Daniel Connolly

title.none: Verdon, Travel in the Middle Ages (Daniel Connolly)

identifier.other: baj9928.0410.006 04.10.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel Connolly, Utah State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Verdon, Jean. Holoch, George, trans. Travel in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. 348. ISBN: $25.00 0-268-04223-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.10.06

Verdon, Jean. Holoch, George, trans. Travel in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. 348. ISBN: $25.00 0-268-04223-3.

Reviewed by:

Daniel Connolly
Utah State University

Verdon's study does not so much argue for a particular understanding of medieval travel, as it paints a broadly sweeping picture of the conditions and modes of travel during the Middle Ages. In doing so, Verdon makes an important contribution to our general appreciation of this one aspect of medieval mentalité. For Verdon's work is very much in the Annales school of history writing--and so will benefit scholar and student alike in their own investigations into this one slice of medieval life.

Norbert Ohler's now classic work, The Medieval Traveler, stressed that which was familiar and approachable in medieval journeying--having gathered a variety of information and evidence on topography and climate, on the average speeds of pack animals and horses, on inns and hostels along certain routes. Verdon's work does repeat some of that, but his goal is different--to cut across those categories that comprise the quotidian details of medieval travel in the hopes that new, or at least different, themes will put into relief the unfamiliar and the distinctly medieval psychology that informed journeying through a sometimes hostile, and certainly suspect world. To do so, Verdon draws from a remarkably wide range of sources, liberally quoted, from monastic rules, to pilgrimage accounts, to primary sources recording the tolls and taxes collected from various highways--as well as who and how those roads were maintained--to literary sources, and even accounts of imaginary journeys. The result then is an interesting study that will find a useful presence in the classroom. One liability to that expanded horizon of enquiry, however, is the tendency to treat the ten or so centuries of the Middle Ages as a somewhat homogenous whole, moving from sixth-century sources to fifteenth-century ones, often with little in the way of historical contextualization. And because the greater proportion of sources and texts survive from the late Middle Ages, much of the book is necessarily concerned with thirteenth, fourteenth and even fifteenth-century travel engagements, though there is plenty of earlier material as well.

Another drawback to this sort of deeply investigated theme is that, lacking an argument or trajectory of explanation, the book often reads as anecdotal reportage, interesting to be sure, but reportage for which one wished he had a better index, at least. If there is an argument, it is against the generalized characterization of the Middle Ages as a period of relative sedentary life, that there was far more travel than we tend to think, and that the experiences of travel are available to us by examining the sources for the details of daily life that are deposited therein. On the plus side, there is much here to interest the historian: its array of evidence, much necessarily anecdotal, is divided up into sometimes questionable subheadings, which also provide the opportunity for insightful analysis. To paraphrase Verdon, no classification system can account for the complexity of human endeavors, but a finely-meshed net, broadly cast, requires some scheme to impose order on the messy details of history.

The book is divided into three major parts, which are ever more finely subdivided to allow for comparison and analysis. Part one, "Methods", covers the means or modes of travel--by land, sea, and the necessary considerations of lodging and of finding one's way. Much of this is commonsensical--inns were often grouped together on major thoroughfares, stables required more area; but much is also new and intriguing: charting the changing status and powers of the new merchant class and feudal lords through taxes and tolls, or the degree and extent of piracy. Vivid descriptions by Felix Faber of his journey will make a nice reading for any course on the Middle Ages. In part two, Verdon explores the motivations that lay behind the various sorts of travel that took place, broadly grouped under the service of oneself, of one's lord, of the Lord, and more amorphously, the discovery of the world. In this section we delve into the details of itinerant students, merchants, rulers and diplomatic missions, as well as vivid descriptions of the reception and treatment of messengers and the development of the system of mail delivery. And here, and throughout the book, Verdon is not limited to the Latin West, but lets his sources--Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta--reveal conditions in India, China and elsewhere. There is included a nice section on pilgrims and crusaders. The 'Discovery of the World' draws from pilgrimage accounts and other eye-witness recordings of cities, palaces, cathedrals, and other tourist attractions; it includes, as well, lengthy and colorful discussions and excerpts from Marco Polo's Asia, Ibn Battuta's Africa, and even Columbus's America, and is nicely balanced by a section on 'Wanderers,' which includes accounts of clercs vagrants, jongleurs and troubadours, and others of even more marginal existence. Finally, the last part on imaginary journeys highlights what an original study this is, for by including journeys of the spirit or imagined journeys, Verdon is able to explore more broadly those very categories which have at the same time constrained our understanding of medieval ideas of time and space. From the fantastic and monstrous of legendary geography to itineraries in the beyond and afterlife, medieval travel indeed comprised as much and as far as the traveler herself could imagine.

This is a good and interesting investigation of a subject for which there are few book-length studies. Although I often wished for more specific citations to the secondary sources and for a more thorough index, it is very readable and makes a fine contribution to the field and to the classroom.