Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Taking a Cruise in the Middle Ages

9th June 2014

In Venice there is nothing as disconcerting as gazing down a quiet street which is suddenly dwarfed by the surreal appearance of a giant cruise liner blotting out the sky.  To ban or not to ban these floating apartment blocks has recently become a hot topic but maybe the Venetians only have themselves to blame – they virtually invented the all-inclusive tourist cruise back in the fifteenth century.

Sometime around 1420 the city’s merchants spotted that carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land could be lucrative. They refitted a couple of merchant galleys – essentially clumsy sailing ships with oars – and started to attract custom.  Each spring pilgrims from across Europe descended on the city;  touts along the waterfront by St Mark’s would set up their stalls, competing to talk up the safety and speed of their vessels, the honesty of their captains and the quality of their food.  They provided an all-in deal:  cabin space, all meals on board and secure conveyance from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem and back to the ship.  There were written guarantees:  clauses included provision for your belongings if you died and protection from the crew – who were largely recruited from the city’s desperate and criminal classes.

The Jerusalem Journey was not just a pious duty for the Christian soul.  It was also an adventure and it invented a new genre of travel writing.  One of my personal travel heroes is a German monk called Felix Fabri:  extraordinarily cheerful and boundlessly curious about the world, he sailed to Jerusalem in the 1480’s and left vivid accounts.

Whatever the touts might have promised, the voyage – five to six weeks each way if you were lucky – was at least a form of purgatory, and frequently complete hell.  The best advice on setting out was to make a will, take a spare shirt plus a wallet stuffed with money and patience.  At night the passengers were packed into one foetid, dark hold, with eighteen inches sleeping space allotted to each man:  ‘right evil and smouldering hot and stinking’ one English pilgrim described it.  Fleas, quarrels and fights, the smell of vomit and urine were features of the claustrophobic dormitory.  Storms were terrifying:  chests, people, possessions and spilled chamber pots would be hurled about in the dark.  Water crashing over the deck seeped into the hold, wetting everything;  people listened to the ominous creaking of timbers and prayed that the ship would not break up.

Almost worse were the flat calms when the vessel could sit motionless on the sea for days. Maggots crawled out of the meat;  wine and water fouled;  rats scurried;  the heat was intolerable.  ‘I have seen few men die on board ship during a storm,’ said Fabri, ‘but many I have seen sicken and die during these calms.’  Those who died near land might be buried ashore.  Out at sea a body would be consigned to the depths.  The frequent port calls were a welcome relief and Fabri relished them – exploring the landscape, climbing hills to get a good view and more than once missing the trumpet call summoning the pilgrims for departure.  He was keen to experience everything the voyage could hold.  He preferred to be up on deck at night, observing the moods of the sea – the violent waves battering the hull as well as times of exhilaration and beauty when the ship moved softly over the moonlit water and all was still, save the helmsman singing a quiet song.

Once the ship reached Jaffa, the pilgrims would be taken under armed Muslim guard to Jerusalem, where for a week or so they could walk in the footsteps of Christ, attend church services and buy holy souvenirs.

Fabri was deeply pious, but also seized by a desire to experience everything the world could show, and he made this journey twice.  The second time he travelled with companions across the Sinai desert.  He was struck with wonder and delight at the ‘immensity of the desert, its barrenness and its terror’.  Travelling to Cairo he sailed up the fertile Nile ‘as if we sailed through paradise’ although at night he could not sleep for the crocodiles bumping against the small boat.  From Alexandria he returned with the Venetian spice fleet – a slow, difficult voyage that reached Venice just after Christmas.  They arrived at dawn with the gold roof of the campanile of St Mark’s glittering in the rising sun and the cold so great that the oarsmen had to break the ice.

For Fabri these were the experiences of a lifetime and they stayed with him until the day he died.  On his death bed he asked to be dressed in his old pilgrim habit to remember his great adventures:  ‘I reckon,’ he said, ‘I have seen the world in a twofold mirror.’

Roger Crowley is the author of ‘Constantinople:  the Last Great Siege’, on the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Two books by the historian HFM Prescott (from 1947 and 1954 respectively) are the best introductions in English to Felix Fabri.

The image is of a pilgrims’ galley at Rhodes on the voyage to Jaffa