PR Website

Medieval Itineraries: Introduction

One of the main problems facing anyone wanting to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of medieval pilgrims is that we know next to nothing about their journeys. Few medieval people could write, and even those that could often left no record or, if they did, those records have since been lost. Even if they did record their pilgrimage, their main interest was in their destination, so they tended to write about that rather than about their route or what they encountered on that route.

Because of this, only a few detailed itineraries survive, though accounts multiply towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the spread of literacy and an increase in commercial travel.

Until recently, surviving itineraries could only be consulted in the library or archive where they are kept, although many were transcribed and published by researchers in the 19th or 20th century. Increasingly these days, they are available for free on the web, some as scans of the original manuscripts, but most as scans of the transcriptions, generally those that are no longer subject to copyright. Though not as nice to look at as the original manuscripts, these are generally more practical, as the printed text is easier for the non-specialist to read than medieval scripts; they are also often annotated, for example giving modern equivalents of placenames. This site documents those records I’m aware of that give a detailed itinerary for journeys in medieval times, at least those from W and particularly NW Europe, and particularly those to Rome and Santiago. ‘Medieval’ is a rather vague term, but it’s defined here as post-Roman (though the 4th-century itinerarium of the ‘Bordeaux pilgrim’ is also included) and pre-Reformation, so ending roughly in the early 16th century. By this time, commerce was flourishing, and politically, too, something like modern nation states was beginning to emerge. Both commerce and the administration of states need good communications, i.e. roads. So by the early to mid 16th century, the first maps and detailed lists of roads were being produced for travellers, though it’s clear from the prominence given to shrines that religious travellers were still important. The arrival of the printing press meant that such information could be distributed much more easily. Of course, in many countries, such as in England in the 1530s, the Protestant reformations led directly to the end of pilgrimage.

Although some of the itineraries are based on schematic maps, showing where places are in relation to each other, most are simply a list of places passed through en route, often with the distance between them. This website takes the lists of places and associates them with their geographical coordinates of latitude and longitude. Once you have that, you can then easily plot them on a map, though they vary widely in the detail given. Not every itinerary mentions the same places, and not every one follows the same exact road, but once you have plotted them on a map, you can easily compare them, and it soon becomes clear that the same broad routes crop up repeatedly. I call these ‘corridors’.

So there are two types of information here:

  1. by itinerary: the 'list' page provides a link to a detailed page on each one, which in turn has a link to a further page where the places listed in the itinerary are plotted onto relief maps
  2. by corridor: i.e. which routes were used by which travellers. The corridors page is an overview map of these. This includes further information on each of 6 regions, exploring the corridors in that region in more detail

There is also a page listing the major shrines.

March 2008, revised September 2008