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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Delights and Sufferings of the Traveller

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Venetian Pilgrim Ship
Venetian ship carrying pilgrims to Jerusalem, Conrad Grünenberg 1486/7

The "pleasures" of modern air travel are considerable: the sleepless night before, the rush to get to the airport in time, the fear that one has forgotten something (passport, e-ticket, toothbrush), the endless zigzagging queues and the need to half-undress at the security counter. And then there is the cramped seating space, unpalatable airline food, screaming children in the seat in front and the seat behind, the sleep-forsaken flight, and once again endless zigzagging queues and the need to half-undress at the security counter. Finally, there is the long wait for one's suitcases that are invariably the last to appear. And in the back of our minds, the thought is hovering ominously; in a fortnight or so we will have to go through the whole process once again.

Enough to discourage any would-be traveller you might think. And yet thousands board planes every day, brace themselves, and go through these experiences with varying degrees of patience, acceptance, or annoyance. It might ease our doubts about making the effort if we compare modern tourism to the experiences of the medieval traveller going by ship to the Holy Land. Instead of several hours, their trip took several weeks (each way). Instead of the occasional moments of turbulence, ships not infrequently ran into terrifying storms. Ships were small by modern standards (microscopic compared to the vast ocean liners that plough the seas today) but crowded, with up to a thousand passengers on the larger ones. The average medieval traveller had no more legroom than does his or her modern counterpart – a space about the size of a grave (an appropriate comparison perhaps, and on occasion one that would prove accurate). But rather than a padded seat in an air-conditioned cabin, this was in the dark and stuffy hold, on a flee-ridden mattress on the floor, squeezed in between dozens of others. Food was poor, water was sometimes scarce and often hardly palatable, There were rats (rarely encountered on airlines), and there was livestock (ditto) brought on board to be consumed, or to provide milk or eggs. Theft was rife, seasickness and various illnesses were commonplace. The close proximity of neighbours left the traveller exposed to numerous discomforts at night. These would have included loudly snoring fellow travellers, others who didn't wish to sleep, many who could do with a good bath (though, in the Middle Ages, I suspect, the sense of smell must have been somewhat blunted), and there was the difficulty of making one's way in the crowded dark to relieve oneself if the need arose.

Aldous Huxley wrote that, travel is a vice, "…imperious, demanding its victim's time, money, energy and the sacrifice of comfort." That is all true, but like all vices it provides a gratification that makes all the adversity seem somehow worth going through.

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