Getting by the Resort of the Pilgrims. The Franciscan Friars of Jerusalem and their Anglican Guests (1600-1612)

When recounting his visit to Jerusalem in 1601, the clergyman of the Aleppo Levant Company, William Biddulph, warned those of his countrymen who wanted to travel to Palestine about the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. In his words the friars are:

[for the most part] very kinde and courteous to strangers in all things, liberty of conscience only excepted, wherein they seeke to make others like unto themselves, and to seduce them from their faith, and to win them to the Church of Rome.

As Biddulph himself had found out, travellers in Palestine often came into contact with the reformed Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. The presence of the Franciscans in Jerusalem dates back to the 13th century. After the defeat of the Franks, the Franciscans with all the other religious orders had to leave the Holy City, but in the following decades they were allowed by the Mamluk authorities to go back to Jerusalem. When the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Jerusalem in 1517, the monks were confirmed as the guardians of the Holy Sepulchre but after a while they were forced to leave Mount Zion and moved to the Saint Saviour Monastery. In the 17th century, in addition to this, the friars owned houses and monasteries in places that were meaningful for the Christian tradition, such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, or for the European trade, such as Sidon. They were headed by a Guardian, generally Italian, who was in charge for three years and were supported by the alms that arrived from “Christendom” and the Catholic kings, especially the Kings of France.

 

Foto di Nick115 da Pixabay

 

As Biddulph himself had found out, travellers in Palestine often came into contact with the reformed Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. The presence of the Franciscans in Jerusalem dates back to the 13th century. After the defeat of the Franks, the Franciscans with all the other religious orders had to leave the Holy City, but in the following decades they were allowed by the Mamluk authorities to go back to Jerusalem. When the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Jerusalem in 1517, the monks were confirmed as the guardians of the Holy Sepulchre but after a while they were forced to leave Mount Zion and moved to the Saint Saviour Monastery. In the 17th century, in addition to this, the friars owned houses and monasteries in places that were meaningful for the Christian tradition, such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, or for the European trade, such as Sidon. They were headed by a Guardian, generally Italian, who was in charge for three years and were supported by the alms that arrived from “Christendom” and the Catholic kings, especially the Kings of France.

Since the Middle Ages the friars had been responsible for hosting pilgrims, guarding the Holy Places and giving spiritual assistance to foreigners coming from “Christendom”. The number of pilgrims hosted at the Saint Saviour monastery varied across the centuries and depended on the political circumstances. Between 1600 and 1612, for example, the number of pilgrims hosted by the friars was 140. The friars had also to accompany their guests during their visit to the Holy Sites and to collect from them the fees due to the Ottoman authorities.

While many earlier studies have focused on the relationship between the Franciscans and the Eastern churches, and especially on their struggles for the possession of the Holy Places, the friars’ encounters with Protestant visitors in Jerusalem have been little investigated. Nevertheless, the sources are abundant. First of all, the presence of Protestant pilgrims is extensively attested in by documents drafted by the Franciscans. Furthermore, British travellers, in particular, tend to mention their contacts with the friars in Jerusalem and their stay at the monastery. Although the Franciscan documents on the topic have still not been analysed, scholars who have dealt with travel literature have given accounts of early modern British travellers’ descriptions of their encounters with the friars, and remarked on their hostility towards Catholics. This attitude reflects the spread of ever more virulent anti-Catholic feelings in England over the course of the previous century. Indeed during the reign of Queen Elisabeth I – who had re-established the Church of England’s independence from Rome with the Act of Supremacy of 1558 – there was a growing identification between Catholicism and the efforts to overthrow her government. Catholicism, and especially religious orders, came to be identified with threat of foreign invasion. This was encouraged by numerous events which took place during the Elizabethan period such as the issue of the Papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis (1570), which excommunicated the Queen, and by the developments of international politics and especially by the Spanish attempt to invade England (1588). Though James I’s ascension to the English throne (1603) raised hopes among Catholics that they would enjoy a greater tolerance, in 1604, a bill against Catholics was issued. The situation further deteriorated after the “Gunpowder Plot”, and in 1606, when laws against recusancy were strengthened. The Popish Recusants Act was a return to the Elizabethan system of fines and restrictions and introduced an Oath of Allegiance, requiring Catholics to abjure as a «heresy» the doctrine that «princes excommunicated by the Pope could be deposed or assassinated».

English hostility toward Catholics and the stereotypes associated with them – Catholics being, it was said, «superstitious», «idolatrous» and greedy – clearly emerged in travellers’ accounts especially, although not exclusively, when travellers came in contact with the friars, for example in Jerusalem. Even though the travellers’ attitudes and their link with British anti-Catholicism have been noted by many scholars, neither the relationship between the travellers’ conducts and their anti-Catholic discourse nor the function that anti-Catholicism fulfils in travellers’ descriptions of their stay in Jerusalem have been analysed in a satisfactory fashion. In this regard Vitkus’ view that «English visitors […] were there […] as “anti-pilgrims” who are present in order to express their skepticism and testify to the false “idolatry” and “superstition” of the other Christians […]»is not entirely convincing. Concerning travellers’ participation in practices related to Catholic pilgrimages, for example, it has been pointed out by Paris O’ Donnell that Vitkus’ model fails to capture the complexity of their behaviour. The aim of the present article is to analyse the interactions between British travellers and the Franciscan friars in the light of the travellers’ anti-Catholic claims. In particular it investigates the British travellers’ stay at the friars’ monastery in Jerusalem in the first two decades of the 17th century. The analysis will focus on a small number of issues – arrival at the monastery, the time spent there, participation in Catholic ceremonies and payment for the hospitality received – crosschecking the travellers’ accounts against the Franciscan documentation. The use of the two sets of documentary sources is not only aimed at giving a more comprehensive picture but also at comparing the friars and the travellers’ points of view. The analysis of these episodes, moreover, will highlight the function of anti-Catholicism in travellers’ narratives and question the reliability of travellers’ accounts. The article argues that in spite of the anti-Catholic assumptions, the encounters between the Franciscans and English and Scottish visitors gave rise to a variety of situations that were mostly amicable.

In regard to the travellers’ anti-Catholic discourse, the article also argues that, in the cases analysed, it not only reflected the prevailing cultural values of their homeland but was also designed to testify to the travellers’ loyalty to their own faith and country and to deny any contamination by the Catholics. Julia Schleck has already shown how travelling was regarded as an inherently suspicious activity during which the conduct of the individual was not under the community’s control, and how travel writings therefore served to bolster a good reputation at home. This purpose was accomplished by mean of a detailed account of the traveller’s conduct in foreign lands.