Adomnán, in his On the Holy Places, reports the recent visit of the Franco-Gallic bishop Arculf to a church dedicated to *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033) in the valley of Josaphat, Jerusalem, containing her empty tomb. Written in Latin at Iona (north-west Britain), possibly 683/689.
Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries
Adomnán, On the Holy Places - Book One
XII. DE ECLESIA SANCTAE MARIAE SEMPER UIRGINIS IN UALLE IOSAPHAT FABRICATA IN QUA MONUMENTUM EIUS HABETUR
1. Sanctorum locorum sedulus frequentator sanctus Arculfus sanctae Mariae eclesiam in Iosaphat frequentabat; cuius dupliciter fabricatae inferior pars sub lapideo tabulato mirabili rotunda structura est fabricata; 2. in cuius orientali parte altarium habetur, ad dexteram uero eius partem Mariae saxeum inest uacuum sepulchrum, in quo aliquando sepulta pausauit. 3. Sed de eodem sepulchro quo modo uel quo tempore aut a quibus personis sanctum corpusculum eius sit sublatum uel in quo loco resurrectionem exspectat nullus, ut refert, pro certo scire potest [...]
'(12) CONCERNING A CHURCH OF THE HOLY MARY EVER VIRGIN, CONTAINING HER TOMB, WHICH IS BUILT IN THE VALLEY OF JOSAPHAT
A sedulous frequenter of holy places, the holy Arculf used to visit the church of the holy Mary in the valley of Josaphat. It is two-storied, and the lower story, which has a stone ceiling, is built with wondrous roundness. In the eastern portion of it is an altar, and at the right hand side of the altar is the empty stone sepulchre of the holy Mary, where she was once laid to rest. But how, or when, or by what persons her holy remains were removed, or where she awaits the resurrection, no one, as it is said, can know for certain ...'
Text and translation: Meehan 1958, 56-9.
Cult building - independent (church) Non Liturgical Activity
Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave
Visiting graves and shrines
Noted absence of relicsProtagonists in Cult and Narratives
Ecclesiastics - bishops
SourceOn the Holy Places records across three books the travels of Arculf, an otherwise unknown Gallic bishop (sanctus episcopus gente Gallus), through diverse sacred sites in Jerusalem (Book one); Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Book two); and Constantinople and Sicily (Book three). In the preface, Abbot Adomnán of Iona (ob. 704) explains that ‘in response to my careful enquiries he dictated to me … this faithful and accurate record of all his experiences … first I wrote it down on tablets (tabulis): it will now be written succinctly on parchment (in membranis breui)’. Bede, writing in 731, would lreport that Adomnán gave a copy of the volume to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (northern Britain) on a visit to his kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 5.15). We know from Adomnán himself and other Irish sources that at least two such visits took place, in 687 and 689, thus establishing the latter date as the probable terminus ante quem for the work. Its terminus post quem is more difficult to determine. Meehan supposed that the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) might have occasioned Arculf’s visit to the imperial capital. This is attractive, although ultimately conjectural. Yet if it were the case, we might – helped by Adomnán’s claim that the bishop spent nine months at Jerusalem – date Arculf’s adventures to around 679-82, and thereby the composition of On the Holy Places to no earlier than about 683. The work appears to have been popular. It survives in 22 manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th century continental productions. Bede spoke of its ‘many readers’ (legentibus multis), and produced his own abridged version of the text in around 703.
On the Holy Places is more, however, than a straightforward itinerary. Adomnán embellishes and adapts Arculf’s account throughout with his own authorities on the Holy Land: chiefly the works of Jerome, but also texts such as Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle, Hegesippus’ Histories, Iuvencus’ History of the Gospels, Eucherius of Lyon’s On the Layout of Jerusalem, as well as the Bible. Recent scholarship has also identified the degree to which the narrative of On the Holy Places is highly controlled and exegetical; this has asserted the text’s sophisticated theological qualities and, significantly, the authorial primacy of Adomnán, raising him above his status in older studies as merely Arculf’s amanuensis or ‘stenographer’ (O’Loughlin 2007). This has led in turn to the radical proposition that Arculf may perhaps have never existed, and been only a literary device of Adomnán. It appears strange, O’Loughlin has suggested, that Arculf’s journey appears to have accorded so well with Adomnán’s literary and theological interests; besides, the bishop is unheard of elsewhere, and the probability of him coming to Ireland or north-west Britain via a shipwreck (as Bede claimed), after a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, seems doubtful.
This may go too far. Further work has now reasserted the degree to which – in addition to, and in dialogue with, its literary models – Adomnán’s text does contain important evidence for the later 7th century Near East, which must have almost certainly come from a recent, eyewitness account (Hoyland and Waidler, 2014). The arguments against Arculf’s existence are in any case not compelling. Franco-Gallic episcopal lists survive patchily enough from the 7th century to account for his disappearance from his homeland’s records, while the suggestion he came directly to Britain through a shipwreck, after being swept away by storms, is made only by Bede, writing some years later: Adomnán and Arculf’s encounter could well have involved less drama than the Northumbrian monk imagined. Other sources show that connections between Gaul and the 7th century Irish church were relatively strong. It should not seem too surprising that the abbot of Iona might have found the opportunity to interview a figure such as Arculf at some point, shipwreck or not.
Adomnán’s account focuses almost entirely on biblical sites – many of his titular Holy Places are those directly associated with the life of Christ, and therefore not included in our database. Beyond these, the cult activity he reports almost exclusively revolves around Old and New Testament figures, most prominently Mary: of the post-biblical saints, only Jerome (E06084) and George (E06094) receive mention. Although Adomnán reports that Arculf visited a cult site of the latter in Palestine, he saves this story for his third book, set predominantly in Constantinople. This is noticeably distinct in tone from those that precede it, and the only part of the work to feature miracles, two of which explicitly involve the veneration of images and the gross ill-doing of those who offend them (E06094, E06117). If Brubaker and Haldon (2011) are correct in arguing that neither the Byzantine cult of images, nor the controversy over them, predated the period c. 680, then these closing passages of On the Holy Places would seem to confirm that Bishop Arculf’s journey was indeed a real one, and cannot have long preceded Adomnán’s adaptation and propagation of his account.
DiscussionThis passage has interesting implications for Adomnán's (and perhaps the wider Ionan community's) understanding/acceptance of the doctrine of the Assumption. Note that Bede, in his abridged version of On the Holy Places (5.3), omits Adomnán's remark that Mary's body still awaited its resurrection (see further Meehan 1958, 59, n. 1).
Meehan, D.M., Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3; Dublin, 1958), with English translation.
Bieler, L., Adamnanus, De locis sanctis libri tres, in: Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 175; Turnhout, 1965), 175-243 (see also 249-80 for Bede’s version).
Brubaker, L., and Haldon, J., Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge, 2011), 50-68, 781-2.
Hoyland, R.G., and Waidler, S., "Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East," English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 787-807.
Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, "Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/110
O’Loughlin, T., Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Locations of the Biblical Drama (New York, 2007).
|ID||Name||Name in Source||Identity||S00033||Mary, Mother of Christ||Maria||Certain|
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Benjamin Savill, Cult of Saints, E06077 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E06077