A World of Knowledge

Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp
Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp

Blog-post author, Alexia Lagast, University of Antwerp, BE


A couple of months ago, I decided to take a spontaneous trip to Prague. At my host’s charming turn-of-the-century apartment, I found a Dutch guidebook containing historical background information on the city, which I soon found myself reading in the comfort of a rocking chair beside the piano. While visiting the city, I had no use for the guidebook: I like to discover for myself. It dawned on me that I have much in common with the two travellers who have accompanied me on the journey of my Ph.D. research. They, too, wished “to see with their own eyes what they had heard and had read in several books,” as we can read in their travel report (c. 1490). They were the Flemish nobleman Joos van Ghistele (†1516), and his chaplain, Jan Quisthout († 1489). Together, they travelled the Middle East for four years (1481-5).

Like me, they had left in a flurry. Once they reached Cologne, Joos sent his chaplain back to Flanders to fetch three more travel companions who had already agreed to join them. While waiting for his travel companions to arrive in Cologne, Joos visited the cathedral, where he found “a little book with the Legend of the Three Kings”. The ‘little book’ was most likely the Historia Trium Regum (ca. 1364-1375) by the German Carmelite monk John of Hildesheim (†1375). The Latin text circulated widely, having just appeared in print in Cologne in 1477 and 1478. The Three Kings were the first pilgrims, following the star of Bethlehem to visit the Infant Jesus. In the Historia, we read that each of the Three Kings ruled over one of the three Indias: Melchior over Nubia and Arabia; Balthasar over Godolia and Saba; and Caspar over Tharsis and Egrissula, the island where St. Thomas was buried. [1] {2]

In this book, Joos read about the legendary Land of Prester John, a priest-king ruling a Christian empire in Abyssinia (Ethiopia), otherwise Islamic territory. This inspired him to visit the Land of Prester John and the tomb of St Thomas. According to the legend, after Christ’s Ascension, the apostle Thomas travelled to India, where he baptised the Three Kings, and later enthroned them as archbishops. As none of the Three Kings would have any offspring, they created a post for a worldly ruler, the holder of which would take the name John, in honour of both John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. This ruler would not be called a king or an emperor, but a priest: Prester John. Each successor to St. Thomas, the spiritual leader, would assume the name of the patriarch Thomas.[3]  Despite considerable efforts, the travellers never reached the land of Prester John. Still, it is due to this ambition that their voyage lasted four years and took them to the far north of Iran and the far south of the Red Sea.[4]

Besides a chaplain, Joos’ travel companion Jan was also a playwright: he would have been the ideal author of the journey’s report. But, he was not to be. Given that Jan passed away in 1489, we can assume that he fell ill shortly after their return and was unable to write the account. The actual author, who introduces himself in the preface of the travelogue, was called Ambrosius Zeebout. Integrating information from a large assortment of learned texts, Zeebout created from Joos’ testimony and Jan’s travel notes an exceptional Dutch text: a 400-page long behemoth that is praised for its extraordinary wealth of information, its detailed character, and its sense of criticism.

It is easy to tell from its size that it was not a take-along guidebook like the one I read in Prague. In fact, contrary to the average guidebook, which offers only some background knowledge and mainly practical guidelines, Zeebout’s text contains mostly general information and only very little travel advice. Just a brief first chapter of seven pages told prospective travellers of the preparations they needed to make. This was followed by a thirty-eight-page exposition on Islam, Eastern Christianity, and Judaism. The bulk of the text is made up of the description of and historical background of the visited areas, strung together by the route the travellers followed. Joos and Jan remain anonymous. Joos’ identity was only revealed in 1557, when his granddaughter handed the original copy of the text to Hendrik Van den Keere, who published it in print. The printer highlighted the traveller’s status, contrary to the manuscripts, which relied on the text’s stylistic features to attain credibility. In my Ph.D. research, I have identified these textual features as used by Zeebout and compared them to three other prominent contemporary travel accounts: those of Anselm Adorno, Bernhard von Breydenbach, and Felix Fabri.[5]

The treatment of the text in the oldest known manuscript – not the original – testifies to its use as a source of information: in the margin of the text, one of its readers wrote the words “cinnamon tree” and “where the storks go in winter”, making the places where these subjects were treated easier to find.

Whereas in the manuscripts with the text, these indexes were highly occasional (they can be found only in one known manuscript, and only twice), the presentation of the text when it was printed took this type of use a couple of steps further. In the first edition, in 1557, an index of the cited authors made the text even more searchable.

Image 5: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1557 edition, by Hendrik Van den Keere, Antwerp, 5r. Brussels, Royal Library, 25.994 A.
Image 5: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1557 edition, by Hendrik Van den Keere, Antwerp, 5r. Brussels, Royal Library, 25.994 A.

In the 1572 edition an index of topics was added, turning the book into a full-blown encyclopaedia. [6] The function of Zeebout’s book had everything to do with the way in which I had read that Prague guidebook: not to guide my travels, but instead to explore a world of knowledge.

Image 6: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1572 edition, by the widow of Gheeraert Van Salenson, Ghent, 11v-12r.
Image 6: Voyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele, 1572 edition, by the widow of Gheeraert Van Salenson, Ghent, 11v-12r.


  1. E. Christern (ed.), John of Hildesheim, Die Legende von den Heiligen Drei Königen. Cologne, 1960, 159.
  2. C. Horstmann (ed.), John of Hildesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne. An Early English Translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”. London, 1886, xiii and 225-7
  3. U. Knefelkamp, ‘Pape Jan, tussen Geschiedenis en Fantasie’, in: D. De Boer, Kennis op Kamelen. Europa en de buiten-Europese wereld (1150-1350), Amsterdam, 1998, 124-32 : 137.
  4. Renaat Gaspar (ed.), Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele. Verloren, Hilversum, 1998.
  5. Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele1557, Ghent, Hendrik Van den Keere.
  6. Ambrosius Zeebout, Tvoyage van Mher Joos van Ghistele. 1572, Ghent, by the widow of Gheeraert van Salenson; printed in Antwerp by Aegidius vanden Rade.

Travel Sickness

Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen.
Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen.

Blog-post author, Nadine Kuipers, University of Groningen, NL.



Finding relief of sickness can be a compelling motivation for undertaking a pilgrimage. Millions of Catholics find their way to healing waters of Lourdes each year, while Sufi Muslims visit dargahs in hopes that they will be cured of mental afflictions. In twelfth- and thirteenth-century Britain, pilgrims would drink to their health with the diluted ‘blood’ of St Thomas Becket, which could be bought in a vial at his shrine in Canterbury. 

Image 1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Physician on his way to Canterbury, from the Ellesmere Manuscript [Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org]
Image 1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Physician on his way to Canterbury, from the Ellesmere Manuscript [Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org]
Yet, on the other side of the same coin, a pilgrimage could also take a serious toll on one’s physical constitution. Whereas inland trips to nearby shrines and sanctuaries were relatively safe, the danger of contracting a serious illness on a long-distance pilgrimage was all too real. In his 1565 travelogue, Adriaen de Vlaming describes how one of his companions died in Bethlehem and notes that “many more, who were also ill, should have stayed at home”.[1] Arent Willems, in 1525, mourns the loss of two fellow pilgrims, who died shortly upon arrival in Jaffa without ever setting a foot ashore.[2] Recent archaeological findings, moreover, suggest that a medieval English pilgrim contracted a foreign strain of leprosy in the Holy Land and died of the complications back at home.

Medieval people were certainly concerned with their own health and wellbeing, as the abundance of medical recipes in household manuscripts attests. It thus seems likely that pilgrims would take medical precautions to reduce the risks of falling ill en route to Jerusalem. However, we know little about the possibility that pilgrims took medical texts with them or whether medical information was brought back from the East. A recipe for a “drink of Antioch”, which can be found in several medieval manuscripts, might either be a relic of the crusades or a feigned remedy that invokes the authority of Eastern medicine. Moreover, as Anthony Bale explains in this recent blog post about a medical miscellany containing a pilgrimage itinerary, it is near impossible to ascertain whether its owner actually travelled to the Holy Land.

Image 2. A medieval pharmacy depicted in the Tacuinum sanitatis, an illustrated herbal based on the "Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah" of Ibn Butlan. [Source: www.wikidoc.org]
Image 2. A medieval pharmacy depicted in the Tacuinum sanitatis, an illustrated herbal based on the “Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah” of Ibn Butlan. [Source: www.wikidoc.org]
Several pilgrimage accounts do offer some insight into health and safety precautions that were taken before going east. William Wey (1456), for example, suggests purchasing medications and a chamber pot in Venice in case one would become too sick to climb to the upper galley of the ship. A contemporary account, now at the Wellcome Library (MS 8004), lists good resting places, spas, and churches with healing relics that can be visited along the way. Joos van Ghistele (1481-1485) is adamant that pilgrims must pack purgatives and dried rhubarb root before going on board, and restock their medical kit at foreign markets. Venice was the best place for this: Jan Aerts (1481) advises to buy medicinal spices and laxatives there, as well as a panacaea made from diluted violet syrup. In his 1520 account, Geert Kuynretorff urges his reader to visit a professional physician before leaving the Venetian harbour. The pilgrim must ask this doctor to prescribe medication against fever, diarrhoea, and indigestion, and Kuynretorff provides a number of recipes that can be taken to the apothecary.[3]

Some high-profile travellers did not wish to take any chances and had their personal medics write instructions for them. King Philip VI of France, for instance, ordered a health regimen that was particularly tailored to him visiting the Holy Land as a ‘senior’ man (aged forty-two) in 1335. The Italian physician and inventor Guido da Vigevano, who is perhaps best known for designing the first prototype of the automobile, compiled the work which now known as the Liber conservationis sanitatis senis. The first half of the Liber follows the ancient doctrine of dietetics and concerns finding the right balance between food and drink, sleep and wakefulness, motion and rest, replenishing and emptying. The second half of Vigevano’s tract describes the influence of the air, accidents or ‘moods’ of the soul, prevention of afflictions of the eyes, ears, teeth, and memory. Lastly, Da Vigevano addresses the harmful liquids and food that are to be avoided during travel. Despite this well-researched medical advice, no records attest that the king ever made the journey. The tract survives in two manuscripts. The first, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 11015 contains another of Vigevano’s works about warfare in Outremer and can thus be placed in a crusader context.[4] The second, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1251, is a collection of medical writings and includes other gerontological works, suggesting that the compiler was mainly interested in medicine. It is thus unclear whether Da Vigevano’s tract was ever read in preparation for an actual pilgrimage.

Image 3. 'A snake attack'. British Library, Harley MS 3244, f.59v [Source: www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/]
Image 3. ‘A snake attack’. British Library, Harley MS 3244, f.59v [Source: www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/]
Another medical tract that was likewise made at the behest of a rich patron is Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s treatise for the pilgrimage to Mecca, written for a secretary of the caliph. Like Da Vigevano’s regimen, this treatise is informed by the works of Galen, Avicenna, and Hippocrates, but it also contains advice that is specific to the Middle-Eastern climate, fauna, and landscape. Ibn-Lūqā (820-912), a Christian scholar from Baalbek, pays particular attention to the sourcing of water, improving the quality of contaminated water, and quenching one’s thirst in the absence of drinking water. Furthermore, the scholar discusses the prevention of parasites such as roundworms, a prophylactic against snakes, and the treatment of snakebites and the stings of other vermin. Moreover, he writes about curing eye- and earaches caused by fluctuating temperatures and the dusty desert wind. Most of these ailments can be prevented by a turban, if worn correctly. Yet, in case one suffers from earache caused by the heat, dripping one of various substances into the ear will prove effective: lukewarm egg-white or lamb-gall mixed with rose oil, for instance, or olive oil in which earthworms or molluscs in their shells have been cooked (though honey and almond-oil will work equally well). One chapter from Ibn-Lūqā’s regimen will have sounded more appealing to pilgrims regardless of their destination: different kinds of foot massage (except hard rubbing, which is only good for thick-skinned or idle people who have eaten too much) he argues, are “useful for someone who has been walking much or standing still frequently”.[5]


[1] Ben Wasser, Dit is de pelgrimage van het Heilig Land en daaromtrent, (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014), 112.

[2] Wasser, 62.

[3] Wasser, 45.

[4] Marilyn Nicoud, Les Régimes de Santé au Moyen Âge: Naissance et Diffusion d’une Écriture (Rome: Publications de l’École Française de Rome, 2007), 226.

[5] Qustā Ibn-Lūqā’s Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca, ed. And trans. Gerrit Bos (Brill: Leiden, 1992), 39.