Tuesday, November 29, 2016

J.J.Jusserand - English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages

English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages was first published in 1889. As a work of historical investigation it wouldn't pass a modern editor's test, but as a work of literature it is a marvellous read. Filled with anecdotes, songs, poetry and obscure facts this is a piece of work that allows the reader to imagine life in the Middle Ages in a way that most academic writing fails to do. How many history books include a section on "buffoons" for instance?

Its commonly believed that people in the Middle Ages rarely travelled very far. Perhaps that's true for the bulk of the population, but even those peasants tied to the land and the land owner, had to travel at least some distance. Anyone who'd been conscripted into the army would have seen some of England and possibly some of the continent. But even trips to market could mean journey's of dozens of miles. But other parts of the population, and not just the rich, travelled far. The rich might travel great distances, Jusserand notes that bridge and road upkeep was an enormous problem that had to be regularly solved out of military necessity and royal pleasure who, when hawking, "did not want to be stopped when following their birds by a broken bridge, and they would order the commonalty, whether or not it was bound to do so, to make prompt repairs in view of their coming."

That said, the state of the infrastructure was appalling:
Though there were roads, though land was burdened with service for their support, though laws from time to time recalled their obligations to the owners of the soil, though the private interest of lords and of monks, in addition to the interest of the public,m gave occasion to reparation now and then, the fate of the traveller in a snowfall or in a thaw was very precarious. Well might the Church have pity on him and include him... among the unfortunates whom she recommended to the daily prayers of pious souls.
Along these treacherous roads travelled traders and merchants, peddlers, musicians, tumblers, messengers and those fleeing justice. Each of these groups is examined in turn, Jusserand having a talent for finding references in obscure medieval accounts, laws and poetry and song. Of particular interest to me where two sections, one dealing with itinerant preachers who were often, like John Ball in the run up to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, to be found travelling the lands and were the subject of restrictions in the aftermath of the rebellion.
Men able to address a crowd scoured the country, drawing together the poor and attracting them by harangues filled with what people who suffer always like to hear... Their dress even and manner of speech are described; these malcontents have an austerer aspect, they go 'from county to county, and from town to town in certain habits under dissimulation of great holiness.'... Their real subject is not dogma, but the social question.
 The second fascinating section was the chapter on pilgrims and pilgrimages. Here we get a real sense of sheer numbers of people moving about to visit shrines and holy places, in England and abroad. Tens of thousands went to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett. But hundreds travelled to the Middle East, to Jerusalem, and again, not just the wealthy. Jusserand notes that guilds often included allowances for those going on pilgrimages to receive money and support from their funds. Pilgrims would return with outrageous tales, mementos and souvenirs. We can laugh at the distorted account of one pilgrim of what an elephant looked like, but these stories clearly reached thousands of people when the travellers returned. Reading these accounts I wondered to what extent the rest of the world was an alien place to the person in the Middle Ages? Many people would have known someone who had been abroad and returned to tell their stories. William Wey travelled twice to the Holy Land. On his final return he gave his souvenirs - a stone from Calvary, one from the Sepulchre, another from Mount Tabor and one from the hill where Christ's cross had stood - to a local church. Perhaps by this gift he was trying to make others feel part of his own travels, and give them share in the experience.

Jusserand concludes that the existence of a travelling culture like he describes ensured that England didn't see revolution like France had experienced. That's a step to far, but shouldn't divert from the enjoyment that this book will give its readers.

No comments: