Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Relics of the Lateran According to Leiðarvísir, the Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae, and the Inscription outside the Sancta Sanctorum

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Relics of the Lateran According to Leiðarvísir, the Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae, and the Inscription outside the Sancta Sanctorum

Article excerpt

Rome was one of the three most important destinations for pilgrims from medieval Europe, along with Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. The faithful came in crowds not only to pray at the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, but also to revere the multitude of relics that were preserved in the churches of the city. From the fourth century on, the liturgical and political significance of the cult of relics grew steadily within the Christian world. The Eastern custom of obtaining a multitude of relics by dividing the saints' bodies into different parts, however, was not usual in Rome until the eighth century, when the norm of the Roman law sanctioning the inviolability of tombs and bodies fell into disuse. After that, the number of relics preserved in the Roman churches began to multiply. The bodies, or parts of bodies, of martyrs buried outside Rome were brought into churches and basilicas intra muros in order to be better guarded, but also to be a tangible sign of the city's power and superiority.1 Some of the most revered relics, including those of New Testament figures and other saints, were gathered, especially in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries, in the Basilica of St John Lateran and in the small Chapel of St Lawrence in palano, also known as the Sancta Sanctorum. This chapel was constructed inside the Palatium Lateranense, which was the residence of the popes throughout almost all the Middle Ages, at least until the Pope returned from Avignon in 1377.2

Besides the numerous Latin sources mentioning the relics preserved in the Basilica of the Lateran and in the Sancta Sanctorum, a list of these relics is also included in the description of Rome in LeiÒarvisir, an Old Icelandic itinerary describing a route to the Holy Land and traditionally dated around the midtwelfth century. This article will analyse the list of Lateran relics in Leiöarvisir and compare it to Latin sources, in particular to the Descriptio Lateranensis ecclesiae by John the Deacon (written in its final version 11 59- 81) and to an inscription that was placed outside the Chapel of St Lawrence in palano at the end of the twelfth century. It will be shown that the list of Leidarvisir must have been composed later than the Descriptio Lateranensis ecclesiae, because the Icelandic itinerary includes two Marian relics (the garment and the milk of the Virgin) that are not enumerated in this Latin source. On the other hand, the two Marian relics are mentioned in the inscription outside the Sancta Sanctorum, which also shows significant correspondences with leidarvisir. A closer consideration of this inscription will show that it was probably placed there before the papacy of Innocent III (i 198- 1 216), thus giving useful information regarding both the dating of this source and that of the Icelandic list. In the process, the analysis will shed light on the date of composition of this passage of Leiöarvisir, demonstrating that it is incompatible with the traditional dating of the itinerary. It appears that the description of the Lateran could not have been written by Abbot Nikulás of Munkabverá on the basis of first-hand information he collected during a journey - as has been argued hitherto - but that it is probably the work of a later scribe who made use of written sources.

'Leiðarvísir' and its dating

The complete text of Leiðarvísir is preserved only at fols 11^sup r^- 16^sup v^ in manuscript AM 194 8^sup vo^ of the Arnamagnoean Collection in Copenhagen, an important miscellany composed in Iceland in 1387.3 The text describes an itinerary from Iceland to the Holy Land, and is commonly known as Leiðarvísir, 'guide, itinerary', a denomination derived from the explicit (p. 23(17-18).4 Leiðarvísir records stops and distances, but is also rich in significant information about places along the route.5 In the explicit, an Abbot Nikulás is mentioned as the author of the text (p. 2317"18). The absence of a patronymic has made his identification controversial, but it is now generally agreed that the author of Leiðarvísir is Nikulás Bergsson, first abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Munkabverá, founded in 1155. …

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