Reading Mental Pilgrimage in Context: The Imaginary Pilgrims and Real Travels of Felix Fabri's "Die Sionpilger"
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Reading Mental Pilgrimage in Context:
The Imaginary Pilgrims and Real Travels of Felix Fabri's "Die Sionpilger"

In the early 1490s, the popular Dominican preacher and pilgrim, Felix Fabri, had a problem on his hands. He had achieved a certain fame in the area around his home cloister of Ulm, Germany, as a preacher,1 a two-time pilgrim to the Holy Land, and the author of written accounts of his journeys. Now the sisters of the Observant reformed women's cloisters of Medingen and Medlingen had asked Fabri to write them directions for a spiritual pilgrimage so that, despite their enclosure, they too might make a journey to the Holy Land, as a contemplative, devotional exercise.

But Fabri feared the task would be too difficult. He had already adapted his pilgrimage experiences for three different audiences: his first pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1480 produced the rhymed, Swabian-German Gereimtes Pilgerbüchlein for his secular patrons; his second, longer journey to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai in 1483-84 resulted in the vernacular Pilgerbuch for the noble patrons of his second voyage and their households. Finally, he spent ten years compiling the encyclopaedic Latin Evagatorium for his Dominican brethren. Responsible under the dictates of the cura monialium for the spiritual direction and welfare for several women's convents in southwest Germany, he regularly preached, heard confessions, and suggested readings that might aid the sisters in contemplation and spiritual growth. Yet how was he to put all that experience into a form that combined contemplation with the engaging details of an actual pilgrimage?

The well-travelled preacher first tried to fob them off with a substitute—Bonaventure's Itinerarium mentis in Deum.2 Unfortunately for him, the sisters were having none of it. They insisted on an account of Fabri's own travels. They wanted to have both a spiritual guide and "his pilgrimage in all the outer rough way of life from one day's journey to another, without any bringing in of high intellectual contemplation".3 They wanted him especially to name all the indulgences available [End Page 39] to pilgrims, so that they might remain in the tranquility of the cloister yet still receive, through contemplation, the spiritual benefits real pilgrims gained. Fabri finally complied, and sometime after 1491, he composed the Sionpilger, a day-by-day guide in vernacular Swabian for a "mental" pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.4 Thus Fabri, or his scribe, explained the origins of the Sionpilger in the foreword of a 1495 copy of the manuscript.5

Faced with such an account, the modern scholar encounters a dilemma when she approaches the Sionpilger: is it a pilgrimage guide or a devotional exercise? How are we to understand it; and how did its first readers conceive of and use it? If we accept the manuscript's account as a fairly accurate rendition of how the work came to be, then it appears that Fabri's fifteenth-century readers wanted the same thing many of his present-day readers desire: his account of the actual experience of his pilgrimages, in all their rough-and-ready reality. Modern scholarship concerning the medieval pilgrimage experience tends to see pilgrimage narratives either as a historical source to be mined for practical information about the journey, or as a literary genre to be described and classified.6 From Hilda Prescott's 1950s description of Fabri's journeys, to Nicole Chareyron's 2000 portrayal of the medieval Jerusalem pilgrimage experience,7 scholars often consider pilgrimage literature to be unproblematic; it is "writing about the real world" (littérature de réalité) in Chareyron's words.8 While this may be true to some extent, we cannot take these accounts simply as transparent reflections of reality. If we ignore the processes of creation and reception of these texts, reading them only to discover how much passage to the Holy Land might have cost, or for descriptions of the principal sites visited by Western pilgrims, then we also miss seeing how those descriptions are colored by their authors' own particular views and circumstances.

Both approaches have insights to offer. Discussions of genre are valuable in helping to illuminate the processes...


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