Sigeric’s Roman Holiday

Attached is a modified version of a paper submitted to my SFU class on the history of Rome. In this time of covid, my Liberal Studies courses have kept me busy, given me purpose, structure and discipline. This one also allowed me to dream about and learn more about my next great travel adventure – not quite the same as actually traveling but good enough for now.

In 990, Sigeric, Abbot of St. Augustine’s Canterbury and the highest ranking member of the Anglo Saxon Catholic hierarchy in Britain, received word that Pope John XV wanted to elevate him to the role of Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

Tradition required that Sigeric journey to Rome to meet the Pope and receive his pallium, a white woollen scarf embroidered with six black crosses that represented his seal of office.

It was not a journey to be taken lightly, covering some 1900 kilometres. Sigeric was not the first to make this walk, it was a pilgrimage route that traced its pathways back to the 4th Century, after Constantine I proclaimed the Edict of Milan and made it safe(r) for Christians to celebrate their faith openly and to embark on pilgrimages to Rome to pay tribute to and pray before Saint Peter and Saint Paul. 

Pilgrims from all over Europe travelled to Rome finding ways to traverse sometimes hostile lands and navigate some challenging terrain, which for most involved making their way through a few manageable passes across the Alps. Perilous, long and fraught with danger, such journeys were not to be taken lightly.

On July 16, 2017 I left the gates of Canterbury Cathedral to follow in the footsteps of Sigeric. My journey so far has occurred in two phases, the first took me as far as Reims, in France; in the second phase in July/August 2018, I managed to cross the Great Saint Bernard Pass and descend the Italian side of the Alps into Ivrea. The next and hopefully final phase will follow his path into Rome.

Sigeric’s trip to Rome is unrecorded, most authorities presume he and his retinue walked the same path he used on his return journey. What is known is that his trip to Rome took some 79 days. Of the days he spent in Rome, 3 days are recorded, he returned to Canterbury shortly afterwards. The trip home required more than 80 days.

What makes his pilgrimage notable is that one of his secretaries kept a careful log of his visits to 23 Roman churches over three days and recorded a daily log of his trip from Rome to Canterbury, a ‘guidebook’ in Latin of the stages and stops along the way. 

That book has been preserved and currently rests at the British Museum (MS. Cotton Dominitan A. VII). The route has become immortalized as the Via Francigena. It is unique; the only list of Roman churches between the eighth and twelfth centuries the only daily chronicle of stops on the pilgrimage between Rome and Canterbury from that period.

The Diary only chronicles three frenetic days of church visits, there is some conjecture as to whether Sigeric would make a perilous journey of almost three months duration and stay in Rome only three days. Most assume he stayed much longer.

There is nothing like walking a route traveled long ago to get some sense of what Sigeric experienced. While it was fraught with challenges, the route had been traveled for five or six centuries, Roman roads existed and continued to prove the remarkable and enduring talent of Roman engineering (we actually walked for part of a day on an old Roman road – straight as an arrow and still solid and passed an ancient Roman waystation that was part of a major Swiss archeological site). 

In addition, monasteries, local and church sponsored charitable ‘hospitals’ purpose-built to serve pilgrims on their journey had been established that provided some rudimentary level of food and lodging along the way. (we managed to stay at a much refurbished hostel – now a Michelin starred destination restaurant/hotel – that sets its origins back to the 13th century) 

The Church and Rome were anxious to do everything in their power to encourage pilgrimages to Rome, it seems the monetary benefits of pilgrims was not lost on either the Church or the entrepreneurs of Rome. They encouraged Catholic fraternities, monasteries, and congregations to support pilgrims along the way, it made sense as did the encouragement of road and path maintenance, bridge building/maintenance and provisions for safe passage for pilgrims. Unfortunately for Rome, several other pilgrim destinations of note were beginning to become famous; the Santiago de Compostela in Spain to view the remains of St. James became a popular destination in the 9th century, and Jerusalem always beckoned, though the city was under the control of Muslim caliphates for much of the time in question.

The geopolitics of Europe seemed to have been a bit more settled in 990 than in previous decades of the 10th century. Traveling across France, Switzerland and northern Italy was less fraught with danger.  In Rome, several major Roman families had emerged, jockeying for position and exercising control of the selection of popes and the actions of the Papacy made local politics more uncertain, The active interference of the German nobility in church affairs and the general decline in the Roman economy made a visit to Rome itself more eventful and problematic.

There were serious risks. Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass is physically challenging, potential inclement weather adds more risk; it is not a day hike for the uninitiated. To add to the risk, there was an ever-present risk of bandits and thieves, it was, after all, called the ‘dark ages’ for good reason.

What was Rome like when the pilgrim arrived at the final destination?

It was not idyllic. Rome was small, run down and far from the centre of trade and commerce. Population estimates vary but one estimate placed Rome’s population to be about 30,000, a far cry from it’s size at the height of Imperial Rome when the city dominated the world. Venice, for example, was larger; it had become a major economic force in Italy because of its aggressive development as a trading centre. 

The ancient Roman ruins were that – ruins. Major sites had fallen into disrepair, their stones cannibalized for church building, aqueducts had failed from lack of maintenance, the baths were dry and used more for itinerant housing, already less luxurious than in Rome’s halcyon days; even the Colosseum had become a large housing complex, filled with squatters. One of the few remaining sources of revenue seemed to be the thriving commerce of pilgrimage.

There was one thing in abundance when the pilgrim arrived in Rome – churches. Sigeric’s journal affirms the proliferation of churches, he visited 23 while there. Other sources suggest that there were at least 117 to choose from.

Several reasons are suggested for his choice of churches to visit; the desire to see the major basilicas and large cathedrals such as the Lateran Palace, the home of the Pope at the time, but also those dedicated to favourite saints of the English, St. Peter and St. Lawrence. One of the more interesting criteria for pilgrim visits was to see and worship the reliquaries, objects said to be directly associated with Jesus and his followers or specific saints and martyrs. 

Interestingly, the most likely first stop for Sigeric would have been an English institution, the Schola Saxonum. Ideally located near St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s function was to provide support and accommodation for English pilgrims. Peter’s Pence was a tax raised across England to help fund St. Peter’s and the Schola Saxonum.

Of the 23 churches visited, 21 are still in existence and are identified, although most have been through such significant modifications that Sigeric might not well recognize them.

The first day starts not surprisingly with a visit to St. Peter’s and Santo Spirito in Sassia, both inside the walls of Rome. 

St. Peter’s Basilica in the year 990 was quite different, first constructed in the 4th century, only small bits remain but the basilica at the time is described in detail. Major reconstruction beginning in the mid 15th century supplemented by additions and renovations has created the Roman Catholic Cathedral we see today.

Santo Spirito in Sassia, adjacent to St. Peter’s, was the church associated with the Schola Saxonum. Built in the 8th and 9th century, it was relatively new at the time of Sigeric’s pilgrimage, rebuilt in the 16th century after the sack of Rome by Spanish mercenaries under Charles V destroyed it.

The rest, churches 3-15, were outside the walls, required a tour of some 25 kilometres and were assumed to have been done on horseback.

San Lorenzo in Lucina goes back to the 4th Century and contained reliquaries of St. Lawrence who seemed to be a saint of particular interest to Sigeric. It was rebuilt in the 12th and restored in the 19th century.

San Valentino a ponte Milvio no longer exists, falling into neglect in the 13th Century, except for some excavated ruins.

Sant’ Agnes fuori le Mura, was built on the site of ancient christian catacombs in the 4th century; it was named after a christian martyr and was an important pilgrimage stop; it has been much restored and is part of a major basilica complex.

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, a basilica, was the center of the cult of St. Lawrence. Built in the time of Constantine, it was merged with an adjacent church, an attached cemetery and is now a major religious complex. 

San Sebastiano Via Appia was built on the spot where Peter and Paul’s remains were said to be first put to rest in catacombs below. It remains, much restored. 

SS Vincenzo ed Anastasio alle Tre Fontane was a church of the monastery of Tre Fontane now a baroque church near the Trevi Fountain.

San Paolo fuori la Mura was built over the tomb of St. Paul in the time of Constantine, much rebuilt and expanded especially after the sack of Rome by the Saracens; destroyed by fire in 1823, it was rebuilt.

 SS Alessio e Bonifazio (Santi Bonifacio e Alessio) is a 5th century church housing the remains of Alessio and Boniface, two early christian martyrs, later connected with asceticism of Greek abbots who had a monastery there. Rebuilt in the 18th century. 

 Santa Sabina was founded in the 5th century and restored as late as the early 20th century.

 Santa Maria in Cosmedin was founded in the 6th century on the site of the city’s food market, restored to its original simplicity in the 19th century.

 Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is a 5th century church built over catacombs where early christians hid to worship; the church is dedicated to Saint Cecelia, patron saint of music, and holding a statue of her modelled on her preserved remains.

 San Crisogono, a 4th century church which at the time of Sigeric’s visit also had a monastery dedicated to St. Lawrence.

 Santa Maria in Trastevere is believed to be the first officail christian place of worship to be built in Rome, it was a must-see for every pilgrim, although mostly rebuilt in the 12th century, 

 San Pancrazio is a 6th century basilica erected on the tomb of St. Pancras a 4th century martyr and huge catacombs of early worshippers. 

The first day’s visit ended here according to the diary and Sigeric and his party returned to the Schola for the evening. 

The second morning was spent closer to the centre of Rome.

Santa Maria della Rotonda, known to us as the Pantheon consecrated as a church in the 7th century, it is an iconic, must-see for any tourist in Rome regardless of station or religious persuasion. 

Santi Apostoli originally built in the 6th century, dedicated to all the apostles, it has been rebuilt and restored many times since, with pieces by Canova, Fontana and Muratori.

San Giovani in Lateran (St. John Lateran) was built in the 4th century and restored in the early 10th century before Sigeric’s visit. The adjacent Lateran Palace was home of the Middle Age Popes, except for a time when they relocated to Avignon in the 14th century. It has been rebuilt several times after fires. 

While at the Lateran Palace, Sigeric had a luncheon audience with Pope John XV, when he presumably officially received his pallium. After lunch he visited the last churches on his itinerary.

San Croce in Gerusalemme was a must-visit basilica dating to the 4th century to see an important reliquary – reputedly a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. 

Santa Maria Maggiore, another basilica originally built in the 5th century and much expanded and altered, it was home to another famous reliquary, the cradle of Christ, 

San Pietro in Vincoli, first built in the 5th was another home of a venerated relic, the chains of St. Peter.

San Lorenzo in Panisperna was the final stop, built on the spot where St. Laurence had been martyred. 

And, with that, the record of the pilgrimage journey in Rome ends.

In an amazing feat of investigative academic research, there is almost universal consensus on the 23 churches noted in the diary of Sigeric’s visit to Rome, not a small task given the age of the document, the many possible interpretations that might have been given to some obvious mis-spellings and the destruction and sacking of Rome and its churches over 1000 years. Virginia Ortenberg, a British historian, has even reconstructed a map of Rome at the time marking the churches visited. She has also managed to provide some valuable descriptions of the state of the churches at the time and major artwork, architectural features, tombs and reliquary within the church.

The diary is a small document; it immediately begins to record the return journey to Canterbury.  The places named on the return journey are more open to debate and interpretation, Ortenberg has attempted to chart the pilgrimage home on a map. As noted, this one pilgrimage by Sigeric in 990 AD and the few pages of diary entries chronicling the stops on the return trip to Canterbury has become the wellspring of the Via Francigena, a route that has guided untold numbers of pilgrims to Rome for 1000 years. 

These two documents, the visits to Roman churches, and the log of stops on the journey home are the best available information for the time between 800 AD and 1200 AD, 400years. Sigeric and his pilgrimage, indeed even his time as Archbishop of Canterbury fade in comparison to the value of the journal he left behind. The information adds immeasurably to the insight gained by all subsequent pilgrims, I for one will find it valuable as I attempt to finish my pilgrimage on the Via Francigena and celebrate the end of the journey with a more meaningful tour of Rome. 

Both Kristen and Blair have walked with me on parts of this long pilgrim walk adding immeasurably to the joy of the adventure. Now all I have to do is walk to Rome.

Kristen and I arrive in Reims, France at the cathedral, July 29, 2017. Blair and I meet a St. Bernard dog, fittingly at the summit of the Great St. Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy, August 13, 2018.


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1 Response to Sigeric’s Roman Holiday

  1. rwmccaskill says:


    Thanks for this. Fascinating stuff.

    This odyssey has more appeal than your non-verbal death march across Japan.

    Have you heard about Eurail passes?

    Looking forward to the next chapter.


    Sent from my iPad


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