Tag Archives: Broquiere

A spy in Palestine? Bertrandon de la Broquière’s perspective.

19 Mar

In 1432, the Burgundian nobleman Bertrandon de la Broquière (d. 1459) travelled from Ghent to Palestine. He had been sent to the Holy Land by Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (d. 1467), who was interested in launching a new crusade. Broquiere travelled in two disguises: first as a pilgrim and then, in Palestine, he dressed in ‘Turkish’ garb and learned the rudiments of local languages and customs. What started out as an enterprise of imperial expansion seems to have turned into an adventure of curiosity and a knightly quest. Broquière wrote up his account of his travels as Le Voyage d’outremer, a magnificent Flemish-Burgundian manuscript of which (Bibl. Nat. MS francais 9087, dated to c. 1457) featured in the recent, and superb, exhibition, Voyager au Moyen Age, at the Musée de Cluny: musée national du Moyen Âge Paris.

Jaffa, Palestine and Jerusalem: from Bibl. Nat. MS fran. 9087


Broquière travelled with the stated intention of recapturing Jerusalem for Christendom, but the first part of his journey was a conventional pilgrimage, from Venice to Corfu and thence to Jaffa and finally to Jerusalem, overseen by Franciscan friars and Mamluk dragomen. Later, Broquière strayed from the conventional route, travelling to Gaza, Beirut, and Damascus, and interacting closely with Mamluks, Turks, and with Italian and French merchants. Broquière records several moments of his fear of and friction with the Palestinian natives – including the moment when someone knocked off his beaver-fur hat – but as his travelogue develops, it records a growing estrangement from his French compatriots and a keenness to relate to Mamluk culture and customs. He did not just observe Mamluk and Turkish culture but rather tried to take part in it. He assumed the disguise of a local, ate pitta bread and got drunk with his Turkish companions, was greeted by passing Muslims as a returning pilgrim from the haj, and went to the hammam; he refrains from anti-Islamic invective (though preferred the Turks to the Arabs), and returned to Burgundy with a copy of the Koran, which he presented to Phillip the Good (the duke seems to have given the book away, and it then disappeared as Broquière notes, rather sadly).

The Flemish manuscript of Broquière’s text is lavishly illustrated and was made for the Burgundian court. It has an interesting full-page image of the pilgrimage route, which shows some familiarity with fifteenth-century Palestine. It demonstrates the extent to which pilgrimage could also be an ambiguous encounter with the East. Moreover, this picture – which functions partly as a map of the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem – contains some details which are not found in Broquière’s text, suggesting that the artist was either using a different account or had visited the Holy Land himself. 

I’d welcome suggestions as to different ways of reading the sites in the image, but this is how I see its composition and its representation of the sacred places:

In the foreground are the broken crusader ruins of Jaffa, the port at which pilgrims disembarked. Many Christian pilgrims report spending their first night in filthy caves there, and three such caves can be seen set into the small hill. To the right of the caves stand three towers, probably representing the Mamluk town of Jaffa. Broquière’s description of Jaffa, (“a bad harbour”) does not mention the caves but mentions “a few tents covered with reeds”, where local administrators, interpreters, and guides met the pilgrims off their boat.

The route to Jerusalem leads out of Jaffa, with an “Oriental” cameleer and two well-dressed locals making their way along the route (Broquière later travelled to Gaza and noted the camels). Beyond them stands a small town, probably Ramleh, where the pilgrims often lodged. Broquière described Ramleh as “a town without walls, but a good and commercial place, seated in an agreeable and fertile district.” This accords with the town in the image. Might the square central tower in the image even be read as a representation of the beautiful  White Mosque at Ramleh?

White Mosque, Ramleh

The White Mosque, Ramleh

To the left of this town is a small walled complex: could this be Lydda, where Broquière viewed the famous relics of St George? He described the town’s relics but didn’t give its name or other details.

Beyond, is a sudden rocky outcrop – my feeling is that this might represent the Jerusalem hills, or is possibly an attempt at showing Mount Joy (which Broquière doesn’t mention) or Mount Quarantine (which he does). 

Jerusalem itself is represented in a dazzling number of domes and towers, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the rounded, squat golden dome to the left), the Dome of the Rock (the larger dark dome to the centre), and the al-Aqsa mosque (the structure with the small golden dome to the right of the Dome of the Rock) can all be clearly discerned. Broquière gave a minimal description of Jerusalem (“it is these days a considerable town”), and did not seem to have paid much attention to the holy places there. However, he did convalesce, after falling ill, at the Franciscans’ house at Mount Zion; this can probably be seen to the right of Jerusalem, behind the trees, a small extramural cluster, near the man on the horse.

Beyond Jerusalem, one of the hills is painted in such a way as to suggest the Judean desert; and indeed Broquière did complain a great deal about the hot weather and the difficult desert terrain.

The image from the Flemish manuscript doesn’t show an idealised Christian landscape but rather an ambivalent combination of local observations and the formal landscapes of fifteenth-century art. Throughout the image are scattered local people, not pilgrims; their extravagant hats and rich robes mark them out as Mamluks. What kind of memory of a place does this image form? And what kind of evidence does it furnish about what western European people thought of Palestine? Broquière’s text seems to strive to show how the local customs of the Middle East were highly similar to those of western Europe; the manuscript illustration represents a beautiful, flourishing, busy Palestine, peopled not with pilgrims and crusaders but with finely-dressed locals going about their business. Might the case of Broquière and his manuscript even suggest not espionage but a medieval moment of tolerance and an attempt at respectful interaction  between Jaffa and Jerusalem?

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A reliable and accessible modern French edition of Bertrandon’s text is available, published as Bertrandon de la Broquère, Le Voyage d’Orient: Espion en Turquie, trans. Hélène Basso (Paris: Anacharsis, 2010); a new English edition is forthcoming in 2015 from I. B. Tauris.

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