The Memory Mavens, Part 14: Halbwachs and the Pilgrim of Bordeaux

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by Tim Widowfield

Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena

Once or twice a year, Academia likes to email me a link to Anthony Le Donne’s page, highlighting the third chapter from his magnum opus. In that chapter, entitled “History and Memory,” he introduces us to Maurice Halbwachs and his “seriously deficientLa topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Étude de memoire collective. I had once held out some hope that Le Donne would fix this chapter’s more obvious errors, such as calling Helena Constantine’s wife, but that’s never going to happen. So each time I read it, I sigh and shake my head.

The “Deficiencies”

In what ways, specifically, is La topographie lacking? Le Donne noted Halbwachs’s first deficiency was that “he relied heavily upon the account by the pilgrims [sic] of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.” It appears by his reference to “pilgrims,” Le Donne doesn’t understand that the first chapter of Halbwach’s book refers to a single Christian pilgrim who probably wrote this work in or soon after 333 CE.

The oldest testimony that we have of a traveler who went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage is a work called “The Account of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux.” We can place the exact date after the phrase: at Constantinople “albulavimus, Dalmatio et Zenophilo consulibus, d.III kal. Jun. Chalcædonia, etc.,” which is to say, 333 CE – 300 years after the passion and death of Christ, 263 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in by Titus, 198 years after the reconstruction of this city (Ælia Capitolina) by Hadrian. The voyage to Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Constantine, occurred around 326 CE. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 11, my translation)

[translator’s note] Wess. 571, 6-8, “Item ambulavimus Dalmatico et Zenophilo cons. III. kal. Iun. a Calcedonia et reversi sumus Constantinopolim VII kal. Ian. cons. Suprascripto.In the year 333, CE, these two men – Flavius Valerius Dalmatius and Marcus Aurelius Zenophilus – served joint consuls. See: Cuntz Otto and Gerhard Wirth. 1990. Itineraria Antonini Augusti et Burdigalense. Stuttgart: Teubner. See also: Stewart Aubrey and C. W Wilson. 1887. Itinerary from Bordeaux to Jerusalem [Itinerarium Burdigalense]: “The Bordeaux Pilgrim“; (333 A.D.)

Any fair reading of the text must recognize the heavy reliance on the pilgrim’s work. After all, it starts on page 11 and rambles on for 52 pages. Why did Halbwachs spend so much time referring to the pilgrim’s itinerary? He was forthright about his reasons for doing so.

Consider this text: how could we not take some time to study it? It is a unique remnant, closest to the period in which the events recounted in the gospels would have taken place, before which we find only a few texts in the writings of the early Church Fathers, but no continuous account from someone who witnessed the places. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 11, my translation)

He reminds us that the next instance we have of such an itinerary comes fifty years later with the Peregrinatio ad loca sancta by the Galician nun, Egeria (Ætheria).

Fifty years is a long time in a century where, after the construction of Constantine, many new traditions were quickly established. Moreover, in this second 60-page text, Ætheria’s journeys to Sinai, Mount Nebo, Mesopotamia and Cilicia – i.e. places mentioned only in the Old Testament – take up a significant part. Ætheria lived in Jerusalem for three years. She emphasizes ceremonies that take place on different days of the year around the Holy Sepulcher and Calvary, on Mount Zion, at Eleona, and on the Mount of Olives. She describes them meticulously and vividly; but there are only a few topographical indications. (Halbwachs, 1941, p. 12, my translation)

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA: Cristo y la samaritana, 1310-1311

A Foundation

Notwithstanding this heavy reliance, a fair reading of the text must also acknowledge that Halbwachs does not rely solely upon our pilgrim, but quite often uses his work as a kind of baseline — a foundation upon which to compare other descriptions and analyses. Each successive account gives us a new perspective, but the pilgrim’s account is the first nearly complete itinerary of the sites — all the more valuable, because it describes the situation directly after Constantine and Helena made their marks on Palestine.

(I will note here that Halbwachs mentioned Constantine by name over 30 times, which I think you’ll agree is a rather unusual way to “neglect” the emperor. We’ll return to that theme later on.)

Remember, too that Halbwachs himself visited some of the same sites and had his own memorable experiences. Take, for example, Jacob’s Well (later believed to be place where Jesus met the Samaritan woman):

Dalman remarks that Jerome and others have identified Sichem with the city of Sychar. But, he adds, the Bordeaux pilgrim mentions, at a distance of one thousand paces from Sichem, a particular Sekhar, from which the Samaritan woman would have come to Jacob’s well. Is it the current village of Askar, which is about 1.5 kilometers from Jacob’s well, at the foot of Mount Ebal? “The only certain thing is the location of Jacob’s well, which present-day Samaritans, however, dispute as a deceptive invention of the priests. Since the time of the Bordeaux pilgrim, the tradition regarding this point has not changed.” . . .

The name of Jacob must have been given to this well because the surrounding areas considered it as a possession acquired by the patriarch according to Joshua 24:32. “This,” Dalman continues, “does not agree with the testimony of the Bordeaux pilgrim regarding the tomb of Joseph established in this property of Jacob. The pilgrim viewed this tomb far from the well, at the foot of the slope of Mount Gerizim.” However, there were springs there that would have made digging the well unnecessary. But, as the knowledgeable explorer-theologian adds, what characterizes Jacob’s well is its proximity to a major crossroad. It is situated on a road used by travelers on the way from Jerusalem to the region of Nazareth (which leaves us uncertain as to whether it was indeed dug by Jacob). And yet, the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well? He himself drank from it, as did his sons and his livestock.” We also drank water from this well, in the crypt that is surmounted by the main altar of the church with three naves, dating back to the time of the Crusaders (which succeeded two or three other churches built successively since the time of Jerome). It was drawn for us in a bucket by a morose and taciturn Greek priest. (Halbwachs 1941, pp. 15-16, my translation, bold emphasis added)

Notice here, we have several layers of reflection: Halbwachs on Dalman, Dalman on the Bordeaux Pilgrim, and the pilgrim on both the Old and New Testament. The traditions and memories rest upon one another like geological strata. This longterm perspective fosters valuable insights.

Halbwachs’s “Neglect”

Clearly, Halbwachs noted the changes in tradition effected under the direction of Constantine, specifically through the building projects initiated by his mother.

As I said earlier, this first chapter goes on for many pages. I’m still working at the first draft of its translation, but already I’ve seen several references to Constantine. After scolding Halbwachs for his total neglect of Constantine’s role in the localization of holy sites, he adds this footnote:

Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 2.46; 3.30-32. Constantine’s wife [sic] Helena is also reputed to have traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to establish monuments at the place of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives. See H. Lietzmann, From Constantine to Julian: A History of the Church, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 147. (Le Donne 2009, p. 44)

But oddly enough, we find this paragraph in Halbwachs’ first chapter:

“The dome of the Mount of Olives was not cultivated (Dalman, p. 342). The most active part was certainly the southern one, over which the road to Bethany and Jericho passed . . . Most likely, the remains uncovered by the excavations are those of the oldest ecclesiastical construction at the site, namely the basilica on the Mount of Olives built by the mother of Emperor Constantine (this is the one mentioned by the pilgrim and also by Eusebius in Vita Constantini, 3.43). It is often called the Eleona, from the Greek word ἐλαιών, meaning olives. It perpetuated the memory of the place where Jesus instructed his disciples about the final mystery. In Matthew 24:3, it is stated: “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be?'” Following this, in verse 25, there is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. In Mark 13:3, it is mentioned: “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple.” (Halbwachs 1941, pp. 46-47, my translation, bold emphasis added)

Perhaps Le Donne was thrown off by the reference to la mère de l’empereur instead of l’épouse. Much later, in the chapter specifically dealing with the Mount of Olives, Halbwachs wrote:

Before Constantine took an interest in the holy places of Palestine, the memory of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse was associated with a cave that opened towards the summit of the mount. According to a text from Eusebius, Helena built a unique church near the summit but not directly on the highest point, above the cave. As it was believed that Jesus had left this cave to ascend to his Father, the same structure (perhaps) perpetuated the memory of the Ascension as well as his teachings. In any case, the Pilgrim of Bordeaux only mentions the teaching. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 115, my translation)

Clearly, Halbwachs noted the changes in tradition effected under the direction of Constantine, specifically through the building projects initiated by his mother. Here’s another example with reference to Bethlehem:

The church to the south of Bethlehem is “one of the oldest in the world (deprived of its courtyard and disfigured in the front by a later composite building). There is no doubt that Emperor Constantine, or more precisely, his mother, Helena, had a church built on this site starting in 326 AD, and that the Pilgrim of Bordeaux visited it in 333 AD. However, different information appears in the annals of Patriarch Eutychius (10th century), according to which Justinian would have destroyed this church and had it replaced by another, larger one.” (Halbwachs 1941, p. 68, my translation, bold emphasis added)

One could miss much in a hurried search through the text. For example, I didn’t expect “chef de l’Empire” as a euphemism for “Emperor.” Musing about the journey of the Bordeaux Pilgrim, Halbwachs asks rhetorically:

Est-il descendu dans des établissements religieux, communautés de moines, auberges pour pèlerins (dont le nombre devait augmenter vite, à ce moment où l’attention du chef de l’Empire et de sa mère étaient tournés vers les lieux saints, où l’on commençait à y multiplier les églises) ?

Did he stay in religious establishments, communities of monks, or pilgrim hostels (whose numbers were likely increasing at that time, as the attention of the emperor and his mother turned to the holy places, and churches were being built in greater numbers)? (Halbwachs 1941, p. 17, my translation, bold emphasis added)

To erase any doubt you may have about the importance Halbwachs placed on Constantine and Helena, consider this sentence near the end of the book:

Thus, long before the Middle Ages, starting from the constructions of Constantine and Helena in the early 4th century, what will come to the forefront of Christian memory will be the scenes of the Passion and the Resurrection. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 199, my translation)

Behold the novel method by which Halbwachs has neglected Constantine — by mentioning him and his mother at every opportunity, and by acknowledging the early, profound, and revolutionary influence they had over the placement of the holy sites and the ways in which those would be experienced and re-remembered for centuries afterward.

More to Come

As I mentioned above, I’m still working on a full translation of the first chapter. Stay tuned.

Halbwachs, Maurice, La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Étude de memoire collective, Presses Universitaires de France (Quadrige/PUF), 2008 (1st ed., 1941, 2nd ed., 1971)

Halbwachs, Maurice, (tr. Widowfield, Timothy) The Legendary Topography of the Holy Land: A Study in Collective Memory, 2023

Le Donne, AnthonyThe Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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