Picture: © KNA
Women's pilgrimages were not welcomed by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time

Pilgrim women and critical bishops: Easter in the 4th century

Bonn - Some bishops in the 4th century believed that women should not go on pilgrimage, as it was too dangerous. Nevertheless, around 381, the late antique author Egeria set off on a journey through the Holy Land lasting several years – and wrote down her impressions of the Easter celebrations.

Published  on 31.03.2024 at 12:04  – by Mario Trifunovic

Seeing the Holy Land with your own eyes is not something that many people have only been longing for in the present day. Already in the first centuries after Christ's death and resurrection, Jerusalem and the other places where Jesus had lived became popular pilgrimage destinations, especially as the Holy Land was considered the centre of the world at the time. Among the pilgrims of the 4th century were a striking number of women, much to the displeasure of the bishops of the time, who were suspicious of this female desire to travel. The motives of the female pilgrims for their journey varied: some saw it as a way of escaping their everyday lives; others, like Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, had other interests in mind, according to historian Anne Mann.

Helena visited the sites built by her son and financed by her with a group of pious women, soldiers and courtiers. According to the legend spread by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan at the time, she found the cross of Christ and other relics. These are said to have included Jesus' crown of thorns, which is now venerated in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. In addition to Helena, church history also recognises women who did not want to return home after a long pilgrimage. One of them was Paula, a close confidante of the church teacher Jerome. Because her daughter fasted too strictly and died as a result, Jerome was heavily criticised in public. The only way out for her was to flee from Rome to the East.

Bild: ©Stadtdekanat Bonn

With a group of pious women, soldiers and courtiers, Helena visited the sites built by her son and financed by her.

According to historian Mann, however, pilgrim women were suspect to bishops such as Boniface or Gregory of Nyssa. Both were of the opinion that women were dependent on help due to their apparent physical weakness. They should therefore not set off alone. One exception was if they were accompanied by other pious women or older clergymen. Boniface took a more sceptical view of the popular women's pilgrimages and even called for them to be banned, as they could either perish or lose their virginity.

Pilgrim from the wealthy upper class

However, a woman from northern Spain named Egeria was not deterred by this. Around the year 381, she began her multi-year journey through the Holy Land and wrote a kind of travelogue in the form of letters to her circle of acquaintances of pious women who could not or were not allowed to travel with her. However, her report was only discovered late in the monastery library in Arezzo, albeit anonymously. It was only when a letter written around 680 by the monk Valerius of Bierzo was linked to it that the name of the author became clear: Egeria.

It is unclear whether the pilgrim writing was a nun. Philologist Daniel Groß writes in the cultural-historical work lexicon "Die Rezeption der antiken Literatur" (The Reception of Ancient Literature) that due to the freedom and financial means Egeria had for travelling, it must be assumed that she was a member of the wealthy Roman upper class. Women from her circle are said to have travelled to the Holy Land as pilgrims on several occasions.

In her work "Holy Land Pilgrimage and Western Audiences", historian Hagith Sivan from the University of Kansas explores the question of whether Egeria was baptised immediately before her journey. Her report pays particular attention to the baptism rituals and preparation. According to Sivan, it is entirely possible that Egeria went through a catechumenate and was then baptised accordingly at the Easter Vigil. This would argue against the assumption that Egeria was a nun at the beginning of her journey. In any case, her account testifies to a very good knowledge of the biblical texts. The pilgrim writes about herself that she was a very curious person, but that her interest was limited to Christian places and piety. During the pilgrimage, she made a habit of praying at places that were important to Christianity, according to her letters. Sometimes there were also "small church services" at the various places, the pilgrim continued.

Sober travelogue

According to the historian Mann, travelling with Egeria also seems to have had its stressful moments, as a prayer was said first at almost every relevant place, followed by the corresponding Bible passage and a psalm. This could take quite a while. The pilgrim also saw other biblically relevant places. "Monks showed Egeria the Burning Bush, the authenticity of which she did not question. Although the route taken by the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea seemed somewhat confused to her, she did not doubt the authenticity of the resting places she was told about," continues Mann.

Egeria's travelogue is correspondingly sober. According to the historian, Egeria does not appear to have had visions like Paula, who was travelling at the same time. She is said to have thrown herself to the ground in tears as she "wanted to see the infant Jesus crying in the manger or the furious Herod". And: "Nor does Egeria appear to have had any ascetic tendencies. She mentions neither fasting nor sleep deprivation. Instead, she showed great interest in the religious festivals and rituals in Jerusalem, which she describes in detail in the second part of her report."

An Evangeliary lies in the sand
Bild: ©KNA/Harald Oppitz

"With the people in mind, everything is done in haste", is how Egeria summarises the Easter Sunday liturgy in a nutshell.

The detailed narrative goes into the Holy Week, which began on the Saturday before Palm Sunday with the so-called "Lazarus Saturday". During the rest of the week, places that are important in the Gospel also appear again and again. For example, the place where Mary, the sister of Lazarus, met Jesus and threw herself at his feet weeping. This is where Holy Week is said to have opened with a service, followed by a festive service with palm branches on Palm Sunday - in one of Jerusalem's Constantinian churches, the Church of Eleona, which stood on the Mount of Olives. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614 and rebuilt by a French aristocratic family in 1874. This is where Jesus is said to have taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer.

Intensive liturgy

On the other days, Egeria describes individual prayers and liturgies led by the Bishop of Jerusalem himself. On Tuesday of Holy Week, for example, the focus was on Jesus' speech about the signs and persecutions of the end times, on Wednesday the betrayal of Judas, while on Maundy Thursday the service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lasted until the early hours of the morning and the Eucharist was distributed behind the cross - a practice that was only carried out once a year, on Maundy Thursday. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the church in the Old City of Jerusalem that is said to be located on the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and tomb. Today, it is one of the most important shrines in Christianity.

It is interesting to note the intensity of the liturgies, some of which lasted until midnight and into the early hours of the morning - for example on Maundy Thursday or the Easter Vigil. Good Friday was dominated by the Passion story and, according to the New Testament scholar Max Küchler, began with the first cockcrow and the walk from the Mount of Olives to the place where tradition places Jesus' prayer before his arrest. It lasted until 3 p.m. - those who were not tired also went to the night vigil. However, most of them were very exhausted due to the strict fasting and lack of sleep at the time. In her letters, Egeria mentioned the renunciation of bread, oil and fruit; they were fed on water and a so-called flour dish - yet everyone was supposed to fast as much as they could. Egeria commented: "No one demands how much anyone must do, but everyone does what they can. Neither the one who does a lot is praised, nor is the one who does less reprimanded. That is the custom here."

The Easter service on Sunday was not allowed to last too long, as the people were exhausted from the night vigils: "With the people in mind, everything is done in a hurry," says Egeria, summarising the Easter Sunday liturgy succinctly. What happened afterwards and how the Easter celebrations continued is not recorded.

by Mario Trifunovic