Adventure Travel, Mediaeval Style

By Herron, Mick | Geographical, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Adventure Travel, Mediaeval Style


Herron, Mick, Geographical


Life in mediaeval Europe, John Ure reminds us in his opening paragraph, could be nasty, brutish and short: plague, banditry and the lack of sanitation were obvious drawbacks, and for entertainment, people had to rely on sermons and executions. In this context, anything resembling light relief was to be heartily welcomed, and it's Ure's thesis that the element of adventure that pilgrimages offered was a major motivating factor for the pilgrims of the time. That a pilgrimage was the mediaeval equivalent of a mini-break is an interesting idea, and one to which Chaucer might have given the nod. Folk, as he famously pointed out, "longen ... to goon on pilgrimages" not in the dead of winter or at summer's height, but in April, when the weather's nice.

Which isn't to deny that pilgrimage contained its fair share of vicissitudes. Highway robbers not only preyed on pilgrims, but often murdered them; innkeepers, too, weren't always as friendly as advertised, even when offering shelter to those visiting a local monastery--88 corpses were found in one French innkeeper's woodshed, evidently the Bates Motel of its day. And when not being robbed or murdered, pilgrims were ripe for fleecing; so highly were they regarded as a source of revenue that back in 1000 AD, a group of Umbrian peasants seriously considered killing their local hermit to secure his bones as a holy attraction. And for Rome's jubilee in 1300, the Pope announced that visitors to the city during that year would receive a plenary indulgence, thereby boosting tourist numbers.

Alongside an overview of the religious and political implications of the phenomenon, Ure gives us case studies based on contemporary accounts, including what amounts to a toper's guide from Doctor 'Merry Andrew' Boorde, who traversed Europe in the early 16th century, making frequent stops at "typlynge houses"to jot down notes on the local brews. Some years earlier, the Milanese Canon Casola wrote Voyage to Jerusalem, which set the bar for the grumpy travel book--he was a close man with a ducat and not slow to complain about conditions. After a difficult journey, Casola's not too impressed with Jerusalem--the Holy Places aren't preserved with the care they deserve--but produces a detailed account of the dangers to be encountered, many of which involve boredom or expense. For days he's stuck on a boat outside Gaza, waiting for permission to land. …

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