By Peter Konieczny
“I will describe not what I have learned by hearsay but what I have seen in the past six years with my own eyes after much reflection, which will be very pleasing not only to readers but also must useful to sailors, once they know what places they might be seeking and the point from which they are departing.” ~ Cristoforo Buondelmonti
While many would think that the travel guide is a modern invention, one can find many examples of books that could be called that in the Middle Ages and even earlier. Like ourselves, medieval people (at least those who could afford it) enjoyed travelling, and it’s not surprising that books were written to offer them advice. One of those was a description of the islands of the Aegean Sea from the early fifteenth-century.
Cristoforo Boundelmonti (c.1385 to c.1430) was a priest from Florence, and he first came to Aegean in the year 1415. That trip was to Crete, for the purpose of buying manuscripts that he could take back to Italy. Boundelmonti seemed to greatly enjoy his stay there, for he took time to sail around the island and then travel across it by horseback. Even being captured by bandits for a short time did not lessen his appreciation!
The priest would soon make several return trips to the area, where he would sail from island to island, making notes and drawing maps. By the year 1420, he had collected his observations into the first version of his manuscript, which Boundelmonti called Descriptio Archipelagi et Cicladum aliarumque Insularum (Description of the Archipelago, the Cyclades, and the Other Islands). His work covered over 70 islands, beginning with Corfu, and then taking us on a meandering course through the Aegean Sea.
Marvellous and Strange
Boundelmonti only spends a couple of paragraphs on each island, but offers plenty of details. His descriptions usually include the size of the islands in circumference, various geographical features, interesting facts, and some of its history. In certain passages, one can see that the author clearly enjoyed these places – on Kos for example, he adds: “In this delightful place the songs of a variety of birds are said to be pleasing not only to earthly beings but also to the immortal gods.”
One of the attractions for Boundelmonti was the ancient history he could encounter on these islands, and he often makes note of ruins that can be visited. There are many references to ancient stories, sometimes not completely accurate, but interesting nevertheless. Here is his description of the Colossus of Rhodes, the great statue that was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World:
In the midst there stood a giant idol of amazing size, 70 cubits, which a ship could see from 80 miles away. And the highest point of the whole city was lower than this. Rhodes, most powerful for many years, did battle with the Egyptians. Eventually it was destroyed by them. Others think it was on account of frequent earthquakes that the Colossus and the towers perished, shaken to the foundations, and a great number of people also died. Many diverse and contrary opinions of these matters are offered. I dare not speak, being ignorant of such ancient history. For we know that there are as many judgments as there are heads, as men make judgments according to desire rather than reason. However, I have found in a certain Greek book that the Colossus was a bronze idol with a height of 70 cubits and in the middle of its chest it displayed a great mirror. Ships departing from Egypt and looking toward it could see it.
The work also includes a few references to the adventures and unusual things that Boundelmonti saw as he sailed around the islands. For example, at Astimphalea:
While we were there on a Genoese ship, we saw an octopus, with its arms spread out 60 cubits wide, reaching towards us. Seeing this we all left the ship at once, and, terrified, watched near the banks from above until we might sail away with a saving wind.
While it might seem that Boundelmonti was painting an idyllic picture of the Aegean, the author also noted one of the more serious problems affecting the region. The Ottoman Turks had been in on-and-off-again wars with the Byzantine Empire for decades, and these islands were often targeted for attacks and raids. Boundelmonti notes how some places, even entire islands, had been abandoned because of the raiding.
Spread throughout the account are various tales of Turkish attacks, which often end with some kind of miracle that thwarted the pirates’ ambitions. For example, he tells the story of a group of Turks who landed on a small island near Methoni:
A bireme of infidels landed there one stormy night and immediately attacked the church. When they had surrounded it and heard the monks singing, the door of the church was nowhere to be found, and so they stayed there until dawn. Dawn having broken and, fearing an ambush from Christians, they could not depart from the shore until they had repaired the damage done to the monastery.
The threat of Turkish pirates would sometimes force the ships that Boundelmonti sailed on to travel at night and through lesser-known waters. This would lead to one of the most dangerous events that the traveller recorded – being shipwrecked on a deserted island.
Boundelmonti explained that he was making a trip from Rhodes to Chios during “a dark and stormy night” when his ship passed by a cluster of small islands. They wanted to reach a safe harbour at an island called Fournio, which he described as arid and surrounded by cliffs. He writes:
We lowered our sail, believing we were entering port, and we crashed upon reefs near the promontory. Alas, what misfortune befell us! When we realized that we could in no way detach the ship from the rocks, everyone went on shore, and thus we spent that night until daybreak. When dawn came, we could not see our ship at all, since the whole thing had sunk into the sea.
Boundelmonti and the others remained trapped on the island, with the stormy weather continuing for six days. The group had nothing to eat, and could only get drinking water from the hollows of rocks. As he watched some of his group ready to give into despair, the author went down into a cave and used a sword to carve his final words into the rock: “Here Cristoforo, the priest, died of moral hunger.” However, on the seventh day the group was spotted by a ship passing by, and were rescued from the island.
Visting the big city
There is one place in which Cristoforo Boundelmonti wrote about that was not an island – Constantinople. Explaining that he included the Byzantine capital because it had a few things that would interest readers, the author went on to devote one of his biggest sections to the city. However, his description is mostly negative, portraying Constantinople as a place largely of ruins.
Boundelmonti mentions Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and several other places, and notes various statutes and columns that can be found there. Often he seems to note them as to suggest that the city was once great, but has fallen into disrepair. He reserves the worst rebuke for the residents of Constantinople:
There are throughout the city few inhabitants and they are enemies of the Latins, who never obtain a secure peace with them. If they promise something, they do not keep their promises. This most beautiful city was once a shrine of wisdom and honor. Now it has fallen to ignorance and rigidity in its ancient opinions. They cling to sin of gluttony, and on account of the great plenty fish and meat available, a quarter of the population fall prey to the disease of leprosy.
Overall, the Descriptio Archipelagi offers an interesting glimpse of life in this corner of the Byzantine world, coming from an outsider who himself greatly enjoyed his time there. You can read Boundelmonti’s work, which has been edited and translated from a version created c.1475, in Description of the Aegean and other islands, by Evelyn Edson and published by Italica Press.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.