Book Review: The Medieval Invention of Travel

By William Kynan-Wilson

Shayne Aaron Legassie, The Medieval Invention of Travel (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Recent years have seen a series of studies concerning medieval travel cultures, of which Shayne Legassie’s The Medieval Invention of Travel is the latest significant offering; it follows the notable work of Kim M. Phillips (Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510; University of Pennsylvania 2013) and Shirin A. Khanmohamadi (In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages; University of Pennsylvania 2013). These three monographs examine many of the same authors, but each develops in distinct ways.

This book’s central theme is the intimate relationship between travail and travel: in other words, the labour of travel. Legassie explores this issue from several perspectives. The physical act of travel was, after all, an activity that was “nasty, brutish and long” (p. 1), and he argues that the hardship of travel had a profound effect upon medieval travel writing. His analysis extends to consider the interconnected labours of writing about travel (‘literate labor’), remembering and recalling travels past, the imaginative exertions of fictive journeys, and also the corporeal, material, and moral implications of travel. The author contends that a novel conception of travel and travel literature emerged between 1200 and 1500, and that integral to this shift was an understanding of writing about travel as an act of labour in its own right. The successes and limitations of this book are encapsulated in its title, which the author clarifies as follows (p. viii):

By evoking the rhetorical concept of inventio – the process of discovering the contours of one’s subject matter or the framework of one’s argument – the title of this book hopes to underscore the open-ended nature of the medieval invention of travel, as well as the role that literacy of various kinds played in the formulation and rationalization of new, prestigious modes of mobility.“

There is much to explore in this sentence alone and the rich possibilities of Legassie’s scholarship are clear. Nonetheless, my main issue with this book is that it does not always succeed in its stated aims. The notion of inventio is a valid and highly rewarding prism through which to engage with this material, although it is not consistently integrated into the discussion in a clear and sustained manner beyond the opening pages. Instead this study does other things more explicitly and it often does them well.

Breaking down spatial divisions?

The text is divided into three sections with each section relating to a different geographic area: the ‘exotic’ lands of East Asia; accounts of the Holy Land; and the Mediterranean world. Legassie rightly seeks to break down these spatial divisions and to compare these works alongside one another in contrast to previous scholarship (pp. vii-viii), although in many ways the structure of his book reinforces the very approach that he seeks to question. The opening section is particularly concerned with ‘narrative authority’ and how it relates to the travels of William of Rubruck and Marco Polo (ch. 1); and then the travels of John of Plano Carpini, Odoric of Pordenone, and John Mandeville (ch. 2). The author explores notions of authority in relation to authorial voice, the language and structure of bureaucratic and legalistic texts, and the representation of authorial persona through images in illuminated manuscripts.

The discussion of the bodily hardship of medieval travel is especially effective. For example, in one passage Mandeville refers to a black mark upon his neck which has arisen from his travels: it acts as an outward sign of travel. As Legassie perceptively notes (p. 89): “Mandeville’s travel-worn body is a text that can be – and has been – scrutinized and decoded.” This is the book at its engaging and original best, although Mandeville’s words assume a further complexion when we consider the possibility that he (and his travels) may well be fictitious. The text is potentially as pocked with irony as Mandeville’s body is supposedly marked.

The discourse of memory

The second section focuses on literate labour as exemplified in the pilgrimage accounts of several travellers in the Holy Lands, including Burchard of Mount Sion, Felix Fabri, and Wilbrand of Oldenburg. Legassie examines the discourse of memory and how it twins with the hardships of writing and recording both during and after travel. He discusses the rise of the travel diary and the process of taking notes on the road, the rhetoric of research, and how the cadence of passages may reflect the patterns of an author’s memory recall (e.g. pp. 112-13). Many of these ideas are manifest in the fascinating case of Felix Fabri, a Dominican monk who visited Jerusalem in 1480 but failed to sufficiently remember the city as he was whisked around by Franciscan guides (pp. 99-100). Fabri therefore returned in 1483-4, travelled at greater leisure, and wrote at great length (some four books) about his journey, stating (p. 125):

I did not undertake as much labour (laborem) in traveling from place to place (de loco ad locum peregrinando), as I have had in running to and fro from book to book (de libro ad librum discurrendo), in reckoning, reading and writing, and correcting and synthesizing (concordando) what I have written.“

These words, and this wider section, illustrate one of Legassie’s central contentions: how the labours of travel can never be fully separated from the hardships of research and writing about travel.

Challenges in working comparatively

The final section explores the relationship between real and fictive travel through Petrarch (ch. 5) and the lesser known Andalusian traveller Pero Tafur (ch. 6). The author shows how these two writers drew upon the travel literature of the exotic Orient and the Holy Lands when describing places in the Mediterranean world that were probably well-known to the majority of their readers. The mental peregrinations of Petrarch are well-discussed and situated in relation to exilic discourse, and Tafur’s debt to chivalric literature is clearly shown. The earlier theme of the marked body as both the consequence of travel and a metaphor for travel features once more, this time in Tafur’s text through his references to growing and cutting hair and facial hair (pp. 218-19). At this and several other junctures in this book, one wonders whether a more thematic structure would have proved more cogent and effective in demonstrating Legassie’s desire for scholars to work comparatively across the geographic divisions of medieval travel literature (pp. vii-viii).

The author has a sharp eye for apposite passages, and many readers will find the generous quotations stimulating and Legassie’s analysis of discrete passages revealing. Nonetheless, the breadth of this work sometimes undermines its cohesion and efficacy. The analysis often feels swift and scattered with some themes dotted throughout the text rather than being discussed together in sufficient depth. Other issues include the over-use of distracting turns of phrase, such as the repetition of “prestige economy of long-distance knowledge” in the opening section. The conclusions to each chapter are strangely stunted and often consist of half a page (e.g. pp. 58, 93, 139-40, and 162-3) when tying together the diverse ideas of each chapter more fully would help to carry readers. The lack of bibliography is also frustrating, and several pertinent studies are not mentioned or are insufficiently engaged with (most notably Phillips’ Before Orientalism). These are minor issues but they coalesce and hinder the book’s cohesion and accessibility.

At the heart of this study is a thought-provoking examination centred upon the various labours of medieval travel – physical, intellectual, material, memorial, and moral. The concept of inventio is deeply relevant to the labours of travel, but it is not always readily apparent throughout the book and, on occasion, the ambitious scope of this work pulls the author’s thesis in too many different directions at the same time. The specialist reader will find much of value and originality here, but they will sometimes have to labour for it.



Citation: William Kynan-Wilson, Book Review: The Medieval Invention of Travel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.02.2019,

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