The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 749-750
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The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity. By Georgia Frank. [The Transformations of the Classical Heritage, XXX.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2000. Pp. xiii, 219.)
Prominent among the many developments which reflected the process of 'Christianizing' the Roman empire in the fourth century and beyond was the increasing vogue for pilgrimage to the biblical sites of the Holy Land, where pious travelers and those who received them reawakened the Scriptural past out of the contemporary landscape of Palestine. But the yearning (desiderium) which impelled these early devotees was directed not merely at the sight of holy places, but equally at the 'holy' people who lived around and about them, chiefly the burgeoning monastic population of neighboring Egypt: the pilgrims' sacred journey, as this imaginative new volume reminds us, was not complete without coming face to face with these new ascetic heroes in their desert habitat.
Frank's book bases her exploration of these first travels to 'living saints' on two of the central texts of early Egyptian monasticism, the anonymous History of the [End Page 749] Monks in Egypt (Historia Monachorum) from the last decade of the fourth century and Palladius' Lausiac History (Historia Lausiaca) from some twenty years later, both of which recount the experience of a succession of encounters with the desert fathers of the day. Although these works preserve a firsthand record of real journeys, Frank is not primarily concerned with them as historical documents, and her readers will look in vain for any elucidation of the actual context and circumstances of these desert pilgrimages; her interest is in these texts as literary creations, and she interprets them against the background of a rich and diverse legacy of travel literature from classical antiquity. Preferring a broad reading of the term historia to denote a travelogue genre "presenting a distant and charmed world to audiences" (rather than the more precise connotation of investigative and exploratory journeying which a stricter definition would convey), Frank leads us, with the travelers themselves, into an exotic world of distant wanderings which span the boundaries of fact and fiction (one of her chapters is devoted to "imagined journeys"), and of pagan and Christian: her supporting material embraces both ancient novels and the apocryphal exploits of missionary apostles. By plunging the Egyptian texts into this literary milieu the book seeks to illuminate the perceptions and mentalité of those who traveled among the monks and who recorded their encounters and, equally importantly, of the audiences for whom they recorded them, for while few might actually set eyes on the monks in person, many more "armchair pilgrims" (Frank's happy phrase) could participate vicariously in the experience as it was disseminated through the literary medium.
The abiding theme of the book, as its title suggests, is that the essence of this experience was visual. Those same "eyes of faith" already familiar from pilgrims' accounts of their engagement with the holy places of Palestine here gaze intently upon the holy people of the Egyptian desert. Just as at the sacred sites pious travelers deployed their visual imagination to collapse contemporary surroundings into a past drawn from the pages of the Bible, so in the face of present-day monks they summoned up before their eyes the patriarchs, prophets, angels, even Christ himself, from the scriptural record. Vision, visualization, visibility, visuality, are terms which constantly recur in this book, and Frank continually re-emphasizes the "visual piety" which beheld the biblical past in all that it saw. Yet the apparent repetitiveness of the theme is helpfully alleviated by interesting excursions: some pages, for example, on how Christian preachers grappled with the issue of blindness in a culture which set such a premium on visual experience; or the link between ancient conceptions of memory and the senses of sight and touch (a combination which would be important in fostering the cult of relics and eventually icons in the Christian piety of late antiquity); and an informative...