Egeria Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Egeria fl. late 4th century-

(Also Etheria or Aetheria) Gallic or Galician travel writer.

Scholars associate Egeria with the oldest surviving example of Christian travel writing, the Itinerarium Egeriae (381-84; Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land), a first-person travelogue that describes its female author's pilgrimage from western Europe to the Mediterranean Near East. A lively account of sites, individuals, and practices associated with Christian life and observance in the fourth century, the Itinerarium Egeriae includes both descriptive and narrative material and is crafted as a spiritual exercise in Christian piety as it relates Hegiras journeys along ancient routes once traveled by the figures of the Old Testament. A second portion of the damaged and incomplete manuscript contains invaluable historical evidence concerning the Christian liturgy as performed in Jerusalem during the late fourth century.

Biographical Information

Factual information regarding Egeria's life outside of what is contained in the Itinerarium Egeriae is very limited. According to the seventh-century monk Valerius of Vierzo, Egeria was his countrywoman, hailing from Galicia (a region of northwestern Spain). Several modern scholars have disputed this claim, quoting Egeria's ambiguous assertion that “she started out from the furthest western Ocean” and arguing that she may have originated from western Gaul (modern France). In any case, she appears to have lived most of her life in a provincial rather than an urban environment in close proximity to the Atlantic coast of western Europe. Valerius additionally asserts that Egeria was a nun, although some critics remain skeptical on this point, arguing instead that she was the member of a community of unmarried women with a strong religious orientation. Egeria's literacy, as well as evidence suggesting that she was not of noble birth, however, tends to suggest that she was the beneficiary of a monastic education. Her familiarity with Latin scripture is evident throughout the Itinerarium Egeriae and her knowledge of written Greek was at least basic, judging from numerous Greek words and phrases used and transliterated throughout the text of her travelogue. In 381, Egeria embarked upon a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, including the principal areas of Egypt and Mesopotamia mentioned in the Old Testament. Probably accompanied by a small retinue, Egeria and her companions followed specifically Christian goals in their pilgrimage and relied upon the hospitality of church and monastic organizations for the daily necessities of food and shelter, as well as the service of temporary guides and even guards in certain dangerous areas. While many of the exact details of Egeria's route are unspecified, she certainly visited northern Italy and Rome, then traveled to Constantinople, Antioch in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem. Afterward, she journeyed to Egypt, climbing Mount Sinai and visiting monks in the Egyptian desert, as well as the cities of Goshen and Alexandria. She additionally traveled to Mesopotamia, reaching the Euphrates River, and stopped in Edessa before returning to Europe via Constantinople. The total journey lasted more than three years and was concluded in 384. Egeria's death date is unknown.

Textual History

The earliest substantial reference and redaction of Egeria's travelogue occurs in a twelfth-century compilation of holy places by Peter the Deacon, monk of the abbey at Monte Cassino, Italy, who possessed a complete manuscript of her writing. In 1884 the scholar G. F. Gamurrini rediscovered this manuscript (since dated to the eleventh century) in Arezzo, Italy, where it had likely been moved in about 1599. Gamurrini observed that significant portions of the text had been lost in the ensuing centuries but nevertheless prepared this unique Latin text for publication, completing the task in 1887. Since that time, Egeria's writing has been translated into numerous European languages. M. L. McClure produced the standard modern English translation, The Pilgrimage of Etheria (1919), while the third edition of John Wilkinson's Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land, published in 1999, includes additional writings by Peter the Deacon and others which supplement the damaged sections of the extant work.

Major Works

Composed in the form of a letter addressed to the members of Egeria's home community in western Europe, the Itinerarium Egeriae chronicles her more than three-year pilgrimage to the Judeo-Christian Holy Lands, specifically to the sacred city of Jerusalem. Modeled after an anonymous work produced by the so-called Bordeaux Pilgrim (c. 333), an individual who completed a similar pilgrimage to Jerusalem some fifty years prior to Egeria's, the Itinerarium Egeriae was intended as a guide to sacred places and a record designed for the spiritual edification of its audience. The extant portions of the document feature two distinct sections of roughly equal length. The first opens with a description of the landscape in northeastern Egypt and preparations for Egeria's ascension of Mt. Sinai, then goes on to describe her return journey to Jerusalem and into Mesopotamia, before ending in Constantinople. As she meets with bishops and other church figures, visits Old Testament tombs and other biblical sites, and makes contact with ascetics living in Syria and Mesopotamia, Egeria expresses her curiosity and boundless delight in all things spiritual. The second portion of this work is composed of Egeria's account of the Christian liturgy as performed in Jerusalem, especially during the eight-week religious season of Lent, and remarks on such ceremonial practices the Eucharist and holy baptism, as well as detailing the rules of fasting and the particulars of catechistic instruction of the Christian laity. While the majority of the Itinerarium Egeriae is narrated in an informal, conversational style, Egeria occasionally adopts an elevated tone in order to give weight to experiences that for her had a profound religious significance. While heavily descriptive in its early portions, the work is much less an accumulation of facts than a pious narrative that everywhere features expressions of Egeria's humility and devout belief.

Critical Reception

The fact that no other similar travel accounts of the fourth century have survived into the contemporary period makes the relatively unassuming Itinerarium Egeriae a work of considerable scholarly significance. Since its republication in the late nineteenth century, the travelogue has elicited a sizable body of scholarly appraisals, with studies of the work numbering in the hundreds at the international level by the end of the twentieth century. In the contemporary period, several commentators have been drawn to the stylistic and narrative qualities of the text and have evaluated its literary merits. Generally, critics have praised Egeria's powers of observation and have commented that, far from being a naive travel diary, the Itinerarium Egeriae features a relatively sophisticated stylistic mode oriented toward its author's goals of spiritual enlightenment and instruction. While some commentators have disparaged Egeria's imperfect use of Latin, most acknowledge that the Itinerarium Egeriae was not intended as a literary work and that it nevertheless features an engaging narrative. In addition to the ongoing processes of analysis and emendation of this incomplete text, scholarly debate concerning the details of Egeria's life, including her precise religious affiliation and geographical origins, has persisted. Additionally, inquiry into the nature of Egeria's primary audience, usually envisioned as a circle of devout, literate women eager but perhaps unable to partake in the experience of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, has been another major area of growing contemporary interest in this unique work of Christian devotion.