Travel in the Middle Ages

Jean Verdon
Translated by George Holoch

A ForeWord Magazine “Book of the Year Award” Finalist in History

As a companion to his previous volume Night in the Middles Ages, Jean Verdon offers insight into the pitfalls and perils of traveling during medieval times. Travel in the Middle Ages is filled with the stories and adventures of those who hazarded hostile landscapes, elements, and people–out of want or necessity–to get from place to place. Verdon contends that a journey in the current sense, suggesting both “the movement of a person who travels to a fairly distant place” and philosophical ideas of distraction and flight from self, did not exist in the Middle Ages. Indeed, he says, “nothing either in the means of communication or in the landscape encouraged travel.” And yet, Verdon points out, the world of the Middle Ages was one of unceasing movement.

While most journeys involved very short distances (home to market or village to village), longer trips were not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Clergy were frequently called upon to act as ambassadors, messengers, and overseers to the various monasteries and churches within their jurisdiction. Merchants, agents of the king, and pilgrims were also frequently required to travel. While sharing the fascinating stories of these ordinary wayfarers, Verdon also relates colorful tales of the journeys of notable historical figures such as Marco Polo and Columbus.

Part I of Travel in the Middle Ages addresses the means by which people traveled. This section contains interesting descriptions of modes of conveyance, road systems, sea lanes, tolls, taxes, and even pirates. Knowing the risks involved, why did people brave the uncertainty of travel? Part II of the book addresses this question by identifying five main motivational categories of medieval travel. Part III deals with travel myths, monsters, fictitious journeys of medieval fantasy writers, and ghosts. Verdon concludes with a pithy critique of travel in the modern world.

Appearing for the first time in an English translation, Travel in the Middle Ages will delight anyone with an interest in medieval culture or travel books.

JEAN VERDON is professor emeritus of literature and humanities at Limoges University. He is the author of Night in the Middle Ages, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.


“Jean Verdon does a comprehensive job of accounting for most motives, methods, costs, durations, dangers, fears, landscapes, seascapes, fantasies, criticisms, and occasions of medieval travel from the fourth-century Bordeaux Pilgrim to Christopher Columbus. He admirably includes Arabic travelers and their wide Asian and African range, notably Ibn Battuta, as well as the great Jewish traveler, Ibrahim ibn Yakub.” — The Historian

“. . . genial, lively, wide ranging . . . suitable for general readers and undergraduates. . . .” — Historian

“Many thanks to George Holoch, whose English translation makes it possible for us to read French medievalist Jean Verdon’s book Travel in the Middle Ages. It is a well organized and well composed book. . . . every story is told with wit and humor. . . . This book, like Verdon’s other books on premodern pleasure, leisure, night, and drink, reflects the delightful nature of human history.” — The Sixteenth Century Journal

“An original and scholarly work by Jean Verdon . . . and ably translated into English by George Holoch. An expertly researched history and thoroughly reader friendly descriptive text offers the students and non-specialist general reader alike, a rare and informative insight into life and times of Europeans several centuries past. Travel in the Middle Ages is a seminal and enormously important contribution to Medieval Studies reference collections and reading lists.” — Midwest Book Review

“Verdon has written a fascinating and informative book that is generously interspersed with examples of medieval travel from a constellation of medieval sources. . . .” — History: Reviews of New Books

“General readers, eager to be led on an armchair voyage through medieval times and terrain . . . [will] find it broadening.” — Choice

“Many times the title of a book promises more than its content delivers. Travel in the Middle Ages does just the opposite. Jean Verdon . . . offers the reader an original and scholarly work that has all the authority of learned and detailed research but that manages to read like an intriguing creative mystery novel. This book offers a rare and informative insight into the life and times of the European Middle Ages. It is recommended for specialist and non-specialist alike.” — Cistercian Studies Quarterly