Tag Archives: Mandeville

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

Jaffa in ruins

24 Jan

‘The ascendancy over men’s minds of the ruins of the stupendous past, the past of history, legend and myth, at once factual and fantastic, stretching back and back into ages that can but be surmised, is half-mystical in basis. The intoxication, at once so heady and so devout, is not the romantic melancholy engendered by broken towers and mouldered stones; it is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams; it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs.’ Rose Macaulay, The Pleasure in Ruins (1953)

Bernhard von Breydenbach’s late fifteenth-century map of the Holy Land served as a template for maps of the region for some three hundred years, as a wonderful small exhibition, Mapping the Holy Land II, currently at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, shows.

Breydenbach, a wealthy monk from the German city of Mainz, travelled to the Holy Land in April 1483 and returned to Germany in 1484. Unusually (but not uniquely), he was accompanied by an artist, Erhard Reuwich. Reuwich drew a map to accompany Breydenbach’s accounts of his travels, but it’s clear that Reuwich drew the map upon his return home to Mainz. The map is in many ways ‘accurate’ but in other ways it reflects literary and ‘exotic’ ideas that Reuwich and Breydenbach knew from what they had read, rather than seen, of Palestine.

In the foreground of the map is the port of Jaffa (also known as Joppa, now Yafo/יפו, a rapidly gentrifying suburb of Tel Aviv). Here, pilgrims once disembarked from Venice, Ragusa and Crete for Jerusalem. It’s marked on the map as a set of caves, and broken, ruined buildings, with a group of pilgrims disembarking in the foreground

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Detail of pilgrims disembarking at Jaffa amongst caves and ruins, from Erhard Reuwich’s map for Breydenbach’s guide to the Holy Land, made in Mainz, 1486.

The map seems to agree with pilgrims’ accounts. Many pilgrims spent uncomfortable and disorientating nights in these caves, either arriving or waiting to leave.

One pilgrim, an anonymous Englishman travelling in the 1340s, described how, at Jaffa, his companions ‘had slept in the open, on the sea sand for 18 days, because they could not get passage.’ Some of them then died, due to privations they had undergone, sleeping rough in Jaffa (Hoade, Western Pilgrims, p. 76). Lodgings in Jaffa were clearly very rudimentary, and many pilgrims give (self-serving) accounts of harassment there from Mameluke officials (on the Breydenbach map, these seem to be the hatted figures, sitting on top of the caves). The French pilgrim the Seigneur de Caumont, visiting in 1419, noted how the city had once been conquered by the Christians but was now destroyed, with nobody living there.

The medieval journey to the Holy Land was intended to be the zenith of a Christian’s earthly life, and it guaranteed spiritual health in the afterlife too. But the Holy Land presented a world marked by the Crusaders’ defeat. Late medieval pilgrims saw Christendom in ruins all around them, and often commented on the ‘broken down’ churches and fortresses left by the Crusaders. If they moralised this, they tended to follow Sir John Mandeville, writing in the 1350s: ‘when God wishes, just as these regions were lost through the sinfulness of Christians, so shall they be won again by means of God’s aid through Christian folk’ (Mandeville, Books of Marvels and Travels, p. 42). The ruins stimulated a kind of emotional archaeology, which was interpreted as a promise of a glorious future and the pious reclamation of Holy Land.

Ruins of the Crusader kingdom still punctuate the landscape of the Middle East; they are at once ruins of a remarkable military achievement, and a testament to its failure. Sometimes, these ruins are incongruous, sitting in the landscape as if waiting to be reanimated, like the beautiful, untouched fortress at Cafarlet (Moshav HaBonim) near Haifa. Cars speed past, the site is deserted but for the white egrets busily inspecting their domain.

The Crusader fortress of Cafarlet (HaBonim), January 2014.

The Crusader fortress of Cafarlet (HaBonim), January 2014.

Others, like the impressive and isolated ruins at Montfort in the western Galilee, have become tourist sites, principally for hikers and on account of the views. At neither Cafarlet nor Montfort is there any sustained historical interpretation on offer to visitors; we are still silently encouraged to approach such ruins in a fundamentally Romantic way, as appeals to awe rather than investigation. They are to be gazed on, a sublime enhancement to the landscape. At the port-city of Akko (precious to the Crusaders, but rarely visited by later pilgrims though there was a Venetian port here in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), Crusader ruins continue to comprise the urban fabric.

The remains of the twelfth-century Crusader fortress of Montfort/Starkenberg, western Galilee, Israel

The remains of the twelfth-century Crusader fortress of Montfort/Starkenberg, western Galilee, Israel 

Akko: ruins in the Pisan harbour. January 2014.

Akko: ruins in the Pisan harbour. January 2014.

Akko: medieval masonry reused the Khan es-Shawarda, built by the Ottomans on the site of the medieval nunnery of the Poor Clares. January 2014.

Akko: medieval masonry reused at the Khan es-Shawarda, built by the Ottomans on the site of the medieval Franciscan nunnery. January 2014.

Medieval pilgrims travelled through a layered world of ruins. They identified, re-identified, and sometimes ignored these ruins. Throughout, they saw themselves moving through a legible landscape which was inextricably connected to the Christian past and future. Sometimes these ruins asserted themselves, and continue to assert themselves, a reminder of the failure to build a martial state in the Middle East, focussed on Jerusalem, based on religious precepts, aggressive colonisation, and intense emotion.

Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with Sir John Mandeville

9 Aug

My current work is concerned with the ways in which late medieval travellers and writers ‘made’ the landscape of Jerusalem, a landscape which was subsequently accepted as historically ‘true’, and in some cases biblically accurate. Often, these medieval sites can be traced back to the Crusades, and many of them endure today.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, now in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City but once outside the city walls, presents the visitor was a wonderfully rich, sometimes chaotic, accretion of religious traditions and narratives. The Church is one of the few religious sites shared by eastern and western Christian traditions, and it is busy with visitors from all over the world: when I visited earlier today, the languages I heard most frequently were Russian, Italian, French, and Arabic.

I toured the Church using Sir John Mandeville’s fourteenth-century Book of Marvels and Travels. The author of this book almost certainly did not visit the Church, but some of his readers, such as William Wey in the fifteenth century, did, and would have likewise have had to rely on Mandeville to help them find their way around the Church, busy with altars, inscriptions in foreign languages, and sites of dubious authenticity.

Here are some quotations from Mandeville’s book, with photos I took of the sites as they are today. For those who haven’t visited the Church, you can have your own ‘virtual pilgrimage’ experience, just like medieval readers in Europe did…

“…when people go to Jerusalem, they make their first pilgrimage to the church of the Holy Sepulchre…in the middle of the church is a tabernacle like a little house, beautifully crafted in the manner of a semicircle and richly decorated with gold, azure, and other colours…”

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“…to the right, inside that church, is Mount Calvary where Our Lord was placed on the Cross. And the Cross was set in the rock, which is white in colour with a little red mixed in; blood dropped onto that rock from the wounds of Our Lord when He was tortured on the Cross, and it is now called Golgotha.”

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“And one goes up to this Golgotha by a staircase.”

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“Also near Mount Calvary, to the right, is an altar where the pillar lies to which Our Lord was bound when He was scourged.”

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“Also near to this altar, in a place forty-two steps down, was found the True Cross, as endorsed by St Helena, under a rock where the Jews had hidden it. And it was tested because they found three crosses, one of Our Lord and two of the two thieves; so St Helena tested them on a dead body, that revived as soon as the True Cross was laid upon it.”

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“In the church of the Holy Sepulchre on the north side is a place where Our Lord was put in prison, though He was nevertheless imprisoned in many other places.”

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“Outside the church doors, to the right, as one climbs thirty-eight stairs, Our Lord said to His mother thus: “Mulier ecce filius tuus, that is to say, ‘Woman, behold thy son’ [John 19:26]. And then He said thus: “Deinde dicit discipulo, ecce mater tua”‘ that is to say, ‘After that, he saith to the disciple, “Behold thy mother” [John 19:27]. These words He said also on the Cross. Our Lord went by these stairs when He carried the across upon his shoulders.”

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“Underneath this staircase is a chapel where priests sing, not according to our rite but according to their own rite. They always perform the sacrament of the holy bread as well as the prayers with which the bread is consecrated by saying the Paternoster and little else, because they don’t know the additions that many popes have made; but they do sing with sincere devotion.”

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