Helmut Hundsbichler

title.none: Friedman and Figg, eds., Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages (Helmut Hundsbichler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0202.006 02.02.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Helmut Hundsbichler, Institut f|r Realienkunde,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Friedman, John and Kristen Figg, eds. Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. xxix, 715. ISBN: 0-815-32003-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.02.06

Friedman, John and Kristen Figg, eds. Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. xxix, 715. ISBN: 0-815-32003-5.

Reviewed by:

Helmut Hundsbichler
Institut f|r Realienkunde

According to the editors' introduction (pp. vii-ix), the book under review intends to be "a single, convenient reference work". This intention is surely quite good; however, that short formula and the key-words of the book's title circumscribe a really hard and extensive enterprise. As a consequence, the book was prepared during a period of six years. It tries to bundle important information and perspectives which are normally "difficult to access, principally because a good deal of work on the subject has been written in languages other than English". The chronological frame of the book covers, as usual, the period from 525 to 1495 C.E. The 435 entries by 177 contributors provide a cross-disciplinary focus which makes "no claims for completeness". Nevertheless the book is subtitled "An Encyclopedia", and its primary purpose is to introduce "students and the general reader" to a complex and vast subject matter.

As reviewer I am puzzled by this purpose. It necessarily arouses the suspicion that the book presents something like "history lite". Would full and serious information about authentic medieval life be inappropriate for students and the general reader? And then of course: which are the matters that were left out of consideration? For myself as European medievalist, the most evident deficiency is that the book neither takes sufficiently into account nor explains the fundamental impact of religious thought throughout daily life and commercial culture--within European Christianity, anyway. It is true that the book characterizes eleven of the world's "religious movements". (xix) But such a focus is merely a fig leaf, because religious meanings were continuously interwoven into crucial entries relating to trade, travel and exploration and, therefore, cannot be treated in isolation. This gap constitutes the primary characteristic of the book, and this means a considerable loss of its competence.

In the Middle Ages, Christian thought constrained everybody to render daily activities and everyday life strictly following principles which were exclusively derived from religious values. The basic ideas involved are codified in the system of Christian vices and virtues. That system does not provide (as many superficially assert) a strange instrument of arbitrary power and suppression but an anthropology of human deficiencies which usually disturbe social equality and public peace--as for instance the excessive hunt for individual prestige or profit or pleasure. Within this anthropological mirror, activities like trade and travel, or attitudes like curiosity and exploration are well discussed and clearly evaluated to guarantee public welfare and harmony instead of individual advantage or thirst for glory.

Take for example the key-word "merchants" which does not exist as such in the book. It is split into three sections (French, Italian, Jewish Merchants) to show the merits of merchants regarding trade and exploration and progress. But there is no specific information that exploration and gain for profit were actually considered as pernicious and led to a centuries-long struggle; merchants had to be absolved by ecclesiastical authorities until they were accepted and integrated into the social system of medieval Christianity. Facing rigid ecclesiastical opinions on economy, the entry "Usury and the Church's View of Business" even suggests the priority of economic interests over medieval religious guidelines (the misleading way of interpreting a genuine culture according to the view of an "observer" from outside). On the other hand, the book ignores the fundamental role of trade and merchants and craftsmen in the development of medieval towns and in the emergence of modern civil society: that key position would at least have demanded an additional entry "market".

Entries like "public control of quality", "ethical foundations of production and trade", "hospitality", "orbis Christianus", "heathens", "curiositas", or "migration" would easily have drawn further attention to the principle of the religious impact on medieval trade, travel and exploration. Religious thought was not a cursory phenomenon within medieval mentality which an encyclopedia, thus, could easily leave out--it was the basic one. For example, within Christianity (but not only here), hospitalitas is one among seven specifications of applied caritas (charity). However, if possible the editors avoid terms in Latin (one of the really "international" and "intercultural" languages during the Middle Ages). So they miss another chance for a glimpse into the authentic Middle Ages.

The third gap concerns the so called "General Bibliography" which is plainly meager. One gets the impression that, in accordance with the introduction, titles "other than in English language" are explicitly ignored instead of listing at least the imperative ones. Such an update would have compensated the far-reaching absence of non-anglophone research on which many of the book's entries would actually be based. Additionally the poor quality of most illustrations as well as the inconsistency of their deployment within the book should be noted.

The introductory definitions of the leading concepts (trade, travel, and exploration) don't try to trace authentic medieval facts, views and opinions but rather intend to satisfy anticipations and interests which are nowadays connected with trade, travel and exploration (Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre have characterized this attitude toward history as "psychological anachronism"): the editors specify "travel for religious reasons" (pilgrims, ascetics), "travel for personal and political gain" (merchants and colonizers), and "simple intellectual curiosity" (Ibn Battuta). These definitions are rather different from medieval view and experience--which means that medieval view and experience are accordingly ignored: The supreme intellectual challenge for the (Christian) Middle Ages was to recognize God's intention and ideas, travel being one of the fundamental metaphors to symbolize the process of individual steps on the hard way to that target--whilst personal gain and curiosity were regarded just as the classical impediments on that way. "Adventure" does not mean "thrill" in the Middle Ages, but proof of Christian thought. Not only withdrawn pilgrims but also the travelling heroes within (European) medieval epic poetry or Jean de Mandeville's fictional travels would confirm that view clearly. However, since a synoptic entry about public thought on medieval travel is not provided, entries like "German Literature, Travel in" or "Homo Viator" can not exceed the quality of cursory re-narration. And what the concept "colonizers" suggests is a completely post-medieval phenomenon, for instance. In Europe at least, most of medieval colonizers were going overland, not overseas--but none of the European periods of medieval migration and colonization is treated in the book.

One characteristic example of the chance factor in the book are the types of travelers treated. These include only diplomats and envoys (xii), "Islamic Women Travelers", "Masons and Architects as Travelers", and "Minstrels". Totally left out is the wide range of medieval mobility which, in principle, includes the whole scale of social stratification: from beggars and outlaws, over craftsmen and merchants, messengers and students, monks and clerics up to rulers and emperors. Another example: the book claims not to refer only to Europe in the traditional sense of the Christian Middle Ages but explicitly also to the cultures of Asia, Africa and the New World. The performance of this announcement is highly unbalanced: 23 entries concern the Mongols, seven are about China, none about the Incas, for instance. A third example: only an outline of extraordinary prestigious goods (like pepper and saffron, gold and ivory, lignum Aloes, silk and decorative textiles) are given an entry in the book, whilst glass or wine or salt and especially goods of daily consumption are left out of consideration (cf. for instance the trans-continental oxen-drive to guarantee meat supply in the late medieval towns of Western and Southern Europe).

Thus, the selection of entries shows or allows both remarkable distance toward the self-understanding of the Middle Ages and emotional unrelatedness with the mentalities of that period. This property is--sad to say--the book's leading characteristic: instead of investigating and explaining and "exploring" all those foreign, distant, and genuine cultures of the Middle Ages, the book concentrates on narrative information which often is made up to meet favourite interests of "modern" readers, as for example exoticisms and sensations, marvels and wonders ("Black Death", "Cannibalism", "Exotic Animals", "Giants", "Gunpowder", "Monstrosity", "Mythical Beings and Places", "Paradise", "Piracy", "Purgatory", "Spies", "Wild People", "Wonders of the East"). This is an attempt to please the cultural voyeurism of inexpert clients. Such an attitude represents and, more regrettably, nurtures the phenomenon of selective perception and the intention to gain pleasure and entertainment from history. And it is a classical evidence of presumption and colonialism, which prevent any culture under view from being realized as a genuine one, as an authentic one, as an "other" one. Topics precisely like trade, travel and exploration would be perfectly suited to being treated respectfully and in an up-to-date way under the leading paradigms of "foreigness", "otherness" and communication which have been, thanks to cultural anthropology, integrated into the network of cross-disciplinary approaches toward history.

In its way the book produces a kind of "filtered" and "conditioned" Middle Ages, "easy to digest". In consequence, it allows "students and the common reader" of today to construct a view of the Middle Ages which would hardly correspond with the reality as experienced by the medieval "participants". The book intends to tell a story about the Middle Ages, but not the story of the Middle Ages.