‘In the Middle Ages,’ Shayne Aaron Legassie writes, ‘travel was nasty, brutish and long.’ Before planes, railways or steamships, it was inseparable from its etymological twin, travail – both derived from the name of an ancient Roman instrument of torture. Peregrinus, the medieval term for a ‘pilgrim’ or ‘traveller’, in classical Latin meant an ‘exile’ or ‘alien’. Yet travel, for all its hardships, fascinated medieval readers: the most celebrated poems of the age are both travel narratives. Under the guidance of Virgil and Beatrice, Dante toured hell, purgatory and paradise, while Chaucer and his merry crew made the easier trek from London to Canterbury, led by a raucous innkeeper.
It has been said that the average medieval peasant lived and died without travelling more than ten miles from his or her birthplace. Nevertheless, a wide swathe of the population did travel, some frequently or over great distances: merchants and sailors, diplomats and spies, papal legates, pilgrims, friars, heretical missioners, refugees, scholars, artists and architects, mercenary knights, princess brides. Far from being a leisure activity, travel was so perilous that the Church sent criminals on long-distance pilgrimages as penance, hoping they wouldn’t join the outlaw bands that lay in ambush in lonely mountain passes. The devout, meanwhile, went on pilgrimage in a desperate bid for healing or as a suffrage to help deceased kinfolk. Around 1200 a well-off peasant called Thurkill, from the village of Stisted in Essex, left his oxen long enough to walk the Pilgrims’ Way to Santiago de Compostela. He may also have visited Italy, and on his return he had an otherworld vision unique of its kind. The star attraction of his hell was a vast theatre managed by demons for their own amusement, in which the damned compulsively re-enacted their sins before being torn limb from limb. Such a sight, unknown in England, could have been suggested by the spectacular ruins of a Roman amphitheatre Thurkill had seen on his travels.
Legassie’s engaging book concentrates on three kinds of travel, and on the literary records inspired by each: exotic voyages to the Far East, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and European journeys undertaken for self-betterment, anticipating the 18th-century Grand Tour. What Legassie calls ‘the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge’ made bestsellers of such works as Marco Polo’s Divisament dou monde, written with Rustichello da Pisa – a composer of Arthurian romances – while the two were languishing as prisoners of war in Genoa. Polo had travelled as a youth, with his merchant father and uncle, to the realm of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (reg. 1260-94). While his elders transacted their business, the young Marco ingratiated himself with the Great Khan thanks to his storytelling gifts. He had discovered that Kublai’s ambassadors bored him to tears with dull pragmatic reports of their journeys, when the cultivated ruler yearned for tales about the ‘wonders and customs’ of foreign lands they had traversed. These Polo himself could supply, eventually returning to Italy with an account of the Great Khan’s own wondrous court. Like contemporary European rulers, Kublai coveted holy relics, once sending an embassy to a mountaintop shrine in Ceylon reputed to have a slab of marble impressed with Adam’s footprint. Others held that this shrine honoured not Adam but the ascetic prince ‘Sagamoni Burcan’ (Shakayamuni Buddha) – revered at the time as a Christian saint. As for the khan’s summer capital in China, Shangdu, English readers will know it by a slightly different name: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan …’ Coleridge said his opium dream had been inspired by a travel book of 1613, Purchas His Pilgrimage. Its compiler, Samuel Purchas (born in Thaxted, less than twenty miles from Thurkill’s village), owed a debt in turn to Marco Polo.
Less famous, but no less fascinating, is the Franciscan William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium, written about forty years before Polo’s work. A reluctant messenger for Louis IX, later St Louis, William carried a letter from the French monarch to Kublai’s predecessor, Möngke Khan, at his capital of Caracorum. Initially planning only to minister to Christian captives on the western edge of the Mongol empire, the luckless friar found himself ‘rerouted roughly two thousand miles eastward in the blistering cold of winter’, as well as ‘perpetually inconvenienced by the expectation that he came bearing exotic valuables’. Unlike the merchant Marco Polo, for whom all commodities were licit objects of exchange, William as a disciple of St Francis had taken a vow of poverty. At the Great Khan’s reception, he met some envoys from India who presented the ruler with eight leopards and ten greyhounds trained to ride horseback. William’s humble gifts of fruit and wine could scarcely compete. The Mongol court took more interest in his precious vestments and illuminated manuscripts, donated by Louis for the celebration of Mass. But possession of these treasures only made William’s situation worse: he declined to offer them as gifts, fearing that they would be defiled by infidel hands – a shocking breach of courtly etiquette. The friar was in turn shocked by the Great Khan’s idea of a sophisticated court entertainment: a three-way theological debate featuring Muslims, Buddhists and Nestorian Christians, aided by William himself. Urbane and tolerant, the ruler didn’t expect anyone to win this debate, much less to make converts. (In the religious debates of contemporary Europe, unwilling Jews were often forced into disputation with Christians.) Modern readers may prefer Möngke Khan’s policy of enlightened pluralism to the crusading mentality of Louis IX, but William of Rubruck concluded that since missionising had failed, only a holy war could convert the Mongols. Louis, however, had just been ransomed after a crushing defeat in Egypt and declined to pursue that venture.
Despite William’s disillusionment, there was a surprising degree of cultural exchange between the French and Mongol courts. For instance, the friar describes the great Silver Tree of Caracorum, which stood in the reception hall of the royal palace. Four gilded serpents twined around its trunk; four silver lions sat by its base. When the khan wished to pour drinks for his guests, a mechanical angel in the crown sounded a trumpet and caused the lions to dispense fountains of wine, ale, mead and, the Mongols’ beverage of choice, fermented mare’s milk. This marvel was designed by a Parisian goldsmith, Guillaume Boucher. Meanwhile, back in France, the famous bibliophile Jean, duke of Berry – who owned a sumptuous anthology of travel literature – commissioned a cycle of tapestries for his own palace depicting the glories of the Great Khan. And the ceremonial presentation of New Year’s gifts at Caracorum, which so discomfited William of Rubruck, may have inspired similar rituals of gift exchange in 14th-century French courts.
Travel writing participated in the wider tensions of European culture. Even as missionaries and crusaders sought to expand the boundaries of Christendom, other writers (or sometimes the same ones) displayed a genuine ethnographic curiosity. Their interest in foreign lands and peoples was not necessarily as ethnocentric or ‘Orientalist’ as we might expect (a thesis argued by Shirin Khanmohamadi in her provocative book of 2014, In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages). A case in point is The Book of John Mandeville, at once the most popular and the most enigmatic of medieval travel narratives. Mandeville, purporting to be an English knight from St Albans, claimed to have travelled the world for 34 years before returning home in 1358 to compose his Book. The work survives in some three hundred manuscripts in ten languages, followed by a robust print life. It was known to Columbus, Leonardo and John Dee, influenced cartographers, and inspired London stage plays. Yet no one knows who Mandeville really was, though some now ascribe his book to Jan de Langhe, a Flemish monk and avid collector of travel writing. Whoever wrote it, the work originated in French and its author need not have travelled at all, for he stitched his first-person account together from more than two dozen literary sources.
Whether or not he actually visited Egypt and had a private audience with the sultan, as he asserts, Mandeville is well informed about Islam. He claims to have read the Quran, knows that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet and Mary as his virgin mother, and states that the Saracens – unlike Christians – are ‘good and faithful’ in keeping the law God has given them. He includes both Arabic and Hebrew alphabets in his text. At a time when romances often depicted Muslims as polytheists worshipping ‘Mahound’ and the Middle English term for an idol was ‘mawmet’ (both derogatory forms of the name Muhammad), Mandeville and his peers represented a tradition of more authentic knowledge, curiosity about the wider world, and at times unexpected appreciation of non-Christian religious customs. Travel writing could even support belief in the possibility of salvation for virtuous pagans – a controversial view entertained by William Langland in Piers Plowman, along with Mandeville and Dante. Sir John Mandeville’s persona embraced cultural difference in other dimensions as well. He reports that he served as a mercenary under the sultan, fighting Bedouins, and later under the Great Khan. Even Chaucer’s idealised knight, who had ‘fought for our faith’ in Granada and Morocco, had battled ‘at one time with the [Muslim] lord of Palatye/Against another heathen in Turkey’. If such far-flung mercenary careers hardly advanced the cause of peace, they did contribute to the sense of a universal chivalric ethos that united even enemy warriors, destabilising perceptions of a binary clash of civilisations.
A sizeable chunk of Mandeville’s book deals with the Holy Land, by far the most frequent locus of travel tales. Central as it was to Christian faith, Jerusalem attracted not only devout pilgrims, but a growing mass of guidebooks and memoirs. One scholar has counted some 262 distinct narratives written between 1301 and 1520. Legassie emphasises that these were not, as often assumed, monotonous and formulaic. Mingling biblical history with ethnographic nuggets, chivalric adventures with pious meditations, pilgrim narratives convey the full spectrum of medieval attitudes to travel. In the 1330s, the Egyptian sultan granted the Franciscans of Mount Zion the exclusive right to shepherd Latin pilgrims around the holy sites, marking the advent of something like a modern guided tour. Needless to say, this proved a mixed blessing. The Dominican Felix Fabri, who spent nine days in the Holy Land in 1480, was dismayed on his return to find that he remembered almost nothing of the places he had seen, so rapidly had his guides whisked him from site to site. Undaunted, he made a second pilgrimage and this time stayed for several months, preparing himself beforehand by diligent reading and taking detailed notes en route, even while crossing the desert on his ass or camel. Despite his faith, Fabri had a sceptical attitude towards much that he was told. The Holy Sepulchre itself, he concluded, was probably built long after the resurrection – although that was no reason not to venerate it. As for the visions and marvels that pilgrims claimed to have experienced in caves, Fabri took the view that they were hallucinations caused by a lack of adequate light and air. In faraway Ireland, pilgrims to St Patrick’s Purgatory – on a remote island in Lough Derg – were locked into an Iron Age souterrain for a day and a night, having first prayed and fasted for 15 days. They routinely had visions of demons.
Friar Fabri’s empiricism contrasts sharply with the approach of another Holy Land pilgrim, Margery Kempe, who made the journey in 1413-14. A freelance mystic and mother of 14, Kempe wasted no time on historical inquiries, but gave herself body and soul to her extravagant devotions. These included fits of violent sobbing and screaming: ‘When they came up onto the Mount of Calvary, she fell down because she couldn’t stand or kneel, but wallowed and writhed with her body, spreading her arms out wide, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart would have burst asunder, for in the city of her soul she saw truly and freshly how our Lord was crucified.’ So intense were these episodes that they resembled epileptic fits, which is what some of Kempe’s travelling companions thought they were. Interestingly, though, the devout widow Paula had behaved in much the same way a thousand years earlier. ‘So ardent was her faith,’ St Jerome writes, ‘that she even licked with her mouth the very spot on which the Lord’s body had lain, like one athirst for the river which he has longed for. What tears she shed there, what groans she uttered, and what grief she poured forth, all Jerusalem knows.’ Fabri observed some equally fervent, unbalanced pilgrims. Even today, about a hundred visitors each year are smitten with ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, described as a temporary psychosis characterised by religious delusions, an obsession with ritual purity, and a compulsion to preach and shout Bible verses at the holy sites.
Although Kempe seldom got along with her companions and lived in dread of shipwreck, she spent the better part of five years on pilgrimage, while her husband stayed home in King’s Lynn. After Jerusalem she visited Rome, Santiago de Compostela and York, where she fell foul of the archbishop and narrowly escaped being burned as a heretic. At the age of sixty, she made one last pilgrimage, to the Holy Blood of Wilsnack in Germany. Her riveting autobiography, intended as a treatise on the love of God, records some harrowing memories of travel. Seeking hardships in imitation of Christ, Kempe endured sickness and vermin, ran out of money in Rome, tried begging, struggled with the language barrier, faced ridicule from strangers, worried about thieves and rapists, and weathered storms at sea – consoled all the while by a steady stream of divine favours.
Peculiar to the Holy Land was a mania for measurement. Pilgrims would count the paces between shrines and use their hands, feet or lengths of cord to measure the dimensions of the Holy Sepulchre. Kempe, like others, preserved her measuring cord as a souvenir. Such measurements assisted the memory, Legassie explains, because they ‘promoted a deliberate, unhurried engagement with the pilgrim’s surroundings, and physical immediacy with the sacred’. A measuring cord was also the least expensive of relics. More valuable ones, such as alleged splinters of the True Cross and vials of the Virgin Mary’s milk, were avidly sought by some and mocked by others as the frauds they doubtless were.
Collecting souvenirs, from trinkets to luxury goods, has always been one of the perquisites of travel. Aristocratic diners valued spices from the East for their prestige as well as their flavour; nutmeg, thought to be a charm against the plague, was more valuable than gold. For a period in the 15th century, the spice trade was controlled by the Genoese descendants of Marco Polo. Exotic animals, costly and difficult to transport, were no less prized. Such opulent princes as King René of Anjou and Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, kept menageries that might house lions, tigers, leopards, camels, elephants and ostriches. Upper-class women and even nuns cherished their pet monkeys from Africa, much to the dismay of episcopal visitors. Only expensive long-distance travel could procure all these creatures.
Further down the socioeconomic scale, pilgrims eagerly collected the mass-produced lead badges or ampoules (flasks for holy water) on sale at every shrine. Each saint had his or her own distinctive badge. Those who sought St James in Galicia wore the scallop shell, while the ‘Rome-runner’ could display St Peter’s keys and the vernicle, or Veronica’s veil – a celebrated image of Christ. Well-travelled pilgrims pinned or sewed these badges onto their hats, like the palmer satirised by Langland:
A hundred ampoules sat on his hat,
Signs of Sinai and shells of Galicia,
And many a cross on his cloak, with the keys of Rome
And the vernicle in front, so people would know
And see by his signs which saints he had sought.
But not all badges were pious. Some were even gleefully obscene, depicting winged phalluses or vulvas in the garb of pilgrims – offering their own brand of parody on the institution of pilgrimage.
A great deal of medieval travel flies beneath the radar of literary scholarship because, being professional and routine, it left few textual traces. Friars travelled constantly on preaching tours, painters and architects to fulfil commissions, minstrels and players to seek new audiences, and ambitious knights to make their reputation on the tournament circuit. Students travelled to Paris and elsewhere in search of the best teachers, prompting Hugh of Saint-Victor to muse that for the mature man, every soil is like his native land, while for the perfect man, all the world is exile. But travel also had its critics. Lollards vociferously objected to pilgrimage, maintaining that the money squandered on it would be better given to the poor. Dante condemned Ulysses to hell (though not without admiration) for recklessly endangering the lives of his men in his quest for forbidden knowledge. Niccolò di Conti, a 15th-century Venetian merchant, regaled the Spaniard Pero Tafur with thrilling tales of the cannibals, necromancers and self-immolating widows he had seen in India. He had even visited the court of the legendary priest-king Prester John. But when Tafur expressed a desire to follow in his footsteps, Conti vigorously dissuaded him ‘because the way there is long, and painstaking, and dangerous, full of strange peoples’ without law or reason, who would only try to kill him. Sometimes armchair travel had to suffice; not all knowledge was worth dying for.
In the early modern period, new forms of travel emerged. The Holy Land lost none of its popularity, but long-distance travel became more aggressive and exploitative with the conquest of the New World and the establishment of trading posts, soon to become colonies, in East Asia. At the same time secular travel within Europe came into vogue, heralded by Petrarch’s humanist voyages on the trail of Virgil. But the rigours of travel itself remained little changed until the 19th century. So Legassie concludes, aptly enough, with Ruskin’s nostalgic complaint against railroads. For the traveller on foot, ‘every yard of the changeful ground becomes precious and piquant’ because ‘a certain sublimity [is] given to all places … by the true sense of the spaces of earth that separate them.’ In contrast, voyages by train scarcely merit the name: ‘all travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity.’ He had a point. Though Marco Polo and Kublai Khan would have considered air travel a wonder beyond all wonders, no one now hopes for anything from a plane trip except that it will pass quickly and without incident. Yet more than 200,000 pilgrims a year, even in this secular age, still travel the Camino de Santiago the old-fashioned way – on foot.