Medieval Writing
Travel Literature (2)
The Christian religion had a sense of place. The origin stories of the religion were rooted in the places in Palestine that figured in the gospel story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. For the practitioners of western Catholicism, it was never their own place. Not only did they not live there, it was not part of their ethnic origin story. The practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land involved a journey to a foreign land to find and establish a mental template for the significant places of the foundations of Christianity.
church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.
From the earliest written works on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, dating from the 5th century, to the works of late medieval pilgrims such as Margery Kempe, there is a fascination with describing and enumerating the specific sites associated with the Bible story. Not only were there the places associated with such significant events as the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion or his tomb, but legendary places purporting to be a rock where Mary sat down when she was weary on the road to Bethlehem, or a well where she quenched her thirst. Whether these precise spots remained constant for a thousand years I have no idea, but they provided significant nodes to fill out a spiritual map of the origins of the religion. The readers who had not taken the pilgrimage were given access to this mental template.

Links to various texts on pilgrimage and travel can be found on the Travelling to Jerusalem web site.

Pilgrims' Hospital, Canterbury Not all pilgrimages were to the Holy Land. As the middle ages progressed, the practice of pilgrimage became more common. Sometimes this might involve a modest journey within one's own country; on other occasions it could be a major expedition. Travel was always difficult and hazardous, and pilgrims' guides provided practical information about distances, modes of travel and the availablility of food and lodging, particularly at the specially provided hospices for pilgrims.
The Pilgrims' Hospital at Canterbury, which catered for those who came to visit the shrine of St Thomas a Becket.
St Jacques, Paris Apart from the trip to the Holy Land, the great medieval pilgrimage was to the church of Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, where the remains of the apostle St James the Great were supposed to be preserved. There were several major pilgrimage routes across Europe which converged on this site. Along these routes grew up a series of distinctive churches with their own saintly relics, inns and hospices, and a culture of hospitality to the stream of pious folk who travelled so hard and so long.
St James as pilgrim
This tower is all that survives of the church of St Jacques in Paris, traditional starting point for one of the major routes.   St James is depicted as a pilgrim himself, with hat and staff, in a 14th century stained glass window in the church of St Mary, Castlegate, York.
The 12th century Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostella, which survives in several manuscripts, is a kind of Lonely Planet guide for the faithful. It includes information about hospices and the peoples encountered along the route. It gives a description of the many saints' shrines which can be visited along the way. It warns of hazards such as nefarious ferrymen. It concludes with a description of the town and church of Compostella. This is not an armchair guide to situate the reader in mental space, but a practical guide to survival and appreciation of the journey.
An English translation and commentary of this guide is to be found in Melczer, W. 1993 The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostella New York: Italica Press. All manner of information about the pilgrimage route can be found via the Camino de Santiago Web Links site.
A Christian motivation prompted other great journeys, extreme in their difficulty and only to be attempted by those who were trained to asceticism and hardship, Franciscans. Three accounts survive of overland journeys by Franciscan friars to China during the period of the great power of the Mongols. These were the journey of John of Pian de Carpini (1245-1247), William of Rubruck (1253-1255) and Friar Odoric (1318-1330). It is probably unnecessary to indicate that these good men did not manage to convert the descendants of Ghenghis Khan to Christianity, or persuade them to offer their allegiance to the pope. However, they described experiences and cultures that were unknown to their brethren at home. The first two journeys predate and the third postdates the much more famous journey of Marco Polo, but even though the subject matter is as exotic, the accounts are plainer and less embellished than that of their secular contemporary.
Tartar hut-wagon This image of the hut-wagon of the medieval Tartars being drawn by many beasts is a visualisation of the description of Friar John.
While these writers had their own cultural perspective, their descriptions form a competent ethnography. There are no one eyed monsters or grotesques from the margins of the mind. Friar Odoric journeyed even further, to Sumatra, Java and the coast of Borneo. While he falls for that old informant's fib about human flesh being sold in the marketplace like beef, he also gives a very accurate description of the manufacture of sago and the use of poisoned arrow tips. On some other matters his interpretation may seem a trifle credulous, but then he didn't have a library of comparative material to swot up on in preparation for his journey.
English versions of these accounts can be found in Komroff, M. (ed.) 1989 Contemporaries of Marco Polo New York: Dorset Press.
There was a predecessor to these observant wanderers, although one whose observations were taken much closer to home. In the 12th century, Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a cleric who was by birth three parts Norman and one part Welsh, undertook journeys through Wales and Ireland. These close neighbours to England supported modes of living, quaint customs and beliefs in wonders that could be as exotic as anything from the remote east. Nevertheless, Gerald himself felt compelled to justify his need to write about his own native land, on the basis that there was not much he could add to such respectable themes as the fall of Troy or the history of Athens, but he could make a genuine contribution to knowledge in this way.
Gerald's writings on these subjects combine topographic description, little episodic bits of local history obtained from local informants, sparse historical notes derived from annals and chronicles, as well as his own personal observations of natural history and of the behaviour and habits of the people. He tells us that the Welsh have a passion for part singing in harmony and the Irish all play musical instruments on every possible occasion; ethnic stereotypes that are perpetuated to this day, not least by the Welsh and Irish themselves.
Oratory of Gallarus
The oratory of Gallarus at Dingle, Ireland. Even the built landscape of Christianity was foreign in Ireland. Photograph by John Tillotson.
ancient Irish bell Gerald's commentary may seem a little credulous to us today, and some of his observations highly inaccurate. Being a medieval churchman, he dutifully recorded the multitudes of miracles performed by revered objects or at special sites. He was, perhaps, a little susceptible to some fairly dodgy stories told to him by informants. His natural history was defective, but some parts were, nevertheless, based on his own observation. When he reported that a certain species of geese hatched from the barnacles found on floating logs in profusion where the geese resided, he was hypothesising on the basis that nests or eggs of these birds had never been found. Neither he nor anybody else knew about the migratory habits of birds that nested on distant shores.
Gerald reported on the numbers of sacred and miraculous ancient bells and croziers in Ireland.
wolf receiving communion Irish king in a stew
A priest administers the Eucharist to a wolf while its mate helps out with the reading, and an Irish king is consecrated sitting in a stew made from a newly slaughtered mare in marginal illustrations depicting the text of some of the more dubious tales in a late 12th century copy of the works of Gerald of Wales on Ireland (Britsh Library, Royal 13 B VIII). By permission of the British Library.
Despite these eccentricities, Gerald's descriptions give an insight into what Wales and Ireland were like, and even more, how they were perceived to be. The prejudices in the text are the prejudices of their time. The inaccuracies themselves shed light on the thought patterns of the time. Gerald's animal and bird descriptions became incorporated into the bestiaries, in that typically medieval pattern of integration and reincorporation that made medieval literate culture grow like a rolling snowball.
There are various printed editions of Gerald of Wales, including O'Meara, J. 1982 Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland Harmondsworth: Penguin and Thorpe L 1978 Gerald of Wales: The Journey through Wales/ The Description of Wales Harmondsworth: Penguin
The works of Gerald and the travelling Franciscans are sober accounts, despite the amazing nature of their content, complete in a one generational text. Another whole genre of medieval travel literature consists of multigenerational texts in which multiple oral retellings eventually get written down and are then reincorporated into new accounts until truth and fiction are indistinguishable and the story is more important than the facts.


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