Recently I met a man from the Borders who admitted he has rarely travelled as far as England. There’d been a trip to Blackpool, he recalled, but that was about it. He gave no hint of feeling he has missed out. Nor, necessarily, has he.

What he does lack, however, is the sense of curiosity that from the beginning of time has propelled people from one side of the world to the other. It’s demanding enough to traverse continents in the modern age. How much more so in the Middle Ages, when to set foot off these isles was to encounter untold danger and hardship?

You might assume that global tourism began with the advent of railways and aeroplanes. To read Anthony Bale’s enthralling account of medieval travellers – where they went, what they got up to, and whether they returned home in one piece – is to realise that when we go abroad we are treading in the footsteps of a legion of intrepid wanderers from 700 and more years ago.

There’s nothing brave about heading to Rome these days, but for the characters who fill Bale’s pages, it was the trip of a lifetime, and sometimes proved to be their last.

Bale is Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck University of London, but the tone of A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages is neither dry nor academic. His enthusiasm is infectious as he takes his reader on an armchair tour, in the company of travel writers who were also pilgrims, diplomats, spies and merchants.

This is not just a world trip, however. It is also a survey of how the West saw the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and an exploration of the medieval Christian sense of identity.

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Although probably the best-known travel writer of the period is Marco Polo, the 13th-century Venetian merchant who travelled to Asia, there are countless other guides in Bale’s account.

One such is Geoffrey de Villehardouin, a French nobleman who fought in the Crusades and left an unforgettable chronicle of the Holy Land. Others include the likes of the 14th-century Tuscan Franciscan friar Niccolo da Poggibonsi, and Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Berber scholar and ambassador.

Their insights into the wonder, delight, tedium, terror and misery they experienced put readers into direct contact with an era where people’s preconceptions, fears and ambitions are remarkably similar to our own.

The Herald:

Bale’s departure point is Behaim’s Globe, one of the oldest surviving globes in Europe. Made in Nuremberg in the late 15th century, its contents were largely drawn from the 14th-century travelogue, The Book of Marvels and Travels, by Sir John de Mandeville. Known as the Erdapfel (Earthapple), it shows how much of the world was already mapped, albeit roughly, and what was known of its inhabitants.

Bale’s expedition begins with pilgrims following the well-trodden routes to Rome, or better still Jerusalem. In these times, pilgrimages were undertaken to seek absolution for sins, or to pray for healing or, as in the case of Dame Beatrice Luttrell, from Lincolnshire in 1350, to ask God’s help to conceive a child.

One can perhaps guess the motivation of the “young Scot with a club foot and poxy face” who joined one of these parties. Lest these perilous journeys sound like a jolly, Bale reminds us that “a pilgrimage, if done properly, was far from a holiday but rather an act of self-punishment and self-reform”.

Regardless of status, pilgrims would travel in groups for safety. Numbers might offer security but they were not always congenial. The mystic Marjery Kempe was reviled by her fellow passengers, who could not abide her weepiness, and she was mercilessly bullied. Undaunted, she reached Jerusalem, the sight of which so undid her, writes Bale, “she nearly fell off her ass”.

For such travellers, Europe was another world, with odd customs and food, languages and currency. This was as nothing, however, to the bewildering strangeness of the Middle East and beyond. Once Jerusalem had been reached, most turned back for home. Those who continued east or south were true adventurers – usually merchants or diplomats or missionaries.

So novel were the lands they encountered that some travel books are as much a compilation of myths as of first-hand reportage.

Mandeville claimed that in Ethiopia (a generic term for Africa) there lived not just dragons but sciapods: “humans with only one very large foot who could hop about at wondrous speed”. Cannibalism was widely reported in parts of Asia, as were beasts that were part human, part animal.

Yet despite all the risks, who would not be tempted to follow the Silk Road? Along it flowed luxury goods from west to east (including Scottish and English wool), and from east to west (spices and jewels and much else besides silk, including slaves and sex workers).

It was India, however, that left observers almost speechless. The Franciscan missionary Jordan of Severac wrote, in 1329, of the “perfectly horrible heat … more intolerable to strangers than it is possible to say”.

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The wonders of the region were almost too astonishing to convey in words, as when Severac spoke of the abundance of trees: “to describe them would be beyond the comprehension of man”. As Bale writes, “if the world was an encyclopaedia for the traveller to peruse, India was its own strange book, hard to read and understand”.

Nor did everyone travel with an open mind. Christian prejudice tainted many interpretations, along with a pernicious and engrained antisemitism. The ideal, however, was to return safely and view one’s home, as well as the rest of the world, with fresh eyes.

Punctuating chapters with snippets of advice for the medieval traveller – what to pack, how to dress, the cost of hiring camels – Bale writes with a popular audience in mind. Even so, this is a work of serious scholarship. Helpful notes on references and further reading will allow readers to embark on new journeys of their own, presumably less hazardous than those he describes with such relish.