Back to top

The Pilgrimage of Egeria

The Pilgrimage of Egeria. A New Translation of the Itinerarium Egeriae with Introduction and Commentary.

Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw

Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018

<Buying via this Amazon Link will donate 5% of the price to JMECA>

Mini Review by: Stephen Need, our current Bible Lands editor.

This new edition of ‘Egeria’s Travels’ by McGowan and Bradshaw has already caused great excitement in the scholarly world. But anyone interested in Jerusalem, pilgrimage, liturgy, travel in the ancient world or women in antiquity, will be interested. The book is important to several disciplines and will surely continue to attract wide readership.

It was, of course, John Wilkinson, the first Dean of Studies at St. George’s College, Jerusalem who provided a well-known English translation of ‘Egeria’ in 1971 (SPCK, which ran into later editions with Aris & Phillips) thereby establishing a special relation between this mysterious lady and St. George’s College. Now, we have a new edition bringing scholarly questions and available literature up to date. As well as providing a new translation of the text, there is an extensive critical introduction discussing all the fascinating questions about ‘Egeria’s’ background and identity. Maps, diagrams and a detailed bibliography provide resources for further study.

The text concerned is basically a pilgrim journal written in Latin by a lady traveller probably in the fourth century. The only manuscript we have, dates from the 11th century. It seems to have been in Monte Cassino before moving to Arezzo in the 16th century. It was rediscovered there by the Italian scholar, G. F. Gamurrini in 1884. There is no beginning and no conclusion – the manuscript having been damaged at both ends. This adds to the sense of confusion about what is going on in the text. It opens in Sinai and moves north to Jerusalem and then on to what are modern Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Turkey – up to what was then Constantinople.

Concerning ‘Egeria’ herself there are important questions that still remain unanswered. The scholarly consensus is that she was a religious lady who travelled in the Holy Land in the fourth century and left behind a journal or travelogue. Beyond this, it is difficult to be sure about much detail. Even her name is a mystery, although there have been several attempts to establish who she was. Some have thought she might be Silvia of Aquitaine, or Galla Placidia. But the French scholar Marius Férotin made the connection with Egeria (someone mentioned in a letter written by a Spanish monk in the 7th century) in 1903 and she is now generally accepted as the author.

Another difficulty is establishing the actual date of this lady’s journey – and there have been many suggestions. The most likely time is towards the end of the fourth century or beginning of the fifth century. In 1967, another French scholar, Paul Devos, suggested 381-384 and this is now mostly thought to be correct, though other dates continue to be put forward.

And where did this mysterious pilgrim actually come from? Most scholars think western Europe somewhere, possibly Spain. She seems to travel freely and extensively but there is no indication of her wealth or profession. Her class and level of education are also difficult to establish. She writes home to her ‘beloved sisters’ but we cannot be certain whether she belonged to a religious community or not. This question has caused a great deal of speculation among scholars but still defies an answer. She doesn’t seem to have any of her community with her (if she belonged to one). And she never mentions any of the difficulties or challenges of travel which she must have encountered. There were many pilgrims to Jerusalem in the fourth century and this one seems to fit into the general pattern.

One interesting element in the work is the way in which ‘Egeria’ travels from place to place, learning something about the location, praying and then reading scripture. This practice was kept wherever she went and it has become a hallmark of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, not least at St. George’s College. Also, of particular importance for those interested in the history of Jerusalem are the descriptions of the services ‘Egeria’ attended in the recently-built Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We learn something of the layout of the buildings and of the liturgical practices of the day. The details in her accounts helped John Wilkinson construct his characteristic and meticulous drawings of this and other fourth-century churches in Jerusalem.

Overall, McGowan and Bradshaw build upon and update Wilkinson’s work, providing a more literal translation but only disagreeing with him in minor matters. They tackle all the questions in a lively, engaging and scholarly way and are totally realistic about all the questions that remain. This updated version of a most fascinating work will surely be the one to which future generations of English speakers will turn again and again. It will help students pass exams and scholars update their work. And it will be a good read for pilgrims, travellers and church history buffs far and wide.




Featured in Bible Lands, Summer 2022