Tag Archives: pilgrimage

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

A pilgrim’s souvenir album

8 Feb

In his brilliant denunciation of late medieval pilgrimage culture, A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake, the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) mocked the imaginary pilgrim Ogygius.  Ogygius, Erasmus wrote, returned from Santiago and Walsingham ‘choked with tin and leaden images on every side.’ Erasmus was referring here to the widespread custom of buying souvenir pilgrim badges, usually made of cheap tin-lead alloy, alongside other souvenirs like prayer-cards, terracotta tokens, and length of ribbon. Pilgrim badges could be purchased cheaply, and worn on the journey back home, an amuletic sign that one had reached the shrine and garnered its spiritual benefits. Each shrine had different kinds of badges, usually showing the patron saint: St George slaying the dragon, the Virgin enthroned, St Thomas Becket in his bishop’s mitre. Others were secular, including the famous phallus badges found in the Low Countries, possibly used as folk-medicine charms, love tokens, gendered satires, or celebrations of life:

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A two-legged phallus, with female rider and wheelbarrow of smaller penises. Brabant, fifteenth century, via JALC

 

However, the most common kinds of pilgrim badge were simple coin-like tokens; from Santiago these showed the scallop shell, and from Canterbury they showed the head of St Thomas, as in this example from the Metropolitan Museum in New York:

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New York, Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection 1986.77.4, fifteenth-century pilgrim badge of St Thomas of Canterbury.

 

What did a pilgrim do with their souvenir badges once they got home? An intriguing answer to this question can be found in several late medieval prayer books and books of hours, into which pilgrims have sewn or pasted their pilgrim badges. Examples of such books are rare, but the British Library has recently acquired one in the 2013 sale of The Law Society’s Mendham Collection, formerly housed at the University of Kent.

This book of hours (now London, British Library Egerton MS 3883) was made in the Low Countries, probably Bruges, in the fifteenth century for the English market. In at least three places, the pilgrim – probably an English woman, who had some prayers added later in the fifteenth century – placed pilgrim badges into the book. The badges themselves have been lost, but they have left imprints – known as ‘off-sets’ – on the page, as can be seen below. Here, a prayer to St Thomas of Canterbury has been erased (as required by the royal decree of 1538, which sought to wipe out the cult of St Thomas); beneath the erasure a circular mark is clearly visible where the badge was once placed. This would have been a memento, for the pilgrim, of the precious trip to Canterbury, linking the prayer to St Thomas with the moment at which the pilgrim visited his shrine:

 

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London, British Library Egerton MS 3883, f. 142v, prayers; erased prayer to St Thomas; off-set mark of a pilgrim badge. Photo: British Library.

Similar marks appear elsewhere in the book: on folios 124v, 133r and 159v, all of which feature prayers to the Virgin Mary – perhaps reflecting pilgrim badges bought on visits to Walsingham in Norfolk, the major English shrine to the Virgin. The book is also notable for some Middle English religious poetry by the fifteenth-century Chaucerian and monk John Lydgate, unfairly famous for writing more lines of poetry in English than anyone else, before or since.

These marks left by pilgrim badges offer me an intriguing category of evidence in my study of pilgrims’ books and reading. Might many other books contain similar marks, hitherto unnoticed? Were the pages of a manuscript book a common place in which to stow one’s pilgrim badges? The English pilgrim who owned Egerton 3883 may have picked up the custom on the Continent, as several similar examples from the Low Countries survive. In the Soane Hours (London, Sir John Soane’s Museum MS 4), a Flemish book of hours, pilgrim badges have been added to the image of St Sebastian. A more impressive example is from one page of a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Dutch Royal Library, which features no fewer than 23 pilgrim badges from around France and the Low Countries. Here, the medieval book became a kind of souvenir album for the dedicated pilgrim, carrying the record of past journeys and promising future spiritual rewards:

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The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 77 L 60, breviary with pilgrim badges. Via www.kb.nl

Further reading:

Ostkamp, Sebastiaan, ‘The world upside down: secular badges and the iconography of the late medieval period‘, Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (2009).

Spencer, Brian, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, Medieval Finds in Excavations from London 7 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1998).

Stockhorst, Stefanie, ‘Passionate Pilgrims: Secular Lead Badges as Precursors for Emblemata Amatoria‘, Profane Imagery in the Marginal Arts of the Middle Ages, ed. Elaine C. Block and Malcolm Jones (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 157-81

Hieronymus Bosch, virtual pilgrimage, and the memory of the crusades.

29 Aug

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, c. 1450-1516) are famously rich in detail, beguiling, and hard to interpret. Amongst Bosch’s enigmatic works, one has been singled out as being especially hard to understand: his Epiphany panel triptych of c. 1495, now held at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The image shows, in the foreground, the Magi visiting the infant Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. In the distant background is Jerusalem. At the top of the image, in the central panel and at the formal ‘summit’ of the triptych, is the star which guided the Magi. In the side panels, the donors kneel with their patrons saints. There’s obviously a wealth of other imagery here, but in the current context, I’m particularly interested in the Holy Land scene that Bosch sets up here.

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Controversy around the image’s meaning has focussed on the figures in the foreground, in particular the gurning figures in and around the stable. Who is the ‘Fourth Magus’, grinning somewhat maniacally out of the door, with a variety of hideous figures behind him? The picture has been variously interpreted, with most scholars seeing this figure either as Antichrist or the Jewish Messiah (according to an influential reading by Lotte Brand Philip), or as the sorcerer and flawed prophet Balaam (בִּלְעָם; Numbers 22-31; Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Behind this figure is a crowd of what seem to be disfigured and threatening Jews, gazing on the infant Christ, who will, in time, crucify the child on which they gaze at the place depicted in the background, a Calvary marked with the cross of the sails of a windmill.

Close of the 'fourth magus' (Jewish Messiah? Balaam?). Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Close-up of the ‘fourth magus’ (Jewish Messiah? Balaam?). Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Without a doubt, the image is concerned with the idea of making a trip to the Holy Land: that is the subject-matter of the Epiphany, as the Three Kings journey from the East. Bosch’s picture is also concerned with right and wrong ways of seeing: various figures populate the image, straining to glimpse the tiny Christ-child in his mother’s lap: there are figures climbing on the roof, around the side of the building, and, through the ramshackle stable (representing the ramshackle crumbling of the Old Law as the birth of Christ announces the New), a particularly memorable face peers through the holes in the wall:

Figure looking on at the Christ-child. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid

Figure looking on at the Christ-child. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

There’s much more to be said about the foreground, but there are many interesting things happening in the background too, as Bosch sets up what I suggest is an imagined Holy Land which connotes both virtual pilgrimage and the memory of crusading, possibly as a call to a renewed crusade. The world of the pilgrimage is suggested not only in the image’s construction as a ‘route’ through the Holy Land, including a bridge and a tavern, but in the various figures on the side panels, who seem to represent the perils of pilgrimage: on the left, a man lifts up his tunic to flash his genitals at a woman, and three other figures dance riotously (below); on the right, on the bleak wayside, a wolf chases a woman and a boar or wolf savages a man amid a landscape of broken-down trees. These are, I suggest, ‘wanderers on the way’, struggling on the route to Jerusalem with both the perils of the landscape and with their own concupiscence. The entire landscape, beautiful on first sight, bears the marks of bad stewardship, human misbehaviour, and sinister hazards.

Fleeing from a wolf, gored by a boar. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Fleeing from a wolf, gored by a boar or wolf. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem two armies hurtle towards the image’s centre; both are wearing turbans, and the army on the left bears a standard with a crescent on it. They seem to represent the Mameluke forces who then held the Holy Land and had driven out the Christian crusaders, several centuries earlier. Behind them is a wonderfully rich and interesting Holy Land landscape. Here’s a close-up of Bosch’s Jerusalem and its hinterland:

Jerusalem.

Jerusalem. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Between the two armies, an Islamic idol is situated on a small hill – a man tied to a golden post with an Islamic crescent on top. This seems to be an anti-crucifix, a perverted idol. At the entrance to Jerusalem, one can see a third army entering the city. These three armies – which echo the Three Kings of the Epiphany – seem to be the late-medieval Islamic forces which, unlike the good magi, fail to accept the authority and lordship of Christ. On a green hill outside the city is a windmill: at first this looks like a Netherlandish anachronism, a glimpse of Holland in the Holy Land, but it might also be a symbol both of Calvary – a cross at the compositional centre of the cityscape – and of a compass, as Jerusalem was held to be the centre of the world.

A further detail, which seems to have gone unnoticed by art historians, is the highest hill outside Jerusalem, to the right of the central panel, on which stand two riders on horseback, gazing down on Jerusalem below them. It is this detail which originally caught my attention, as I am currently researching medieval visitors to Mount Joy/Nabi Samwil, the hill outside Jerusalem from which the crusaders and pilgrims took their first view of the Holy City. The pilgrims at the top of the hill are directing their gaze on Jerusalem just as the people in the foreground direct their gaze on the Christ-child – and so, in one of many parallels in the image, Bosch sets up a chain of meaning between Christ’s birth and the city where he will suffer his Passion.

Islamic idol and riders taking view of Jerusalem.

Islamic idol and riders taking view of Jerusalem. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

The inclusion of Mount Joy, and the horseback pilgrims taking their vista of the Holy City, suggests Bosch’s familiarity with pilgrimage literature and itineraries of the Holy Land; moreover, his paralleling of the Magi’s submission to Christ with the Islamic control of the Holy Land of his own day suggests stages a bold movement between biblical and Mameluk moments. Indeed, the image might, in part, suggest both the importance of pilgrimage and the corrupting, run-down and perilous route through the Holy Land as held in Bosch’s time by the Mameluks.

There are, assuredly, many ways of interpreting an image like this. But the connection between the image and an aesthetic call to a new crusade against the Mameluks is given more authority if we consider the identity of the image’s donor. The donor, as discovered by a French scholar a few years ago, was Peeter Scheyfve, a mercer of Antwerp, and his wife Agnes de Gramme. They are the kneeling figures on the front of the image. Peeter Scheyfve is also depicted on the rear of the image along with his son Jan. Jan Scheyfve completes the Holy Land connection, because he was a Knight Hospitaller in the Order of Jerusalem. Whilst it is true that the image of Jan Scheyfve may have been added a few years after Bosch’s original composition of the image, the fact that the donor’s son was involved in the rhetorical crusader orders which fetishised the Holy Land and its loss suggests that the contemporary state of the Holy Land – for pilgrims or would-be crusaders – informs Bosch’s wonderful image. Can we see in the Prado Epiphany a comment on the shameful state of the Holy Land, or a call to retake the Holy Land from the poor stewards who held it in Bosch’s time?

These are very much the ideas-in-progress of a non-art historian, at a tangent to the work I’m doing on Nabi Samwil. Further high-quality images and some interesting interpretations, including a full account of the picture’s biblical allusions, are available here.

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.

Jerusalem, geometry, and medieval Germany

21 Nov

The English pilgrim Margery Kempe made her way by foot and wagon, from Danzig, via Wilsnack, to Aachen in the fifteenth century. This is a long journey of over 700 miles and it was, for Kempe, through hostile territory. She was an elderly woman, in poor health, and throughout her journey she was both bullied and subject to considerable misfortune. Nevertheless, she stuck to her route, crossing the Rhine and reaching Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) to see the showing of the famous Aachen relics, which were brought out once every seven years. What kept Margery Kempe moving?
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The Book of Margery Kempe says almost nothing about what Kempe saw at Aachen, other than that she viewed the famous relics: of the Virgin Mary’s smock, Christ’s swaddling clothes, the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist, and the Christ’s loincloth from his Passion. Kempe must have thus visited the cathedral, where the relics were shown and were stored in the remarkable shrine of the Virgin Mary, an oak box decorated with silver gilt, made in Aachen between 1220 and 1239 (pictured below).

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Kempe had already visited Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury, Walsingham, Wilsnack, and Santiago de Compostela, so she had visited all the most important pilgrimage sites in Western Europe; but the journey to Aachen complemented her journey to Jerusalem. In part, she was emulating St Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73), who had also gone to Jerusalem, Santiago, and Aachen. Whilst it is not made explicit in The Book of Margery Kempe, Aachen itself had long styled itself as a kind of ‘New Jerusalem’: indeed, the city’s founding by the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) was an attempt to create an imperial city which combined the splendour of a New Rome with the spiritual promise of a New Jerusalem. The mathematical and geometrical dimensions of the cathedral have long been recognised as referring to the apocalyptic Jerusalem: an eight-sided dome, a sixteen-sided ambulatory, and eight arcades of columns, as eight represented perfection and harmony; the circumference of the octagon is 144 feet, the cardinal number of the Heavenly Jerusalem Apocalypse [Revelation]. 7:4, 14:1 etc.). This was mirrored in the remarkable chandelier (the ‘Barbarossa Chandelier’) given to the cathedral by Emperor Frederick I, and made in Aachen about 1165-70.

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The chandelier, which Kempe would most probably have seen, is an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, according to Apocalypse, chapter 21. Its theme is, like the dome in which it hangs, the number eight. It resembles the city walls of Jerusalem, and has sixteen towers (with bases which speak to the person standing underneath), engraved with scenes from the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Christ in Majesty. 48 candles represent the twelve apostles, the twelve martyrs, the twelve confessors, and twelve virgins, recalling the liturgy sung when Roman kings were enthroned in the building.

Kempe’s eye for material luxury would also have been drawn to another Jerusalem scene in the cathedral: the sumptuous ‘Palo d’Oro’, a gold ‘sheet’ across the high altar, made in Germany about 1020, which is one of the earliest strip-art scenes of the Passion and looks forward to the Stations of the Cross/Via Dolorosa tradition.

20131122-080949.jpg It’s perhaps hard to make out the individual scenes from my images, but the scheme starts in the top-left corner (Entry into Jerusalem); the Flagellation can clearly be seen in the far-right panel of the middle row; the scheme ends with the Women at the Tomb. The scenes of the Passion like a montage of devotional ‘stills’, clearly anticipating the vivid tableaux summoned in the ‘mind’s eye’ of medieval mysticism, and a series of loci, like the later schema of the Stations of the Cross

Finally, the Byzantine-style mosaics, at the main entrance, which were renewed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, feature images of the City of God – civitas Dei – surrounded by personifications of the four rivers of Paradise, making manifest the Heavenly Jerusalem built in this German city.
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Boccaccio’s Jerusalem parody: swindlers, fakes, and fools

3 Sep

This blog has so far featured images, simply because it’s easier to display and then write about an image rather than a text. But the Holy Land was remembered, remediated and represented in texts, and here I want to consider a funny parody, by Giovanni Boccaccio (d. 1375), one of the most important medieval Italian poets (and one of Chaucer’s major sources).

Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of 100 tales told over 10 days, set in a frame (not unlike The Canterbury Tales), of a group of young Florentine men and women fleeing the plague. One story (Day VI, Novel X) contains an amusing parody of the Jerusalem pilgrimage, and shows how travel to Holy Land could offer rich pickings for comedy.

The story (available here in the original Italian and here in a rather formal old-fashioned English translation) involves a corrupt, silly friar called Frate Cippolla (his name is a bit like being called Brother Onions). He claims to have a relic – a feather left behind by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation – which he touts around Italian towns in order to raise money as alms. However, some lads play a trick on him, and replace his feather with some coals. Smooth-talking Frate Cippolla says that these coals are, in fact, the coals on which St Lawrence was roasted!

Frate Cippolla describes a journey he went on, through the Mediterranean and then back to the Holy Land, and his account subtly shows the potential corruption of the Jerusalem pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages.

First, having set off from Venice, he goes the wrong way, first to Parione in Rome and then to Sardinia: travelling west rather than east, hinting at illicit enterprises. He then claims to have gone through the Bosphorus (the straits of St George or Giorgio) and on to places called ‘Truffia’ and ‘Buffia’ – these are nonsense places, and suggest swindling (It. truffa, fraud) and silliness (It. buffa, comic). He then claims, amongst other things, to have seen some minor ‘wonders’ (water running downwards!) and some ridiculous marvels (flying prune-hooks!). This is a parody of medieval travel literature, and the medieval taste for wonder, as seen in popular texts like those by Pliny, Marco Polo, and John Mandeville.

Frate Cippolla then says that, in the East, he could not find what he was looking for – again a hint of his ignoble desires, as all travel was supposed to be fixed on the telos or end-point of Jerusalem, not the curiositas of wanton wandering. So he turns to Jerusalem.

Having complained about the cost of bread there (too expensive in summer, and hot bread is unavailable), he says, ridiculously, that he found ‘Nonmiblasmetesvoipiace’, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. This is again a nonsense name, signalling the fiction and fantasy that could be invested in ‘holy’ pilgrimage. Then follows a hilarious litany of unimpressive or impossible relics: ‘the finger of the Holy Spirit’, a Seraph’s tuft, a Cherub’s nail, and some clothing, ‘some of the rays of the star that appeared to the Magi in the East’, St Michael’s sweat, and so on. And, of course, the coals on which St Lawrence was roasted.

Frate Cippolla is mocking his gullible audience here, whose appetite for relics and Eastern wonders allows him to get away with it. Not unlike Chaucer’s brilliant Pardoner’s Tale, Boccaccio’s story is an indictment of the belief in, and worship of, relics. But it’s also a critique of fantasies of Jerusalem – Frate Cippolla, and Boccaccio, suggest that people are too ready to believe in the Earthly Jerusalem, the bits and pieces of sacred archaeology, not the Heavenly Jerusalem.