Egeria (also known as Etheria or Silvia) is one of a handful of early Christian women writers whose work is known to survive.
She is the author of an account of her own pilgrimage to the sites of Christian interest in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, published in English most recently under the title Egeria’s Travels, translated and edited by John Wilkinson. (Other English translations can be found under the titles The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places; The Pilgrimage of Etheria and Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage). Of particular interest is her description of the Jerusalem Holy Week liturgies as they had come to be in the half-century since Constantine’s mother, Helena Augusta, had made a tour of the Holy Places of her own.
Egeria’s is a fascinating text for Late Antique historians, as well as for students of monasticism, liturgy, architecture and the Late Latin language. She leads us round a Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt full of monks of different sorts guarding Biblical sites of varying degrees of plausibility, and also full of tombs, churches and martyria. She describes the prayers she and her party said together, the details of their journey, and the different people who welcomed them, all in the form of a letter (more or less a journal) to a community of religious women back home whom she calls sisters, who have clearly asked for detailed reports on everything so they can imagine themselves there with her, seeing as she sees. She also describes visits to the shrines of St Euphemia in Chalcedon and St Thecla near Seleucia, and her delight in re-encountering at the latter site a deaconess called Marthana (the only person she names in her account) whom she had originally met at Jerusalem.
Her style reminds me of Jane Austen’s letters- chatty and factual, cramming in as much detail as possible of the sort she knew would be interesting to her audience, with no aim at the highly-crafted literary style on classical models in which so many Latin Christian letters of the late fourth-century were written. She has none of that fear of either theological or literary policing by a hostile audience which had become so common in ecclesiastical literature of the late-fourth century. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about her narrative is how little fear she shows about anything, given the fragile state of the East in the period she was traversing it, from 380 to 383. The Goths had killed the emperor Valens and cut down the flower of the imperial army two years before she began her pilgrimage. Syria, Palestine and Arabia were still vulnerable to attack both from the Persians and from local nomadic raiders. There are references to escorts of soldiers, and to sites on the frontier with Persia now unvisitable because they are in Persian territory. But Egeria is indefatigable, wanting to see everything there is to be seen, to visit every Biblical site, hear the Scripture passage associated with it read, and take part in the celebration of the Eucharist there if at all possible.
Egeria is clearly a woman of means and status, around whom bishops, monks and presbyters flock, and whom they are eager to escort to see the sacred sites. She may even be a connection of the emperor Theodosius I or someone in his entourage, since she probably came from Spain and seems to have travelled East at the same time as he did. But if so, she is no cossetted princess. She is constantly interested in other people and what they care about and what affects them.
This is particularly evident in her description of the Jerusalem liturgies over Holy Week and Eastertide. She tells us in detail what we learn from few other Christian sources in this period: how the laity engaged in the liturgical events she describes, including when they eat and how much sleep they do and don’t get, when they are tired and when they are so eager to take part in events that they don’t seem tired even when they should be. She notices how the crowd goes slowly when people are weary with fasting and watching, how the children are carried round their parents’ necks, how even the women and men of status go on foot, how those low and high and rich and poor all process together in a great throng. As the story of Judas’ betrayal is read, she reports that the whole people reacts with such cries and groans that no-one could fail to be moved to tears. She is with the people, one of them, observing them both as a whole people and as individuals.
What does Egeria tell is about women in the early Church? A great deal. She tells us much about what was possible for them, what they cared about, what they saw, how they were educated. Egeria knows her Bible backwards; she is interested in liturgical detail, but more interested in the people participating in it. Her deep piety is visible below the surface, not on it, but her wonder at all she has seen and heard is palpable. She found holiness everywhere she looked, but especially in the devotions of the people; appreciating Egeria demands that we look with similar sensitivity at the genuine piety of others.