Mercenary Knights and Princess Brides

Barbara Newman

  • The Medieval Invention of Travel by Shayne Aaron Legassie
    Chicago, 287 pp, £22.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 226 44662 2

‘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.

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