Travel in the Middle Ages - Jean Verdon (1998)

This book, the English language translation by George Holoch of Voyager au Moyen Age, is a fairly extensive survey of the means and reasons for travel in the middle ages. It is divided into three parts, "Methods," "Mentalities," and "The Imaginary."

"Methods" concerns the ways one could travel, both terrestrial and aquatic. Although there is a good use of source material, this section in particular felt a bit scanty. For instance, the section of "Means of Transportation - On Foot" is only a page long. For the means of transportation which is the most common for most of the middle ages, that seems a bit brief. The sections on ships are longer, but still left me feeling that there was more to be said.

"Mentalities" helped to fill in some of the gaps left in section one. For instance, sections on pilgrims and why they walked provided more information on how they walked as well. M. Verdon appears to find this topic of more interest than the first and the chapters are consequently more interesting. However, there are extended sections devoted to singular exceptional travelers (eg. Marco Polo), and these tend to break up the general flow.

"The Imaginary" provides a view of dreams and visions of the immaterial landscapes of Paradise, Hell and Purgatory. While interesting, this section does seem out of place with the others. Philosophically, one can understand that to the medieval mind this last journey was doubtless more important than the other, physical travels they had made, the point is a bit esoteric. The title of the book does not lead the reader to expect a discussion of Dante's Inferno however well written.

Overall, the book is not bad, merely ... unsatisfying. As a survey, one doesn't expect too much detail, but more than was given would be nice. It is a little difficult to trace the author's thesis or theme, which would not be a great drawback in a more thorough survey, but in a meandering survey such as this one, it did leave this reader feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I had been mislead by the title or perhaps it was a combination of both factors that contributed to my ambivalence about the book. It is not without merit, by any means, but as a survey it is too specific and as a book of detail, it is too general.

Overall Grade: C-

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