The Medieval Invention of Travel

The Medieval Invention of Travel

by Shayne Aaron Legassie

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Over the course of the Middle Ages, the economies of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa became more closely integrated, fostering the international and intercontinental journeys of merchants, pilgrims, diplomats, missionaries, and adventurers. During a time in history when travel was often difficult, expensive, and fraught with danger, these wayfarers composed accounts of their experiences in unprecedented numbers and transformed traditional conceptions of human mobility.

Exploring this phenomenon, The Medieval Invention of Travel draws on an impressive array of sources to develop original readings of canonical figures such as Marco Polo, John Mandeville, and Petrarch, as well as a host of lesser-known travel writers. As Shayne Aaron Legassie demonstrates, the Middle Ages inherited a Greco-Roman model of heroic travel, which viewed the ideal journey as a triumph over temptation and bodily travail. Medieval travel writers revolutionized this ancient paradigm by incorporating practices of reading and writing into the ascetic regime of the heroic voyager, fashioning a bold new conception of travel that would endure into modern times. Engaging methods and insights from a range of disciplines, The Medieval Invention of Travel offers a comprehensive account of how medieval travel writers and their audiences reshaped the intellectual and material culture of Europe for centuries to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226442730
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/12/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Shayne Aaron Legassie is associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is coeditor of Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages.

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The Medieval Invention of Travel

By Shayne Aaron Legassie

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-44273-0


Exoticism as the Appropriation of Travail

The Greek-derived word exotic entered into written English (via French) in 1600, in Ben Jonson's Every Man out of His Humor. The turn of phrase that marked its debut was fittingly sensationalist: "Magique, Witchcraft, or other such Exoticke Artes." In 1633, Thomas Johnson's revision of John Gerard's The herball; or, Generall historie of plantes classified the fruit of the clove tree as "Exoticke," in part because of the strange sensations that its English investigator experienced upon putting it inside his mouth. By 1650, exotic was both an adjective and a noun, applied not only to species and customs imported into England from "outside" but also to the resident aliens that were one's neighbors and to foreign authors — both ancient and modern — whose works paved the way for one's own scholarship. As these examples suggest, many early uses of exotic describe phenomena that, in après coup fashion, give rise to the very boundaries that supposedly preexist them and that they allegedly breach.

The rise of postcolonial studies prompted scholars of travel writing to consider how their objects of study participate in such ideologically motivated constructions of "the outside." In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said remarked:

If you were British or French in the 1860s you saw, and you felt, India and North Africa with a combination of familiarity and distance, but never with a sense of their separate sovereignty. In your narratives, histories, travel tales, and explorations your consciousness was represented as the principal authority, an active point of energy that made sense not just of colonizing activities but of exotic geographies and peoples.

According to Said, exoticism is an aesthetic mode that reifies cultural difference in ways that alternately naturalize and dissemble the violent foundations of imperial hegemony: "The exotic replaces the impress of power with the blandishments of curiosity." While Said focused on highbrow exoticism, Anne McClintock subsequently argued that the Victorian marketing of soap, fruit salts, and tea relied on exoticizing tableaux to sell not only household commodities but also nationalist and imperialist ideologies to masses who were not necessarily clamoring to read Flaubert or attend the latest production of Verdi's Aida. Meanwhile, Gayatri Spivak and Graham Huggan have suggested that the literary works of authors from postcolonial countries are commodified by the Anglo-American academy in ways that perpetuate the exoticisms of the nineteenth century.

Like the term exotic itself, postcolonial critiques of exoticism emerge from realities that postdate the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, there was a medieval analogue for the aesthetic mode that modern scholars call exoticism. This chapter focuses on one of medieval exoticism's characteristic expressions: the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge. This term refers to a constellation of symbolic conventions, material practices, and structures of feeling that enabled medieval people to accrue social, political, and economic advantage through their association with the foreign. The travails of the traveler, and the symbolic appropriation thereof, were the foundation of this economy.

Anthropologist Mary W. Helms has shown that, in nearly all preindustrial societies, the field of inquiry that we call geography overlaps significantly with cosmology. For this reason, the act of overcoming geographical distance is charged with the powers of the sacred. Because knowledge of faraway lands attains this mystical character, it proves fundamental to cults of royal and priestly charisma. In some cultures, monarchs and high priests bolster their authority by traveling to distant places in person, returning as what Helms calls "long-distance specialists." In others, elite persons appropriate the mystique of long-distance specialists without ever leaving their native lands, through ensuring their privileged access to foreign visitors and the exotic commodities that accompany them.

Among medieval rulers, this second approach tended to prevail over the first (which might partially explain the ambivalence of medieval attitudes toward the heroic travels of Ulysses and Alexander the Great). Long-distance specialists also stand to profit by making their labors available for appropriation, economically (through financial awards and social promotion) and symbolically (through their prestigious proximity to the powerful).

Just as the critical interrogation of nineteenth-century exoticism cast the era's attitudes toward travel and travel writing in a new light, an appreciation of the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge is indispensable to analyses of the same phenomena in the Middle Ages. This is certainly the case with two frequently compared works of travel writing: the Itinerarium of William of Rubruck (1253) and the Divisament dou monde of Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa (1298). Scholars have often treated the Itinerarium and the Divisament as a contrasting diptych. The account of William of Rubruck is generally lauded for its skepticism, its dialogic approach to ethnographic description, and its vivid, personal rendering of its author's experiences. Featuring "a plot and a character," the Itinerarium balances narrative and exoticizing description in a way that conforms to modern expectations of how travel writing should be done. By contrast, the Divisament is faulted for confining its discussion of the Polo family's experiences to a slim preface. The rest of the bulky work is given over to impersonal geoethnographic descriptions of Asia, with occasional anecdotes about Marco's travels scattered throughout. Even Polo's nineteenth-century champion Henry Yule conceded that, in the Divisament, "impersonality is carried to excess." Making matters worse for the Divisament is its allegedly crude style, particularly its penchant for oral-formulaic refrains and its inconsistent use of the first-person narrative voice.

Recent scholarship has softened the tone of such negative comparisons, observing that Polo and Rustichello did not set out to write a first-person travel narrative. However, there is still no consensus about what they actually did intend to write. The unanswered question of why these texts might have adopted the formal and stylistic tendencies that have shaped their critical fortunes is a compelling one. After all, it was not inevitable that William of Rubruck — even though he was writing a letter — would situate his description of the Mongol Empire within the framework of a relatively continuous first-person narrative. Likewise, nothing prevented the makers of the Divisament — a work that drew heavily on the conventions of Arthurian fiction — from embedding geoethnographic description within the framework of a highly subjectivized series of episodes based on Polo's real-life adventures.

In following pages, I argue that the formal tendencies that distinguish the Itinerarium from the Divisament are more meaningfully contextualized as traits that allow the two works to express their divergent attitudes toward the role played by the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge in cross-cultural exchanges with the Mongol Empire. The notorious instability of the "I" in the Divisament and the work's apparent suppression of Marco's experience are deliberate choices that allow the work to rationalize its transformation of Polo's travails into a novel kind of exotic commodity: a travel book designed for lay readers within — and outside — courtly settings. The displacement of Polo allows the Divisament to bring the figures of Khubilai Khan and Rustichello to the fore, a rhetorical maneuver that is key to the work's self-rationalization. By contrast, the prominence of the first-person voice in William's account asserts his alienation from the materialism and cultural relativism of the Mongol court. Among its other narrative effects, the "I" of the Itinerarium registers its author's resistance to the manner in which he is exoticized by his foreign hosts. William ultimately concludes that the relativistic impulses of courtly exoticism are structurally incompatible with the universalizing claims of his faith, a conviction that prompts the Franciscan — whom modern readers have admired for his urbanity — to call for a crusade against the Mongol people.


In 1253, Friar William of Rubruck subjected himself to a harrowing trek from the Crimea to Caracorum, where he stayed at the court of Mongol ruler Möngke Khan (ruled 1251–59). At some point prior to this journey, William had been sent by his order to the Palestinian port town of Acre, at the time still under Latin Christian control. It was there, or perhaps in Cyprus, that William crossed paths with king and future saint Louis IX of France, who was about to lead his followers into the disastrous Seventh Crusade. Taking advantage of William's plans to visit the western edge of the Mongol Empire, Louis asked the Franciscan to carry a royal "letter of friendship" to the Mongol baron Sartach, who had reportedly converted to Christianity. The French king also donated lavish books, liturgical instruments, and probably traveling money, all intended to support William's ministry. Upon his return to Acre in 1255, William of Rubruck discovered that his royal patron, having suffered crushing defeat and captivity at the hands of the Egyptian sultan, had been ransomed and returned to Paris. Unable to get permission to leave Acre for France, William dispatched a book-length letter to Louis IX — the richly observed first-person travel narrative now known as the Itinerarium.

The disconnect between the appealing stylistic qualities of the Itinerarium and the murderous agenda that they serve has no doubt contributed to the scholarly tendency to pass over its conclusion with scant comment. The traits for which the Itinerarium is praised — its dialogism, careful observation, and immediate rendering of experience — are not ends in themselves; they are marshaled to paint William's journey as a failure. The Franciscan's plot-driven narrative makes the pain, hunger, humiliation, and fear of its author the center of attention. The final, bloodthirsty pages of the account clarify what is at stake in this persistent emphasis on William's wasted pains. Taking leave of Louis, William advises the crusade-happy monarch to wage a holy war against the Great Khan. According to William, "It would be a very easy thing to subjugate" the lands between Constantinople and the Mongol Empire. He adds:

Of old, brave men made their way through these regions [i.e., Hungary, Armenia, Anatolia] and all went well with them, although they had very brave men resisting them, whom God has now wiped off the face of the earth. ... I say to you with confidence, if your peasants, I will not say kings or knights, were willing to [travel overland] as do the Kings of the Tartars and to be content with the same kind of food, they could take possession of the whole world.

In contrast to fellow Franciscan Roger Bacon — a medieval admirer of the Itinerarium — William is pessimistic about the prospect of bringing the Mongol Empire into the Christian fold through peaceable means and eager to embrace violence as an alternative.

William's famous first impressions of the Mongol Empire would seem to foreshadow this grim perspective: "It seemed indeed to me as if I were stepping into some other world (aliud seculum)." Nevertheless, the Itinerarium does not, in fact, attribute the futility of its author's mission to Mongol alterity. Instead, it implicates an area of cultural common ground shared by Christendom and the Mongol Empire: the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge. The Itinerarium points to the travails endured by William as evidence of the futility of engaging the Great Khan through conventional diplomatic appeals to exoticism. William suggests that such efforts have not only failed to contain the threat of Mongol expansion but have also created an environment in which preaching has been rendered all but useless as a tool for negotiating cultural and confessional difference.

As a Franciscan, William of Rubruck had taken a vow of poverty that barred him from full participation in the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge, which, throughout the medieval world, was inextricably bound to the exercise of temporal power and the traffic in luxury goods. Farfetched animals, rare gems, and foreign handicrafts were among the commodities most commonly exchanged within courtly and diplomatic settings. Like many politically symbolic gifts, these objects were "luxuries" valued for their scarcity, craftsmanship, beauty, utility, or ownership history; however, they can also be considered "exotic" luxuries because a significant part of their value derived from their distant origins — and, more specifically, from the effort expended in conveying them to the places where they changed hands. Spices were one of the more widely diffused exotic luxuries in medieval Europe. In the Middle Ages, the high prices commanded for pepper, cinnamon, and aloe wood were propped up by fanciful accounts of the perils involved in harvesting them in the East and transporting them to their point of consumption in the West. In contrast to their Marxian counterparts, then, the commodities that circulate within the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge do anything but conceal the truth of structural inequality; on the contrary, their exchange makes a spectacle of the alienation of labor.

This is one reason why the ceremonial presentation of distantly fetched gifts became a standard gesture of political submission in "tributary economies" throughout the premodern world. The exotic aesthetics that were so carefully cultivated at the courts of medieval rulers were grounded in the logic of microcosm. The ruler constitutes a cosmic center, an "unmoved mover," whose majesty pulls the world's diversity into his or her orbit. The distance traveled by an exotic object to that center is an index of the ruler's wealth and power. The greater the number of distant places represented by such objects, the better.

In fact, in the cosmopolitan courts of medieval Europe, Asia, and Africa, even people entered into the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge as so many reifications of the labor involved in overcoming the geographical distance between the sovereign center and points outside. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the prevalence of this cultural logic in different medieval settings. Take, for instance, Murasaki Shikibu's description of fictional festivities at the court of the Japanese emperor, from her eleventh-century epic The Tale of Genji: "The entire court accompanied His Majesty on the progress itself, as did the Heir Apparent. The musicians' barges rowed around the lake, as always, and there were all sorts of dances from Koma [Korea] and Cathay [northern China]." Iberian traveler Benjamin of Tudela, writing in Hebrew roughly a century later, describes a procession orchestrated by the caliph of Baghdad in this way: "He is accompanied by all the nobles of Islam dressed in fine garments and riding on horses, the princes of Arabia, the princes of Togarma and Daylam (Gilan), and the princes of Persia, Media and Ghuzz, and the princes of the land of Tibet, which is three months' journey distant." "The Story of Jullanar and the Sea" — included in the oldest extant manuscript of the 1001 Nights (early fourteenth century) — opens with the description of a former king of Persia whose vast wealth and power is measured by his ability to collect concubines from every known corner of the world. Petrarch lauded his patron Robert I of Anjou, the king of Naples, as a ruler whose magnificence was shown by the fact that, much like a Roman emperor, he ruled over "multi-lingual and multi-customed people (dissonantes lingua et moribus populi)."

These economic and political frameworks help explain why the prestige economy of long-distance knowledge was at once an opportunity and an obstacle for William of Rubruck. In agreeing to deliver Louis's letter of friendship to Sartach, William unwittingly guaranteed that his words and actions would be evaluated according to the protocols of international diplomacy. Despite his repeated protestations to the contrary, William is treated as though he were the king's official representative. As a consequence of this misconception, William had to renounce what appears to have been his original plan — to minister to Christian captives at the western edge of the Mongol Empire — in favor of a much more physically demanding itinerary. Sartach — perceiving the potentially treasonous odor of arrogating to himself the sovereign's prerogative to receive the representative of a foreign ruler — sends William higher up the Mongol hierarchy, to his father, Batu. The same logic impels Batu to pack William off to Caracorum, in order to confer with his superior, Möngke Khan.


Excerpted from The Medieval Invention of Travel by Shayne Aaron Legassie. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Travail and Travel Writing
Part One: Subjectivity, Authority, and the “Exotic”
1. Exoticism as the Appropriation of Travail
2. Travail and Authority in the Forgotten Age of Discovery
Part Two: Pilgrimage as Literate Labor
3. Memory Work and the Labor of Writing
4. The Pilgrim as Investigator
Part Three: Discovering the Proximate
5. Becoming Petrarch
6. The Chivalric Mediterranean of Pero Tafur
Coda: Beyond 15; or, Travel’s Labors Lost

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