Bernhard von Breydenbach (1434-1497*): On The Road Again

Von Breydenbach was a rich man, a doctoral graduate of the University at Erfurt,  the canon of Mainz who had, by his own accounts, lived a somewhat loose life, wicked enough that he thought a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would do his soul some good. So in April of 14, 1483 he gathered his friend the artist Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht and with a few of other titled and moneyed traveling companions, set off to see the sights of the Middle East.  

The trip itself was pretty standard tourist fare for the time. Venice first, as Venice had regular water connections with the Muslim Levant.  There they spent any number of days waiting for the ship to be ready, time he spent in seeing the local sights, then as a now spectacular. Once at sea it was to the Venetian held territories of Modon, where he met Gypsies, whom he describes not as being Egyptian (never mind India), but from the nearby town of Gippe.  Stood to reason, of course. 

Off to Rhodes, at that time still held by the Knights of St John, which only recent had resisted the siege of 1480.    To Cyprus where for one ducat he was able to buy five sheep (albeit with stringy meat, not all that good).

And finally to the Holy Land, where local Saracens and Franciscan Brothers take charge of them.  Quarantine of three days in a cave, after which they could stay with the Brothers of Mt. Sion Monastery where they were  given tips and warnings for how to behave with the locals.  For one thing, it was best not to desecrate Saracen tombs – there could be repercussions, mostly against the Brothers of Mt. Sion.

Which was not to say that Saracens were totally fastidious.  In Jerusalem, the travelers were able to get a private tour of the house of St Anne,  technically prohibited to Christians because it had been converted into a mosque.   It was also the birth place of the Virgin Mary, encouraging them to chip off some bits of stone work as relics useful in assuaging the trials of pregnancy (no word on how they ultimately disposed of the chips).

By camel to Sinai at 23 ducats a head, and then to Cairo, which was something of a revelation even for this worldly man: “The Sultan’s Palace is so large that all of Ulm or half of Nuremberg could fit inside. There are so many precious mosques here with high towers that I must believe that there have never been as many churches in Rome as there are mosques here.“

And such strange but pleasing customs:

“Many of us went to the steam-bath, as the Saracens have beautiful bathhouses of marble. They also provide excellent service in the baths. They have a peculiar way of manipulating or rubbing the limbs of visitors to the bathhouse.”

All good things must end, and coming home proved something of an ordeal. The merchants of Venice who sailed between Alexandria and Italy had the upper hand and didn’t they just know it? Charges rose accordingly.  So too did the local demands for baksheesh.

In the event, all was well that ended well.  He made it back home where he appears to have handed over his notes to his fellow traveler the Dominican Father Martin Roth with a charge to improving the prose style.  The following year the first edition of the  Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam or Sanctae Peregrinationes was printed.  It was quickly followed up with multiple editions and translation into German, French, Dutch, and Spanish (not English, notably, even to this day).  It is a mildly diverting period piece, with useful vignettes for those interested in life in those times.

We must believe, however, that what really sold the thing was the illustrations.  The better editions are  full of wood cuts, some of them multiple fold out, of panoramic view of the great cities, of individual buildings, the curious alphabets, strange animals and people, shields and insignia, scenes of biblical stories and historical figures.

He died in the fulness of years, remembered today almost entirely for his not exceptional journey and his book.

*(He is generally dated as being born in 1440, but recent scholarship by Frederike Timm has improved on this.)


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