Tag Archives: Chaucer

Are We There Yet? Realities of medieval travel in The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage and Sea-Sickness

At this time of year, people usually start planning their summer holidays, asking themselves what type of holiday they would prefer, where they would like to go and, of course, how they will get there. These choices, though commonplace for us, would have been a luxury for the miserable travellers found in The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage and Sea-Sickness. This fifteenth century poem, written in Middle English during the reign of Henry VI, provides the reader with the harsh realities of medieval sea travel, referring specifically to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In contrast to the pilgrim guides which I have discussed in previous posts, it offers little information on what the travellers were to expect once they reached their destinations such as indulgences, shrines en-route etc. It does, however, provide us with a more social perspective to the experiences of the pilgrim and an insight into the true nature of the journey.

From the very start of this work, we realise that this is going not to be a promotional poem, advertising the wonderful experiences of medieval pilgrimage. The first line has a feeling of “abandon hope…”  as it states “Men may leue gamys, that saylen to seynt Jamys”. In other words, you should forget attempting to have any fun because you’re now on a pilgrimage!  Sea travel was a dangerous method of transport with ships sometimes lost en-route but it was necessary for those who wished to travel to mainland Europe from Ireland and England. According to Wendy R Childs in her chapter from Pilgrimage Explored, there were three routes which could be taken to Santiago. The first being one from Dover to Calais and from here they could travel through France and into Spain. The second was to Bordeaux from here travel into Pyrenees  and the third was a direct voyage to Spain. The terrible experiences of such a voyage would have been common knowledge among those who sought to go on pilgrimage and this is reflected when the narrator states that, on seeing the ships which would take them across the sea, “Theyr hertes begyn to fayle” (8). One comfort. however, was the fact that the danger and the hardship of this journey would, without doubt, have fed into the notion of it being, as Ian Friel acknowledges, “a test of faith” (183); suffering in this life will be rewarded in the next.

It is not just the dangers of the sea which the pilgrims of this poem have to contend with but also the mockery which they were exposed to from the sailors who see their passengers as a hindrance who constantly get in their way. One could easily see Chaucer’s hard-drinking Shipman, dressed in his coarse cloth, among these seafarers. The difficult, physical work of the sailors is described in detail and one could even agree with the disdain which they exhibit for the pilgrims’ inability to cope with just the mere task of eating and drinking. The pilgrims cannot manage anything substantial, “neyther sode ne rost”, boiled nor roasted. They have instead “saltyd tost”. The sailors, on the other hand, have no such problems with a “pot of bere” being called for once they have set sail, while the instructions are sent to the cook to “make redy anoon our mete” (26). Ridicule can be seen in the following sentence where it’s stated that “Our pylgryms haue no lust to ete, I pray god yeue hem rest!” (27-28), implying a very sarcastic “Oh dear,the poor pilgrims! More for us then” attitude. The physical labour of the sailors also contrasts with the activities of the lethargic pilgrims who spend their time reading. From this, the pilgrims develop headaches resulting in self-pitying statements such as, “Allas! myne hede wolle cleue on thre!” (55).

The pilgrims’ ordeal in this work is not limited to sea-sickness or bearing the brunt of the sailors’ derision but also includes having to endure poor living conditions. No straw is provided to sleep on and many “must lyg theym in theyr hood” (66). The filthy conditions of the entire journey on this ship are summed up in the final sentences where the vileness of the smell on-board is described:

For when that we shall go to bedde,

The pumpe was nygh oure beddes hede,

A man were as good to be dede

As smell therof the stynk. (67-72)

The pilgrims of The Pilgrims Sea-Voyage and Sea-Sickness, despite their often annoying frailty, provide us with a glimpse into the horrors endured while participating in a pilgrimage which required a journey by sea. It did not deter people from going, however, as thousands crossed to achieve their pilgrimage goal. The choice of ports given at the start of this poem displays the popularity and demand for such travel as do the numbers of licences during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which were granted to ship-owners to carry pilgrims to their destinations. This poem, though humorous in some aspects of its depictions of pilgrims, may have also served as a warning to those who were willing to undertake a journey for less than pious reasons by highlighting the worst possible experiences which one may encounter. Come to think of it, poor seating, poor food and being treated like garbage sounds like a few present day modes of transport. I wonder how much hand luggage they were permitted?

Medieval illumination showing a mariner consulting a compass aboard a ship. It is the first known depiction of the use of compass on board a ship. The illustration is from a 1403 manuscript copy of Jehan de Mandeville (John Mandeville), Le livre des merveilles (originally published c.1355-57). The 1403 manuscript is held by the Bibliotheque national de France in Paris, B MS fr 2810, fol.188v.

Medieval ship and compass

Works Cited

Furnivall, Frederick James. The Stacions of Rome: And the Pilgrims Sea Voyage: With Clene Maydenhod ; A Supplement to ‘Political Religious and Love Poems’ New York: Greenwood, 1969. Print.

Gorski, Richard. Roles of the Sea in Medieval England. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2012. Print.

Sobecki, Sebastian I. The Sea and Medieval English Literature. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Print.

Stopford, J. Pilgrimage Explored. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval, 1999. Print.

Webb, Diana. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999. Print.


Leave a comment

Filed under Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

Romancing the Early Pilgrims

From that first day I began researching the concept of medieval pilgrimage for my Masters thesis all those many years ago (3 and a half to be exact), references to the Irish as pilgrims cropped up again and again. The influence of those who travelled not in search of shrines, indulgences or curiosity but in search of an ascetic life and a oneness with the divine could not be ignored. I am aware that it is a topic which has been written on extensively but I feel that within the context of my own work I need to acknowledge the journeys made by these earliest pilgrims.

The theme of being cast adrift in a rudderless boat is one which has appeared again and again in my recent research into romance narratives, and this theme has brought me back full circle to those early pilgrims I had once read about in my initial studies, referenced once or twice and pushed to the back of my mind. For these pilgrim monks, the idea of becoming peregrini or strangers by leaving their homes, families and all that was familiar to them for distant lands allowed them the opportunity to enter into the spiritual life for peregrinatio pro amore dei (pilgrimage for the love of God). The desire for the ascetic life also reflected the teachings of the bible regarding the desert and wandering in the wilderness which are found in the Book of Exodus. These reasons behind the earliest pilgrimage show us the popularity of the concept that life was  a pilgrimage toward the Heavenly Jerusalem, a concept which retained its popularity in both the historic and literary pilgrimage well into the Middle Ages and later (and one which I will hopefully address in greater detail later in my studies).

Following in the footsteps of those who sought the ascetic life in the desert, Irish monks sought such a life in places of equal desolation and isolation. Areas off the western Irish coast, for example Scarriff Island and Skellig Michael (both in Kerry), offered such an environment.

Irish Monastic Settlement

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also describes the arrival of three Irishmen in Cornwall whose chosen method of transport was a boat which did not have oars and provisions to last for a week, demonstrating their total dependence and devotion to God.

The Navigatio Sancti Brendani is one of the most famous narratives regarding Irish peregrini at sea. In this work, Saint Brendan’s search for the ‘Island Promised to the Saints’ unearths many other islands, many of them fantastical and in some cases miraculous.

Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis germanicae

The works which recently put me in mind of  these early Irish pilgrims of the sea are Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale and Emaré where the female protagonists of both of these romance narratives are exiled by casting them out to sea in rudderless boats. The prayers and devotion made by these characters reflect a sense of peregrinatio. Chaucer’s Constance, in her “ship al steerelees” (439) prays to the Cross:

Victorious tree, proteccioun of trewe,

That oonly worthy were for to bere

The Kyng of Hevene with his woundes newe,

The white Lamb, that hurt was with a spere,

Flemere of feendes out of hym and here

On which thy lymes feithfully extended,

Me kepe, and yif me myght my lyf t’amenden. (456-462)

This is a theme I will return to repeatedly and will hopefully be able to develop a more comprehensive analysis of this similarity between the women of these romance narratives and the Irish peregrini.





Filed under Ireland, Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

Curtasye and Pilgrimage

Rather than let this blog become completely dedicated to local history, I have decided that for now I will move away from the home-grown connections to medieval travel and give some time to my primary interest and research area – pilgrimage in literary works. The most famous literary depiction of medieval pilgrimage is of course Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales but its presence can be seen in many other Middle English works and across a variety of genres. During the course of my research I’ve come across numerous ways in which pilgrimage appears in texts and here is one I found when I just started on my  research last winter. While researching the link between didactic, instructional literature and pilgrimage, I came across a text entitled The Boke of Curstasye which offers directions relating to correct table manners and how to behave in church, among other things. I had examined other didactic texts, mostly parental advice to children, where pilgrimage only received a passing reference so I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Book of Curtasye gave detailed instructions on how a person (more specifically a man) should behave when on pilgrimage. It is an amusing piece which explains how a male pilgrim should handle a situation where he finds himself having to share a bed with another  pilgrim. For example, having picked a side of the bed, speaking is to be kept to a minimum once you have inquired his name and where he is from:

With felawe, maystur, or her degré,e curtasye
In bedde yf þou falle herberet to be,
Þou schalt enquere b
In what par[t] of þe bedde he wylle lye;
Be honest and lye þou fer hym fro,
Þou art not wyse but þou do so.
With woso men, boþe fer and negh,
The falle to go, loke þou be slegh
To aske his nome, and qweche he be,
Whidur he wille: kepe welle þes thre.
The correct way in which to behave when in the company of friars while on pilgrimage is also dictated as are strict guidelines on not displaying greediness at the table of a host. The most amusing instruction I came across in this piece, however, was that when looking for a place to stay when on pilgrimage you must never stay in the home of a red-haired person “For þose be folke þat ar to drede”. Looks like if I was to provide pilgrims with hospitality in the Middle Ages, my red hair would have scuppered those plans.
If you would like to read more from The Boke of Curtasye  please check out the online version of the text found in the “Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse” – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/AHA6127.0001.001/1:21?rgn=div1;view=fulltext


Filed under Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage