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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.


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The Knight, His Daughters and His Book (Part I)

Ah yes, that time of year is upon us again. A chill in the air, leaves rustling along the path, happy new students rushing about campus with their new books and of course the feelings of absolute fear and dread that accompanies the realisation that you are now one year into your research. Now que the terror that maybe you could have done more over the year, made more groundbreaking discoveries etc. Yes, this bleak place is where I now find myself, overwhelmed by the year to come and underwhelmed by my own work in the year gone by. Maybe a quick post taken from a small section of my earliest work on family and  pilgrimage in courtesy literature will help or maybe send me further into the doubtfulness associated with the second year blues. The following piece is based on my research on The Book of the Knight of La-Tour Landry. It is a short introduction to the courtesy text and I will hopefully add two follow-up posts containing more of my findings on the text. It has its problems, but any thoughts or suggestions regarding this piece would be greatly appreciated.

Written in French in the time between 1371 and 1372 by Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, the Livre du chevalier de la Tour-Landry was no exception to this ever-growing interest in moral, social and spiritual instruction within the family and domestic environment and bears some similarities to The Goodman of Paris. It was a popular text and more than twenty versions exist in different manuscripts. Though William Caxton translated and printed an edition of this text in 1484, which he called The Book of the Knight of the Tower, I am more interested in the anonymous Middle English translation, The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry which was completed during the reign of Henry VI. I will not, however, ignore Caxton’s text entirely but will use it as a comparison tool from time to time. The translation that is central to my research on courtesy literature, pilgrimage and the family is The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry. This is found in a manuscript in the Harleian collection, MS 1764, in the British Library and though the editor of the printed translation I am using, Thomas Wright, is writing from a nineteenth century perspective, he does identify that this particular version “displays much more freedom, and is more correct [than Caxton’s translation]”. (xiv). Even though this may be true and Caxton’s translation is overly “literal”, Wright also brings our attention to the fact that this “superior” text is from an imperfect manuscript, meaning that Caxton’s text cannot be overlooked.

Geoffry’s warnings extend to the anxiety of the patriarchal system at the time: the mobility of women. The domestic boundaries were beginning to break down during the Middle Ages with women becoming increasingly active in the public domain through the running of businesses, attending public events and of course travelling and going on pilgrimages. This, however, proved a problem for those possessing the belief that women should not leave the confines of their home without a good reason, for example to attend mass. The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry follows this belief to a certain degree but does not explicitly say “women should never leave the home”. Geoffroy dedicates chapter XXV to “ladies who go to justs and pilgrimages”. Pilgrimage, though only mentioned in the title of this section is linked to jousts and feasting, secular activities of purely entertainment value. Pilgrimage in some respects had descended into a form of entertainment by the time Geoffroy had written his book of instruction. It had become merely another social occasion where his daughters’ names could be compromised and necessitated a warning.  He does not command his daughters to stay at home. He does, however, use examples of women possessing poor discretion at such occasions to frighten them but also gives them advice on what to do if they find themselves in a position where they have to attend social gatherings. In his translation of this text Caxton does not make any reference to pilgrimage in this chapter title. The advice provided is almost identical to that of the anonymous text but the missing reference to pilgrimage here may demonstrate how religious travel had declined in the public’s opinion in Caxton’s time.




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