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A Bad Medieval Road Trip

As medieval scholars prepare for the journey to Kalamazoo for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, we wanted to tell you the story of a medieval scholar who undertook his own trip for learning – a trip that did not go as planned.

Photo by Loren Kerns / Flickr

Photo by Loren Kerns / Flickr

Richer of Saint-Rémi (c.950 – c.1000) was a monk based at the abbey of Saint-Remi in northern France.  We know about him because he wrote a work called Histories, which recounted events in his country from the year 888 to almost the end of the tenth century. It is largely a story of politics and war, but we get a few glimpses of Richer himself.

One of the most interesting autobiographical bits from Histories happened in the year 991, when Richer decided to take a trip. A knight from Chartres had arrived in Reims, where Richer’s monastery was, and brought a letter to the monk. It turned out to be a message from a cleric and old friend named Heriband, who asked Richer to come to Chartres to read a book – a medical treatise known as the Aphorisms of Hippocrates.

Richer, who was intellectual and very interested in learning, wanted to do this, and convinced the knight to return with him back to Chartres. He would also be accompanied by a boy, but apparently his abbot wasn’t very helpful and gave him only one horse for the trip.

Therefore, Richer began the trip, in his own words, “lacking in money, a change of clothes and other necessities.” The journey from Reims to Chartres is over 200 kilometres long and would have taken several days. At first it went well, with the trio arriving at another monastery and being treated generously. The next day they headed out towards the town of Meaux. It is then that things started to go wrong:

But when my two companions and I entered the winding path of the woods, we were not spared the vicissitudes of ill fortune. For we chose the wrong path at a crossroads and wandered six leagues out of our way. Then, after we had passed Chateau-Thierry, the horse that up to now had seemed like Bucephalus became slower than a reluctant little donkey. The sun had already passed midday and was edging into dusk when the whole sky dissolved into a downpour, and that hardy Bucephalus, done in by his final exertions, succumbed and collapsed beneath the legs of the boy who was riding him, dropping dead at the sixth milestone from the city as if he had been struck by lightning.

Richer then gives this wry observation:

Those who have ever suffered similar misfortunes can judge from their own experiences how great my agitation and anxiety were at the moment.

While the knight had his own horses, Richer and the boy now had to go on foot, carrying their baggage, all the while with the rain falling in downpour.  It soon proved too much for the child, and he “lay down, completely exhausted.” With the sun already setting, Richer made a tough decision – the boy and the baggage would remain behind, while he and the knight would continue on to Meaux to get help.

The monk told the boy to talk to any other travellers, and not to fall asleep, and then he set out for the town. Richer and the knight soon reached the bridge over the River Marne, with Meaux on the other side:

Richer writes:

I started out across the bridge, which I could scarcely make out in the dim light, and as I inspected it carefully I was tormented once more by new misfortunes. For it was riddled with so many and so large gaps that it was scarcely possible that those connected with the townsmen could have crossed over it on the same day. The intrepid Chartrian, who showed considerable foresight during the course of the journey, looked around everywhere for a boat, but finding none, he returned to the perils of the bridge, and with God’s help saw to it that the horses crossed safely. Sometimes putting a shield down under the horses’ feet in the gaping holes and sometimes and sometimes running back, he successfully made it all the way across the bridge with the horses, while I accompanied him.

They soon found a monastery where they got help, and the knight soon left to go find the boy. Our monk stayed in the monastery and waited:

Those who have ever been compelled to stay awake at night because they are worried about those dear to them can imagine how sleeplessly I passed that night, and with what great torments I was afflicted.

It took several hours, but finally good news came in the morning:

Shortly after the longed for the light of the day had returned, they arrived, weak from their great hunger. Food was brought to them, and fodder and straw were set before the horses.

Apparently, the knight had some difficulty finding the boy, but finally did so. He did not want to risk crossing the bridge again at night, so they found a cottage to stay in until the morning came. Once they arrived in Meaux, the boy was given to the monastery’s abbot so he could rest a few days, while Richer and the knight continued on to Chartres. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and after reaching his destination Richer sent a horse to go collect the boy to rejoin him. He ends this little story by writing:

After he had returned and all my worries had been put to rest, I applied myself diligently to the Aphorisms of Hippocrates with master Heriband, a man of great generosity and learning. But since I only learned about the prognosis of disease in this work and basic understanding of illnesses would not satisfy my desire, I also asked to read one of his books entitled On the Concordance of Hippocrates, Galen, and Soranus. This I obtained, since the powers of pharmacology, botany, and surgery were not hidden from one so skilled in medicine.

The Histories of Richer of Saint-Rémi has been edited and translated by Justin Lake in a two-volume book that is part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. You can learn more about the book from Harvard University Press and buy it through Amazon.com.

See also Avalanches in the Middle Ages

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