Traveling in the Middle Ages

Ramon Llull belonged to the minority that, in those days, could afford to travel frequently. He was a contemporary of another great traveller: the Venetian explorer and merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324). Llull also travelled a lot but with different purposes: to seek political and financial support to his missionary projects and to test directly the force of his arguments with people from other places and beliefs. He stepped on many European cities, and some of Asia and Africa. He moved around carrying his books and using the transport available in his time; nothing like the ease that exists today for travel. However, thanks to travellers like him, the European Middle Ages opened to new cultural horizons.

Who travelled?
  1. Merchants, migrants, messengers, military, religious figures, nobles, tax collectors, artisans, prostitutes, artists, minstrels, students, intellectuals, vagrants, beggars, etc.
  2. The farmers travelled to sell their products to fairs and local markets, making short trips, usually to the nearest village; it is known that in the interior of Mallorca, for example, many died without ever seeing the sea.
  3. With the discovery in the early  9th century, of the  remains of the Apostle St. James in Galicia, the Way of St. James becomes the main route of pilgrimage and it configures as an axis that contributes to vertebrate Europe; which implies that many more people travel.
  4. Repopulation of colonization after the conquests entailed mass migration, especially farmers seeking for new land and a better future for their family.
  5. Everyone walked frequently. The non existence of mechanical means in the Middle Ages, meant that people had strong legs used to walk, this fact has been documented with the forensic examination of human skeletons of that time.
"Vie de Saint. Denis", page 1. 1317. Scenes from the life of Saint Denis. Detail of a pilgrim entering Paris. Gothic art. Miniature. Paris. Bibliotheque Nationale. Iberfoto. Photoaisa.
How long did the trips last?

BY LAND

  1. The journey lasted from sunrise to sunset, even if they had to go and come back on the same day.
  2. On foot, the average distance travelled in one day was about 25 kilometres and could even reach 50 or 60 in the case of professional couriers (real athletes).
  3. On horse, the daily journey could be around 60 and 100 kilometres; this means that to cross France could take 12 to 20 days (in good weather and without any difficulties).
  4. In river navigation the speed could be different depending on whether they travelled for or against the current. For example, on the Rhone from Lyon to Avignon 24 hours, and from Avignon to Lyon up to a month.
Tapestry of the Creation: Day of the Sun (<em>Dies Solis</em>). Romanesque. Catalan school. 1050-1100. Tapestry. Detail. Girona. Chapter Museum – Cathedral Treasure. J. Bedmar/Iberfoto. Photoaisa.Equestrian portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano. 1328-1330. Simone Martini, Simone di Martino (1284-1344). Siena, Italy. Palazzo Publico. Top central detail. International gothic. Fresco. Vannini/Iberfoto. Photoaisa.

BY SEA

  1. To sail from Tunis to Mallorca 2 or 3 days were needed; from Tunis to Genoa or Pisa, 7; from those Italian cities to Mallorca, 3; and from Alexandria to Barcelona, 14. These are average times; the actual time could vary greatly depending on the weather and the number of stopovers.
Pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Illustration in «Peregrinationem in Terram Sanctam», 12th century. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice. Miniature. Costa/Leemage. Photoaisa.
How did they travel?

BY LAND

  1. Land travel followed the ancient Roman roads, severely damaged, until, from the 12th century they start to rehabilitate them.
  2. Lists of journey were used, rarely road maps, which begin to spread in the 14th century. Oral information was the most used and was the most valid and current.
  3. It was common to travel in groups and heavily loaded: goods, food feed, weapons, tools, tents, clothing, money, documents, etc. Pilgrims travel lighter.
  4. Travelling was expensive: carriers, suitable and elegant clothing, tolls, tips, lodging, food, veterinaries, etc.
  5. To travel, wine was a more recommendable drink than some unsafe water, especially in the cities.
  6. In the Middle Ages vehicles with wheels like carts were useful for short distances but they were not used on long trips due to the poor condition of the roads.
  7. The saddle was very much used: horse, mule or donkey. Avoids the walking fatigue, allows loading and adapts to rustic roads; normally will not be galloping, or even trot. These are often hired animals.
Entry into Paris of a stagecoach. Scenes of the life of St. Denis («Vie de Saint Denis»), 1317. Fol.125. Gothic art. Miniature. Paris. Bibliotheque Nationale. Iberfoto. Photoaisa.

BY SEA

  1. For long trips between coastal cities, the sea was preferred; it was quicker and more comfortable than the land (for example between Barcelona and Genoa).
  2. In the Mediterranean, instead of entering the high seas, coastal shipping was used, from cape to cape, without loosing site of the coast; this allowed to take shelter in ports in case of bad weather.
  3. Sailing used to take place mainly in the summer (preferably June and July), when the sea was the calmest.
  4. The driving forces of the ships were rowing (on the galley and the “laud”) and sail (on the vessel, “coca” and caravel) this combined with the use of oars.
  5. The most common methods to maintain the course, were, during the day, the position of the sun and the release of birds carried on board, and at night, the stars.
  6. In the Late Middle Ages there are some scientific advances spread among the European seafarers to facilitate navigation with fewer stopovers. Most of them were introduced by Islamic sailors: the triangular sail (12th century), the compass (around 1200), the stern rudder (13th century) and the first marine charts (13th century). The astrolabe and the quadrant were not introduced until the 15th century.
  7. Genoese and Venetian merchants traded with the Far East, not directly but through intermediaries in Asia Minor that worked as a bridge between the ships and the caravans of the Silk Road.
  8. In the late Middle Ages the only regular passenger service across the Mediterranean was the galley that yearly made the journey from Venice to the Holy Land full of pilgrims.
Arrival of pilgrims to Syria. Sail boat approaching the port of Jaffa and travellers paying taxes to entry Tyre. Illustration of the “Book of Wonders of the World” h. 1371. British Library. Miniature. British Library/The Bridgeman Art Library. PHotoaisa.

BY RIVERS

  1. Some of the continental routes that today we do by road, could be done by river (for example along the Rhone and the Ebro, to Zaragoza).
  2. River navigation required toll and it was used mainly for merchandise.
  3. River navigation complements very well both with sea and land routes.
  4. The construction of dams on large rivers will make impossible today this way of travel.
Transportation of coal by the river Seine, outside Paris. «Vie de Saint. Denis», page 1. 1317. Scenes from the life of St. Denis. Gothic art. Miniature. France. Paris. Bibliotheque Nationale. Iberfoto. Photoaisa.
Where did the travellers sleep?

ON LAND

  1. There was a limited amount of inns; on the most important roads, there were hospitals (i.e. hostels usually linked to the Church, where poor and pilgrims are welcomed for a limited period).
  2. Hospitality at cottages and farms was  a common practice and, in some countries, even mandatory.
  3. Charlemagne encouraged the bishops to establish different hostels for poor and rich, ahead of the present categorization of hotels by stars.
Asylum in the convents and churches. Illustration of the epic poem «L'entrée d'Espagne» from the 14th century, which tells of the expedition of Charlemagne to Spain. Gothic art. Miniatura. Venice, Italy. Biblioteca Marciana.BeBa/Iberfoto. Photoaisa.

AT SEA

  1. In travels by sea it was better to sleep on the bridge than under the deck, where the heat and the stench was unbearable: passenger did not carry clothes to get changed, were infected with lice and in the latrines the waves came in. 
Ship full of people. Psalter of Lutrell. Gothic 14th century. Iberfoto. Photoaisa.
What could happen during the trip?

ON LAND

  1. Possible incidents were: robberies by bandits, the unexpected tolls, the fatigue of the horses, wars, plagues, accidents, a broken bridge, a blizzard, etc.
  2. Footwear in those days did not hold long walks, so many travelled barefoot.
  3. The length and hardness of some long journeys like pilgrimages, meant that a large number of passengers lost their lives on the journey.
People on horseback preparing to cross a bridge. Illustration. Tomás de Cantimpre (1201-1276). Codex Granatensis: De natura rerum, 15th century. Granada edition of the original from the 13th century. Gothic art. Miniature. Granada, Spain. Biblioteca Universitaria de Granada. J. Bedmar/Iberfoto. Photoaisa.

AT SEA

  1. The most serious perils were piracy, privateer and shipwrecks.
  2. Marine insurance did not appear until the 15th century and will contribute to the promotion of commercial navigation.
Queen Isolde frees Tristan and they sail to the kingdom of Logres. Romance of Tristan and Isolde, by Everard de Espinques, written by Gassien de Poitiers. Fol. 282v. Gothic art. Miniature. Chantilly, France. Museo Condé. BeBa/Iberfoto. Photoaisa.

ON LAND AND AT SEA

  1. The existence of local currencies meant having to change money often, with the abuse that that usually entailed.
  2. The diversity of local measures presented a real problem, especially for merchants.
  3. The ignorance of the customs, was often a difficulty; local laws usually did not protect outsiders.
  4. Latin remained, through the northern Mediterranean shore, a kind of lingua franca understood by most people.
Jewish money-lender. «Sanctorum Peregrinationes in Terram Sanctam», by Bernhard von Breindenbach (1440-1497). Gothic art. BeBa/Iberfoto. Photoaisa.
 

Ramon Llull quotations

 
«No treasure is greater than the truth»
 

Messages about Ramon Llull

 
Ramon Llull had an extraordinary vitality: he lived over eighty years and wrote more than 250 books.
 

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