said to have asked a husbandman, then sowing sesame seeds, what he was sowing. The husbandman mocked Jesus’ question by replying that he was sowing stones, and from that time until the pilgrims’ time the field produced nothing but stones. Several later pilgrims – again, from the mid-fifteenth century – report this narrative, some of them possibly conflating with the site of the Campus Floridus. Again, there seems to have been no official shrine or establishment at this field. In the cases both of the field of Adam’s birth and of the field of stones, the landscape of the route was punctuated with unofficial and affecting sites, and the landscape was subjected to an overarching Christian narrative which served to obviate present inhabitants and rival religious traditions.

These fields ask us engaging questions about where pilgrims thought they were going and what they thought they were seeing. They are also hermeneutic fields, ripe for interpretation, showing us how “nature” is an ideological mechanism for the fraught process of building of religious, gendered, and spatial identities. In the Campus Floridus at Bethlehem, nature is, like gender and sexuality, a construction, a fantastical narrative invention, rather than an inherent truth that was pre-existing or had an independent quiddity.

The rose was a symbol of both the Virgin Mary and of Christ; i united the white of purity and chastity with the red of blood and martyrdom. In medieval poetry, Christ was described as the flower of God, and as flos florum, the flower of flowers. The Campus Floridus seems to me to have literalised such floral imagery, as well as strikingly flower imagery of The Song of Songs. The second chapter of this hugely widely-quoted biblical text begins with the famous line ‘Ego flos campi’, ‘I am the flower of the field’. The ‘flower of the field’ was generally understood to be a rose. These lines were interpreted as Christ professing himself to be the flower of mankind, declaring the excellence of his spouse above other churches or societies, who are like thorns. ‘Stay me up with flowers, compass me about with apples: because I languish with love’ (Song of Songs 2:5) is a frequently cited line in devotional lyric poetry. This is the rose that, in the King James version, would become the Rose of Sharon (translating the Hebrew, ‘חבצלת השרון’, Havatselet Ha’Sharon), itself a citation of Isiah 35:1, ‘the desert shall bloom like a rose.’ The Campus Floridus at Bethlehem made these sentiments into a physical space, one that would have been much more familiar to the western European pilgrims than the Mameluk town of Bethlehem to which they had travelled.

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Domenico di Bartolo, Madonna and Child with Trellis of Red and Whites Roses, 1437. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph: Anthony Bale, January 2017.


[1] translation from Sir John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels, ed. and trans. Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 37-8

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