In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Travel and Travelers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Collections of Texts
  • Collections of Articles
  • Geographical Knowledge
  • Maps and Illustrations
  • Travel Guides
  • Prester John
  • Fifteenth-Century European Travelers in Asia
  • John Mandeville
  • Spiritual Travelers
  • Business Travelers
  • Travel into Africa and the Atlantic
  • Vikings and North America
  • Asian Travelers

Medieval Studies Travel and Travelers
James Muldoon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0102


There is a common belief that medieval men and women lived their lives within a narrow geographical and psychological space, the village and the neighboring fields for the most part. According to this opinion, it was not until the Renaissance and the voyages of Columbus and those who followed him that Europeans became aware of the wider world around them and shed the blinders that had constrained them for centuries. What makes this opinion so at odds with medieval reality is that one of the most famous and widely read pieces of medieval literature, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, deals with the travels of a group of medieval Christians who range from a crusading knight to farm laborers, individuals representing a cross section of the middling levels of 14th-century English society. Merchants, crusaders, missionaries, pilgrims, exiles, and others motivated by simple restless curiosity traveled around Europe, to the edges of the Christian world, and then all the way to China and India and, sailing westward, to North America. Travel and travel imagery also played an important role in Christian life. The Bible begins with the creation of the world, traces the course of God’s involvement with his people over time, and concludes with the end of the world, the ultimate goal of mankind as defined by the Creator. The life of the individual Christian is a pilgrimage within this context, the movement of the soul to union with God, a microcosm of this larger narrative. It is no coincidence that the most famous work of medieval literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy, was cast as a travel tale.

General Overviews

In recent years scholars from several disciplines have devoted increasing attention to travel and travel literature as an important aspect of the general expansion of medieval Europe during the Middle Ages. The best short introduction in English to expansion is Phillips 1998, especially because of its extensive bibliography. Friedman, et al. 2000 contains articles of various lengths on all aspects of medieval travel and expansion. Newton 1968 is an old but readable introduction to travel literature. In recent years literary scholars (Goodman 1998) have approached travel literature in terms of modern literary theory. Recent works such as Labarge 1982, Ohler 1989, and Ohler 2004 focus on the mundane elements of travel such as roads, bridges, ships, and inns, the mechanics of travel so to speak. Zacher 1976 examines the attitude of medieval people to those beyond Christendom and argues that medieval people were more curious about such peoples than has been assumed.

  • Friedman, John Block, Kristen M. Figg, Gregory G. Guzman, and Scott Westrem, eds. Medieval Trade, Travel, and Exploration: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 2000.

    A basic volume containing brief biographies of important travelers and short articles related to travel, with up-to-date bibliographies. The best starting point for anyone interested in medieval travel.

  • Goodman, Jennifer. Chivalry and Exploration, 1298–1630. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1998.

    An important study dealing with the way in which medieval travel literature shaped early modern travel accounts.

  • Labarge, Margaret Wade. Medieval Travellers: The Rich and the Restless. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982.

    A detailed discussion of travel by those who could afford to travel in comfortable style.

  • Newton, A. P. Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.

    A series of public lectures by leading scholars originally published in 1926 and clearly dated. Superseded by later scholarship on many points, this volume still provides a readable introduction to medieval travel literature. Several articles remain useful, especially T. W. Arnold, “Arab Travellers and Merchants, A.D. 1000–1500,” and E. D. Ross, “Prester John and the Empire of Ethiopia.”

  • Ohler, Norbert. The Medieval Traveller. Translated by Caroline Hillier. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 1989.

    The translation of the earlier version did not include the extensive bibliography.

  • Ohler, Norbert. Reisen im Mittelalter. 4th ed. Munich: Artemis and Winkler, 2004.

    A discussion of modes of travel, bridges, highways, and other practical matters that faced medieval travelers; includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Phillips, J. R. S. The Medieval Expansion of Europe. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

    This is the basic narrative introduction to the expansion of medieval Europe and the place of travelers and travel literature in that expansion.

  • Zacher, Christian K. Curiosity and Pilgrimage: The Literature of Discovery in Fourteenth-Century England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

    The author discusses the way in which the reports of pilgrims and other travelers, written and oral, in turn encouraged curiosity about the wider world and broke down medieval criticism of curiosity as a danger to faith.

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