Franciscan monks claimed the Holy Land

27 June 2017

From the late Middle Ages onwards, the Franciscan monks systematically worked towards a claim on the Holy Land in written texts and through the construction of ‘sacri monti’ (holy mountains). The followers of St Francis, united in the well-known ‘mendicant order’ remained active in the area until well into the 17th century despite the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem in 1570. However, historians have scarcely investigated this period. Historian Marianne Ritsema van Eck brought half-forgotten texts to light. She defended her doctoral thesis on Wednesday 28 June at the University of Amsterdam. Her research was funded from NWO's Free Competition programme.

Franciscan monks at prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection, in Jerusalem. Photo: Shutterstock / Dominika ZarzyckaFranciscan monks at prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection, in Jerusalem. Photo: Shutterstock / Dominika Zarzycka

In 1291, the last bastion of the Crusaders fell, the coastal town of Acre, in the northwest of the modern state of Israel. That brought about the end of the Catholic presence in the Holy Land until the Franciscan order managed to establish itself in Jerusalem in 1333. Throughout the entire late Middle Ages, the Franciscans were the only Catholic Christians permanently present in the area. They determined to a large extent the perception that Western pilgrims had of Jerusalem under Mamluk rule. After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Ottomans in 1517 and the Reformation that took place at about same time in Europe, the position of the Franciscan brothers in the Holy Land changed considerably. During the second half of the sixteenth century, the Franciscans were gradually removed from their headquarters, the convent on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Ideological relationship

Marianne Ritsema van Eck: ‘According to prevailing assumptions, all of this meant the end of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Consequently, historians have shown little interest in the role of the Franciscans from about 1520 onwards. I investigated how the brothers, who were still present in the Holy Land despite these setbacks, responded to the new situation in their representations of the Holy Land from the late Middle Ages (about 1480) up to the late seventeenth century. At the start of the sixteenth century, two “sacri monti” were established at Varallo and San Vivaldo in Italy. These portrayed the “new Jerusalems” and were established by Franciscans who had previously served in the Holy Land. An ideological relationship was thus cultivated.’

During her research, Ritsema van Eck stumbled across a relatively unknown and scarcely studied text written by brother Paul Walther von Guglingen in 1485. ‘This tract had previously escaped academic attention due to its unusual character: it is neither a pilgrim's report nor a devotional discourse about the Holy Places. However, at the time, it was an important source for better-known texts, such as the immensely popular much studied Itinerarium in Terram Sanctam (1486) by Bernhard von Breydenbach.’

Another scarcely known fact is the frequent number of ‘interconfessional meetings’ that took place between the Franciscans and Protestant guests. Travel reports from that period reveal that the brothers resolutely defended the idea of ‘Sacred Space’ as a pilgrimage and at the same time, as brothers of the Holy Land, they claimed for themselves the special role of acting as experts on such matters. The brothers fulfilled a key role in disseminating a Catholic, counter-reformation perspective on the Holy Land. ‘They deliberately filled this role and saw it as a specific Franciscan privilege. They considered it to be their exclusive task to oversee all aspects of travel and pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At the same time, the Franciscans claimed ownership of the Holy Land for themselves.’

Additional information

Marianne Ritsema van Eck (1986) completed her doctoral thesis ‘Custodians of Sacred Space: Constructing the Franciscan Holy Land through Texts and Sacri Monti (ca. 1480-1650)’ at the Capacity Group History, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam. Her research was funded from NWO's Free Competition programme. The principal applicant and supervisor was professor Guy Geltner. The associate supervisor was Dr Michele Campopiano.

 


Source: NWO