Whose words?

Dr Mary Boyle
Dr Mary Boyle

Blog-post author: Dr Mary Boyle, Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow, Maynooth University IE


The co-opting, or re-presenting, of other pilgrimage or travel texts is an integral aspect of pilgrimage writing. This doesn’t mean that pilgrim writings are simply generic – in fact this essential repetition could be seen as getting to the heart of the practice by re-personalising the words of another. The words have become part of the new account, while the repetition itself is crucial in validating the experience. Conformity denotes authenticity. With the advent of print in the second half of the fifteenth century, it was easier and faster than ever to ensure this conformity. One chain, or web, of pilgrimage accounts, stretching at least from Nuremberg to Norfolk, via Mainz, Cologne, Koblenz, and Kent, and covering German, Latin, and English, illustrates the opportunities offered in this area by the new technology.

Image 1. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the pilgrimage account of Bernhard von Breydenbach (f.28v). Source: Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Image 1. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the pilgrimage account of Bernhard von Breydenbach (f.28v). Source: Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The key printed accounts are Hans Tucher’s Reise ins Gelobte Land, Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, and the Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde. Associated manuscript accounts include Peter Fassbender (or Fasbender)’s Betuartt nahe dem heiligen Grabe zu Jerusalem and the Pylgrymage of Syr Rychard Torkyngton (usually now spelt ‘Torkington’), as well as the Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harff. The connection between most of these accounts comes as no surprise, but it’s nonetheless worth looking at and considering what it means for these men’s written experience of pilgrimage, and how that was affected by print. These accounts span the period 1479-1517, and the sections which made it all through this chain belong to the heart of the pilgrimage: the holy places.

Hans Tucher (1428-91) was in the vanguard of German published pilgrims. He travelled from Nuremberg in 1479 with Sebald Rieter (1426–1488). Rieter also produced an account which is in places so similar to Tucher’s that it’s not clear which sections originated with which man, although it’s probably safe to assume that the Rieter family’s accounts of previous pilgrimages were consulted. Rieter’s account, however, wasn’t printed until the nineteenth century, whereas in 1482, Tucher’s appeared from the press of Johann Schönsperger in Augsburg. Over the next two years it was reprinted several times.

Bernhard von Breydenbach (c. 1440-1497) needs little introduction. A canon of Mainz Cathedral, he departed on pilgrimage in 1482. Publication must have been in his mind from the start, for he took an artist with him to Jerusalem. It took around three years for Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, which he misleadingly described as a ‘bůchlyn’ (little book), to reach the press. This work drew on a large number of other texts, of which Tucher’s was only one. In 1486 it appeared in Latin (February), and then in German (June). It wasn’t long before it had been translated into Flemish, French, and Spanish as well.

Only part of Peregrinatio made it into English (from Latin), and it didn’t do so attached to Breydenbach’s name, but as part of the Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde, which was printed in 1511, four years after the pilgrims’ return. Guylforde himself, though, had died shortly after arrival in the Holy Land. Until 2013, the identity of this account’s anonymous author was unknown, but he has now been identified by Rob Lutton as Thomas Larke, the man whose book on Jerusalem was recommended by Robert Langton, when his pilgrimage ‘to saynt James in Compostell and in other holy places of Crystendome’ was printed in 1522.

By virtue of being printed, these texts were widely distributed and able to influence other accounts in turn – we will probably never know how many. I’d like to outline some examples of manuscript accounts which borrowed from this tradition on the way.

Firstly we have an offshoot midway through the chain: Peter Fassbender (c. 1450-1518), a Jerusalem pilgrim from Koblenz in the Rhineland. When he returned, Fassbender produced an account of his 1492 pilgrimage, which survives in only one manuscript. This certainly draws on Bernhard von Breydenbach, and perhaps also on Hans Tucher.

At the English end of the line, we have Richard Torkington, a priest from Norfolk, who wrote a manuscript account of his pilgrimage in 1517. This work is heavily indebted to Larke’s, and wasn’t printed until 1884, when it managed to obtain the title Ye Oldest Diarie of Englysshe Travell.

I’d also like to point to the knight Arnold von Harff (c.1471-1505), a knight from near Cologne, because his use of Breydenbach is quite different from Fassbender’s, Larke’s, or Torkington’s. He took little from the descriptions of holy sites, but he drew inspiration from Breydenbach’s images and alphabets, as well as some text. Harff’s account circulated after 1499, along with a set of illustrations, amongst the Rhineland nobility, and fifteen manuscripts survived into the modern era. He called on many previous travel reports and other sources in addition to Breydenbach, amongst them John Mandeville (probably in Michael Velser’s translation), Marco Polo, and Odoric of Pordenone.

With each step, changes in the copied sections were introduced. These could be omissions or additions, and some of these changes are simply the result of switching languages or dialects. On several occasions, the chain passed back out of print, but print was key to its spread. Breydenbach, for example, drew on the manuscript of Paul Walther von Guglingen, a fellow traveller, when describing the non-Christian inhabitants of the Holy Land, but for the visits to the holy places themselves, he chose Tucher’s published work rather than the manuscript account of his acquaintance – it mattered that he was conforming to an image already widely distributed.

Print, of course, was by no means the only reason for the conformity of pilgrim writing. What it did was make that conformity quicker and easier to spread, and easier to present to a wide audience. The works circulating in Europe upheld and broadcast the experience of the Franciscan package deal in Jerusalem.

William of Rubruk’s Manuscripts on the Route to the Mongol Khan

Irene Malfatto
Irene Malfatto

Blog-post author Irene Malfatto, Società Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino, SISMEL, Firenze.

Acre, spring 1253. The Franciscan William of Rubruk says goodbye to his friend and protector, the French king Louis IX, and starts a journey towards the Golden Horde khanate and its sovereign, Sartaq. William’s task is both a missionary and a diplomatic one: the Franciscan’s familiarity with the French monarch gives him a sort of protection during the trip, which consists however – in William’s words – in the humble attempt to give some help to the European captives in Tartary.

The undeniable main goal of the mission, anyway, was to inquire about the attitude of the Khans towards Christianity. This issue, besides its missionary implications, was indeed a crucial factor in Louis’ crusader plans: a possible alliance with the Mongols against the Turks would have meant a great help in the recovery of the Holy Land. The trip’s pious purpose was then strictly connected with the French crown’s interests.

Back in Palestine in 1255, William writes a long letter to king Louis, in order to report the outcomes of his travel experience. This letter is indeed a book, a travel account known with the latin title of Itinerarium, recently edited by Paolo Chiesa and translated in English by Peter Jackson.

Some passages in the Itinerarium refer to certain manuscripts William took with him on his trip to the East. Some of those books stayed with him all the time, some other were lost along the road. These information, anyway, give an insight into what could have been the “book baggage” of a missionary on the Silk Road in the 13th century.

When William gets to Sartaq, who was said to be a friend of Christians or even converted to Christianity himself, he is immediately asked for gifts to give him. William soon has the sense of the distance between his Franciscan ideal of poverty and the Khan’s greedy attitude.

The meeting with Sartaq was supposed to be the mission’s final purpose, but it turns out to be just its starting point. The friar’s ambiguous diplomatic status concerns the Golden Horde ruler, who sends him to his powerful father Batu first, and later all the way to Karakorum, to meet the Great Khan Möngke. This is how William describes his first meeting with Sartaq and his entourage:

We met up with Sartach, then […] our guide began to ask what we were going to take for him and was highly outraged on seeing that we were not getting ready anything to take […]. I further explained, by way of apology, that I was a monk and neither owned nor accepted nor handled gold or silver or anything of value, with the sole exception of the books and the liturgical items with which we worshipped God, so that we were bringing no gifts for him or for his master: as one who had relinquished his own belongings, I could not be the bearer of what belonged to others. (Itinerarium XV, 1-2)

William does not have any gift for the king, but he carries with him some objects which are related to his religious status: liturgical tools and manuscripts. When officially summoned by Sartaq, he tries to show what he has:

I myself put on the more expensive vestments, and held against my breast a very fine cushion, the Bible you [king Louis] had given me, and a most beautiful psalter given me by my lady the Queen [Margaret of Provence], containing very fine illuminations. My colleague took the missal and the cross, while the clerk, dressed in a surplice, took the thurible. […] We were told to chant a blessing for him. (Itinerarium XV, 6)

Sartaq shows a special interest in the manuscripts, and asks questions about their contents:

He took […] the psalter, which he and the wife sitting next to him scrutinized closely; and after that, the Bible. He asked if it contained the Gospel. “Yes”, I said, “and the complete Holy Scripture”. (Itinerarium XV, 7)

The Mongol sovereign does not understand the religious value of those objects, nor their liturgical function. He asks William to leave the books at his court in order to “have a closer look” to them; eventually, the friars would have been able to take them back on their return journey.

Tunc necessaria fuit michi patientia, “I had to be patient then”, writes William when reporting of this humiliating experience. Cleverly, the friar tries to minimize the loss by hiding some books, in order to save them from an inevitable fate:

I had one consolation, in that anticipating their greed I had removed from among the books the Bible, the Sentences, and other volumes to which I was more attached. But my lady the Queen’s psalter I had not dared remove, as it had attracted too much attention by reason of the gold illuminations it contained. (Itinerarium XVI, 3)

Indeed, the Queen’s illuminated psalter will never be returned. This is what William writes about his return journey in the following year:

He returned the books, with the exception of my lady the Queen’s psalter: this he had my permission to keep, since I was in no position to withhold it, for he said that Sartach had been very much taken with it. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 10)

Together with the psalter, many other books “disappeared” in the process. William gives a little list:

I failed to recover the bible in verse, a book in Arabic which was worth thirty bezants, or numerous other items. (Itinerarium XXXVIII, 13)

It would be extremely interesting to know more on these books and where did they end up. Unfortunately, William does not give enough information. Anyway, it is clear that the manuscripts raised the interest of the Mongol Khan mostly as beautiful material objects. Sartaq showed even some sort of curiosity for the practical making process of parchment:

He had also asked me, should I happen to revisit those parts, to bring them someone who knew how to make parchment […]. (Itinerarium XXXVII, 11)

Even though the questions here are so much more than the answers, William’s account offers an example of the circulation of manuscripts on the missionary routes to the East. Certainly, his case was not isolated and it shines light on the role of travel accounts in the attempt to reconstruct a network of book mobilities in the context of the pax mongolica.


  • The Mission of William of Rubruck, trans. Peter Jackson, Hakluyt Society, London 1990
  • Guglielmo di Rubruk, Viaggio in Mongolia, ed. Paolo Chiesa, Mondadori, Milano 2011