“Guard your face carefully from the enormous insects,” instructs the guide for 12th-century pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, “and if you do not watch your feet carefully, you will slip rapidly up to your knees in the quicksand.”

Travel has always involved vexations. If not enormous insects in Spain, then quicksand; if not quicksand, then “evil toll collectors” who “stand in the way of the pilgrims with two or three big sticks.” As a medieval historian, I am charmed by the advice that early travelers wrote down to spare their successors from calamity. Europeans of the med­ieval and early modern periods ventured abroad for a variety of reasons — trade, crusade, exploration — but the bulk of the practical travel advice pertains to pilgrimage. With many people following the same routes and, evidently, slipping rapidly into the same quicksand along the way, a genre of guidebooks emerged to help foundering pilgrims. In addition to gripping adventure stories (Pirates! Shipwreck! Unfortunate mule accidents!), these compilations contain everything an aspiring pilgrim needed: routes, lodging recommendations, phrase books, garment advice, lists of must-see shrines and, of course, plenty of dire warnings.

I hereby share some of this bounty with 21st-century travelers. Whatever the nature of your next voyage, this advice should help you get there and back again without falling victim to thieves, plagues or enormous insects. (You’ll have to find your own coping mechanisms for jet lag and selfie-stick malfunction.)


The ur-TripAdvisor: In the early 1480s, the pilgrimage of John of Gaunt to Santiago de Compostela in Spain was chronicled in gold leaf and ink on parchment. (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Go or stay?

“There are three things that no one can advise another person for or against. One is marriage, another is waging war and the third is visiting the Holy Sepulchre,” responded Eberhard, Count of Württemberg, when asked for travel advice in 1480. “These things often end badly.”

Or, as Simone Sigoli put it after his 1384 pilgrimage to the Holy Land: “No one should travel who does not desire hardship, trouble, tribulation and risk of death.” Assuming that description aligns with your travel goals, you still have to take a sober look at your own character. Think twice if there’s a chance that others will find you irritating, since “that would bring great danger.”

Sixteenth-century French pilgrim Jean Zuallart says a traveler must be willing to “adapt himself to the times, places and people with whom he finds himself and will have to converse, either rich or poor, noble or base, Christian, Jew, Turk, or Arab.” But here’s the real test: “It is also required of the pilgrim to patiently and discreetly put up with the stupidities and imperfections of his fellow pilgrims and companions.”

Packing tips

Centuries of European pilgrimage guides agree about the essentials, including purchasing power: “Two bags, one very full of patience, the other containing two hundred Venetian ducats, or at least one hundred and fifty,” as the Milanese pilgrim Santo Brasca wrote after his 1480 pilgrimage.

Brasca’s countryman Pietro Casola dutifully packed money and patience — and chronicled every occasion when the latter was necessary — when he visited the Holy Land in 1494. Modern travelers will not be surprised that a mysterious delay of permission to disembark caused unrest among the pilgrims: “Some of them, especially the French, said many biting things to the captain’s face.” Luckily, Casola had packed right: “We put our hands on one of those sacks we had brought onto the galley — I mean the one of patience.”

But a traveler cannot live on patience alone. For sustenance, Brasca recommended Lombard cheese, cured tongue, biscuits, sugar — and fruit syrup, “because that is what keeps a man alive in extreme heat; and also ginger syrup to settle his stomach if it is upset by too much vomiting.” He does not explain how much vomiting is too much.

English traveler William Wey, who went to the Holy Land in 1458, prudently added “laxatyvys” to the list, and “a cage for half a dosen of hennys or chekyn to have with yow in the galey, for ye schal have nede unto them meny tymes.”

But don’t overpack, Zuallart cautions: “Above all don’t weigh yourself down with too much stuff, since one can’t even express the difficulty of carrying and dragging it along, especially on land.” And try to resist the souvenirs. You will see “niceties of Indian, Persian, and Turkish workmanship that they will show you and that you will want to buy, as much to hold on to the memory of the holy voyage, as to share it with your friends. And what you have bought will give you irritation and hardship to bring home.” Be sure to remind your friends of this when you distribute the niceties.

These days, airport security may confiscate your fruit syrups, and you’ll have to say goodbye to the chickens at customs, but no one can take your suitcase full of patience.

That is, unless it fails to fit into the overhead compartment.

Getting there

In 1497, pilgrims embarking in Venice for the Holy Land complained to the Venetian magistrates about their cramped spaces on the ship: “It is in no way possible to stay in them except with extreme discomfort.” After a ship inspection, the magistrates issued a proclamation that each berth should be “the width of a foot and a half fully and precisely, and in length the extent of the person standing.” Let us note that a foot and a half fully and precisely is roomier than many economy airline seats these days. Good luck reclining to your full standing extent.

The anonymous guide to Santiago de Compostela also makes a little detour into customer-service complaint about the aforementioned evil toll-keepers and a third-rate ferry in the Basque region: “We enjoin and entreat that these toll collectors be excommunicated . . . along with the aforementioned ferrymen . . . with all of their future progeny . . . until a long and public penance brings them back to their senses . . . . And they should have large boats in which men and beasts could fit comfortably.”

The lesson I’m taking from this is that public complaining pays off. If you’re treated badly, fire up Twitter and threaten your airline management and all their future progeny with #excommunication.

Seat location is also important. Wey offers this compelling advice: If you go in a galley, choose a seat in the top level, because the lowest level is “ryght smolderyng hote and stynkyng.” Similarly, Brasca cautioned that the traveler “should take care to arrange in good time — especially if given to suffering from the head on account of the movement of the sea — to have his lodging in the middle of the galley and near a middle door in order to have a little air.” Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Book early, or you’ll get the smelly seat.

What to wear

Brasca suggests bringing plenty of shirts (“in order to avoid lice and unclean things as much as possible”) and one warm layer. Brasca also recommends “an overcoat reaching to the ground to wear when sleeping in the open air” — essentially a fashionable bivouac sack.

French pilgrim Antoine Regnaut repeated most of Brasca’s advice a century later but added that “one should be dressed poorly, even when getting off the ship,” not for humility or fear of theft, but because this way you can avoid having to tip the entire staff. So leave the statement jewelry at home unless you’re feeling generous.

And Zuallart offered a suggestion for the truly brave traveler: “It is also good to bring along a bit of soap, and not be ashamed of learning how to do your laundry.”

Travel really does change you.

Despite the smelly seats and the insects and the excessive vomiting, there are some bright spots in the journeys. Casola describes a turtle larger than a man that stayed with his ship for days, and he recounts his pleasure in “watching certain fish, long and slender, which passed in a great multitude and looked like a great sea wave when they were chased by a large fish.” Even the fabulously cranky medieval guide to Santiago de Compostela grudgingly praises Basque cider and describes “a most excellent mountain . . . for its height is so great that it seems to reach the sky. To the climber, it seems as if he can touch the sky with his own hand.”

It’s almost enough to make you want to leave the house. So pack your chickens, put on your long coat and try to avoid the quicksand. And it’s worth paying the oversize bag fee for that suitcase of patience.

Archibald teaches in the Humanities Department at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and recently published a collection of historical advice, “Ask the Past: Pertinent and Impertinent Advice From Yesteryear.” She blogs at Ask the Past: www.askthepast.blogspot.com .

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