18.06.04, Legassie, The Medieval Invention of Travel

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Matthew Boyd Goldie

The Medieval Review 18.06.04

Legassie, Shayne Aaron. The Medieval Invention of Travel. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. pp. 304. ISBN: 9780226442563 (hardback) 9780226446622 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Matthew Boyd Goldie
  Rider University

Shayne Legassie’s The Medieval Invention of Travel evinces that travel writing from 1200 to 1500 was erudite, studious, and original. His book has the same admirable qualities, all convincingly and clearly presented, sometimes playfully. The title alludes to the well-known etymology that invention means to discover in one’s sources the beginnings of a discussion. Some medieval travel writers gained inspiration from classical and other sources, but Legassie typically uses invention in its later meaning of originality. The whole title therefore implies that the late Middle Ages began what amounts to a loose genre of travel writing, and Legassie makes a strong case when one considers the broad range, diverse places of origin, and varied styles of the writings he examines. There are many books and articles on Europe’s ideas about itself and the rest of the world in this time period. The Medieval Invention of Travel is different; it breaks new ground by asking readers to rethink commonplaces they may have come to believe about medieval voyages, it provides meaningful insights into familiar and unfamiliar authors alike, and it calls for a new understanding of the geographical prose, artworks, and maps of the period. It is well worth reading.

The thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century narratives Legassie surveys are of European travel to the farthest reaches of the Mongolian Empire, pilgrimage accounts of voyages to the Holy Land, chivalric adventures within the Mediterranean, and letters and other writings about real and imagined treks within Europe. The Medieval Invention of Travel does not so much provide a chronological record as it explores the overlapping concerns of its authors. The thesis is that medieval authors came to see travel as the central focus of what they did no matter what their intent was nor how far they journeyed. Indeed, some “destinations once deemed too familiar or unremarkable to comment on are subjected to the kinds of detailed analysis previously reserved for distant Asian kingdoms and sacred religious centers” (ix). Travel writing came into being as “a largely improvisational process” (viii–ix), emerging at this moment in history due to knowledge about the vast Mongol lands, discourses about sin and labor, ideological concerns in the writer’s homeland, and the increasing wealth of Western Europe. Legassie notes that in contrast to how tourism characterizes travel today, it “was understood as an intensification of the pains and labors of everyday life rather than a restorative interval away from them. In the Middle Ages, there was no travel without travail” (2). His breadth of knowledge across multiple European literatures is impressive, a range that does not sacrifice depth.

The six main chapters are paired to reveal overlapping themes. While Legassie eschews what he amusingly dubs “area studies” that focus on geographic regions, he concedes that his three parts address journeys to East Asia, the Holy Land, and Europe and the Mediterranean. Chapter 1 examines William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium to the Mongol Empire and Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa’s Divisament dou monde as gathering “prestige” to their writings from the exoticism of their travels to very distant areas. William does it so as to marshal support for a crusade against the Mongols because his attempts at diplomacy among the Khans fail. Polo and Rustichello together write a different narrative, one that engages the Khans more successfully because as merchants they do not agonize about “doctrinal orthodoxy” as William did but instead “celebrate the prestige economy of long-distant knowledge as an object of wonder in its own right” (38). Chapter 2 also focuses on the Khans in an investigation of John of Plano Carpini, Odoric of Pordenone, and The Book of Sir John Mandeville. The first two works are among the Mandeville author’s sources, but all three explore in common “the relationship between authority and travail” (13). John’s Historia Mongalorum wins the trust of its audience because of its similarities to legal and bureaucratic discourses. Odoric’s Relatio is different in that it claims authority for its novelties by attributing the marvels to divine authority. The Book of John Mandeville “seeks authority in the universal character of its author’s afflictions,” such as his passage through the Perilous Valley (78), and it “champions the superiority of geographical knowledge gained through travail in foreign lands over that gleaned at home through bookish pursuits” (82). The latter of course is ironic given that the Mandeville text is largely based on written sources.

Chapters 3 and 4 on voyages to the Holy Land posit the idea of “literate labor”: “A tendency to equate the endurance of the journey’s discomforts and the resistance of its temptations with the subsequent labor involved in composing the account” (117). The many texts in these two chapters reveal that pilgrims to the Levant used the memory devices of scholastic learning to record their travels, performed “a program of intellectual discipline” in Jerusalem (110), and drew attention to the work involved in presenting the knowledge of their journeys in written form. The authors in chapter 3 are the clerics Thietmar and Wilbrand of Oldenburg, and the Dominicans Burchard of Mount Sion and Felix Fabri among others. One distinguishing characteristic is that they appear to have taken notes during their travels, thus beginning the tradition of the travel diary. Chapter 4 examines travel writing to the Holy Land in terms of its “investigative” tenor, its “active, skeptical, and often painstaking investigations into past and present realities” of Jerusalem, areas around it, and increasingly sites along the way there (14). The authors are the same as those discussed in chapter 3 as well as another Dominican Riccoldo of Montecroce, William of Boldensele, and more. In some of these texts, attention turns to places within the Mediterranean, a change that Legassie describes as an “inward turn” geographically and towards “self-reflection about the manner in which the author undertakes the art of travel” (157).

In contrast to the previous chapters, chapters 5 and 6 focus on one author each: Petrarch and Pero (or Pedro) Tafur, the latter a knight from Córdoba who sailed along trade routes in the Mediterranean and then traveled through northern Europe. The two champion travel close to home, thus raising the status of short distance travel, which Legassie points out found its greatest efflorescence later in the Grand Tour. Petrarch and Tafur’s writings are different from the ones previously discussed because they were “thoroughly integrated into larger autobiographical and protonationalist projects” (167). In Legassie’s reading, Petrarch’s Letters on Familiar Matters depict the poet as “one who specializes in the art of estranging the proximate rather than domesticating the mysteries of the faraway” (176). Petrarch wrote his guidebook to Holy Land, Itinerary to the Sepulcher of Our Lord Jesus Christ, without ever going there, suggesting that “physical presence in a place does not necessarily confer any epistemological advantage on the traveler” (202). He came to give up travel entirely, devoting himself to his daily writing and his library. Tafur is less successful in reconciling two impulses that arise out of chivalric traditions and form the background to his mid-fifteenth century Travels and Journeys. One is the quest through dangerous territory, and the other is courtoisie, especially knights hosting each other. Tafur encountered both on his travels, and they ran up against each other the hardest when it came to Muslim lands and courts: “Tafur finds himself torn between idealizations of the knight as the sworn enforcer of boundaries and long-standing traditions of cultural reciprocity at interfaith courts” (204).

An additional overall strength of The Medieval Invention of Travel is that Legassie explores in some depth the afterlives of many of the texts. We learn that John of Plano Carpini’s Historia Mongalorum was read aloud. The Book of John Mandeville’s revisions in later copies, in Legassie’s reading, replace its narrator’s confidence in his own experience and morality with clerical and legal authority. Pero Tafur’s account includes the earlier exploits of a Venetian merchant in its own narrative.

The style of The Medieval Invention of Travel is clear and helpful. Legassie provides neat and accurate summaries of medieval cultural norms and traditions where needed. He is also good-humored and a little mischievous. The first sentence of the introduction is: “In the Middle Ages, travel was nasty, brutish, and long” (1). William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium has “a murderous agenda” (24), and at one point William capitalizes on the “Mongol mania for metallurgy” (36). The head of the Mongols at this time is “the chronically underwhelmed Khubilai Khan” (43). An image of a traveler returning from the Holy Land, one Bertrandon de la Broquière, has him in “Ottoman drag” (57), and in another illumination (of Mandeville), beasts are “licking their chops in his general direction” (107).

Legassie’s argument is frequently with early modernists, generalists, and some medievalists who have depicted late medieval travel writing as repetitive, unenterprising, theologically authority-bound, and undergoing a radical turn in 1492. Legassie’s coda to the book echoes Jacques Le Goff’s “long Middle Ages” in suggesting instead that the characteristics of medieval travel and its writing lasted until the industrial revolution and the Victorian age. He ends with a glance at William Wordsworth’s and John Ruskin’s sadness at the arrival of steam power and the end of the labors of travel. Perhaps, however, many characteristics of medieval travel and travel writing continue even today. Either way, The Medieval Invention of Travel offers a fresh and convincing perspective that will be of great benefit to scholars.

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