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p-tourism-art - 8/4/02


"Tourism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance" by Baron Hrolf Herjolffsen OP.


NOTE: See also the files: travel-msg, pilgrimages-msg, pilgrm-badges-msg. horses-msg, Horse-n-t-MA-art, saddles-msg, p-backpacks-msg, carts-msg, ships-bib.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

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                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Tourism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

by Baron Hrolf Herjolffsen OP


Ever since Rome established itself we have proof of the existence of tourism (although not by that name) - almost as we know it today. Route maps and guidance directions exist for a journey from Athens to Aqua Sulis (Bath) in England that closely resemble the modern Guide Michelin.


For our purpose in looking at the we need only consider two of the modern categories of tourists - the traveller and the tourist.  The tourists are those who are setting out along the established routes - visiting the shrines that are well known (at least in their circle).  The Canterbury Pilgrims are examples of this (Coghill 1951), but examples are well known in other cultures as well (Kato 1994).  At the same time we see the classic traveller - going places no-one civilised has heard of and writing of these as a way of establishing their credentials.  Examples of the second group include Geraldus Cambresisus, St Brenden, Marco Polo (Polo 1938), Carpini (Skelton, Marston and Painter 1965) and Jacob d'Ancona (d'Ancona 1997).  This does not imply that pilgrims could not be travellers.  Those (especially English) who voyaged to the shrine of St Thomas in India were particularly adventurous.


It is very important that tourism has its beginnings its pilgrimage, where travellers have been visiting liminal sites with a particular set of site descriptions in mind - those of a sacred place (Jusserand 1961; Labarge 1982) and it is mainly this aspect of travel that I will mainly address here.  Although travellers have visited Cathay, Vinland and many other places in our period, most of their travel was incidental to the main purpose of the visit: trade, diplomatic missions or converting the heathen.  Thus they are hard to classify as tourists.


Through history most leisure-related travel (including the religious pilgrimage) has contained many elements more typically encountered in the sociology of religion (Graburn 1989).  For instance, tourism may also be regarded as fulfilling many of the criteria of van Gennep's categories of a rite of passage (Gennep 1960).  In travel we see the three stages of a rite expressed:


* the removal from the original life-world,


* an inversion or subversion of normal dress and behaviour, including the creation of a sense of communitas among participants, and


* a re-integration into the former life-world with a changed or enhanced status.


The physical removal from the original home is the essence of tourism (although this is capable of subversion by a virtual tourist).  It is the major form of leisure activity that cannot be indulged in within one's home - or even within one's immediate home community.  People need to travel - whether this is by foot, boat, or horse and this separation will necessarily remove them to a place that is less familiar to them and where they are less familiar to their hosts.  In a medieval context, with a low level of education, a removal of a very short distance will suffice to place people in an unfamiliar area.


In most religious ceremonies, a key location was often liminal(1).  Seeing that the ceremonies usually revolved around a transition over a socially liminal boundary (from child to adult, alive to dead, season to season) the location of the rite in a liminal place added a further element of transition to the ceremony.  Many of these religiously liminal sites (mountains, seacoast, and caves being typical), are also geographically liminal places situated between one state and another.  Thus the seacoast is on the margin between earth and water, the mountaintop and the cave between earth and air.  This liminality has often given these places a religious significance for ritual that has flowed over into secular tourism.  They are often isolated from the cultural core and may contain, or be contained in, the wilderness, as a further contrast to the order and civilisation of the core.  Typical examples of major pilgrimage sites that fulfil these criteria are St David's (on the coast on the western edge of Wales) and St Iago de Campostella (high in the mountains near the French / Spanish border).  Many minor sites (such as St Winifred's Well in Gwynedd(2)) are even better examples.


As well as being liminal, much non-work related travel was to marginal places(3).  Of great importance in the definition of the places are the concepts of ludic play and of the carnivalesque (Bakhtin 1968; Orloff 1981; Rojek 1995: 85-8).  These are often noted as a feature of the more Bacchanalian religious occasions where we see, as a part of the festival an inversion of established norms and a licence for play and behaviour that is normally taboo. This falls squarely within the second of van Gennep's categories.  Tourists often follow an inversion of practice as they play a tourist role and the norms that we see among tourists are usually very different to those they display in their everyday life.  They are brief encounters with a perceived 'escape' from the daily work-life.  Thus a pilgrim need not travel to the ends of the earth - a short 'holiday' to a nearby shrine is also appropriate.  As Eco points out: "the moment of carnivalisation must be short, and allowed only once a year; an everlasting carnival does not work: an entire year of ritual observance is needed in order to make the transgression enjoyable" (Eco 1984: 6).  The same applies for pilgrimage and travel in the Middle Ages.  A person who was continually 'on holiday' was usually seen as being derelict in their duties.


When taking part in the carnival of their holiday, tourists take on the norms of the carnival with the adoption of their new role. "Tourists are absolutely promiscuous when it comes to festival versus carnival, official versus unofficial drama.  They seem to have a natural capacity to seize the spectacle that is essential to both forms as the aspect of both that was made especially for them.  Thus it is possible for a tourist to enjoy a Watusi ceremony for the singing and dancing that occurs without any knowledge of, or interest in, its ritual significance" (MacCannell 1992: 233-4).  Even in the Middle Ages tourists were readily identifiable in any setting.  Their dress and behaviour set them apart from the locals.  They wore tokens that bespoke their status, wore special clothes and usually moved in groups, despite their quest often drinking too much or behaving in sexually promiscuous ways.  A typical example of this is from the famous package tour of pilgrims going to Canterbury.  Although on a holy holiday(4), the travellers were at licence to behave and tell tales that were often risquŽ or were severely critical of the established order (Jones 1984) as they established themselves as a travel 'group'.


The enhancement of status is variable, "there's not much point in going to a town that no one back home has heard of: where are the social-status Brownie points in visiting 'anywheresville' (unless you can elevate it over suburban sherry to the undiscovered place where everybody will be touring two years hence)?  Here we are, of course, thinking of the destinations of mass tourism, places brought within the reach of large numbers of people through the financial advantages of large-group travel.  Setting off to 'explore' . . . is quite a different matter" (Boniface 1993: 61).


For the tourist, souvenirs serve as a token to remind them of the images they have seen.  However they also serve as a confirmation to their friends that they have undertaken the trip.  They help mark the status change attendant upon being an experienced traveller who has undertaken a journey.  Putting this in the context of earlier times, a pilgrim returning from a shrine would wear tokens of the particular shrines they have visited. The would also often return with 'authentic' relics of their travels (such as pieces of the True Cross).  The ultimate status carried on into death, as those who had voyaged to the Holy Land were entitled to have their funerary brasses differenced from the rest. I hope that this brief look gives you an idea of the motivations of the medieval traveller and will thus help add texture to your construction of a fuller mental picture of the times that we (as SCA folk) are supposed to come from.



Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.


Boniface, Priscilla and Peter J. Fowler. 1993. Heritage and Tourism in 'the global village'. London: Routledge.


Coghill, Nevill (Ed.). 1951. Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Middlesex: Penguin.


d'Ancona, Jacob. 1997. The City of Light. London: Little, Brown and Company.


Eco, Umberto. 1984. "The Frames of Comic 'Freedom'." in Carnival: approaches to semiotics 64, edited by Thomas A Sebeok. New York: Mouton Publishers.


Gennep, Arnold van. 1960. The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.


Graburn, Nelson H. H. 1989. "Tourism: The Sacred Journey." in Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, edited by Valene L. Smith. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Jones, Terry. 1984. Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary. London: Methuen.


Jusserand, J. J. 1961. English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen.


Kato, Akinori. 1994. "Package Tours, Pilgrimages and Pleasure Trips." in The Electric Geisha: Exploring Japan's Popular Culture, edited by Atsushi Ueda. Tokyo: Kodansha International.


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


MacCannell, Dean. 1992. Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers. London: Routledge.


Orloff, Alexander. 1981. Carnival: myth and cult. Worgl, Austria: Perlinger Verlag.


Polo, Marco. 1938. The Description of the World. London.


Rojek, Chris. 1995. Decentring Leisure: Rethinking Leisure Theory. London: Sage.


Shields, Rob. 1992. Places on the Margin: Alternative geographies of modernity. London: Routledge.


Skelton, R. A., Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter. 1965. The Vinland Map and The Tartar Relation. New Haven: Yale University Press.



(1)    In other words 'involving the edge or boundary'.

(2)    Situated in mountains, amid forest, with warm water rising from the cold ground.

(3)    We may defined a marginal place as  which gains this status by "(coming) from out-of-the-way geographical locations, being the site of illicit or distained social activities, or being the Other pole to a great cultural centre" Shields, Rob. 1992. Places on the Margin: Alternative geographies of modernity. London: Routledge.

(4)    It should be noted that the word 'holiday' derives directly from 'holy day'.  In medieval times, the only occasions that were sanctioned as being work free, and thus holidays, were the holy days of Saints and other religious carnivals.



Copyright 2002 by Cary J Lenehan, 16 Maweena Pl, Kingston, Tasmania, 7050, Australia. <lenehan at our.net.au>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org