On Facts and Fictions
Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Through the accounts of their travels, pilgrims provide a window into many aspects of life in the Latin East that would be lost to us without their existence. And in the best of these accounts we also get to know the writer, and gain a sense of his or her excitement, fears, restlessness, wonder, and spirit of adventure. In the preface to his 1896 translation of the pilgrimage account of Rorgo Fretellus (c. 1119-54), Liber locorum sanctorum terrae Jerusalem, James Rose Macpherson wrote critically about the manner in which the description hops about from one place to another without any sense of organisation: “…one finds it impossible to say much in praise of its orderly arrangement”, he says, although he admits: “…in this respect our unknown author is not unlike many of the other pilgrim writers.”* But I think that it is precisely this mercurial verbosity that makes this and other accounts so much more vivid and human, and gives us, their readers, a real sense of medieval pilgrimage and what it involved.
Rorgo (his artlessness seems to demand a first name reference) begins his account in the city of Jerusalem, but quite suddenly turns south to Bethlehem, then heads back to the neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Next he is off to the Jordan River near Jericho, the Dead Sea, Hebron, and back to the Dead Sea again. Then, after he rambles on for a while about the route of the Exodus, he returns to his own itinerary, heading now north to Damascus, then south yet again to the sources of the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Mount Tabor, Samaria, Nablus, and once more to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, then back to Jerusalem. He doesn’t appear to stop to catch his breath! And if you are not yet giddy with all this fitful darting about, he turns north once again, and then south to the neighbourhood of Hebron, back down to Jericho, north-west to Lydda and along the coast to Caesarea, Acre, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli. And he could hardly end without making a final return visit to Jerusalem.
He seems rather like a nectar-intoxicated insect fluttering abruptly about in a field of spring flowers. And in a way, for the medieval pilgrim the possibility of visiting all these holy sites must have been not unlike what a bee experiences when encountering the explosion of colour and smell of an April meadow. To what extent Rorgo`s vertiginous tour represented his actual movements is impossible to say. It could just be his erratic mind at some later time going over and over in retrospect recollections of what he had seen. Quite often, it seems, these accounts were written long after the pilgrimage had ended. Alternatively, he may, like other pilgrims, have made Jerusalem his base from which he headed out for day trips or longer.
Another pilgrim, Burchard of Mount Syon, gives us a picture of the kingdom of Jerusalem in the years just prior to its fall in 1291. His is one of the most detailed and informative accounts of the Holy Land in the thirteenth century. He describes its borders, its flora, fauna and its inhabitants. Of Burchard himself we know little, but his text is very well known, having been repeatedly copied and, in later times, printed. There are over 100 surviving manuscripts and around twenty printed editions prior to 1746, some of them accompanied by illuminations, maps, diagrams, and city plans. There are long and short versions, modern editions including the best known critical edition by Johann Laurent published in 1864, translations into German and French and later into English, and a recently discovered extended version from the British Library.**
In 1455 the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, had his secretary, the scribe, translator and gifted illuminator Jean Miélot, prepare an illustrated translation of Burchard's text. Of the illuminations in this edition, best known is Miélot’s rendering of Jerusalem (shown above). In it he blends fact and fantasy, with an obvious preference for the latter, creating a city of towers and domes. There is some realism in the church of the Holy Sepulchre and the buildings on the Temple Mount, but the rest is a fiction of blue and gold. The crescent of Islam is above the Templum Domini, as indeed it would have been when Burchard was there, and the city is an entirely oriental one, with nothing to show its recent Christian past but the Holy Sepulchre. It is very different from twelfth century illustrations which, for all their symbolism present a reasonably faithful layout of the city. By the fifteenth century Jerusalem had moved away from reality and had become a mystical city of the imagination.
* Rorgo Fretellus, Liber locorum sanctorum terrae Jerusalem, trans. James Rose Macpherson, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 5, London, 1896.
** See J.C.M. Laurent (ed.) Peregrinatores medii aevi quator, Leipzig, 1864, pp. 3-94. D. Pringle, Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, 1187-1291, Crusade Texts in Translation 23, Farnham, 2012, pp. 241-320. See also John R. Bartlett, “Burchard's Descriptio Terrae Sanctae: The Early Revision” Palestine Exploration Fund 145, 2013, pp. 61-71. For a detailed account of all the editions and much else see Ingrid Baumgärtner, “Burchard of Mount Sion and the Holy Land”, Peregrinations. Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture 4.1, 2013, pp. 5-41. The newly discovered version was published by Jonathan Rubin, “Burchard of Mount Sion’s Descriptio Terrae Sanctae: A Newly Discovered Extended Version”, Crusades 13, 2014, pp. 173-90.