Medieval Travellers: The Rich and Restless by Margaret Wade Labarge - review by Mary Clive

Mary Clive

Congenial Company

Medieval Travellers: The Rich and Restless


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An unusual feature of this book is that the title and sub-title exactly explain what it is about. Quite simply, without any frills, Margaret Wade Labarge relates the stories of numerous intrepid individuals, mostly rich and important but sometimes merely intelligent and articulate, who braved the considerable dangers and discomforts of travel in the Middle Ages. Another agreeable surprise is that she finds her dramatis personae congenial company. Far too many historians sneer at our forbears; scolding them if they follow the customs of their own day, accusing them of avarice if they attempt to earn money or provide for their children, and tut-tutting if the poor things are detected having a little fun.

Mrs Labarge, I am glad to say, has a kindly word for nearly everyone, from the grandees who put on a wonderful pageant whenever they entered a town, to the young men who drifted overseas because they were bored at home, or because, having been brought up to be fighters, they were looking for a scrap – much as keen young officers in the days of the Raj volunteered for a spell in India. She is tolerant, for instance, of the activities of Henry Earl of Derby (afterwards Shakespeare’s Henry IV) who went to Danzig to join the Teutonic Knights in a mini-crusade against the pagans in Lithuania; in the summer he assisted at the siege of Vilna and in the autumn he retired to Konigsberg where he hunted and otherwise enjoyed himself. Two years later he again went to Danzig, and finding no suitable war, he turned his expedition into a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

She is also sympathetic towards Mary, daughter of Edward I, who became a nun at the age of seven and in riper years seized every opportunity to go on outings to court, or failing that, to shrines. ‘The impression made,’ she says, ‘is not one of extreme devotion. Rather these seem to have been essentially junkets, a socially acceptable way for a bored nun with luxurious tastes and a good income to get away from the convent where she had been installed through no wish of her own.’ But Mrs Labarge’s undoubted favourites are the observant and inquisitive tourists who wrote graphic travelogues.

One of the most well known is Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, (later Pope Pius 11) who, in 1435, undertook a secret mission to Scotland; he went by sea and came back through England in disguise, sightseeing on the way. Even more enterprising was Bertrandon de la Broquière. In 1431 he was sent by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to check up on possible routes for a crusade. He visited Jerusalem and the Near East, returned by Constantinople and Hungary, and had many adventures. When he travelled from Damascus to Aleppo with a caravan that was returning from Mecca, he assumed Moslem dress which he continued to wear until he regained the court of Burgundy. He seems to have got on extremely well with everybody, including Jews, Turks and Infidels, and he was enthusiastic about the devotion and loyalty of his Mahomedan guide. ‘I write this so that I shall remember that a man outside our faith, for the honour of God, has done me so much good.’

Mrs Labarge has dug out numerous other picturesque characters who will be unknown to the ordinary reader, like the two French knights who in 1402 tried to colonise the Canary Islands, and Eudes Rigaud, Archbishop of Rouen from 1248 to 1276, who averaged 2500 miles a year with a grand total of 54,131 miles; most of this was in the course of duty in his diocese, but he courageously crossed the Alps in midwinter when he thought it necessary to have a personal interview with the Pope.

By comparison, Eleanor Countess of Leicester hardly qualifies as a traveller; we merely see her moving from one of her castles to another but she is interesting because her household accounts for a dramatic year in her life have chanced to survive. She was the sister of Henry III and wife of Simon de Montfort. When the accounts begin, in February 1265, she is at Wallingford Castle and the King, his son Edward (Edward I) and other members of the royal family are prisoners of her husband; Edward escapes and on August 4th defeats the rebels at the Battle of Evesham: Simon de Montfort is killed and Eleanor, who by this time has worked her way round by the south coast to Dover Castle, is sent into exile.

Medieval Travellers provides many titbits of curious information. I was amused to learn that a version of the famous rigmarole about the man who comes home after a long absence and is met by a servant who slowly reveals a series of disasters, beginning with his dog and ending with his wife, was being told in the thirteenth century as happening to a pilgrim returning from St James of Compostela. It also suggests various questions which it does not answer. What happened to all those magnificent clothes when it rained? After months on the road, how did travellers have money in their pockets with which to pay their living expenses? How did the journeys of nobles compare with those of ordinary people? One would like to see a table showing the time taken over a given course, say London to Rome, by a prince, a fine lady, a merchant, a pilgrim and a messenger.

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