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E06088: Adomnán, in his On the Holy Places, reports the recent visit of the Franco-Gallic bishop Arculf to a great basilica at Mamre (Palestine), built around the oak tree where *Abraham (Old Testament patriarch, S00275) had once entertained angels. Written in Latin at Iona (north-west Britain), possibly 683/689.

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posted on 2018-08-05, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Adomnán, On the Holy Places - Book Two

[...] in cuius dextrali parte inter duos grandis eiusdem basilicae parietes, mirum dictu, quercus Mambre exstat in terra radicata, quae et quercus Abraham dicitur qo quod sub ea quondam angelos hospitio reciperit [...] 4. Ex qua, ut sanctus refert Arculfus, qui eam propriis conspexit oculis, adhuc quoddam truncatum remanet spurium radicatum in terra sub eclesiae protectum tegmine, mensuram quasi duum longitudinis uirorum habens; 5. de quo uidelicet conroso spurio et ex omni parte securibus circumciso astellarum ad diuersas orbis prouincias particulae asportantur ob eiusdem uenerationem et recordationem, sub qua, ut superius commemoratum est, angelorum quondam conuentio ad Abraham patriarcham famosa et praedicabilis fuerat condonata. 6. In circuitu eiusdem eclesiae, quae ibidem ob loci illius honorificantiam constructa habetur, pauca quaedam relegiosarum habitacula fabricatur monstrantur [...]

... At the southern side of this, between the two walls of a great basilica, wonderful to relate, there stands rooted in the earth the oak of Mamre, which is also called the oak of Abraham, because once upon a time he entertained angels under it ... Of this, as Arculf relates, who saw it with his own eyes, there still remains a truncated spur rooted in the earth. It is protected under the roof of the church, and its measure is about the size of two men. Now this cropped spur is hewn about on every side by axes, little splinters being carried away to the divers provinces of the world, out of veneration and remembrance for the oak, under which, as was mentioned above, the famous and noteworthy meeting with the angels was once vouchsafed to Abraham the patriarch. Round about the church which is built there out of veneration for the place, one may view a few such dwellings which have been set up for nuns ...'

Text and translation: Meehan 1958, 82-3, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Abraham, Old Testament patriarch : S00275

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Iona St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Places

Other (mountain, wood, tree, pillar)

Cult activities - Places Named after Saint

  • Other

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Women Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Angels

Cult Activities - Relics

Souvenirs of miracles Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries Division of relics Construction of cult building to contain relics


On the Holy Places records across three books the travels of Arculf, an otherwise unknown Gallic bishop (sanctus episcopus gente Gallus), through diverse sacred sites in Jerusalem (Book one); Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Book two); and Constantinople and Sicily (Book three). In the preface, Abbot Adomnán of Iona (ob. 704) explains that ‘in response to my careful enquiries he dictated to me … this faithful and accurate record of all his experiences … first I wrote it down on tablets (tabulis): it will now be written succinctly on parchment (in membranis breui)’. Bede, writing in 731, would lreport that Adomnán gave a copy of the volume to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (northern Britain) on a visit to his kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 5.15). We know from Adomnán himself and other Irish sources that at least two such visits took place, in 687 and 689, thus establishing the latter date as the probable terminus ante quem for the work. Its terminus post quem is more difficult to determine. Meehan supposed that the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) might have occasioned Arculf’s visit to the imperial capital. This is attractive, although ultimately conjectural. Yet if it were the case, we might – helped by Adomnán’s claim that the bishop spent nine months at Jerusalem – date Arculf’s adventures to around 679-82, and thereby the composition of On the Holy Places to no earlier than about 683. The work appears to have been popular. It survives in 22 manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th century continental productions. Bede spoke of its ‘many readers’ (legentibus multis), and produced his own abridged version of the text in around 703. On the Holy Places is more, however, than a straightforward itinerary. Adomnán embellishes and adapts Arculf’s account throughout with his own authorities on the Holy Land: chiefly the works of Jerome, but also texts such as Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle, Hegesippus’ Histories, Iuvencus’ History of the Gospels, Eucherius of Lyon’s On the Layout of Jerusalem, as well as the Bible. Recent scholarship has also identified the degree to which the narrative of On the Holy Places is highly controlled and exegetical; this has asserted the text’s sophisticated theological qualities and, significantly, the authorial primacy of Adomnán, raising him above his status in older studies as merely Arculf’s amanuensis or ‘stenographer’ (O’Loughlin 2007). This has led in turn to the radical proposition that Arculf may perhaps have never existed, and been only a literary device of Adomnán. It appears strange, O’Loughlin has suggested, that Arculf’s journey appears to have accorded so well with Adomnán’s literary and theological interests; besides, the bishop is unheard of elsewhere, and the probability of him coming to Ireland or north-west Britain via a shipwreck (as Bede claimed), after a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, seems doubtful. This may go too far. Further work has now reasserted the degree to which – in addition to, and in dialogue with, its literary models – Adomnán’s text does contain important evidence for the later 7th century Near East, which must have almost certainly come from a recent, eyewitness account (Hoyland and Waidler, 2014). The arguments against Arculf’s existence are in any case not compelling. Franco-Gallic episcopal lists survive patchily enough from the 7th century to account for his disappearance from his homeland’s records, while the suggestion he came directly to Britain through a shipwreck, after being swept away by storms, is made only by Bede, writing some years later: Adomnán and Arculf’s encounter could well have involved less drama than the Northumbrian monk imagined. Other sources show that connections between Gaul and the 7th century Irish church were relatively strong. It should not seem too surprising that the abbot of Iona might have found the opportunity to interview a figure such as Arculf at some point, shipwreck or not. Adomnán’s account focuses almost entirely on biblical sites – many of his titular Holy Places are those directly associated with the life of Christ, and therefore not included in our database. Beyond these, the cult activity he reports almost exclusively revolves around Old and New Testament figures, most prominently Mary: of the post-biblical saints, only Jerome (E06084) and George (E06094) receive mention. Although Adomnán reports that Arculf visited a cult site of the latter in Palestine, he saves this story for his third book, set predominantly in Constantinople. This is noticeably distinct in tone from those that precede it, and the only part of the work to feature miracles, two of which explicitly involve the veneration of images and the gross ill-doing of those who offend them (E06094, E06117). If Brubaker and Haldon (2011) are correct in arguing that neither the Byzantine cult of images, nor the controversy over them, predated the period c. 680, then these closing passages of On the Holy Places would seem to confirm that Bishop Arculf’s journey was indeed a real one, and cannot have long preceded Adomnán’s adaptation and propagation of his account.


Meehan: 'The church at Mambre is the Constantinian basilica, mentioned also by the Bordeaux pilgrim, and appearing in the Madaba mosaic. It seems fairly likely that this is the church of which evidences were discovered in the excavations at Haram Ramet-el-Khalil (slightly north of the modern town of Hebron) in 1926-8. The design was highly unusual, owing apparently to the builders' wish to reverence local relics of Abraham; and probably, as is the case of the other sanctuaries, there was some reconstruction by Modestus about 625' (Meehan 1958, 25).


Editions: Meehan, D.M., Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3; Dublin, 1958), with English translation. Bieler, L., Adamnanus, De locis sanctis libri tres, in: Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 175; Turnhout, 1965), 175-243 (see also 249-80 for Bede’s version). Further reading: Brubaker, L., and Haldon, J., Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge, 2011), 50-68, 781-2. Hoyland, R.G., and Waidler, S., "Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East," English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 787-807. Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, "Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), O’Loughlin, T., Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Locations of the Biblical Drama (New York, 2007).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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