The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity

By Hunt, E. D. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity


Hunt, E. D., The Catholic Historical Review


The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity. By Georgia Frank. [The Transformations of the Classical Heritage, XXX.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2000. Pp. xiii, 219.)

Prominent among the many developments which reflected the process of 'Christianizing' the Roman empire in the fourth century and beyond was the increasing vogue for pilgrimage to the biblical sites of the Holy Land, where pious travelers and those who received them reawakened the Scriptural past out of the contemporary landscape of Palestine. But the yearning (desiderium) which impelled these early devotees was directed not merely at the sight of holy places, but equally at the 'holy' people who lived around and about them, chiefly the burgeoning monastic population of neighboring Egypt: the pilgrims' sacred journey, as this imaginative new volume reminds us, was not complete without coming face to face with these new ascetic heroes in their desert habitat.

Frank's book bases her exploration of these first travels to 'living saints' on two of the central texts of early Egyptian monasticism, the anonymous History of the Monks in Egypt (Historic Monachorum) from the last decade of the fourth century and Palladius' Lausiac History (Historic Lausiaca) from some twenty years later, both of which recount the experience of a succession of encounters with the desert fathers of the day. Although these works preserve a firsthand record of real journeys, Frank is not primarily concerned with them as historical documents, and her readers will look in vain for any elucidation of the actual context and circumstances of these desert pilgrimages; her interest is in these texts as literary creations, and she interprets them against the background of a rich and diverse legacy of travel literature from classical antiquity Preferring a broad reading of the term historic to denote a travelogue genre "presenting a distant and charmed world to audiences" (rather than the more precise connotation of investigative and exploratory journeying which a stricter definition would convey), Frank leads us, with the travelers themselves, into an exotic world of distant wanderings which span the boundaries of fact and fiction (one of her chapters is devoted to "imagined journeys"), and of pagan and Christian: her supporting material embraces both ancient novels and the apocryphal exploits of missionary apostles.

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