The Einsiedeln Itineraries

The Einsiedeln monastery (Wikimedia Commons)

The Einsiedeln monastery (Wikimedia Commons)

It does not get more vintage than this when it comes to guidebooks to Rome. The library of the Einsiedeln monastery in Switzerland preserves a manuscript (number 326 in their collection), which is crucial for the birth and development of the modern guidebook. It consists of several parts, written by the same hand: first, a collection of 80 transcribed Latin (and some Greek) inscriptions from Rome (and a few, curiously, from Pavia). Next follows ten itineraries through Rome, a description of the walls of Rome, and a narrative about Easter liturgy in Rome. It is not known where, when and by whom the manuscript was written, but everything points towards a date in the late 8th or early 9th century.

The Einsiedeln library (Wikimedia Commons)

The Einsiedeln library (Wikimedia Commons)

The ten itineraries through Rome are not the most informative or stylistically flourishing pieces of text ever written. They consist simply of lists of monuments, placed in two columns: the monuments to the right and the monuments to the left when passing through Rome. Sometimes, the route goes straight through a triumphal arch (there were several ancient triumphal arches in Rome at the time, while today only three remains), and then the manuscript very pedagogically writes ’under the arch’ in the midst between the two columns. The manuscript is available on-line, so you can take a look at the beautiful handwriting here.

The itineraries usually start and end at one of the city gates. As many as three of them depart from Porta sancti Petri, St. Peter’s gate, which at that time existed at the east end of the Ponte S. Angelo of today. On the west side of this bridge, in the Borgo and around St. Peter’s and the Vatican area, several pilgrim hostels were located during the Middle Ages, so the focus on this area in the itineraries clearly points out the target group of the text: pilgrims.

Usually, it is only the name of the monument that is mentioned – and often in the corrupt or misinterpreted medieval variant – but sometimes, some extra words are spent on the value, size or beauty of an object: the statues of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, on the Quirinal hill are described as cavalli optimi, ’very good horses’.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta della Piazza di Monte Cavallo (Wikimedia Commons)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta della Piazza di Monte Cavallo, 18th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

The goals of these itineraries are not specified in the text. It is, however, highly probable that the martyr tombs in the catacombs and basilicas outside the walls are the obvious ending points for the routes. But – are the monuments, ancient ruins as well as Christian churches, only landmarks on the way to the real thing, or are they rather insisting that the devoted pilgrim should make deviations on his or her way to behold the Pantheon (called Rotunda) or the basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere with its golden mosaics? The answer to this question is probably that a certain sight-seeing had to be included in a journey to Rome already in the Middle Ages – on the one hand, the Roman ruins were pagan and thus threatening, on the other hand, precisely because they were ruins, they served as pedagogical and moral exempla of the vanity of all worldly things, even the grandeur of ancient Rome.


Read more:

For editions of the manuscript, see Georg Walser, Die Einsiedler Inschriftensammlung und der Pilgerführer durch Rom (1987) and Stefano del Lungo, Roma in età Carolingia e gli scritti dell’anonimo Augiense (2004).

The manuscript is also consultable online through the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland: http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/sbe/0326

To know more about pilgrims in Rome in the Middle Ages, see for example Debra J. Birch, Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages (1998).

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