Medieval Travelers’ Description of the Holy Sites

The Description of the Loca Sancta in Medieval Travel Accounts

Susanne Pickert


The Holy sepulcre, in: Stefan Baumgartner, Reise zum Heiligen Grab 1498, pen drawing. (Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, Hs 369)

This project explored descriptions of the lova sancta in medieval travel accounts. Since the early beginnings of Christianity, Palestine and the surrounding regions have been regarded as an area of special significance. Pilgrims from the fourth century onwards were traveling the grounds of the biblical events, visiting places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or the River Jordan. Before the twelfth century, pilgrims did not so much describe monuments, buidings, or landscapes, but rather a playback of the biblical event itself, that was activated by the mere presence of the visitor on the scenery. Pilgrims became participants. Since this kind of religious experience excluded any historical distance between event and present viewer, the materiality or the actual state of the holy site did not matter.

The late twelfth-century reality of a Christian Crusader Kingdom required a new way of seeing. The Holy Land now obtained a specific territorial notion. Confronted with an landscape full of holiness but no proper knowledge about details of its locations, pilgrims from the 1160s onwards complained about the defectiveness of older books on the Palestine sites or the imprecision of contemporaries’ observations.

The gathering of new information for an update of the picture of the Holy Land in the face of its obvious historicity was encouraged by developments in the field of religion. Authors of travel accounts took up the idea of a Christological mysticism based on sensual experience, that was formulated by medieval religious authorities such as Bernhard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, or Henry Suso.

The idea behind these travel accounts was a stimulation of the recipient’s remembrance of the suffering of Christ. The written description was intended to leave a lasting impression on the mind of the reader. The so obtained devout education would help, so it was believed, to elevate the Christian soul to heaven. Therefore, correct and truthful description was required.

The description of the holy sites are embedded in texts whose authors identify themselves by name, talk about the aim of their work and introduce to the reader a model of textual organization (e.g., topographical, adapting the form of country descriptions or maps; or historiographical, following the order of biblical events such as the life of Jesus). The travel accounts are marked as eyewitness accounts, they provide detailed information, sometimes including remarks about the way these information were gathered by the author (e.g., how measurements had been taken). The description of the places is distiguished as present state, sometimes the traces that indicate changes over time are mentioned. Differing opinions of other authors are sometimes discussed. Biblical events are often referred to in the form of their artifical presentation at the holy site (e.g., in the form of pictures, wall paintings or inscriptions). From the fourteenth-century onwards, illustrations were included.

The accounts of high and late medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land offer a keyhole to the history of pre-modern observation. A defined set of holy sites is repeatedly described from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. The pilgrim takes to the Holy Land a set of imaginative assumptions, that encounters the materiality of the actual places. In the descriptive parts of his travel account, the author assembles possible differences and adjusts them to a new view that he finally takes home to his readers. Analyzing the form of observing, the changes of the intent and the mode of gathering and presenting information illustrate the dynamics of the topography of Christian remembrance.