Explorers from Other Lands

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Explorers from Other Lands


Personal Encounter. Medieval exploration was a personal encounter between two cultures. Both explorer and explored peoples might be changed; rarely was neither affected. Most often in this period and later, explorers, when they brought settlers with them, superimposed their home way of life on the new environment, if not on its people.

Misfits. The Viking society was altered astonishingly little by Atlantic Island exploration. The Viking Landnam-abok (Book of Settlements), based on a work predating 1189, established the official documentation of colonization in Iceland. Subsequent Viking colonies generally imitated the formal Scandinavian institutions of authority, especially in their social and religious respects, without modifying the system particularly to suit the needs of the colonial economy. In the case of Greenland, native hunting

and fishing exploitation techniques never took hold among the Vikings, however crucial it was to independent survival on the island.

Colonists. Latin Western culture was also transplanted to the Holy Land. Pilgrimages and the Crusades opened up “exploration” to all social classes in the Middle Ages. Almost immediately, however, feudal regulations governing terms of service, seigniorial fees, ages of entry into service, and training and property restrictions were introduced or imported directly into the Crusader States, largely as a result of the shortage of timely help in the form of volunteer armies. In the Crusader colonies, boys could be apprenticed and girls married off. At stable moments females served their husbands under no more undesirable conditions than in Europe and faced the usual threat of mortality in childbirth.

Aggression. Medieval military exploration had, however, a slightly different character about it. Incursions could be undertaken either voluntarily, with a vigorous force choosing its new target, or compulsorily, as arranged by other enemies, circumstances, or internal military unrest.

Mongols’ Route. The Mongols’ voluntary affront was lengthy and exhaustive but virtually guaranteed them a lasting place in Western history, earned by trade and aggression. They were not enticed to uncover the military secrets of the Song Empire of China or to push further south. Instead they moved West, pursued an advance into Europe, defeated the Christian armies with comparative ease, and turned homeward in 1242. The Westerners, as the explored, met the Mongols on the battlefield, fighting them in Hungary, Poland, eastern Germany, and Austria. Terms could not be negotiated. Since the land in Medieval Europe was poor and backward when measured against China and hard labor was essential to work it, inhabitants were not able to bargain with invaders for more favorable treatment than death. The Europeans’ one hope was trade, which would allow the Mongols some form of commercial taxation rights payable in silver.

Military and Political Understandings. The fate of the vanquished in military exploration was well understood. Christian residents in Jerusalem were normally required to serve Saladin as slaves upon surrender in 1187. Fighting in sworn defense of the city, the knight Balian of Ibelin discovered, however, that he could buy freedom from a generous enemy. For some, payment in dinars became the solution to their captivity.

Commodities. Medieval European urban spheres showed many effects of foreign exploration. Medieval commodities fell into different categories determined by their difficulty to procure and prestige to own. Among the easiest to acquire and lowest in terms of ownership status were dietary basics, such as grain, ale, and vegetables; those ranking somewhere in the middle were basic clothing and housewares. At the elite end of the material objects scale were items from foreign lands: precious stones, delicate glassware, spices, or heavily worked manufactured goods, such as complicated silk textiles and carved ivory. The wealthy chose from limited amounts of exotic items. Although some luxuries did come from trained craftsmen in Europe, most were obtained in another land that offered unusual raw materials or different production skills. Gemstones, gold, fine glass, spices, silk, and ivory were treasured.

Rural Impact. In European rural areas the impact of exploration was in some sense much narrower. Rural dwellers did not have the wide variety of specialized goods that the people in cities and large towns enjoyed, but many villages had far more contact with travelers from outside their region than the needs of the community demanded, including pilgrims, missionaries, and itinerant preachers. Furthermore, the connections of the pan-European Christian community meant that most parish priests had to spend some of their time receiving word on doing Rome’s new bidding. Their contacts were nonetheless restricted, largely because of illiteracy.

Pilgrimage Accounts. Already by the ninth century literate Christian readers could satisfy their basic curiosity with pilgrimage route maps or one of the pilgrims’ guidebooks, many of which included practical advice on dress, money, expenses, and precautions to take. Pilgrims who sought out a mystical experience, in the process of meditating on the example of the venerated person in his or her honored place, sometimes wrote travel narratives in order to help those who meditated without leaving home. For medieval women especially, the mystical accounts of Bridget of Sweden and Margery Kempe on pilgrimage were particularly popular. For men the 1150 travelogue connected with Saint Patrick of the perilous trip into the subterranean passage of Lough Derg by the knight Oengus O’Brien was vicariously exciting. Pilgrims learned of Rome’s pagan and Christian wonders from the Codex Ein-sidelensis (late eighth century) and the Marvels of Rome (twelfth century). Those on their way to Jerusalem had many guidebooks at their disposal: The Itinerary from Bordeaux to Jerusalem, Rorgo Fretellus of Nazareth’s Description of the Holy Land (1148), and Burchard of Mt. Sion’s Description of the Holy Land (thirteenth century). Written certificates confirmed a pilgrim’s fulfillment of his vow, as did the inscription of a name at the site or the relics and pins that came back from afar. The men and women who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land often brought back a souvenir of their trip, a palm tree branch, for example, to lay on the altar of their church at home. It was, however, the informal accounts by family members who had traveled that were the greatest testimony to a pilgrimage completed.


Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of lbn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the 14’’ Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229–1492 (Philadelphia: University of California Press, 1987).

Marcia Kupfer, “Medieval World Maps: Embedded Images, Interpretative Frames,” Word and Image, 10 (1994): 262–288.

Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travellers: The Rich and Restless (London: Hamilton, 1982).

Arthur Percival Newton, ed., Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968).

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by Ronald Latham (London: Penguin, 1958).

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (London: Athlone Press, 1987).

Marjorie Rowling, Everyday Life of Medieval Travellers (London: B. T. Batsford, 1971).

G.V. Scammell, The World Encompassed: The First European Maritime Empires, c. 800-1650 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Kristen A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. AD 1000–1500 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1981).

Bertold Spuler, History of the Mongols, Based on Eastern and Western Accounts of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated by H. and S. Drummond (London: Routledge, 1972).

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