Cover image for Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims: Ascetic Travel in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 300–800 By Maribel Dietz

Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims

Ascetic Travel in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 300–800

Maribel Dietz


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05210-6

280 pages
6" × 9"

Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims

Ascetic Travel in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 300–800

Maribel Dietz

“This is a fine book and a good read. I can’t think of anything else that explores in such an original way the themes of pilgrimage and early asceticism from the age of Constantine to that of Charlemagne.”


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  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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Religious travelers were a common sight in the Mediterranean world during Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. In fact, as Maribel Dietz finds in Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims, this formative period in the history of Christianity witnessed an explosion of travel, as both men and women took to the roads, seeking spiritual meaning in a life of itinerancy.

Much of this early Christian religious travel was not focused on a particular holy place, as in the pilgrimage of later centuries to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. Rather, the inspiration was more practical. Travel was a way of escaping hostility or social pressures or of visiting living and dead holy people. It was also a means of religious expression of homelessness and temporary exile. The wandering lifestyle mirrored an interior journey, an imitation of Christ and a commitment to the Christian ideal that an individual is only temporarily on this earth.

Women were especially attracted to religious travel. In the centuries before the widespread cloistering of women, a life of itinerancy offered an alternative to marriage and a religious vocation in a society that excluded women from positions of spiritual leadership.

Eventually, ascetic travel gave way to full-fledged pilgrimage. Dietz explores how and why religious travel and monasticism diverged and altered so greatly. She examines the importance of the Cluniac reform movement and the creation of the pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela in the emergence of a new model of religious travel: goal-centered, long-distance pilgrimage aimed not at monks but at the laity.

Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims is essential reading for those who study the history of monasticism, for it was in a monastic context that religious travel first claimed an essential place within Christianity. It will also be important for anyone interested in pilgrimage and the role of women in the history of Christianity.

“This is a fine book and a good read. I can’t think of anything else that explores in such an original way the themes of pilgrimage and early asceticism from the age of Constantine to that of Charlemagne.”
“Maribel Dietz has captured the religious facets of a Late Antique world filled with movement, where administrative, legal, and strategic expectations already depended on complex systems of lodging, supply, and transportation. The resulting scenes of bustle and fatigue, of loneliness and excitement—the indispensable basis for more symbolic and imaginative displacement—carry us from the age of Constantine through the periods of barbarian settlement and Islamic expansion. The author is as careful as her sources in distinguishing between mere restlessness and a disciplined rejection of security. Spain provides a paradigm; the special interest of women is acknowledged; and a rich context is supplied for the familiar but narrower phenomenon of pilgrimage. To read the book is to embark on a fresh and exhilarating journey.”
“Dietz’s book is amply researched and handsomely written. In it one meets some of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity.”
“Dietz provides a counterpart to the apparent single-minded scholarly focus on pilgrimage to holy sites as the only ‘religiously motivated travel.’ This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in early Christian travel around the Mediterranean world.”

Maribel Dietz is Associate Professor of History at Louisiana State University.



1. The Culture of Movement

2. Early Iberian Religious Travelers: Egeria, Orosius and Bachiarius

3. Monastic Rules and Wandering Monks

4. Women and Religious Travel

5. Travel and Monasticism on the Iberian Peninsula

6. Post-Islamic Monastic Travel





In a letter of A.D. 399 to Oceanus, Jerome says of the travels of the Roman widow Fabiola, “Rome was not large enough for her compassionate kindness. She went from island to island, and traveled round the Etruscan Sea, and through the Volscian province . . . where bands of monks have taken up their home, bestowing her bounty either in person or by the agency of holy men of faith.” Eventually, and predictably, Fabiola sailed to Jerusalem. Though Jerome urged her to stay in the East, she instead wanted to resume her travels, living out of her “traveling baggage . . . a stranger (peregrina) in every city.” Fabiola did not take Jerome’s advice, but instead followed another path, one that others before her, including many women, had followed. She left Jerusalem and resumed her travels, eventually returning to her home in Rome. Once again, Jerome states that she wanted to escape—she felt confined, and this time, against the advice of her Roman friends, she departed with a wealthy widower, Pammachius, and set up a xenodochium, a hostel for travelers, in Ostia, which quickly became popular and attracted huge crowds.

Remarkable though her story is, Fabiola was not alone or even exceptional in combining travel and monastic life during late antiquity. Jerome’s account of Fabiola’s travels, her patronage of monks, and her foundation of a xenodochium is but one window into the world of late antique monastic travel. Her story hints at the riches that an exploration of the origins and development of Christian religious travel in the West might uncover. The relationship between monasticism and travel seems at first to be one of opposition, especially when seen in light of the Regula Benedictina and its precursor, the Regula Magistri, with their attacks on wandering monks. Further study, however, reveals a broad intersection of early monastic practices and itinerancy. This book explores that intersection, the world of men and women, such as Fabiola, who traveled and promoted travel for religious reasons, as a form of monasticism, with the belief that there was spiritual meaning in the itineracy itself. Though pilgrimage is a more familiar mode of Christian religious travel, and the one that eventually eclipsed all others, it was in a monastic milieu that religious travel first claimed an essential place within Christianity.

Between the fourth and the eighth centuries there were many incentives leading the Christian toward a life of movement. Escape from hostility, escape from social pressures, escape from the mundane, and the urge to commune with holy men and women, both living and dead—these were all motives for travel. The life of movement that could result from these motives came to constitute a special form of monastic spirituality derived from a quest for the ascetic qualities of the state of detachment, detachment from homeland and from family. Douglas Burton-Christie traces this theme of exile and detachment in the early formation of desert monasticism in his seminal work on the essential role of scripture and the monastic urge to become the embodiment of scripture.

Evidence from a wide variety of sources points to the special religious value placed on travel by monks and other religious figures. Monasticism in late antiquity was itself a loosely defined, multifaceted phenomenon that incorporated a wide variety of ascetic practices. Among the monastic practices that arose during this period and in the absence of a commonly accepted paradigm of monastic behavior were a variety of forms of religious travel. Much of this early Christian religious travel focused not on a particular holy place, but rather on travel as a practical way of visiting living and dead holy people, and as a means of religious expression of homelessness and temporal exile. The theme of travel and pilgrimage to living holy people has recently been explored by Georgia Frank. Although her travelers are not monastic, the phenomenon of this sort of travel in Egypt helps to create a richer picture of religious travel in late antiquity, one that contains a multiplicity of meanings and practices. Though often criticized by contemporaries, monastic travel was clearly a reality of the late antique world.

Monastic travel mirrored an interior journey or quest on both an individual level, the journey of the soul toward God and heavenly Jerusalem, and on the level of the church as a whole, as manifested in Augustine’s notion of the City of God’s journey on Earth. This mirroring quality of the inward journey attracted many early Christians. Travel was viewed as an imitation of the life of Christ, a literal rendering of the life of a Christian, a life only “temporarily on this earth.” One was a wanderer until death, and with death eternal life in the Christian’s true homeland, heavenly Jerusalem. This idea was echoed by Orosius, Augustine’s famous letter carrier and himself a long-distance traveler, when he wrote, “I enjoy every land temporarily as my fatherland, because what is truly my fatherland and that which I love, is not completely on this earth.”

The idea of perpetual pilgrimage, although in an allegorical form, is also found in the writings of the Church Fathers, who used it, curiously enough, to denigrate itinerant spirituality of the terrestrial sort. Authors such as Augustine, Jerome, and much later, Bede pointed to the notion of the spiritual “homelessness” of the Christian, whose true home was in the heavenly paradise, the idea that all Christians were always temporary sojourners on earth. Implicit and sometimes explicit in these discussions was a critique of those who took the image of homelessness ad literam by traveling constantly. Physical travel also served as a corporeal metaphor for spiritual progress and movement, with the journey itself reflecting the spiritual growth of the traveler. Augustine uses this metaphor in his Confessions with his discussion of his journey of the soul and his own physical journey from Thagaste to Carthage, Rome, Milan, and back to Africa.

Recently, Mediterranean culture and society in the transitional phase linking the ancient and medieval periods has been the focus of a great deal of historical study. The impact of monasticism on this world, however, was long obscured by the perceived nature of the institution, its isolation and separation from society. Monasticism in its many forms, scholars are now acknowledging, played an integral role in the social, cultural, and political history of this period. Path-breaking work in this area has been done by Philip Rousseau. His works have explored the development of early monasticism in relation to the greater fabric of late antique society. Recent scholarship has made great strides in the investigation of monks and their relation to the society around them. The wandering monks discussed by Daniel Caner were part of the economic and social fabric of the eastern Mediterranean. These proto-mendicants claimed to offer their prayers and sanctity in return for material support, though not without some controversy and opposition from authorities. Caner views these monks as operating within a model of apostolic poverty. These studies have revealed monasticism as a socially and politically important phenomenon, which could challenge episcopal and civic authority. They have helped to reveal the role of the holy man and holy woman in society. Some scholars have traced the early tensions between anchoritic and cenobitic monasticism, and most recently turned their attention to the important role of women in early ascetic practices and in the spread of monasticism in Asia Minor.

Large number of monks fleeing civic and familial duties in order to lead monastic lives had a profound effect on society. The movement spread quickly because of the rapid circulation of accounts of famous monks, such as Antony, Pachomius, and Paul the Hermit. It was hearing the story of Antony that triggered Augustine’s final conversion; it was a monastic impulse, an impulse fulfilled in his first actions upon conversion: to resign his position in Milan, to not marry but instead begin a chaste life, and to flee society. He retired to a life of monastic pursuits and contemplation at Cassiciacum with a small group of his friends, and when he returned to Africa, he started a similar community in Thagaste. But Augustine is only one example of the effects of the monastic impulse. For women, monasticism offered an alternative to marriage or remarriage, as well as a way of fulfilling a religious vocation in a world where they were increasingly barred from leadership positions in the church.

The Regula Benedictina, written in Italy in the middle of the sixth century, presents a set of monastic regulations that was to become by the tenth century the most influential monastic rule in Western Europe. It prescribes for the monk a life of stability in a monastery, under a written rule and an abbot, emphasizing the isolation and otherworldliness of the monastery itself. Through the spread and dominance of the Benedictine Rule these attributes became so powerfully identified with monks and monasteries in the West that they have become part of their very definitions. The pervasive influence of the Benedictine Rule so overshadowed the early diversity of Western monasticism that it has often led some to project this identity even on monastic practices predating the rule. Thus the reification of stability as a defining element of Western monasticism from its beginnings that has obscured the true diversity of early monasticism in the West and has in turn excluded travel as a possible monastic pursuit. One work that has avoided this pitfall is Marilyn Dunn’s recent book, which explores important relationship between Eastern and Western monasticism, as well as the eventual development of Benedictine monasticism. Dunn is one of the few scholars who treats the full diversity of early monastic experience.

The Regula Benedictina and its important predecessor, the Regula Magistri, both in fact discuss monastic travel in detail. Although both rules condemn the practice of monastic wandering, both clearly present travel as a fact of daily monastic life. The denunciations of the gyrovague have been interpreted as satires or rhetorical devices to better expound the virtues of proper monastic behavior based on stability. A great deal of internal evidence and evidence from other rules and a variety of other sources, however, points to a different interpretation of these canonical texts, and suggests that the monastic travel they condemn was a reality.

Pilgrimage is the most widely known of all forms of religiously motivated travel. The title “pilgrim” has been bestowed on a wide variety of religious travelers, sometimes without careful attention to either the meaning of the term or to the precise motivation for and structure of the journey in question. Indeed, the word “pilgrimage” has taken on such a variety of powerful connotations that it has often distorted the actual practices it purports to describe. The meanings the terms peregrinus and peregrinatio acquired in the Middle Ages have often served, since that time, to mask the diversity and unique structures of religious travel before that time, especially for the late antique period.

Many have assumed that Christian pilgrimage traces its roots to biblical injunction and that the practice began in the early church, thereafter existing as a relatively unbroken and unchanging tradition, isolated from temporal, geographic, and cultural contexts. Even the study of Christian liturgy, by its nature a conservative and defiantly unchanging topic, has not been accorded the static uniformity in practice and function that the study of pilgrimage has. Pilgrimage appears to occupy a rarefied place in studies of the late antique and medieval worlds.

In this study, I distinguish monastic travel from pilgrimage—that is to say, goal-centered, religious travel for an efficacious purpose. A close examination of late antique spiritual itinerants, however, provides a clearer and more nuanced account of religious travel. It allows us to consider travel as part of a wandering and ascetic life, either on a voluntary basis or as a religious justification for forced migration. Many of what have been considered attacks on pilgrimage in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages might be better understood as attacks on ascetic or monastic travel.

The Mediterranean basin was the birthplace of Christian religious travel, and hence defines the geographical focus of this study. As a movement, monasticism physically spread from the East to the West via the travels of people, books, and stories of the monks. Many in Spain and Italy wished to visit the legendary monks of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, and the Mediterranean, rather than being an impediment, provided a convenient means of access. The Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and the Holy Land all had a special role in early Christian travel, and subsequently these regions provide the strongest evidence of religious travel and travelers. It was also here that by the Middle Ages, important pilgrimage sites first emerged: Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Rome in Italy, and Jerusalem in the Holy Land. This study also explores the special role of women in early Christian travel, not because I wish to focus on them, but because women, in their roles as travelers and patrons, emerged as a crucial element in the source material. While it is accurate to say that both women and men traveled for religious reasons in this period, the conjunction of travel, monasticism, and patronage seems to have been particularly appealing to women. Women and their religious lives emerge throughout the chapters of this book. This culture of monastic travel comes to an abrupt end, particularly for women, by the ninth century with the emergence of a more fully cloistered monastic experience for women. An Egeria or Melania would be hard to imagine in the Carolingian period. Even royal or imperial travel by women—such as the voyage of the Byzantine princess Theophano to the Ottonian court for her wedding to Otto II—was considered exceptional and extraordinary in the tenth century.

The chapters of this study are thematic in nature, though they do roughly follow in chronological order, exploring the development of ascetic travel between the fourth and eighth centuries. The earlier chapters primarily deal with the fourth through sixth centuries, and the last three chapters are concerned with the sixth through eighth centuries. The first chapter discusses travel in the ancient and medieval world, describing the rich culture surrounding movement in late antique Mediterranean society through a discussion of the logistics of travel, differing motives for travel, and the growing opposition to religious travel in particular. This points to a marked increase in travel that took place in the late antique period in spite of the many hardships travelers faced.

Chapter 2 explores the lives of two well-known travelers, Egeria and Orosius, who, though they made similar journeys only a generation apart, are rarely discussed together or seen in the same light. The voyages and writings of both these figures, viewed alongside the writing of Bachiarius, point to a particular form of religious travel within a monastic milieu. Defying the patterns and assumptions of the anachronistic category of “pilgrim,” these Iberian travelers of the fourth and fifth centuries further elucidate the possibilities of an early interpretation of the monastic impulse that embraced travel and homelessness as essential to religious life and provide a model with which to analyze subsequent travelers.

Chapter 3 turns to evidence of the modes and meanings of monastic travel through a discussion of early written monastic rules and texts. It concentrates specifically on the emergence of the gyrovague or wandering monk as one of the categories of false monk within the developing typology of monks included in many Western monastic texts. The analysis of this typology serves as a way of understanding Western notions of legitimate monastic practices and highlights the importance of this often dismissed categorization. The Regula Magistri figures prominently in this chapter because of its invention of and near obsession with the gyrovague. The chapter finally turns to the regulations within the Regula Magistri concerning hospitality, reception of new members, and travel—all of which were viewed by the author of the rule as necessary but potentially dangerous to life in the monastery. I argue that the pervasiveness and vigor of these attacks on monastic travel and wandering serve as evidence that these practices were indeed present and provides us a unique insight into the structure and meaning of the religious wandering they sought to exclude from proper monastic behavior.

Chapter 4 focuses on the many Western women travelers to the East, exploring the role of monastic vocation and patronage in their journeys. Through a close examination of the women who traveled to Jerusalem, this chapter demonstrates the impact of travelers on the city and its Christian, and especially monastic, topography.

Much of the special nature of monastic travel can be traced to one crucial geographic region: the Iberian Peninsula, homeland of Egeria, Orosius, and Bachiarius. In Chapter 5, therefore, I trace the connections between Spanish monasticism and travel from the fourth century to the beginning of Islamic rule in the early eighth century. This chapter relies heavily on hagiographic evidence in addition to letters and monastic rules. Hagiography, or lives of the saints, is a special form of literature with its own conventions and a strong adherence to specific models, such as the Life of Antony and the lives written by Jerome. Previously historians shied away from using these sorts of texts because of their use of topoi and the overt attempts to mold facts into a story of the sanctity of a particular individual. By understanding the conventions of hagiography and the limitations inherent in its form, many modern-day historians have successfully used these texts to illuminate, not only the life of a particular individual, but also the social milieu, social interactions, and relations evidenced in the texts. By carefully peeling away the layers of topoi, and by exploring those areas where the text does not quite fit the conventions, one can begin to make use of hagiography. This is the case in Chapter 5, which relies on many Iberian works of hagiography, such as Lives of the Fathers of Mérida, the Life of Saint Fructuosus, and the Life of Saint Emilian.

Chapter 6 examines the evolution of Christian monastic travel in the seventh and eighth centuries, tracing the impact of Islam on the religious topography of Jerusalem and on Christian travel to the East, and the impact of Benedictine monasticism, with its emphasis on physical stability, on notions of monastic travel. The Mediterranean tradition of mostly firsthand accounts of monastic travel, like those of Egeria and the Piacenza Pilgrim, seems to vanish. Surprisingly, the only narratives of monastic travel in this period come from two insular writers, the Irish abbot of Iona, Adomnán, and the Anglo-Saxon nun, Huneberc, each of whom wrote a secondhand account of a long-distance, religious journey.

The epilogue explores how and why religious travel and monasticism diverged so greatly. It examines the importance of the Cluniac reform movement and the creation of the pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela in the emergence of a now model of religious travel: goal-centered, long-distance pilgrimage aimed at the laity rather than at monks.

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