A Medieval Worldview and its relation to Literary Authorities in a Late Medieval Pilgrimage Account

A Medieval Worldview and its relation to Literary Authorities in a Late Medieval Pilgrimage Account

By Andreas Sylvest Wille

Ennen Ja Nyt, Vol.4 (2004)

Introduction: Travel accounts reflect a certain understanding of the world, a worldview. Around the World in Eighty days implies an understanding of the world as a globe. The dominant worldview of a given time has a crucial impact on the travels undertaken. In Christianity a combination of belief in the Incarnation, the granting of indulgences, and the cult of relics is an immediate explanation to the custom of visiting the places consecrated by the presence of Christ. From the eight century on, when the practice of imposing a pilgrimage in lieu of public penance was introduced, the number of pilgrims increased, so that throughout the Middle Ages pilgrimages were organised on a grand scale and provided for by special ecclesiastical and civil legislation. As a consequence the most widespread form of travel in medieval Europe became the pilgrimage.

In 1480 and 1483, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The later is elaborately represented in the account Evagatorium. He explains in lively detail the hazardous journeys. Through a daily log he kept on his journeys, the reader is involved in the story of how he travelled, whom he met, and what he saw. In lively detail he explains the many events on the extended journey that took him from Venice to the Holy Land from the Holy Land through the Arabian Desert to Mount Sinai, from Sinai through Egypt, a visit to Cairo and by sail back from Alexandria. After returning to his home in Ulm, Southern Germany, he wrote what was later to be characterised as the most elaborate and personal pilgrimage account of late medieval times; the Evagatorium. It was never awarded with a popularity comparable to other pilgrimage accounts such as e.g. the Travels of Sir John Mandeville; nevertheless due to its richness in details and its personal style, the Evagatorium offers the modern reader a unique possibility to understand the worldview, and its relation to literary authorities, in the account of a highly educated late medieval friar. The era in which Fabri lived is characterised as a transition between late medieval Catholicism and a dawning “natural” science. Fabri finished his account only a few years before Columbus set sail and discovered a new continent and about the same time as Copernicus claimed that the earth revolved around the sun: two events of a crucial impact on present day’s perception of the geographical world, but unknown to Fabri. How did a late medieval friar describe the world? What were the literary sources for his description of the geographical world? And how did he solve the possible discrepancies of the literary authorities?

Today, science and religion are in many ways seen as contradictory to each other. Presumably not many people of today would be able to unfold a worldview on the spot, and hardly without running into contradictory statements. Nevertheless, I presume that most people experience the world as being meaningful and orderly. This meaningfulness is experienced despite, as an example, the sensory experience of sunsets, which are contradicted by our belief in the authoritative natural science telling us that, in fact, the earth revolves around the sun, thereby creating the impression of a sunset.

In an attempt to answer the above stated questions, I will examine the literary authorities in Fabri’s presentation of the geographical world, foremost in his description of Jerusalem as the centre of the world, secondly in relation to a broader understanding of the geographical world. Finally, I will analyse the relation between different, and often contradictory, literary authorities in Fabri’s description of the physical world.

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