Fra Giovanni di Fedanzola da Perugia
Descriptio Terrae Sanctae
Friar John of Fedanzola from Perugia, introducing himself as the author, declares himself to be one of the Friars Minor (Franciscan), native of Perugia, and Minister of the Province of the Holy Land. We are clearly dealing with a person not unknown to history. Wadding mentions him as inquisitor -- a commission conferred to teachers of theology -- of the Province of Rome in 1327; the following year, as inquisitor at Perugia and of all Umbria.
In the same year he was transferred to Avignon, commissioned by the Minister General, Michael of Cesena. Friar John seems to have entered into the grace of the Pope. There is no other way of reading the apostolic letter of 1 March 1329 with which the Pope sought to find out the reasons why “the beloved son John of Fedanzola of the Order of Friars Minor” was removed from his office.
The only attestation of the commission as ‘Minister of the Province of the Holy Land’ exercized by Frian John is provided by he himself in the Descriptio. We must add that he had to be such before 1332-3, because in that time period there came about the settling of the Friars Minor in the holy places of Jerusalem and Bethelehem, but in the Descriptio nothing is said about it. Friar John perhaps took this opportunity to exercize a new pastoral work with the pilgrims heading to the Holy Land.
Towards this end it seems that he had first made a preliminary pilgrimage on his own, preparing himself with special care in reading the Bible and then, turning to the places to observe everything with the maximum diligence, he produced the documentation, asking for historical or literary explanations from experts. He himself narrates having travelled in the company of three Hebrews knowledgeable in biblical questions and traditions, and together with native guides, Christian and Muslim, from which came a knowledge of the Arabic names of the various ancient or modern localities, and of the popular folklore about happenings in places without a historical record.
In the Descriptio Friar John claims to have visited the holy places more than once with pilgrims, to have ascended Mt. Tabor many times by foot, and often to have celebrated the Mass in the grotto at Bethlehem.
42. On the Bethlehem road
3. To better understand how the aforementioned place and the aforementioned cave appeared when Christ was born, it is necessary to know that the road which goes from Bethlehem toward the east and directly towards the plain [below], where the angel appeared to the shepherds, continues to the right along the side of a not very high hill and, at the distance of a crossbow’s shot from the town, the aforementioned cave was dug out of the rocky cliff.
Two paces wide [at its entrance], in other words a bit more than twice the distance one can extend one’s arms, it extends for an equal distance into the interior but is not more than a pace wide. Near its entrance, that is to say on the side towards the town which is in its western part, it had a hollow or cavity in the rock that had formed part of a manger made entirely from stone. [It had been made] in such a way that animals tied up there would have their heads and necks beneath the rock; and there still exists today a ring to which the animals were attached.
Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, Ms. Casanatense 3876, ed. Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem, 2003.