Monday, 9 June 2014

Medieval Travel

It's another Medieval Monday and today, in response to a question on countries, I wanted to look at travel, passports and other related things. We know that some medieval people travelled, either alone or as part of groups. Knights like William Marshall travelled around bits of Europe following the tournament scene. Senior Cistercian monks travelled around to one another's monasteries and to general chapter meetings to ensure that their monasteries kept up their standards. Kings, Archbishops and nobles never seemed to stay in one place for long, keeping up a constant procession around their holdings. Foreign travel was not the day to day occurrence it is today, but it did happen. So it's worth asking a few basic questions about how they did it.


How did they do it? This is fairly straightforward. They walked. They took horses. They took boats. There are quite good records for the Third Crusade paying for seaborne passage to the Holy Land with Genoese merchants, for example. It was something that took time, and could often be dangerous, as the disaster of losing Henry the Younger in the White Ship suggests, but there weren't many other options. It seems to have been generally a case of either finding a boat going in the right direction for individual passengers, or more commonly for groups, chartering one outright.


Did they need passports? This is complex. There weren't the careful border controls that we know in most places (and frankly, not so many clear borders), but we do know that letters of introduction and mandates to be a place to do a particular thing grew into things we can identify as sort of passports. We have surviving ones from about the early fifteenth century.


Did they camp outside towns? Yes. We have evidence for the practice in a number of places. Yet we also have evidence for people finding hospitality within towns, in noble residences, and in monasteries. Hospitality was a big deal, because there often wasn't the comprehensive system of hotels and coaching inns that fantasy assures us we find our quests in. The exact level of strictness about who they let in and when would probably come down to circumstances. It depended how important you were, and it depended how much of a threat there was to the safety of the town locally.


Were they welcome? This is the big one in a lot of ways. We kind of want to think of the middle ages as quite xenophobic and mistrustful of outsiders. There's some evidence of particular groups and places having their own laws, so in that sense where you were from was important. It's likely that when they weren't subject to the justice of the local magistrates, people working for the Cistercians just down the road would have seemed a bit more different than they were. If you were very poor as a traveller, there would have also have been the suspicion that you might have been a vagrant, an outlaw or an escaped serf running from the land they were tied to. There were moments of mass murder on the grounds of religious or ethnic difference that point to a clear fear of anything different in some quarters.


There were also very sharp linguistic and cultural differences across often quite small areas. France didn't speak one language through this period. Nor did what is now Germany. England only became one kingdom in 1054, and the United Kingdom was another six hundred and fifty years away.


Yet a lot of the time, there was also the sense of a lack of a lot of the formal controls to keep people out that exist today. There was the element of hospitality, a certain amount of share language (Latin), and plenty of evidence for travellers from other lands getting along fine, particularly if they were noble. That, I think, is probably one of the key points. Nobility transcended borders in a sense of shared identity (and given the amount of intermarriage probably shared family) that could sometimes push aside other risks.

1 comment:

DRC said...

Oh how life has changed with the introduction of cars, trains and planes. The world is a much smaller place now than it was...