In the Roman Catholic Church, the celebration held forty days after Christmas is the festival of Candlemas (February 2). Candlemas recognizes the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth (Luke 2:22-29). This was in accordance with Jewish purity law (Lev. 12:4) which required women who had just given birth to remain separate from the temple. On this Candlemas, I wanted to take a look back at the development of the liturgical calendar in Late Antiquity and also to consider the role of late antique women in shaping our knowledge of both liturgical practice and the geography of piety in the early Christian Mediterranean.
We know that the emperor Justinian set Candlemas within the city of Constantinople and elsewhere in the East for February 2. In the year 542 CE, the emperor decreed this celebration as a means of entreating the purity of the Virgin Mary to remedy the outbreak of plague that was ravaging the city at that time. However, the origins of the festival likely lay in the early fourth century. Around the year 381-384, a pilgrim text written by a woman named Egeria, who derived either from southern France or northwestern Spain, remarked on the festival in Jerusalem thusly:
‘Sane quadragesimae de epiphania ualde cum summo honore hic celebrantur. ‘
Her reference to a celebration held on the fortieth day after Epiphany likely demonstrates that Candlemas was originally celebrated on February 14, exactly forty days from Epiphany celebrated on January 6. Notably, when celebrated on February 14, Candlemas was then just the day before the popular Roman Lupercalia of February 15–where the raucous but traditional Roman religious purificatory rites of februa were carried out. Christian or not, the month of February was then a time for purification in the fourth and fifth centuries.
As it happens, my medieval Latin class is currently discussing the import of ritual, liturgy, and the early Christian calendar by translating a portion of Egeria’s writings. Although she uses some quirky Latin, she provides a pivotal example of female prose writing in Late Antiquity. Notably, the only surviving manuscript is the so-called Codex Arretinus, an 11th century fragmentary text only found in the Italian city of Arezzo in the late 19th century. We know little about whether she was a nun (she does often address her fellow dominae) or just a learned pilgrim, but we can say that she wrote the Itinerarium Egeriae (or Peregrinatio Aetheriae) in an epistolary format that reflected on her travails while on pilgrimage to sites such as Mount Sinai and Jerusalem. She also pivotally records her liturgical experience while attending services in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
The geography detailed in Egeria’s extraordinary itinerary letters help us to reconstruct the broader network of movement amongst pilgrims in the late antique Mediterranean. Her itinerary, along with earlier itineraries such as the Itinerarium Burdigalense (Bordeaux Itinerary) of ca.333, together give us a good idea of the pilgrimage routes regularly used in the fourth century by both men and women. With the advent of GIS, there has been a push to map these pilgrimage routes, which in their original formats formed a textual list rather than a geospatial visualization. As one student noted: “A medieval Trip Advisor.”
Although we can map the routes listed in the anonymous Bordeaux Itinerary rather more easily and confidently, Egeria presents more of a challenge to modern geographers. Certainly the order of the sites that she mentions–Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, Constantinople–can give us some idea of the likely routes and roads she may have taken, especially when compared to other texts (e.g., Epiphanius) and set alongside the existing Roman road networks. But it is still admittedly oftentimes speculative. That is why I am always hesitant to point students to maps like the one at the ‘Egeria Project,’ which makes her text seem much more complete than it actually is.
I will be discussing the issue of “imaginary” or uncertain geography more at the Clerical Exile conference in April, but the very mapping of these routes can serve as an argument to suggest that we know more than we really do; a danger within the study of Late Antiquity that I and my colleague Candida Moss have similarly remarked upon. As ancient historian Ryan Horne recently asserted, uncertainty must be represented and flagged on maps, even if it is not a very satisfying practice. But, really, maps are not here to provide us complete satisfaction. Think of the use of dotted lines or blinking place-markers as a possible geographic signpost for inserting all those textual “maybes” and “perhaps-s” that frequently pepper academic writing in order to show that we are unsure. It is also a reminder that translating texts to different languages may cause problems, but so too does its translation to a different visual medium (text -> map).
This was a quick post to point out some resources for studying a quite worthy late antique lady and using her to help reconstruct the world of late antique pilgrimage. I often read books on cartography in the late antique world that focus solely on the myriad men that came to shape the early Christian worldview. However, it must be remembered that even if writers like Egeria didn’t give us a diagrammatic representation of an area, many women contributed to the broader geographic discourse in the later empire. Collectively, these texts inform how we visualize a world we are no longer a part of, but which we frequently attempt to access. I think Prof. Moss put it best when she said: “Christian social networks, patterns of pilgrimage and missionary activity, and the art of letter writing united Christian communities and networks across the empire…Physical geography is webbed with social networks navigated by correspondence, plotted by travel, and reimagined by ancient cartographers” (2012: 21). Our vision of the late antique Mediterranean is still a complex, imperfect, and often deceptive network of people and places rather than a straightforward map, but then again, so is the world of today.