Zoom in the Middle Ages? The Nuns Who Made the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem Without Leaving Their Room

A trip to the Holy Land was a perilous undertaking in the late Middle Ages, which is why so many nuns made the pilgrimage virtually

Gili Merin
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An Easter procession along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
An Easter procession along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Gili Merin

Virtual journeys and encounters have a history of their own. As far back as the Middle Ages, nuns went on “pilgrimage” to the Holy Land without leaving the convent – by dint of the power of thought, discipline and feelings, and the help of illustrated guidebooks.

In Catholic Europe, where the phenomenon was widespread as early as the 13th century, one’s life was calculated according to an equation of sin and penance: A range of sins, from impure thoughts to murder and rape, could be mitigated by bills of remission, or indulgences. The Church granted these in return for remorse, a donation or a pilgrimage.

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Each bill reduced potential punishment in the afterlife and granted an “exemption” from hell for a period measured in days, months or years, in accordance with the size of the donation. In the case of pilgrimage, the value of the indulgence was determined according to the religious importance of the holy places visited. At the top of the list was Jerusalem, the only place that granted a pilgrim a plenary indulgence.

However, the long sojourn to the sacred city was not within the grasp of all believers. Besides the physical hardships and the substantial financial investment required, pilgrimage was prohibited for most women, and for nuns in particular, who were considered an “at-risk population”: Even if no plague raged outside, dangers to body and mind lurked around every corner. Robbers would harm pilgrims, and steal the offerings the pilgrims carried; roadside inns and overnight hostelries were considered morally degraded and impure, certainly for women.

This led to the emergence of virtual pilgrimage. Instead of embarking on an arduous and prolonged journey, a pious nun would confine herself to her cell and embark on an immersive trip from which she emerged only months later. Those who completed the multiple tasks demanded by the virtual rite were granted the same pardon as pilgrims who actually made the trip. Furthermore, many nuns reported experiencing spiritual transcendence; some even testified upon their “return” to having witnessed miracles.

Every nun who set out on this sort of “journey” received an illustrated book with her proposed itinerary, organized in detail down to the very day and hour. The route of the imaginary pilgrimage was planned according to numbered stations and was accompanied by a schedule of designated prayers for each stop along the way. The instructions were precise: 30 steps westward, 400 southward, stop, pray, recite a hymn, and onto the next station.

A 14th-century illuminated manuscript depicting Jesus’ stigmata.A 14th-century illuminated manuscript depicting Jesus’ stigmata.
A 14th-century illuminated manuscript depicting Jesus’ stigmata.Credit: Matre de Fauvel. Enlumineur de

Written by pilgrims who had themselves returned from the Holy Land, the books included quasi-precise measurements made in the earthly Jerusalem, adding authenticity to the nuns’ experience. The trip was thus perceived not only as an inner journey, but as one that reconstructed the real route with all its ordeals. Readers were instructed, for example, to look upon the Mount of Olives with longing, to feel the coolness of the River Jordan, to tread the stones of the Via Dolorosa and to crawl into Jesus’ darkened tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Each action was supposed to spark a specific, desired reaction: anger at the Romans, hatred of the Jews, love of Jesus and compassion for Mary over the death of her son.

This fantastic medium offered more than text: Half or more of each page was devoted to illustrations — much like a contemporary graphic novel or comic book. Among the images depicted were buildings (churches, shrines, chapels, convents and monasteries), elements of the landscape (mountains, seas, rivers) and human characters, such as soldiers, saints, and pilgrims. In some cases a blank space was left on the page for the reader to fill in the historical event with her imagined presence.

Historian Kathryn Rudy, of the University of St. Andrews, who has dedicated several volumes to describing the phenomenon, notes that in certain cases the book itself became an auxiliary tool and a ruler for measurement. For example, the nail that was driven into Christ’s body, or the stigmata, would be illustrated to scale. At times nuns were drawn into the reading experience so ecstatically that they came to believe the illustrated text was the concrete reality. Researchers have also found signs of the nuns’ interaction with the books: Images of the faces of the Roman soldiers who arrested Jesus bear the marks of fingernail scratches, and stains from tears have been found on pages depicting Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Since this was an era characterized by spiritual flexibility, alternative practices could be facilitated by such mental rituals. One book, for example, outlined a journey encompassing the churches of both Rome and Jerusalem. It began at the Via Dolorosa, in the former, with the sentencing of Jesus, continued through the streets of the city as Jesus bore the cross on his back, before veering off-course for a stopover in Rome to pick up the crown of thorns. It then returned to Jerusalem to the station at Veronica’s house, went back to Rome to see her veil, and finally, to Jerusalem, where the pilgrim exited the city wall to visit the site of the crucifixion on the Hill of Golgotha, in the heart of the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This placed Rome and Jerusalem as equals and complementary, instead of fighting for religious supremacy.

Another book presented an alternative to the topographical journey undertaken by a real pilgrim, from Nazareth via Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and instead allows a chronological one following the line of his life and death as set forth in the New Testament, This allowed mental pilgrims to follow a route that was more familiar to them from the Scriptures, without the constraints they would have encountered as physical visitors to the sites.

In addition to leaping in space, a virtual pilgrim could travel in time. Although Jerusalem had been ruled by Muslims since its fall to Saladin in the year 1187, the illustrated books portrayed it as Jesus’ eternal city. In reality, the Christian holy sites had since been abandoned, destroyed or replaced by mosques, but in these books the ideal city took shape: In this Jerusalem all the buildings that had been leveled in battle remained intact; the streets were paved with glimmering stones and were void of Muslim beggars and Jewish merchants. In other words, the writers of these manuscripts could shape the reader’s reality and “write-out” anything that did not strengthen the believer’s faith. For a mental pilgrim, the imagined Holy Land could never disappoint.

Indeed, both “physically” and mentally, the nun felt she had fulfilled the precept of pilgrimage. She traversed vast distances (even if they existed in a cell), got down on her knees, crawled on her stomach and shut her eyes to conjure up the events – as she would have done, say, opposite Jesus’ empty tomb in Jerusalem. With the aid of an illustrated text, she succeeded in planting herself in the virtual world of Jesus and the Apostles at the table of the Last Supper, or under the cross – and would get angry, weep and rejoice along with them.

The ability to use one’s imagination was one of the existential skills required in a medieval convent. Maintaining it involved constant practice, by means of rote learning, memorization and rituals, which enabled the nuns and monks to exist detached from events themselves – while at the same time to experience them in a palpable way.

Today, after hundreds of years of negligence, our minds are no longer able to “travel” about the world solely by dint of the power of the imagination. Thanks to technology information, and various other distractions, one is no longer able to fully concentrate, let alone contemplate. In fact, those who are able to travel in their mind are liable to be diagnosed as deranged. During this period of lockdown, the idea of sedentary travel could become ever more useful: Being enclosed and cut off from the world – perhaps we can learn something, or draw inspiration from the nuns of the Middle Ages.

Gili Merin is an architect and lecturer of architectural history at the Royal College of Arts, London. Her doctoral dissertation, “Towards Jerusalem: the Architecture of Pilgrimage,” is scheduled for publication in 2021.

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