Month: March 2018 (page 1 of 7)

The Book of Wanderings of Felix Fabri: Joppa

Felix Fabri has finally arrived in Joppa after a long sea voyage. It’s the fourth of July and the sun has just risen. Fabri describes the fish swimming “on top of the sea” and mentions that one fish looks like it has the face and ears of a dog (36). Fabri spends a lot of time in this passage focusing on describing his physical surroundings. He spends almost a whole page describing the way the ocean glistened, how the towers looked against the sky, the color of the land, the people, etc. His attention to detail is staggering, almost overwhelming at some points. Fabri also spends some time describing the people he sees. He calls the locals Saracens and seems to observe them almost as you would an animal. His tone is similar to that he used when describing the local Italians before.

Fabri describes to us the preparations that are being made for his journey to the Holy Land. He’s waiting on the boat in which he arrived until he can meet with the Moorish lords of Joppa. He’s waiting with several of his traveling companions, as they cannot leave the boat until they are officially greeted and welcomed by the Moorish lords. However, the Moorish lords have yet to arrive and have sent their servants ahead of them to prepare the area. Fabri is quite intrigued by these servants (the same men he calls Saracen). However, he doesn’t portray them in a very flattering light. Instead, he uses descriptions and anecdotes that portray them as different and suspect.

When the Saracen servants first arrived, Fabri notes that they “skirmished with one another in sport, mounted on their mules, as if they were fighting” and ran frantically “to and fro” (36). His descriptions of the Saracens seem detached and almost condescending. He writes as if he is seeing some strange creature instead of a group of human beings. For example, at the end of the passage, Fabri begins telling an anecdote. He notices that the Saracens are going in and out of some caves above the seashore. Fabri writes that these are the caves into which he and his companions “will be driven” after the Saracens officially welcome them (36). He is puzzled by the behavior of the Saracens and says that he and his companions watched them go in and out “all day long” but they could not guess what was going on (36). That is, until “to the offense of our noses, we discovered; for they had defiled those places with ordure” (36). Now, Fabri is staying on a ship that is hundreds of feet from the shoreline. He observes the Saracens from afar, unable to approach them or even yell to them from his position on the ship. The likelihood of him being able to smell some offensive odor al the way from the shore is very low. Fabri, throughout his travel narrative, has consistently painted people he’s found foreign or different from himself in unflattering lights. This passage seems to be an extension of that.

The Book of Margery Kempe: King’s Lynn/Zierikzee

Margery Kempe was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England and began her pilgrimage from there. Although this is not one of the places she encountered on her pilgrimage, as it is her home, her experiences there reveal much about the pilgrimage process and how she experienced it as a woman. Before leaving town, Kempe asks the parish priest to ask the people if they have any debts against her or her husband so that she can settle them before leaving. This shows the expectation that pilgrimages would last a long time, and that the pilgrim might not return, so they shouldn’t leave anything undone at home before departing. The anchorite tells Kempe of the hardship she will face on her journey. Kempe frames this as a foretelling of the future, but it could also be read as a form of dissuasion. It is possible the anchorite would not want a woman to leave her husband and family on a long and difficult journey, and he might have sought to convince her otherwise for the sake of family cohesion. If this was his aim, he failed, because Kempe feels compelled by God to take her pilgrimage and won’t be convinced to abandon it.

After leaving King’s Lynn, Kempe sailed to Zierikzee, a city in the Netherlands. She describes much crying there, but says little of the city itself other than that she took communion and wept. According to her, the people there were amazed at her religious devotion, although it is quite possible they were staring at her because she was making a scene. Apparently in Zierikzee, Kempe’s confessor (it is unclear if this is someone who came with her from England or who she met in the Netherlands) tries to end her four-year-long fast in which she avoided meat and wine. Kempe temporarily desists, but then asks permission to resume. It is interesting that the confessor, as well as the English anchorite, do not seem overly invested in encouraging Kempe’s devotion to God. They appear to encourage her to behave more normally, as do her companions, perhaps showing something about the clergy’s societal role. They certainly enforced compliance with religious doctrine, but did they continue to do so when such compliance would hinder social cohesion? Was their role primarily religious or civic and governmental?

Because Kempe’s companions were so fed up with her, they abandoned her. Even her maidservant left her, and one of her companions took the majority of her money, which he had been charged with keeping. This reveals a few things. One, Kempe was traveling with companions, which appears to be the norm for safety’s sake. Two, her abandonment shows that remaining safe relied on an ability to form bonds with one’s traveling companions, something that might have been hindered not only by Kempe’s annoying qualities but also by nature of being the only woman on the voyage, which could have made her a target for sexual violence or led her to be alienated from the general social atmosphere. Three, this shows that Kempe was not trusted to be in charge of her own funds, and therefore, as a woman, had to rely even more heavily on the men around her. This could and does put her under the power of someone not to be trusted, giving Kempe the choice of compromising her values or keeping her money (unless, of course, the man was going to swindle her anyway).

Kempe’s journey from King’s Lynn to Zierikzee shows how her sex complicated her pilgrimage, and also how her personality went in direct opposition to all of the precautions she could have been expected to take to mitigate the effects of being a woman.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Tiberias

Benjamin travels to Tiberias from St. George. He has to travel five parasangs to arrive in Tiberias. He notes that the city is located on the Jordan River, which is locally called the Sea of Chinnereth and flows between two mountains filling a lake, which is actually similar to a sea. This then flows into the Sea of Sodom, also known as the Salt Sea. Benjamin is very interested in the waterways in Tiberias, and he has been interested in the ways in which water connects various cities throughout his travel guide. Even though we do not know his occupation, perhaps it has something to do with building or transportation. Or he is just interested so that he can build a comprehensive travel guide for Jewish people who wish to complete similar travels. He is interested in how cities operate and how they connect to other cities through waterways specifically.

As with every city he visits, Benjamin’s main priority is counting the number of Jews, although he rarely mentions this first. He usually talks about the appearance of the city, and then mentions the Jewish population. In Tiberias, there are about 50 Jews, some of which he mentions by name. The head, R. Abraham is actually an astronomer, which I was surprised to read. I have never heard of astronomy being Jewish tradition, but I am assuming that it was popular for all different religious and ethnic groups in the 12th century.

After quickly mentioning the Jews of Tiberias, Benjamin brings up hot, bubbling waters (maybe geysers?) aptly named the Hot Waters of Tiberias. Near these hot waters, there is the Synagogue of Caleb ben Jephunneh, which could be the only synagogue in Tiberias because it is the only one mentioned. Benjamin names two Jews who are buried in Tiberias, who may be of interest to other Jews of Tudela who will read this guide.

When describing Tiberias, Benjamin does not stray from his usual formula of  describing his travels. He mentions everything worth mentioning to Jews who would want to escape from Tudela–how hard or easy it is to get to Tiberias, the landscape, and how many Jews there are. I am still surprised at how Benjamin is able to remove his own opinions from this narrative, or guide.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Quilon

When Marco Polo journeys through India, he speaks of the kingdom, Quilon. The kingdom is located 500 miles south-west in relation to Maabar.

Marco Polo introduces this province saying the people are mainly idolaters with the exception of a few Jews and Christians. He says the people have their own language and answer to a king who is subordinate to no one. From previous passages, it is clear that Marco Polo uses the term “idolaters” derogatively to show that their religion opposes Christian ideals. He makes a point to include that Jews and Christians are among the people to show there were other religious groups aside from idolaters.

Next, Marco Polo speaks of the province’s produce. He says they harvest large amounts of pepper and Quilon brazil. He says that pepper is specifically grown in the months of May through July. Marco Polo also mentions the growth of indigo how it is specifically produced. He additionally he mentions the hot climate and expresses the extensiveness of it saying if one were to put in an egg in one of the rivers, the egg would boil. He then mentions how this territory thrives in trade because of the exchange of goods from the following countries: Arabia, Manzi, and the Levant. The countries are able to trade by sea. Marco Polo almost always mentions trade given that he is a professional trader.

In Marco Polo’s description of these goods, he expresses how these crops are produced in detail. It is evident that he is trying to show Western Europeans how different their crops, as well as their methods, are in producing these goods. He mentions the months in which pepper is grown and goes into the specifics of how Indigo is produced. Indigo was a rare commodity in Western Europe so it would have been fascinating to Western audiences in learning how it was made. In addition, he exaggerates the hot temperatures which can be assumed that the rivers did not reach boiling temperatures. This was most likely used to once again captivate his targeted European audience.

Marco Polo also focuses on the variety of beasts. He mentions black lions, parrots that differ in color and size, peacocks, and hens. He then emphasizes how unique these animals are from the ones he has seen in Western Europe and even from “those of all the rest in the world.” He emphasizes on their grandness and difference from everywhere else which can be assumed that he was trying to relate enchanting information back to Western Europe. In addition, he also expresses the difference in their fruit that is due to the land’s hot climate. He speaks of their wine and how it has uses sugar causing the people to be intoxicated faster in comparison to grape wine. This comparison to grape wine is telling that he views the wine Europeans drink to be better since it does not make people as intoxicated which was seen as improper and undesirable. He then makes a point to speak of Quilon’s good physicians who keep their people in good health which is important for audiences to know if they do wish to travel given that sickness and rise in death tolls were prevalent.

Lastly, Marco Polo discusses the appearance of the people of Quilon in how they dark-skinned and dress almost naked with a piece of loincloth. Similar to other travel passages, Marco Polo makes a point to describe their unique dress; however, he does not express this with as much disdain in his previous passages which shows maturity in sharing information about other people’s’ cultures. On the contrary, he expresses disapproval for the how the people face no religious repercussions for engaging in sexual actions. His dislike is clear since he expects there to be some sort of punishment for this kind of action most likely having to do with his Christian views. He also says that is customary for men to marry his father’s widow, cousin, or his brother’s wife. He says that this was a commonly seen throughout the Indies. He seems to be saying this as if it were something new and only occurred within in the Indies, but from other travel narratives, this practice seems to be universal. It is inconclusive as to why he would find this to be unique.

In this passage, it is clear that Marco Polo chose to focus more on the animals and goods in Quilon. It can be interpreted that he is drawn to these specific aspects since they dramatize the vast difference in climate and vegetation. Since Marco Polo aims to captivate Western Europeans, it would make sense that he would want to focus on the things that would make this specific territory standout and be as memorable as possible.


The Book of Margery Kempe: Mount Quarentyne

Margery travels to Mount Quarentyne or the Mount of Temptation where Christ fasted for forty days from the River Jordan. How long this would have taken them depends upon which spot on the Jordan River they had been visiting. Mount Quarentyne is said to be a hill in the Judean desert that supposedly towers over the town of Jericho in the West Bank. It’s exact location is unbeknownst to us today. Assuming Margery and her company walked to Jericho from the piece of the Jordan River closest to it, this journey is only about 6 miles and thus probably took about an hour to an hour and a half by foot. Margery does remark as she departs from the River Jordan that the weather was so hot she thought “her feet would be burn because of the heat” (110). This is one of the only descriptions of weather Margery ever gives. Kempe describes Mount Quarentyne as being very steep and difficult to climb. Her companions refused to help Margery up the mountain because they could “scarcely help themselves” (110). Eventually, she pays a handsome Muslim man a small sum of money and he assists her up the Mount. Kempe then describes that she became very thirsty and that by the grace of God, the Grey Friars (Franciscan Friars) took pity on her and comforted her even though her own countrymen did not acknowledge her.

Once again, Margery continues to make a cultural commentary on her fellow pilgrims in that they do not assist her or sympathize with her in her times of need (when she has trouble climbing and is extremely thirsty).  By detailing that a Muslim man assists her and that Grey Friars comforted her, Margery is throwing serious shade on her fellow pilgrims and countrymen, portraying them as ungodly. Even a man who does not see Jesus Christ as the Savior bothers to help Margery (if for a small payment) but her “religiously motivated” companions will not. While the Crusades ended over 100 years prior to Margery’s text that was dictated in the 1430s, it is notable that Kempe describes the Saracen man as handsome and portrays him as strong and helpful, considering he practically carries her up a large mountain younger people in good health are struggling to climb. Margery seems to have no animosity for this man of another faith, and because he treats her well, it is almost as though she sees God within his actions even though she cannot see this in her companions who constantly berate and ignore her. I think this is not only an insult to her fellow English pilgrims, but a compliment to the Muslims of Jerusalem, in that Margery trusts them to assist her up to a holy site. The animosity of the Crusades is not felt in Kempe’s particular description of a Muslim man on page 110 of her text. Considering we still see animosity between Christians and Muslims of the world today, I think it would be far-fetched to see this as a scenario in which racism towards Muslim communities or animosity between the two religions didn’t exist. However, I think it does say something about Margery’s faith in that she is able to see her Christian God working in (and believes the Christian God can work through) a man not of Christian faith.

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