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The Travels of Bertrandon de la Broquiere to Palestine during the Years 1432 and 1433
A PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE
ACCOUNTS OF TRAVELS PUBLISHED by the French have a very early origin. At the beginning of the fifth century, Rutilius Claudius Numatianus published one, which has been handed down to us incomplete, because death perhaps did not allow him to finish it. The object of his travels was his return from Rome to his own country of Gaul; but as he came by sea, he could only describe the ports and harbours on the coast, and thence has necessarily resulted a monotony in his work, which a man of more genius would have surmounted. Besides, he wished to write a poem, which forced him to assume a poetical tone, and to give poetical descriptions, or such as were so called. In fine, this poem is in the elegiac measure; and every one knows that this kind of versification, the property of which is to interest the idea every two verses, and to confine these verses to a perpetual return of an uniform cadence, is perhaps of all others the least suited to description. When the imagination has much to paint, when at every moment it has need of varied and brilliant pictures, it requires great freedom to display with advantage all its riches: it cannot, therefore, consequently accommodate itself to a double confinement, the infallible effect of which would be to extinguish its fire.
A pagan in religion, Rutilius has shewn his aversion to the Christian doctrine in verses, where, confounding Christians and Jews, he speaks ill of both sects.
It is in consequence of the same sentiments that, having seen on his voyage some monks in the island of Capraia, he wrote against monks the following verses, which I shall quote to give my readers an idea of his style.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
Squalet lucifugis insula plena viris.
Ipsi se monachos, graio cognomine, dicunt,
Quod, soli, nullo vivere teste, volunt.
Munera Fortune metuunt, dum damna verentur:
Quisquam sponte miser, ne miser esse queat.
Quaenam perversi rabies tarn crebra cerebri,
Dum mala formides, nec bona posse pati?
His work contains curious details in geography, and even some for the antiquary and historian; such, for instance, as his description of a saltmarsh, and the anecdote of the burning of the books of the Sybils at Rome by order of Stilico. There are also some good verses, and among them this in particular on a ruined town:
‘Cernimus exemplis oppida posse mori.’
But his composition is bad: his descriptions are dry and cold, and his manner pitiful and mean;—no genius, no imagination, and consequently no invention in the pictures he attempts to paint.
Such is his work, at least so it has appeared to me; and it is probably on account of these defects that his poem has been called by the degrading name of ‘Itinerary,’ under which it is known. There is a french translation of it by le Franc de Pompignan.
About 505, Arculfus, a bishop of Gaul, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return, he wished to publish an account of it, and employed a scots abbot, called Adamanus, to arrange his manuscript notes and his own verbal account. The relation composed by Adamanus, entitled ‘De Locis Sanctis,’ and divided into three books, was first printed by Gretser, and afterward more completely by Mabillon. Arculfus, having visited the holy land, embarked for Alexandria, thence he crossed over to the island of Cyprus, and from Cyprus he went to Constantinople, whence he returned to France.
Such travels certainly promise a great deal; and the man who had to describe Palestine, Egypt, and the capital of the eastern empire, might assuredly have made an interesting work. But the execution of so vast a design required philosophy and knowledge, in which his age was miserably deficient. It is a pilgrimage, and not travels, that the prelate has published. He neither makes us acquainted with the laws, manners, and usages of the people, nor with any thing that concerns the places or countries he passes through, but solely the relics and objects of devotion that were revered there.
Thus, in his first book, which treats of Jerusalem, he tells us of the column to which Jesus was tied when he was scourged,—of the lance that pierced his side,—of his shroud,—of a stone on which he knelt to pray, and which now bears the impression of his knees—of another stone from which he ascended to Heaven, and which bears the print of his feet,—of clothes worn by the Virgin, which represent his portrait,—of the fig-tree on which Judas hanged himself:—in short, of the stone on which St Stephen expired, &c.
In his second book, he passes through various parts of Palestine, visited by pilgrims, and follows them in their errors. When at Jericho, he mentions the house of the harlot Rahab: in the plains, of Mamré, he speaks of the tombs of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah; at Nazareth, he tells us of the spot where the angel came to announce to Mary that, though a virgin, she should conceive; at Bethlehem, of the stone on which Jesus was washed on his nativity,—the tombs of Rachel, David, St Jerome, and of the three shepherds who came to the adoration, &c.
The third book is, for the greater part, dedicated to Constantinople; but he only speaks of the true cross of St George,—of an image of the Virgin which, having been thrown by a Jew into the most disgusting filth, had been picked up by a Christian, and a miraculous oil had flowed from it.
For many ages, the descriptions of Palestine contained nothing but the pious and coarse fables invented daily by the Orientals, to give credit to certain places which they endeavoured to institute as pilgrimages, and thus quietly draw to their own profit the money of the pilgrims. These last greedily swallowed every tale they heard, and scrupulously persevered in paying their devotions at all the places that had been pointed out to them. On their return to Europe, this was all they had to relate: but indeed this was all that was required from them.
Nevertheless our saint (for at his death he was declared such, as well as his editor Adamanus) gives us, in his second book, some historical account of Tyre and Damascus. He speaks also more in detail respecting Alexandria; and I even find, under the last head, two facts that have seemed to me worthy of attention.
The first concerns the crocodiles, which he represents as so numerous in the lower part of the Nile, that the instant an ox, horse, or ass, enters the river to drink, they are seized by them, and dragged under water and devoured, whilst at this day, if we believe the unanimous accounts of modern travellers, crocodiles are only seen in upper Egypt; and it is a sort of prodigy to see any near to Cairo, and thence to the sea there is not a single one.
The other respects the island of Pharos, on which Ptolomy Philadelphus constructed a tower containing fires, to serve as a land-mark to sailors, and which also had the name of Pharos. It is known that after the time of Ptolomy this island was joined by a mole to the main land, having a bridge at each extremity; that Cleopatra completed the isthmus, by destroying the bridges and carrying on the mole; in short, that at this day the whole island is connected with the main land: nevertheless our prelate speaks of it in his time as if it were still an island, ‘In dextera parte portus parva insula habetur, in qua maxima turris est quam in commune, Graeci et Latini, ex ipsius rei usu, Pharum vocitaverunt.’ He must doubtless have been mistaken; but probably at the time he saw it the mole only existed, and the immense quantities of earth which make it part of the continent have been since added; and he did not perhaps consider a dyke made by the hand of man capable of preventing an island from being what nature had formed it.
In the ninth century, we had another sort of travels by Hetton, monk and abbot of Richenou, afterward bishop of Basil. He was an able man of business, and employed as such by Charlemagne, who sent him, in 811, ambassador to Constantinople. On his return to France, he there published an account of his mission, which, hitherto, has not been found, and which we ought to regret the more, as it would afford us many curious details respecting an empire, whose connections with France were then so numerous, and carried on with such activity. We should not, perhaps, consider it as totally lost: it may be possible that this manuscript, after remaining many centuries buried, accident may bring to the knowledge of some of our learned men, who will give it to the public.
This has happened to the travels of another french monk, named Bernard, which, being published in 870 and lost, have been found again by Mabillon, and brought to light. Like to those of Arculfus, they consist only of travels to the holy land, more concise, however, than his, and written with less pretension, but with the exception of a few details personal to the author, containing only a dry enumeration of the holy places, which circumstance has caused this likewise to be entitled ‘De Locis Sanctis.’
The route, however, of the two pilgrims was different. Arculfus sailed direct for Palestine, and thence re-embarked to visit Alexandria: on the contrary, Bernard first disembarks at Alexandria; he ascends the Nile as far as Babylon, descends it again to Damietta, and, traversing the desert on camels, arrives at Gaza in the holy land.
There he makes, like St Arculfus, different pilgrimages; fewer, however, than the latter, whether from his profession not...