Month: February 2018 (Page 1 of 4)

The Book of Margery Kempe: Constance

Towards the beginning of her pilgrimage, Margery Kempe passes through a city she refers to as Constance (most likely Konstanz, Germany) with her unfriendly companions. This city lies on the route between Norwich, England, where Kempe began, and Bologna, Italy, where she travels next. Her brief stay in Constance reveals how Kempe interacts with the cities that she passes through on the way to pilgrimage sites.

When Kempe and her companions arrive in Constance, Kempe mentions that she hears an English friar who is also a legate of the Pope is staying in the city. She does not describe her arrival to the city, the city’s physical characteristics, or the people she encounters in the city. Instead she jumps directly to her meeting with the Pope’s legate, who she seeks out because of his wisdom. She confesses to him, and tells him her entire life’s story, as well as her current troubles with her traveling companions, who dislike her and try to stop her from praying, crying, and maintaining a vegetarian diet. She also tells him “what grace God gave her of contrition and compunction, of sweetness and devotion” and the visions He had given her (Kempe 99). This is as immodest as Kempe’s constant assertion of her superiority over her companions. Kempe then tells of how her traveling companions invite the legate to dinner. The legate, who has taken Kempe’s side, tells her to behave as submissively at dinner as she always does. Then, when her traveling companions ridicule her, the legate stands up for her, and refuses to tell her to cease her unorthodox habits. This prompts her companions to abandon her, but the legate makes arrangements for her. Kempe tells of how, despite her dire conditions, God provides for her. He sends her a kindly traveling companion to accompany her to Bologna, where she arrives before her old traveling companions.

It is clear that Kempe believes that the most noteworthy aspects of her visit in Constance are her acquaintanceship with an important religious figure, her suffering at the hands of her traveling companions, her eventual vindication, and the divine intervention on her behalf. She reveals very little about the city of Constance. She gives no identifying features, meaning the city might not even be Konstanz, Germany. However, she reveals some aspects of the place pilgrims occupied when they passed through the city, and raises questions about the travels of religious authorities. What brought an English friar, who was a legate of the Pope, to Constance? Was he on official Church business? Was he living there? Was he on pilgrimage himself? Was he there to interact with pilgrims passing through? This in turn raises the question of Constance’s role in pilgrimages. Was it a common place for pilgrims to stop?

Whatever the case, it is shown that the pilgrims’ status is high enough to be able to invite an important religious authority to dine with them. They also complain to this authority, and grow angry when he takes Kempe’s side. They seem to interact with some level of informality. However, it is clear that legate has a higher status. He sits down first at dinner, and the company asks him to regulate Kempe’s behavior, showing that they understand him to have some control over at least the religious life of pilgrims (and, probably, Christians in general).

Kempe’s account of Constance reveals that pilgrims were able to find people who spoke their language in various cities, dine with them, and consult with them. More established English speakers in non-English-speaking cities could help English pilgrims exchange their currency and make travel arrangements, as the legate helps Kempe. This shows both that there were English people, at least religious authorities and pilgrims, abroad, and that they helped each other when they encountered each other in foreign places. This could even hint at a formal or informal support network for pilgrims that could potentially exist in the cities en route to important pilgrimage sites like Jerusalem.

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: the land of the Ghuzz Turks

After crossing a mountain, Ibn Fadlan comes to the territory settled by the Ghuzz Turks. Here, he is almost entirely concerned with the cultural traditions, customs and practices of the Ghuzz Turks but also touches briefly upon their democratic form of government.

We don’t learn much about Ibn Fadlan’s physical journey at this point or the terrain, except for the first mention of crossing a mountain and the mention of the desert as a place to cast a poor man or slave who has fallen ill and leave him to the elements.

One of the most prevalent themes in this section of text is Ibn Fadlan’s focus on the cultural and societal place of Turkish women. His first anecdote after introducing the reader to the Turks and their government is that of a woman who “bared her private parts and scratched” in the presence of the travellers, but, as her husband is pleased to comment, “protects them and allows no one near” (12). Ibn Fadlan and his companions respond to this incident by “cover[ing] our faces with our hands” and seeking God’s forgiveness in a reaction of evident horror and shock. This moment of disgust with the Turks’ cultural understanding of modesty and the female body immediately follows a commentary on the Turks’ bathing habits, the lack of which is clearly frowned upon by the Muslim traveller who himself ritually washes frequently and considers this to be good practice. By using a description of filthiness and “pollution” as a transition into discussing the female body and what parts of it should be covered, Ibn Fadlan demonstrates an understanding of modesty that requires women to “hide” certain parts of their bodies from the male viewer. Not only does he impose his own cultural understanding onto his interaction with the Turkish woman and her husband, he relates her husband’s response to his reaction, stripping the woman of any voice she may or may not have had.

Ibn Fadlan also writes of Turkish marriage customs, emphasizing that once a man has “paid his debt” to the man who “posseses” the woman he wishes to marry, he “comes without the slightest shame, walks into the house where the woman is and takes possession of her in front of her father, her mother and her brothers, and they do not stop him” (13-4). Ibn Fadlan’s use of the work “shame” indicates his disapproval of this custom, but his disapproval stems not from the ritual of purchasing a wife, or the moment of “possession” (which is understood to be intercourse and possibly, if not likely, rape) but rather the fact that intercourse takes place before the woman’s family and that “they do not stop him” (14). The individual listing of the bride’s “father, her mother and her brothers” emphasizes the disapproval and focuses the reader’s attention to the audience of the marital “tak[ing of] possession” and collaborates with the final comment that “they do not stop him” to display that this is the source of Ibn Fadlan’s discomfort, not the purchasing of a wife, like a slave, nor the possibility of rape. In fact, Ibn Fadlan’s failture to mention the reception of the bride to her husband only highlights his disinterest in women’s well-being, never mind their rights, agency, voice or representation.

The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Bagdad (Baghdad)

Benjamin travels to the city of Bagdad during his journey. It takes him two days to arrive from Okbara, a place with 10,000 Jews. It is hard  to tell how long Benjamin stayed in Baghdad, but he writes extensively about it, especially in comparison to other cities he visited, so it was an important visit to him. The first topic he brings up is not the appearance of the city, but the religion of the people there, which makes sense because throughout his journey, religion is Benjamin’s main focus. He explains the role of the Caliph, likening him to the Christian Pope, bringing in another religion to give context to the position of the Caliph. Then he gets into where the Caliph lives, reporting details about the Caliph’s palace and living conditions as well as the greater landscape. Benjamin focuses mostly on the roles and lifestyles of the Caliphs, so much so that one can tell how fascinated he is with them.

Then, Benjamin brings up Judaism within the context of Bagdad, which is interesting to me as a modern reader learning about this journey that took place so long ago, and wondering what the interactions between Muslims and Jews would be like during this time period. It turns out that Benjamin has nothing but good things to say about the Caliph and the great king. Benjamin writes that the great king is “kind unto Israel” and knows the language and laws of it. The great king is regarded by his people as Mohammed.

Benjamin writes in great detail about the great Caliph’s palace, focusing on the opulence and luxury of his lifestyle. In the same section, he then details the sacrifice of a camel. The very last sentence is “He is a benevolent man.” In the next section Benjamin goes on to explain how the Caliph is able to heal the sick, saying that he is “a righteous man, and all his actions are for good,” which feels almost like propaganda to bring back to Tudela. As if he is trying to appease other Jews for the possibility of being taken over by the Islamic empire.

Then, Benjamin begins to write about the 40,000 Jews who live in Bagdad, with 28 synagogues, paying special attention to note that they live in “security, prosperity and honour” under the great Caliph, again, as if trying to provide comfort under the impending takeover of the Islamic empire. He provides details about successful Jewish people living in Bagdad in addition to details about how Jews and Muslims are able to come together to escort Mohammed to the great Caliph and the Head of Captivity, who is reportedly very kind to the Jewish people in Bagdad and in return receives many gifts from them, again, possibly another way for Benjamin to mollify the Jews of Tudela.

Benjamin seems to be writing this in a fairly matter of fact manner, but his attempt at pacifying the people back home about the Islamic empire is overt.


The Travels of Marco Polo: Chang-chau

Marco Polo describes the three-day journey of heading eastwards from Chin-kiang-fu to Chang-chau. He says a traveler would cross many cities containing people who “are all idolaters, subject to the Great Khan, and using paper money” (Polo, 211).

Marco Polo gives a general overview of Chang-chau. Marco Polo says the people of this city “are idolaters, subject to the Great Khan, using paper money” (211). He then discusses that they are known for trade and commerce. He notes that they have an abundance of silk and produce cloths made of gold and other silk fabrics. Marco Polo also says they have abundant animals such as birds and beasts most likely referring to large animals. He then says they have lush soil providing life to sustain the city.

It is evident Marco Polo feels strongly about the attributes he uses to describe these cities. This seems to be his way of suggesting that these cities are vastly foreign in comparison to the Christian and governmental views of Western Europeans. For instance, the word “idolaters” refer to a religious group that worships idols which counters Christian beliefs. This is Marco Polo’s way of saying not only are these people, not Christian, they go against Christian beliefs. Similarly, “burning their dead” also greatly contrasts Christian beliefs that believe burning of the body will not only cut themselves off from any chance of resurrection. Paper money shows the currency used which is practical for travelers to know and further speaks to the difference between these cultures. Lastly, in saying people are subject to the Khan, it is important to note since it is necessary to have an idea of the laws and who one is subject to depending on one’s location. It additionally provides a window for the Western Europeans to have an idea of the influence and expansion of the Great Khan’s empire.

Marco Polo’s discussion of trade is a common thread among his many descriptions of cities. As a traveling merchant, it makes sense as to why he would view this area to be crucial in determining a city’s success. It also speaks to the not only foreign goods but the luxurious items he came across in his travels. Marco Polo emphasizes that “gold” was incorporated into the fabric which would have further emphasized the value of this material. This would be appealing to Western Europeans who would have viewed these as foreign and valuable items. Marco Polo’s mention of birds, beasts, and soil was used to further the success of the vegetation and livelihood of the city.

Marco Polo then shares a story about the city and describes it as a devilish action that resulted in rightful punishment by the people of Chang-chau. Following the fall of Manzi to the Great Khan, Bayan, a commander of Great Khan’s army, sent his men to take down Chang-chau. Marco Polo identifies the men sent as Alans and Christians. When the Alans were outside Chang-chou, they stumbled across wine. As a result, they drank too much causing the men to lose their sense of right and wrong. The citizens of the city witnessed their captors’ drunken behavior and considered these men as good as dead. Without waiting to act, the city men killed all of the captors that night. When word reached Bayan who was the leading commander of the captors, he was furious and sent many troops to conquer the city by force. The city, as a result, was destroyed and Bayan’s men killed the entirety of the city.

Marco Polo begins his story opening with his strong opposition to the drunken actions of the Alans that they justly deserved. Marco Polo then uses religion to identify the groups that were a part of Bayan’s men. Marco Polo was emphasizing that Christians were among the Great Khan’s men to shut down Western European fears of the Great Khan. This could also infer Marco Polo’s harbored racist feelings towards non-Christian groups. Marco Polo puts the blame solely on the Alans as if to separate and blame this race for its uncivilized behavior. Marco Polo seems to agree with the actions of the Chang-chau since he condemns the drunken behavior even going as far to say it as to label it as “wicked.” His strong opposition also presents a warning to Western Europeans for the evil caused by drinking to excess. Yet, Marco Polo also supports Bayan’s decision to eliminate everyone in the city. Ultimately, Marco Polo sides with the Great Khan and shaped their victory as deserved in order to further express the power of their empire.


The Book of John Mandeville: Constantinople

The author’s description of Constantinople continues the pattern mentioned in my previous post where he tends to write more as a form of entertainment than an actual travel narrative. The city of Constantinople is described in chapter two, “One Way to Jerusalem” because, according to the author, it is a major city europeans must pass through to travel to Jerusalem. The author spends most of the chapter supposedly on the subject of Constantinople, however I say supposedly because a lot of the time he is on a religious tangent that distantly relates to the city. Nevertheless he does provide concrete information. The author tells us that the emperor of Greece usually lives in Constantinople, and briefly describes the emperor’s palace. He gives some history of the Greek empire, mixing this history in with descriptions of local attractions. He also touches on some of the cultural importance and local superstitions of these places, and lists a few other relics and famous bodies buried at Constantinople. He explains what the city physically looks like as well as the geography around it in describing the mountains, listing the islands nearby and including local stories about certain geographical points.

However, the bulk of the chapter is spent on religious information. In the middle of describing the city, the author goes into a tangent about the story of Jesus on the cross. He describes the different forms of wood used to make the cross and why they were used, includes a short story about Adam, and ends with explaining what happened to Jesus on the night he was arrested. While the story distantly relates to Constantinople, it is a weak connection and modern readers would consider it a unrelated inclusion. However, it is apparent that religion is an important subject to the author because he spends another considerable part of the chapter explaining how the religion practiced by citizens of Constantinople, while technically considered Christianity, is different from the normal practices.

The vast amount of time the author spends on the subject of religion, be it the random religious stories or the detailed explanation of why Constantinople christianity is different, reveals the deep importance of religion, and christianity in particular, to the author and the culture he is writing for. Roughly four out of the eight pages spent on Constantinople are actually about religious aspects. On one hand, it is true that the information the author provides about the difference in the practice of Christianity would be helpful for travelers during that time because it would give them an idea of what to expect from a community of people that they identify with. However, the religious stories of Adam and Jesus on the cross really give no necessary information about travel to Constantinople, and these take up most of the religious portion.  The lack of legitimate helpful information in this chapter lends to the argument that this book was written more as an piece of entertainment than an actual guidebook or an travel record. The author structured his book to be a form of amusement for a culture in which Christianity and religion was a vital part of daily life.

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