The Medieval Traveller by Norbert Ohler – Book Review

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The Medieval Traveller explores how people travelled in medieval time, with a broad and wide-ranging study of methods of transport, preparations for travel, hazards along the way, advice for travellers, innovations in transport, trade and communications, religion and travel and what type of hospitality medieval travellers could expect during a long journey.

Methods of Transport in the Middle Ages

In medieval times, there were several beasts to use as mounts or draught animals, from the sure-footed ass to the thoroughbred horse. All such animals incurred expenses for the medieval traveller, who needed to feed and house the animals along the way. Other alternative animals were oxen, camels, and even elephants. Author Norbert Ohler explains the advantages and disadvantages of each animal, giving examples of the type of animal used by various well-known medieval travellers, such as the Franciscan monk William of Ruburck.

Other alternatives were boats, ships, litters, carts and litters. Each of these had their advantages, but different terrains made some methods of transport more suitable than others. Roads often had poor surfaces which were unsuitable for carts, rivers might be navigable only to a certain point and the medieval traveller was often at the mercy of unscrupulous boatmen who could charge extortionate rates for a potentially dangerous crossing of a river or sea.

Ocean Navigation in Medieval Times

The various methods of negotiating the world’s seas and oceans are explored by Ohler, who explains the art of taking a ship from one place to another, relying on the stars, wind speed, and early arts of noting the positions of birds, the state of the sea bed and the more advanced devices such as the astrolabe, quadrant and chronometer. Ohler describes in fascinating detail what conditions would have been like on board a medieval ship, describing what the medieval traveller would hear, see and feel, to build up a full picture of what a huge undertaking even the simplest sea voyage was.

Hospitality and Inns in the Middle Ages

The hospitality and inns section of the book is a fascinating look at the different ways in which travellers were welcomed along the course of their journeys. In the earliest days of Christianity, it was part of a Christian’s duty to offer hospitality to strangers, particularly anyone who was travelling on church business. This was particularly true for medieval monasteries, where guesthouses were built to accommodate visitors throughout the year.

However, over the years, more formal means of accommodating travellers developed, with thousands of inns established across Europe, particularly on trade routes and those roads travelled by pilgrims. Foreigners were expected, if possible, to stay with innkeepers of their own nationality where possible. Commercial guesthouses were often able to accommodate dozens of travellers, their servants and even their animals, and to provide food and drink. Many innkeepers could also offer the traveller advice on the journey which lay ahead of him, advising of dangers.

Descriptions of Travel in the Middle Ages

The second section of the book is devoted to vivid descriptions of what it was like to travel during medieval times. There are accounts of the travels of Boniface, a pilgrim’s guide to Santiage de Compostela, information on journeys across Asia and accounts of pilgrims on the road.

Summary

The Medieval Traveller is a masterly and authoritative study of all aspects of travel in the Middle Ages. The detailed and complex information is conveyed in an extremely interesting way, with plenty of anecdotes and sections of primary sources to enrich the narrative. This is an excellent book which will have something to interest anyone studying the Middle Ages.