Pilgrims, Travel, and Travel Literature

views updated

Pilgrims, Travel, and Travel Literature



Saints and Pilgrims. Geoffrey Chaucer opens The Canterbury Tales (circa 1375-1400) with an agrarian calendar that defines months based on crops and other factors. At that time, the average person would have been more aware of saints’ days than the months of the year. For instance, Chaucer defines April, the start of spring, as the month when people go on pilgrimages: “Then folks long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers to visit foreign shores and distant shrines, known in various lands.” Pilgrimages were religious journeys that sinners would take as a form of penance, or repentance for sin. Just as warriors would go on a Crusade to win penance, so, too, ordinary people would journey to Jerusalem, Rome, or local sites such as the Shrine of Saint James of Compostela in Spain. Chaucer's pilgrims were headed to the most popular of medieval English pilgrimages, the Shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Becket was King Henry IFs chancellor and later Archbishop of

Canterbury. He was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, supposedly while kneeling in prayer. Becket was canonized and Canterbury became a popular pilgrimage destination. Pilgrimage sites usually contained relics, or what were believed to be the actual body parts of dead saints. Saints and their relics were believed to work miracles. The cult of saints developed into a significant manifestation of popular piety and official doctrine in late-medieval Europe.

Cult of the Saints. The tragedy of the Black Death (1347-1351) was an impetus for the veneration of saints and served to move them from the monastery into the world. All saints were holy men and women who sought a personal, direct, and extraordinary relationship with God. Saints canonized in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries frequently had employed innovative forms of piety that could be critical of the Church, whereas saints chosen in the sixteenth century tended to have been militant defenders of Catholicism, such as Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. Throughout the entire period, saints were people who had renounced worldly concerns in favor of religious goals. An individual became a saint when the church recognized unusual religious piety and evidence of miracles. Saints were held in such high esteem because the degree and quality of their religious zeal was so different from their contemporaries. The cult of saints was a recognition of the individual devotion and unique heavenly focus of a saint.

Worldly Horizons. Pilgrims were not always models of individual devotion and heavenly focus. In fact, they were frequently accused of being simple tourists or worse, of wandering in search of immorality away from the watchful eyes of local authorities and neighbors. Even devout pilgrims were frequently models of a group mentality and a focus on worldly concerns that was the antithesis of the saintly model they supposedly sought. Pilgrims often looked for the most popular pilgrimages where they could join the largest crowds. Large crowds proved the significance of a site and guaranteed the potential for great miracles. Pilgrims flocked to saints’ relics in pursuit of worldly favors. The cult of the saints encouraged travel to pilgrimage sites where a pilgrim would see clear reminders of even more remote locations. This practice offered a rare opportunity for Europeans, especially women, to participate in acceptable travel over long distances. The European-wide pilgrimage movement during the Renaissance contributed to an awareness of a world that, while Christian, was far removed from local life.

Islamic Travel Literature. Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun were two Muslim writers from northern Africa whose fourteenth-century works provided Europeans with a perspective on the world beyond Christianity. Ibn Battuta, a native of Ceuta, left northwest Africa in 1325 and traveled for almost thirty years. He went through the Mamluk kingdom of Egypt to Arabia and Mecca, then further to Delhi, Ceylon, Bengal, and China. He returned to Ceuta in 1349 and then traveled to Granada in Spain and the kingdom of Mali. He obviously exaggerated his responsibilities in the courts of foreign rulers much the same way that his Christian counterpart, Marco Polo, had done. Ibn Battuta's Rihlah (Travels, 1353) is consistent with a genre of Arab travel stories that are similar to the autobiographical, picaresque novel. The resulting mixture of fact and fiction is quite different from the more factual works of Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun was a politician, legal scholar, and historian. His family had joined the Muslim conquest of Spain before settling in Maghreb (the Arab-dominated section of Northwest Africa). He later moved to Algeria and began writing Al-lbar (1406). He continued to revise the Al-lbar in Egypt, where he settled after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Ibn Khaldun was famous among historians for constructing a logical methodology for historical accuracy by questioning historical errors. The method was similar to that employed by Lorenzo Valla, a mid-Renaissance Italian humanist who disproved the Donation of Constantine in 1440. The Rihlah and Al-lbarbecame important sources for Europeans to consider history, geography, and the late-medieval world.

Marco Polo. The so-called silk road was a network of overland travel that connected Asia and Europe. The most famous western merchant to travel the silk road was Marco Polo, who traveled with his father and uncle across Asia from 1271 to 1295. Polo lived in Asia for seventeen years before returning to Italy. Historians debate whether Polo was motivated by commercial motives or simple curiosity and the quest for adventure. He was certainly a refugee who spent many years traveling the caravan routes of the Great Mongol Empire. His account offers a unique perspective because he was clearly accepted by the Mongols. He possessed knowledge of Asia that was unprecedented in Europe.


Place13th Century14th Century15th Century16th Century
British Isles102254
Low Countries6123
Holy Roman Empire and Switzerland22741
Eastern Europe4544

Source: Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell, Saints and Society; The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, JOOO-J700(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 167.

Influence on Geographers. Polo dictated his memoirs while he was in a Genoese prison. The Book of Sir Marco Polo (1298) is a cultural geography of a Christian's travels in China and across Asia. Initially, his accounts were disregarded as being mythical stories. The book became extremely popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries among Renaissance humanists. These humanists were fascinated with geography but were forced to rely largely on ancient accounts because of the lack of Christian

geographers. A Christian perspective, such as that of Polo, was held in high esteem. Mapmakers and explorers relied on his account for centuries. The fifteenth-century rise of printing in Europe made the book available to a much wider audience. Printed copies of The Book of Sir Marco Polo became extremely popular: at least twenty-four printed editions were published in the sixteenth century in several different languages. Prior to printing, relatively few people could afford handcopied manuscripts of the work. Henry the Navigator's brother Pedro went to great lengths to obtain a manuscript of Marco Polo's account for Portugal, and King Peter III obtained one for Aragon.

Prester John. Peter III of Aragon and his son Jafuda did not stop with the Polo account. They also obtained Odoric of Pordenone's Travels (circa 1314-1330) and a work by an unknown author titled The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1366). Mandeville's Travels differs considerably from the other two books because it, like Ibn Battuta's Rhilah, is full of obviously fictional stories. However, Mandeville's Travels also argues for the sphericity of the earth and discusses locations that were consistent with Marco Polo's locations, despite the fact that the author apparently did not use Polo's book. The author, in the persona of an English knight, tells of his travels to diverse places, usually “islands” such as Cathay (China), India, and Tibet. Chapter XXX of the book describes an island ruled by Prester John, a powerful Christian ruler. The Prester John legend was not new, having first appeared in an 1145 work by Otto of Freising, but Mandeville gave new impetus to the myth. Prester John was a medieval ruler who was baptized and lived in an amazing palace in the delightful city of Susa. The legend was sufficiently enticing to attract Europeans to seek the Island of Prester John. The fact that he lived on an island was significant because the myth spread at the moment when Iberian sailors were exploring Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa. When it became obvious that Prester John was not to be found in Asia, the Portuguese began seeking him in Africa. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was a popular geographical romance that influenced how Renaissance Christians viewed the non-Christian world. The book's sphere of influence is evident in the 250 known medieval manuscripts and the 80 editions published between 1478 and 1592. Europeans were eager to read what they believed was the actual travel account of an English knight. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville became an important part of late-medieval travel literature that encouraged a mentality of chivalric adventure and foreign exploration.


Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Eattuta, a Muslim Traveller of the Fourteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Iain M. Higgins, Writing East: The “Travels” of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).


Category13th Century14th Century15th Century16thCentury
Popes and Cardinals4234
Bishops and Archbishops28871
Abbots, Abbesses, Priors, and Prioresses26142012
Lesser Clerics35321853
Lay People58363037

Source: Donald Weinstek and Rudolph M. Bell, Saints & Society: The Two Worlds ef Western Christendom, 1000-1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 204.

John Lamer, Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christianity, 1000-1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

About this article

Pilgrims, Travel, and Travel Literature

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article