Travel Sickness

Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen.
Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen.

Blog-post author, Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen, NL.



Finding relief of sickness can be a compelling motivation for undertaking a pilgrimage. Millions of Catholics find their way to healing waters of Lourdes each year, while Sufi Muslims visit dargahs in hopes that they will be cured of mental afflictions. In twelfth- and thirteenth-century Britain, pilgrims would drink to their health with the diluted ‘blood’ of St Thomas Becket, which could be bought in a vial at his shrine in Canterbury. 

Image 1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Physician on his way to Canterbury, from the Ellesmere Manuscript [Source:]
Image 1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Physician on his way to Canterbury, from the Ellesmere Manuscript [Source:]
Yet, on the other side of the same coin, a pilgrimage could also take a serious toll on one’s physical constitution. Whereas inland trips to nearby shrines and sanctuaries were relatively safe, the danger of contracting a serious illness on a long-distance pilgrimage was all too real. In his 1565 travelogue, Adriaen de Vlaming describes how one of his companions died in Bethlehem and notes that “many more, who were also ill, should have stayed at home”.[1] Arent Willems, in 1525, mourns the loss of two fellow pilgrims, who died shortly upon arrival in Jaffa without ever setting a foot ashore.[2] Recent archaeological findings, moreover, suggest that a medieval English pilgrim contracted a foreign strain of leprosy in the Holy Land and died of the complications back at home.

Medieval people were certainly concerned with their own health and wellbeing, as the abundance of medical recipes in household manuscripts attests. It thus seems likely that pilgrims would take medical precautions to reduce the risks of falling ill en route to Jerusalem. However, we know little about the possibility that pilgrims took medical texts with them or whether medical information was brought back from the East. A recipe for a “drink of Antioch”, which can be found in several medieval manuscripts, might either be a relic of the crusades or a feigned remedy that invokes the authority of Eastern medicine. Moreover, as Anthony Bale explains in this recent blog post about a medical miscellany containing a pilgrimage itinerary, it is near impossible to ascertain whether its owner actually travelled to the Holy Land.

Image 2. A medieval pharmacy depicted in the Tacuinum sanitatis, an illustrated herbal based on the "Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah" of Ibn Butlan. [Source:]
Image 2. A medieval pharmacy depicted in the Tacuinum sanitatis, an illustrated herbal based on the “Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah” of Ibn Butlan. [Source:]
Several pilgrimage accounts do offer some insight into health and safety precautions that were taken before going east. William Wey (1456), for example, suggests purchasing medications and a chamber pot in Venice in case one would become too sick to climb to the upper galley of the ship. A contemporary account, now at the Wellcome Library (MS 8004), lists good resting places, spas, and churches with healing relics that can be visited along the way. Joos van Ghistele (1481-1485) is adamant that pilgrims must pack purgatives and dried rhubarb root before going on board, and restock their medical kit at foreign markets. Venice was the best place for this: Jan Aerts (1481) advises to buy medicinal spices and laxatives there, as well as a panacaea made from diluted violet syrup. In his 1520 account, Geert Kuynretorff urges his reader to visit a professional physician before leaving the Venetian harbour. The pilgrim must ask this doctor to prescribe medication against fever, diarrhoea, and indigestion, and Kuynretorff provides a number of recipes that can be taken to the apothecary.[3]

Some high-profile travellers did not wish to take any chances and had their personal medics write instructions for them. King Philip VI of France, for instance, ordered a health regimen that was particularly tailored to him visiting the Holy Land as a ‘senior’ man (aged forty-two) in 1335. The Italian physician and inventor Guido da Vigevano, who is perhaps best known for designing the first prototype of the automobile, compiled the work which now known as the Liber conservationis sanitatis senis. The first half of the Liber follows the ancient doctrine of dietetics and concerns finding the right balance between food and drink, sleep and wakefulness, motion and rest, replenishing and emptying. The second half of Vigevano’s tract describes the influence of the air, accidents or ‘moods’ of the soul, prevention of afflictions of the eyes, ears, teeth, and memory. Lastly, Da Vigevano addresses the harmful liquids and food that are to be avoided during travel. Despite this well-researched medical advice, no records attest that the king ever made the journey. The tract survives in two manuscripts. The first, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 11015 contains another of Vigevano’s works about warfare in Outremer and can thus be placed in a crusader context.[4] The second, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1251, is a collection of medical writings and includes other gerontological works, suggesting that the compiler was mainly interested in medicine. It is thus unclear whether Da Vigevano’s tract was ever read in preparation for an actual pilgrimage.

Image 3. 'A snake attack'. British Library, Harley MS 3244, f.59v [Source:]
Image 3. ‘A snake attack’. British Library, Harley MS 3244, f.59v [Source:]
Another medical tract that was likewise made at the behest of a rich patron is Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s treatise for the pilgrimage to Mecca, written for a secretary of the caliph. Like Da Vigevano’s regimen, this treatise is informed by the works of Galen, Avicenna, and Hippocrates, but it also contains advice that is specific to the Middle-Eastern climate, fauna, and landscape. Ibn-Lūqā (820-912), a Christian scholar from Baalbek, pays particular attention to the sourcing of water, improving the quality of contaminated water, and quenching one’s thirst in the absence of drinking water. Furthermore, the scholar discusses the prevention of parasites such as roundworms, a prophylactic against snakes, and the treatment of snakebites and the stings of other vermin. Moreover, he writes about curing eye- and earaches caused by fluctuating temperatures and the dusty desert wind. Most of these ailments can be prevented by a turban, if worn correctly. Yet, in case one suffers from earache caused by the heat, dripping one of various substances into the ear will prove effective: lukewarm egg-white or lamb-gall mixed with rose oil, for instance, or olive oil in which earthworms or molluscs in their shells have been cooked (though honey and almond-oil will work equally well). One chapter from Ibn-Lūqā’s regimen will have sounded more appealing to pilgrims regardless of their destination: different kinds of foot massage (except hard rubbing, which is only good for thick-skinned or idle people who have eaten too much) he argues, are “useful for someone who has been walking much or standing still frequently”.[5]


[1] Ben Wasser, Dit is de pelgrimage van het Heilig Land en daaromtrent, (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014), 112.

[2] Wasser, 62.

[3] Wasser, 45.

[4] Marilyn Nicoud, Les Régimes de Santé au Moyen Âge: Naissance et Diffusion d’une Écriture (Rome: Publications de l’École Française de Rome, 2007), 226.

[5] Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca, ed. And trans. Gerrit Bos (Brill: Leiden, 1992), 39.

William of Rubruk’s Manuscripts on the Route to the Mongol Khan

Irene Malfatto
Irene Malfatto

Blog-post author Irene Malfatto, Società Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino, SISMEL, Firenze.

Acre, spring 1253. The Franciscan William of Rubruk says goodbye to his friend and protector, the French king Louis IX, and starts a journey towards the Golden Horde khanate and its sovereign, Sartaq. William’s task is both a missionary and a diplomatic one: the Franciscan’s familiarity with the French monarch gives him a sort of protection during the trip, which consists however – in William’s words – in the humble attempt to give some help to the European captives in Tartary.

The undeniable main goal of the mission, anyway, was to inquire about the attitude of the Khans towards Christianity. This issue, besides its missionary implications, was indeed a crucial factor in Louis’ crusader plans: a possible alliance with the Mongols against the Turks would have meant a great help in the recovery of the Holy Land. The trip’s pious purpose was then strictly connected with the French crown’s interests.

Back in Palestine in 1255, William writes a long letter to king Louis, in order to report the outcomes of his travel experience. This letter is indeed a book, a travel account known with the latin title of Itinerarium, recently edited by Paolo Chiesa and translated in English by Peter Jackson.

Some passages in the Itinerarium refer to certain manuscripts William took with him on his trip to the East. Some of those books stayed with him all the time, some other were lost along the road. These information, anyway, give an insight into what could have been the “book baggage” of a missionary on the Silk Road in the 13th century.

When William gets to Sartaq, who was said to be a friend of Christians or even converted to Christianity himself, he is immediately asked for gifts to give him. William soon has the sense of the distance between his Franciscan ideal of poverty and the Khan’s greedy attitude.

The meeting with Sartaq was supposed to be the mission’s final purpose, but it turns out to be just its starting point. The friar’s ambiguous diplomatic status concerns the Golden Horde ruler, who sends him to his powerful father Batu first, and later all the way to Karakorum, to meet the Great Khan Möngke. This is how William describes his first meeting with Sartaq and his entourage:

We met up with Sartach, then […] our guide began to ask what we were going to take for him and was highly outraged on seeing that we were not getting ready anything to take […]. I further explained, by way of apology, that I was a monk and neither owned nor accepted nor handled gold or silver or anything of value, with the sole exception of the books and the liturgical items with which we worshipped God, so that we were bringing no gifts for him or for his master: as one who had relinquished his own belongings, I could not be the bearer of what belonged to others. (Itinerarium XV, 1-2)

William does not have any gift for the king, but he carries with him some objects which are related to his religious status: liturgical tools and manuscripts. When officially summoned by Sartaq, he tries to show what he has:

I myself put on the more expensive vestments, and held against my breast a very fine cushion, the Bible you [king Louis] had given me, and a most beautiful psalter given me by my lady the Queen [Margaret of Provence], containing very fine illuminations. My colleague took the missal and the cross, while the clerk, dressed in a surplice, took the thurible. […] We were told to chant a blessing for him. (Itinerarium XV, 6)

Sartaq shows a special interest in the manuscripts, and asks questions about their contents:

He took […] the psalter, which he and the wife sitting next to him scrutinized closely; and after that, the Bible. He asked if it contained the Gospel. “Yes”, I said, “and the complete Holy Scripture”. (Itinerarium XV, 7)

The Mongol sovereign does not understand the religious value of those objects, nor their liturgical function. He asks William to leave the books at his court in order to “have a closer look” to them; eventually, the friars would have been able to take them back on their return journey.

Tunc necessaria fuit michi patientia, “I had to be patient then”, writes William when reporting of this humiliating experience. Cleverly, the friar tries to minimize the loss by hiding some books, in order to save them from an inevitable fate:

I had one consolation, in that anticipating their greed I had removed from among the books the Bible, the Sentences, and other volumes to which I was more attached. But my lady the Queen’s psalter I had not dared remove, as it had attracted too much attention by reason of the gold illuminations it contained. (Itinerarium XVI, 3)

Indeed, the Queen’s illuminated psalter will never be returned. This is what William writes about his return journey in the following year:

He returned the books, with the exception of my lady the Queen’s psalter: this he had my permission to keep, since I was in no position to withhold it, for he said that Sartach had been very much taken with it. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 10)

Together with the psalter, many other books “disappeared” in the process. William gives a little list:

I failed to recover the bible in verse, a book in Arabic which was worth thirty bezants, or numerous other items. (Itinerarium XXXVIII, 13)

It would be extremely interesting to know more on these books and where did they end up. Unfortunately, William does not give enough information. Anyway, it is clear that the manuscripts raised the interest of the Mongol Khan mostly as beautiful material objects. Sartaq showed even some sort of curiosity for the practical making process of parchment:

He had also asked me, should I happen to revisit those parts, to bring them someone who knew how to make parchment […]. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 11)

Even though the questions here are so much more than the answers, William’s account offers an example of the circulation of manuscripts on the missionary routes to the East. Certainly, his case was not isolated and it shines light on the role of travel accounts in the attempt to reconstruct a network of book mobilities in the context of the pax mongolica.


  • The Mission of William of Rubruck, trans. Peter Jackson, Hakluyt Society, London 1990
  • Guglielmo di Rubruk, Viaggio in Mongolia, ed. Paolo Chiesa, Mondadori, Milano 2011

Building imagined pilgrimage experiences and pilgrim libraries in the medieval world

Phillip Booth
Phil Booth

Blog-post author, Phil Booth, Associate Lecturer at Lancaster University, UK

Creating tools of contemplation and remembrance

When talking about Christian pilgrimage in the medieval period, there exists a tendency to divide pilgrimage into geographic types: the local, the national, the transnational and the international (for example). Each of these “types” of pilgrimage exhibit different qualities and were performed for different reasons at different times. The motivation, for example, for undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem might be vastly different from undertaking a pilgrimage to any number of local shrines which existed in Europe (and elsewhere) at this time. Yet one thing these “types” had/have in common was a belief in the benefit that could be derived from movement towards, and interaction with, a sacred space.

c15 image produced to accompany a translation of Burchard of Mt Sion’s 'Descriptio Terrae Sanctae'. Images like this were crucial for facilitating imagined or virtual pilgrimage experiences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
c15 image produced to accompany a translation of Burchard of Mt Sion’s ‘Descriptio Terrae Sanctae’. Images like this were crucial for facilitating imagined or virtual pilgrimage experiences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Increasingly, however, historians have recognised that pilgrimage did not require any sort of movement or travel at all; that there existed, in medieval Europe, a belief in what has been variously described as virtual, imagined or armchair pilgrimage. Simply put, people imagined themselves going to or seeing specific holy places believing they would benefit from the exercise. Paramount in facilitating an imagined pilgrimage experience were books, or other material objects, that could evoke an image of sacred space and associated events. Through ritual movements, physical touching of material objects, and simple contemplation an individual could experience a pilgrimage from the comforts of their own homes (or convent/monastery as was usually the case).

In this regard it is interesting to note that when pilgrims who wrote accounts of their pilgrimages sat down to do so they often express a very clear appreciation that their accounts of pilgrimage could be used in such a way. They were to be used as tools of contemplation and remembrance. Indeed, for many it was this very aspect of medieval spirituality which inspired them to record their pilgrimage experiences for posterity. Some examples.

John of Würzburg who travelled to the Holy Land in around 1160 stated:

I believe that this description will be valuable to you [i.e. Dietrich, the individual to whom the account is written] if … you come to everything which I have described and see them [i.e. the holy places] physically … But if you happen not to go [to the Holy Land] and you are not going physically to see them, you will still have a greater love of them and their holiness by reading this book and thinking about it.

The best example of these trends from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries occurs in the account of Burchard of Mount Sion, a Dominican friar who spent several years in the Holy Land in the late-thirteenth century. The introduction of his account is replete with references to the imagined experiences which pilgrimage to the Holy Land could provoke. Most noteworthy for our present considerations, however, is his statement that:

Seeing, however, that some people are affected by a desire to picture for themselves in some degree at least those things that they are unable to look upon face to face and wanting to satisfy their wish as far as I can, I have … described … that land [i.e the Holy Land] through which I have frequently passed.

These pilgrims were clearly producing these accounts to facilitate an imagined or remembered experience once back at home. However, it should be noted that this was not a uniquely “Catholic European” preoccupation. Daniel, a Russian abbot, and therefore an Orthodox Christian, who travelled to the Holy Land between 1106 and 1107, also wanted his account to enable people to think on or remember the holy places:

… for the love of these holy places I have set down everything which I saw with my own eyes, so that what God gave me, an unworthy man, to see may not be forgotten … I have written this for the faithful. For if anyone hearing about these holy places should grieve in his soul and in his thoughts for these holy places, he shall receive the same reward from God as those who shall have travelled to the holy places.

c14 depiction of Xuanzang returning from India laden with Buddhist texts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
c14 depiction of Xuanzang returning from India laden with Buddhist texts. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Even more fascinating is that it does not seem to have been a uniquely Christian preoccupation either. Other religious cultures in the Medieval world expressed and practiced their spirituality in diverse ways. Pilgrimage, whilst possessing many universal qualities, was and still is performed in different ways, by different peoples, groups and religions. And those cultures which wrote about pilgrimage did so for sometimes different reasons. Nevertheless, when reading the Record of the Inner Law sent home from the South Sea, composed by the Buddhist monk Yijing, who travelled to India from China between 671 and 695, we read:

My life may sink with the setting sun this day, still I work to do something worthy of the promotion of the Law; … If you read this record of mine, you may, without moving one step, travel in all five countries of India, and before you spend a minute you may become a mirror of the dark path for a thousand ages to come.

While this is the only such reference of which I am aware of, what it shows is that imagined pilgrimage was not something peculiar to Christians or Europe. Furthermore, the experiences of these remarkable Buddhist pilgrims were intrinsically bound up with textual records. They travelled from China to India in the hope of recovering the original texts of Buddhism and they themselves were inspired to produce texts to help individuals become better Buddhists. They were also interested in building libraries of their own. Xuanzang who travelled in the seventh century (and whose travel account influenced Yijing’s own journeys) brought back to China some 657 Buddhist texts, Yijing himself some 400 texts, which were translated into Chinese and formed new libraries of knowledge connected to pilgrimage and Buddhism. The pilgrimages of the likes of Faxian, Yijing and Xuanzang were all about libraries, reading, the betterment of oneself and imagined journeys.

Overall it demonstrates the important link that existed between pilgrimage, text and imagination in multiple “medieval” cultures.