Real and imaginary journeys in the later Middle Ages

Marco Polo - medieval travel
Marco Polo - medieval travel
Marco Polo – medieval travel

Real and imaginary journeys in the later Middle Ages

J.K. Hyde (University of Manchester)

Bulletin of the John Rylands Library: Vol. 65:2 (1982)


For a proper understanding of the actions of men in the past it is necessary to have some idea of how they conceived the world and their place in it, yet for the medieval period there is a serious inbalance in the sources. For the way in which the learned saw their position in time, there is the steady stream of universal histories which became an established genre during the central middle ages; by comparison, general works on geography were few and short, and were often more concerned with astronomy and cosmography than with the actual surface of the earth. ‘ The classical link between history and geography never quite died out in the Middle Ages, but it survived only in a much attenuated form. The medieval chroniclers who felt obliged to give some geographical information were relatively few, and they generally were content with stale compilations derived from Pliny, Solinus, Orosius and Isidore which appear century after century with little change. A number of the world chronicles were illustrated with maps, but the case of Matthew Paris, a chronicler with a serious interest in cartography, was rare, almost unique. The encyclopaedias of the period faithfully reflect the inbalance between history and geography; even Dante’s teacher Brunetto Latini, who was avowedly writing a book of practical knowledge for laymen, paid far more attention to rhetoric than to geography, where the carelessness of his borrowings from Solinus suggests the lack of interest which he had in this part of his task.

Sources like these tell us little of how practical men grappled with the problems of space and distance which are so vital for the administration of states and the organisation of war and commerce. The academic geographies did not belong to the world of day- to-day decisions, where the area of our ignorance increases alarmingly. When, for example, Philip VI of Valois’ council rejected the advice of the experts who knew the Mediterranean at first hand, and recommended that the proposed crusade should travel by way of Rome so that prayers could be offered at the shrines of the Roman saints, were they stating the real reasons for their preference, or rather advancing a pretext which would be hard to oppose for a decision which they had reached on other ground? Recently the point has been made that the topographical map which attempts to portray in detail a small portion of the world’s surface has a separate origin and development from the great world maps.

Click here to read this article from the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library

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