Peregrinations and Pilgrimages: Egeria and the Flour Soup

View from Mount Sinai

Rocks tumbled down the rugged sloping ground and dust spun like little tops as Egeria, a nun from early fourth-century Galicia, climbed toward the rocky summit of Mount Sinai. From that craggy point, she gazed at a world she defined by the holy sites mentioned in the Bible.

And from there we saw beneath us Egypt and Palestine, the Red Sea, and the Parthenian Sea which leads to Alexandria, and finally the endless lands of the Saracens. (53)

At night, lying on whatever poor bed she found, and she didn’t waste time mentioning earthly trivia like beds, Egeria recorded details of her iterneraria in the Holy Land, or pilgrimage, in S. Silvae Aquitanae peregrinato ad loca sancta.* Providing one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Western pilgrimage,** Egeria actually made several pilgrimages. The diary we read today covers four of those pilgrimages: the Mount Sinai venture tracing the route of Exodus, a foray to Mount Nebo where Moses died, a trip to Job’s tomb in Hauran, and a journey to St. Thomas’s tomb in Edessa, as well as a detour to Abraham’s house in Carrhae. Keep in mind that Roman soldiers kept her secure during her various stops at various forts along the way.

Ancient shoes and sandals

Like most pilgrims who walked miles each day on their journeys, Egeria needed to eat in order to maintain her strength and endurance.  And to keep her blisters from festering. Assume Egeria weighed in at 100 pounds, with a height of fifty-seven inches, and walked ten miles a day. (The Burgundy Pilgrim — see below — walked twenty miles a day.) Egeria, a little “drink of water,” needed at least 570 extra calories per day over her base caloric needs of 1617 to maintain her weight, especially if she carried anything heavier than a Bible. Let’s say she hoisted a pack weighing twenty pounds; after all, she couldn’t leave out the extra tunica or pair of sandals, could she? In that case, with sandals and tunica and whatever else,  she’d require approximately 680 extra calories to keep moving.

Unfortunately, she wrote more about nourishing herself on the Divine Word than on dates and melons. But occasionally she mentioned food. Monks, or Desert Fathers, provided much of the food scarfed down by the hungry pilgrims, foretelling the hospitality function of the future Benedictine monasteries dotting the countryside of Europe after St. Benedict founded what became the Benedictine “order” in the sixth century. One of the underlying reasons that the Benedictines (and later monastics) practiced the hospitality they did came about because of pilgrimages. Offering safe havens in the lawless and chaotic post-Rome world, monasteries and monastics, in my opinion, created patterns of behavior that we still see today, albeit only vignettes — in recipes, in kitchen work, and in long narrow wooden tables, taken from the idea of the refectory table.

Egeria wrote, predicting the future in a way,

There [Mount Sinai] the holy monks carefully plant bushes and lay out little orchards and the fruit which they have seemingly raised with their own hands they take from, as it were, the soil of the mountain itself. (53)

She also spent time in Jerusalem during Lent and observed that fasting centered around flour soup, which was probably not unlike the famous Swiss Basler Mehlsuppe served at Carnival time in Basel, Fasnacht, which begins at 4 a.m. on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Likely the flour soup she ate did not contain appetite-stimulating fat, for she mentioned that during Lent people put olive oil in the category of prohibited foods.

Like most pilgrims, Egeria endured constant hardship.  Although she did not zero in on her fellow pilgrims (!), bedbugs and weevils,  she witnessed the scenes of the stories that fed her as much as food. Paul Elie, in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, defined pilgrimage in a way that’s comprehensible, even to those not driven to set out on a religious quest:

A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience. (x)

Certainly a person going on a pilgrimage that would last for months could not possibly carry their food with her. She must of necessity partake of the food of the regions she passes through. Thus, I think, that there’s some work to be done on determining what foods would have been available to a pilgrim such as Egeria.

Using Egeria’s diary as a guidepost, it might be useful to examine a number of sources – archaeological evidence, modern cookbooks such as Kitty Morse’s A Biblical Feast, maps that recreate the time period (4th century), climate data, and so on – in order to hypothesize just what she may have eaten and what she might have take back to Galicia with her.

Flour Soup
Serves 6

Many cultures make a version of this soup, among them Poland with its Zur Starpolski and Germany’s Brennsuppe.

4 T. butter or other fat
¾ cup flour
1 ½ quarts stock or water

Make a dark brown roux with the fat and flour. Add the liquid and simmer for 45 minutes. Season with black pepper, nutmeg, or other spices.  Serve with grated cheese on top and plenty of bread.

Calories per serving: Approximately 117, made without stock, cheese, or other embellishments. The importance of bread (and ale) as additional caloric sources cannot be overemphasized. Without fat, the caloric count dips to 40 …


*Also known as Peregrinatio Aetheriae or Itinerarium Egeriae. Quotes from: Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, Translated and Annotated by George E. Gingras. New York: Newman Press, 1970. #38 of the Ancient Christian Writers series: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, edited by Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler. Whether or not Egeria was a professed nun is moot, but likely she was.

**  Itinerarium Burdigalense, the earliest written account of a Western pilgrimage, appeared circa 333 A.D.  It reads more like a verbal map than a diary.  Archaeological evidence suggests that people traveled to sites like Stonehenge from as far away as the Mediterranean.

© 2010, 2015 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “Peregrinations and Pilgrimages: Egeria and the Flour Soup

  1. Hi Penny, thanks. I just ordered the Prospect Books series through interlibrary loan, hopefully I will find something of interest in them! I now trying to find a fairly accurate and accessible map of pilgrimage routes in Europe, those that went to the Holy Land, as well as Santiago de Compostela and other locales.

  2. fascinating cindy. when i was at oxford this year i bought “food and drink in archaeology” which is completely gripping, although covering a long time before egeria – the results of a trawl of a sewer in herculaneum, english diet from the mid-saxon period, but still much food for thought. often pondered the idea of a project here following the troubadour route over the alps. how interesting it would be to do it with accompanying diet. x

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