Postcards from the Sedge & Bee

July 29, 2011

Image sourced from Ruawai Library click here for review of the book

Egeria or Aetheria (often called Sylvia) was a Gallaeci or Gallic woman who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land about 381–384. She wrote an account of her journey in a long letter to a circle of women at home which survives in fragmentary form in a later copy. This may have been the first formal writing by a woman in Western European Culture.

Much of the surviving information about Egeria comes from a letter written by the 7th century Galician monk Valerio of Bierzo. He praises Egeria and identifies her as a nun, perhaps because she addresses her account to her “sorores” (Latin for “sisters”) at home. However, others (including Hagith Sivan, 1988) have pointed out that during Egeria’s time it was common to address fellow lay Christians as “sisters” and “brothers.” Valerio may also have believed her to be a nun because she went on such a pilgrimage, although lay women of the time are known to have engaged in such religious tourism.

Those who suggest that Egeria was not a monastic claim that there is much to suggest that she was not a nun, including: her freedom to make such a long pilgrimage and to change plans as it suited her, the high cost of her pilgrimage, her level of education, and her subject matter which focused on the sights and not miracles like letters we have by monks at that time. Realistically, however, considering social constraints on women at the time, these points make it equally likely that she was a nun, since such social freedoms were not as available to middle-class women within their households, and such lone pilgrimages were rare among lay women at the time and miracles may well have been recorded in other parts of the texts. Ignored by those who argue that Egeria was a layperson is the fact that she spent over three years and was in no rush to return home, which would indicate that she was not middle-class, but either financially self-sufficient alone, or more possibly a monastic such as a gyrovague, or “wandering monastic” as described in the rule of St Benedict, who travels from monastery to monastery.

Egeria wrote down her observations in a letter now called Itinerarium Egeriae, or the Travels of Egeria. It is sometimes also called Peregrinatio Aetheriae (the Pilgrimage of Aetheria) or Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta (Pilgrimage to the Holy Lands) or some other combination. The middle part of Egeria’s writing survived and was copied in the Codex Aretinus, which was written at Monte Cassino in the eleventh century, while the beginning and end are lost. This Codex Aretinus was discovered in 1884 by the Italian scholar Gian Francesco Gamurrini, who found the manuscript in a monastic library in Arezzo. Egeria describes the monks, many holy places and geographical points in her travels and even the early details of the liturgical practices of the church at Jerusalem.

The manuscript has been translated several times, but perhaps the most recommended translation for the average reader is John Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels: Newly Translated (1999), especially since it includes supporting documents and notes. Another translation of Egeria’s writing for the average reader is the Gingras edition in the Ancient Christian Writers series.

The Itinerarium Egeriae has provided scholars with valuable information about developments in the grammar and vocabulary of Vulgar Latin. For example, expressions such as “deductores sancti illi” (“those holy guides” meaning “the holy guides”) help to reveal the origins of the definite article now used in all the Romance languages (except Sardinian) – such as French (“les saints guides”) or Italian (“le sante guide”). Similarly, the use of ‘ipsam’ in a phrase such as “per mediam vallem ipsam” (“through [the] middle of [the] valley itself”) anticipates the type of definite article (“péri sa mesanía de sa bàdhe”) that is found in Sardinian (“sa limba sarda”) – at least in its standard form.

Egeria’s record of her travels to the Holy Land also provides a late 4th century account of liturgical worship in Palestine. The liturgical year was in its incipient stages at the time of her visit. This is invaluable because the development of liturgical worship (e.g. Lent, palm or passion Sunday) reached universal practice in the 4th century. Egeria provides a first hand account of practices and implementation of liturgical seasons as they existed at the time of her visit. This snapshot is before universal acceptance of a December 25 celebration of the nativity of Jesus; this is very early and very helpful in cataloging the development of annual liturgical worship.

~ Sourced from Wikipedia

Want More?

The Palestine Pilgrim’s Text Society translation of The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places.



  1. I so enjoy these “traveller’s tales” and the travellers themselves. I had a Folio book on Margery Kempe – amazing, as she cried endlessly in apparently a joyful holy state

    The thing is, she was not a nun, though it seems she badly wanted to go on a pilgrimage and to end all relations with poor old hubby whose only real request was that she pay all his debts before setting off with a group for Jerusalem…She did write a book – and I am cross that I parted with mine at some point…(Things I wish I had not given away – my Folio Collection!)

    Also in The Bible and the Sword by Barbara Tuchman, I learned that thousands, literally thousands of men and women around the same time as Margery simply up and walked away from their families, kids, etc, to go off on these pilgrimages, and some did wind up staying in the Holy Land as hermits, of which there were said to be 50,000 – both men and women – in the various deserts of Syria and Palestine of the times? Imagine that happening in Australia or Canada in modern times!! Anway, thought you’d enjoy this link and there are several more excerpts from Margery’s book at the site!

    . http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/kempe4.htm

  2. One of the first books I was given as a child was “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, which I was a bit too young too understand. Clearly, somebody had an idea of my path before I knew I was on it.

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