The waters of the Holy Land

Good day fair readers. I am currently feeling replete with good Chinese food and green tea, and sitting near the window observing the glorious sunny weather. A sense of optimism and cheerful good spirits have gifted today with something of a roseate glow, and I hope that this post finds everyone else happy and well. Having refilled my water bottle (the notion of drinking water while writing about water is appealing..), I am ready to talk more about my research.

Today my thoughts turn towards water and the ever-present medieval Christian tradition of pilgrimage. The desire to visit and directly experience and interact with holy landscapes (the Holy Land in particular) may be understood as a re-enactment of the experiential layer of Christian history. By visiting and interacting with holy sites, objects, cities and structures once associated with the meta-narrative of Christian history, the pilgrim could place themselves closer to the source of their spiritual aspirations, to reenact the wanderings and peregrinations of Biblical figures such as Moses and the Israelites or Christ and his disciples, or more contemporary sacred figures in the form of the Saints.

Within the pilgrim’s narrative, water could be understood as a component of this overarching biblical and sacred narrative: the rivers, lakes, seas, fountains and springs of the Holy Land (or any other sacred locus) were not merely a part of the landscape, but a part of one’s re-enactment of sacred history. In Pilgrim Voices: Narrative and Authorship in Christian Pilgrimage, Coleman and Elsner had this to say on the subject of the Holy Land:

“Indeed, properly understood, the Holy Land should itself be treated as a relic (albeit on a vast and nonportable scale), rather than as the source and origin of relics. Thus a fragment of wood is not to be thought holy because it comes from the Holy Land; the Holy Land itself is holy only because it has been, like a portable relic, in contact with the Divine. And the specific place and time of Christ’s incarnation is not a limitation for the Holy Spirit, which may inspire one’s vision of the Dee or the Jordan, or the Thames”

To travel to the holy land, to touch the waters of the sacred jordan or to drink from the wells and to bathe in the pool of Bethesda (or any pool thought to be the pool of Bethesda, including the pool so confidently described by the Mandeville author as the Probatica Piscina in Mandeville’s Travels on p.83 of the Moseley edition) was to directly interact with the divine events of the Old and (more relevantly) New Testaments, to physically experience the making of Christian soteriology oneself. The properties of water were powerful within the medieval imagination, yet they were even more so in the Holy Land: the entire relic/landscape served to embody and amplify all that was holy in the world through the spiritual remnants of Biblical events imbued into the soil, plants and water.

The 15th century traveller Felix Fabri described an incident in his ‘Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctae, Arabiae et Egypti peregrinationem’ in which the knights who accompanied him to the holy land dived into the River Jordan fully clothed, in the belief that their garments, when imbued with its holy power, would become impervious to swords and arrows. The river, made holy by the Baptism of Christ, was filled with the power of a second Creation, blessing the waters of the world by divine mandate. In The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by K. McDonnell, baptism of Christ in the Jordan is explicitly linked to an early Christian belief that through Incarnation and the Baptism of Christ, the waters of the world were imbued with the qualities of salvation:

“This theme has a long history in both orthodox and heterodox circles. Already Ignatius of Antioch says: ‘He was born and has been baptized in order to purify the water by his passion,’ a theme taken up by both Clement of Alexandria, and the Gospel of Philip, very likely composed in the second century. Further, the theme is extensive in the literature of the early Church.”

The spiritual longing to experience and possess the Holy Land is perhaps one of the most frequent and powerful longings within the medieval Christian psyche. The desire to embark on pilgrimage to this sacred landscape is understandable within this context: its waters are a direct link to the symbolic salvation embodied in Christ, for with his baptism, the divine and mundane were fused once more, repairing the sundering of the Fall. I believe that a good understanding of the concepts discussed in this post are of crucial importance to any medievalist, for they help to contextualize and explain the intense longing for the Holy Land that motivated so much of Christian history. Although there is nothing new within these ideas, I have found it very helpful to ponder the symbolic and spiritual dimensions of the Holy Land in more depth. Its history is one of water, from the parting of the Red Sea (a symbol of baptism in many texts) to the Healing Pool of Bethesda, its surface ‘disturbed’ by the touch of an Angel (after all, what more fitting analogy for the interaction of the divine and the mundane world could one ask for?).

In any case, I am about blogged out for the week. I am currently moving house, an arduous endeavor at the best of times, and more so when you are trying to do work on your PhD at the same time!

Best Wishes to all,



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