Medieval Writing
Travel Literature
Travel literature is a popular genre of published work today. However, it is rarely a dispassionate and scientific recording of conditions in other lands. As a literary genre, it has certain conventions. Readers are generally seeking the exotic, the other, the different in the places they explore in literary mode. We want to learn about the headhunters of Borneo, not the oil rig workers; the wildebeest and gazelles of Africa, not the various species of rats; the temples of Greece, not the takeaway hamburger restaurants. We would rather see the inhabitants of a Swiss mountain village dressed in anachronistic clothes that they wear for an annual culture festival than in their jeans and T-shirts. We may also be seeking our own origins and trying to tie our culture and customs to a sense of place. Australians and Americans lap up literary tours of the historic monuments of England and Europe. We mostly are not terribly interested in their football teams or descriptions of the London Stock Exchange. We demand disjunctions of time, place and continuity, not accuracy.
Medieval writing about travel and foreign places also had its conventions. Like so much literature in the middle ages, it drew much from its own inbuilt literary culture, which included embellishing the plain observations of travellers with material which had been handed down through chains of copying from Classical authors or oral tradition. Factual accounts could be larded with fiction and fantasy drawn from oral tradition or other literary sources. As with other genres, material from earlier authors was borrowed, reorganised, reassembled and presented anew.
Strange creatures, like one legged anthropomorphs who could use their single large foot as a parasol, escaped from Classical literature of the exotic and into the writings, visual arts and psyches of medieval people.
It is sometimes asserted that medieval people did not get about much. It is undoubtedly true that a great many people, possible most ordinary rural or town dwellers, may have been born, lived and died in the same place. However, there were groups of people who did travel, and given the conditions of the time, they travelled most adventurously and sometimes very far. Soldiers went across the country or to the exotic eastern Mediterranean. Traders from the Vikings to the merchant adventurers of the later middle ages voyaged to many exotic ports. Pilgrims undertook journeys to the nearest popular shrine, or headed off to Compostella or the Holy Land. Bishops went to Rome and papal emissaries went out to check out the remote corners of Christendom. Missionaries inserted themselves into potentially hostile parts of Europe in the early middle ages, and later practitioners ended up travelling as far as China. The craftsmen who worked on the great Romanesque and Gothic buildings were an international travelling elite. The marriages of royalty tended to be diplomatic affairs between competing aristocrats in different countries, so that courtiers, servants and followers of the medieval glitterati moved from country to country. The world was a completely different size, depending on who you were and what your job was.
Royal travel of the 14th century, after a marginal illustration in the Luttrell Psalter.
Campbell, M.B. 1988 The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing 400-1600 Ithaca: Cornell provides an analysis of various sub-genres of medieval travel writing, while some more general material on the conditions of medieval travel, as well as brief descriptions of some major works, can be found in Ohler, N. 1989 The Medieval Traveller Woodbridge: Boydell.
Marvels of the East Outside the known world is the unknown, which has always contained marvels. They seem to inhabit a marginal area just beyond the edge of the known. Peculiar creatures and bizarre tales from beyond the fringes of the Classical world were drawn into the literature of the exotic of the middle ages. A work entitled Marvels of the East survives in several Latin manuscripts and one bilingual Latin/English work, collecting together many of these oddities. Strange things lived in the east because to the west, once you got past Ireland, there was only water. Probably a few Irish and Scandinavian adventurers knew better.
An illumination from an 11th century copy of Marvels of the East (British Library, Cotton Tiberius B V). These two naked figures are not as peculiar as some, except that one of them is supposed to be dead. By permission of the British Library.
Marvels of the east
A sample of the bilingual text from the above example. By permission of the British Library.
These characters from the fringes could be recruited to enhance any travellers' tales that were beginning to suffer from tedium. It is fascinating to discover that some of the stock characters, including people with tails or cannibals who devoured their young, are part of what one might call ethnic slander across continents and centuries. Earnest Dutch colonial officers in pith helmets solemnly, if not credulously, recorded these very stories in 19th century Borneo, told by native peoples against their enemies who always lived just that bit further up the river. The supernatural freaks of medieval art and literature may have had their origins in ethnic lies told by groups at the edge of the then known world.
While literacy was strongly tied to the Christian church, particularly in the earlier part of the middle ages, the literature of travel was not a doctrinally significant text which must be copied meticulously and without error. The transmission of some of this material is more akin to what happens in oral culture, and in many cases was derived from it. Alteration of a text to produce a good story, or reworking texts to mingle fact and fiction, was no doubt a legitimate tool of trade of the oral storyteller. It also appears in the written literature of travel, not as a corruption, but as part of the art.
It is worth pondering what is missing from medieval travel literature, because literate culture was confined to particular social classes. If artisans had scribbled out their travel diaries with such titles as A Stone Carver's Tour of Europe then art historians and archaeologists would not have had so much to do. But they didn't, and so those who speculate on the organisation of medieval building and craftsmanship and the spread of influences must rely on close examinations of the works themselves, the writings of scholars on theoretical matters which might have some bearing, and such mundane documents as building accounts.
Much academic ink has been expended on analysis of the program of carving at Chartres Cathedral.
Caxton A certain fascination with the remote and exotic also meant that, to a large degree, the depiction in writing of the author's own native land was surprisingly neglected. Chaucer's pilgrims clattered along the road to Canterbury, but they told yarns rather than noting what they saw along the way. The writers of chronicles made occasional observations about the country, but it is not until the late 15th century when the printer Caxton filleted, compiled and condensed some of this material into his printed work, The Description of Britain, that there is some sort of coherent envisagement of the land.
A beautifully illustrated modern version of Caxton's work is Collins, M. 1988 Caxton: The Description of Britain London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
After the Reformation, the drastic effect of the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of church property led to an interest in the topography of the country, based on an awareness that the massive remains of a recently lost past were still standing the landscape. Antiquarians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries created a whole new genre of historical travel literature, but only after the first heroic attempt to record the rapidly decomposing splendour of the middle ages was made in the early 16th century by a man called John Leland, who went mad and died in the attempt. But that is another story.
Rievaulx Abbey The beautiful monasteries like Rievaulx, tucked into its remote location in one of the most scenic parts of Yorkshire, only received the attention of travel writers after they were deserted and ruined.


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