Travel in the Middle Ages

January 13, 2014

51+nu5+broL._AA160_I particularly enjoy reading accounts of travel from the Middle Ages. Then I’m transported into a world with only very rudimentary maps, before the world was fully known – where are America, Australia and Antarctica? How did sailors actually know where they were? So travel was a much more complicated and chancy business. Equally, I’m talking about times in which the real world co-existed with imaginary and fantasy worlds, and the boundaries between them are very fluid indeed. Did Sir John Mandeville actually exist, and did he visit any of the places he writes about in his Travels? Marco Polo did exist and went to the places he describes, as did Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century Arab traveller who covered more miles that Marco Polo all over the known world of his time, and Leo Africanus explored much of North Africa in the following ventury.

Jean Vernon‘s book Voyager au Moyen Age explains in great detail who travelled in the Middle Ages (he covers the period from the fiftth to the fifteenth centuries) and how they travelled, by land (on foot and horseback, alone and in groups) and by sea, and how long it took to get to places. The hardships are illustrated by copious references to writings of the time, and there’s an excellent bibliography, with pointers to lots more writers who I must track down… Many of these ancient texts are, of course, now freely downloadable from sites like Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Vernon covers not just travel to real, but also to imaginary places..

Lots of people did travel, for trade, personal and professional reasons; the journeys were often long and hard; much of Europe was heavily forested in the early Middle Ages. People were afraid of the sea, and there were lots of pirates; journeys could take ages if the weather conditions were not propitious (three weeks to cross the English Channel…)

The book is a fascinating insight into the growth of our knowledge about the world, and also into the minds of people of many centuries ago, and how they thought about themselves and their world.

3 Responses to “Travel in the Middle Ages”

  1. David Murray Says:

    As it happens, my supervisor published a book on Marco Polo and language last summer (Simon Gaunt, ‘Marco Polo’s Le Devisement du Monde: Narrative Voice, Language and Diversity’, if you’re curious). Many of MS witnesses of the Devisement are in Franco-Italian, which I suppose means they are already linguistically dislocated before he even goes anywhere.
    As for medieval maps, I think they weren’t necessarily as rudimentary as you might suppose. The Gough Map of GB ( see ‘’) is, if you tweak it slightly for projection and drawing, I’m told, astonishingly accurate. Failing that, it’s terrific fun to look at.
    It’s a great series of books–one longs for similar ‘oeuvres de vulgarisation’ in English!


    • litgaz Says:

      I take your point about mediaeval maps – I think I generalised a bit, though some do look very primitive compared with today’s… I shall look up the Gough Map, which I don’t recall coming across. And yes, generally I have found popular books on a range of subjects in France much more useful and better-written than some English attempts, which head for the lowest common denominator and at times have left me feeling ‘well I could have written that…’


  2. […] to read about the actual travelling in previous centuries (see my post on travel in the middle ages here) when it was rather more complicated and arduous than in our day. Crossing the seas, and also […]


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