This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


One enduring perception of medieval Europe is of a static, confined world in which most people rarely travelled beyond their immediate locality, and when they did, movement was undertaken primarily for pragmatic reasons. Research in recent decades has significantly revised this picture – high numbers of people regularly travelled both short and long distances, and, more interestingly, some of this movement was driven by motivations which we might today associate with the modern-day tourist. If we readjust our modern understanding of tourism, and place it into a medieval context, we can soon see that many medieval people travelled for renewal, for leisure, and for thrill-seeking, and that an abundance of medieval ‘tourist’ services catered for these activities.

Southern Italy and Sicily, in the 11th and 12th centuries, offers a particularly vivid illustration of this phenomenon. Due to its position in the central Mediterranean, the region has always been pivotal to wider currents of movement and travel. And from the later 11th century it began to attract even more European visitors for three main reasons. Firstly, southern Italy and Sicily was conquered by bands of Normans who unified a region which had previously been politically fragmented and host to a patchwork of Greek Christians, Latin Christians, Jews and Muslims. Indeed, by 1130 the Normans had created a powerful new monarchy in the middle of the Mediterranean which had for centuries been dominated by Muslim sea-power. The Normans, therefore, enabled Christian shipping and travellers to move more securely and freely.

Secondly, various factors converged to boost the popularity of international pilgrimage, and after the beginning of the crusading movement in 1095 Europe experienced its golden era of devotional travel, much of which moved through southern Italy and Sicily en-route to Jerusalem.

Thirdly, in the 12th century, Europe underwent a cultural renaissance; learned individuals travelled further afield to seek knowledge, to uncover classical traditions, and to encounter alternative experiences. Southern Italy and Sicily, steeped in classical history and with a Greek and Islamic past,attracted visitors avid to imbibe both ancient and eastern learning. The result of these three combined strands saw an influx of visitors to the region, who were not migrants, conquerors, or traders, but travellers in their own right, what we might identify as tourists.

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Pilgrimage offers perhaps the most apparent medieval equivalent of the tourist trade. Some pilgrims travelled not solely for pious motivations – a pilgrimage might cloak political and economic agendas, or be imposed as a judicial punishment. But whatever the incentive, adopting the pilgrim’s staff conferred a theoretical and universal status in which the individual acquired a new identity forged in the act of the journey to a particular shrine.

Between the pilgrimage’s start and end points, while the pilgrim was traversing alien territories, he was encouraged to imitate Christ, to experience challenge and hardship and to consider his own salvation. Indeed, at many shrines along their way, pilgrims practised an act known as incubation, in which they stayed and slept near the holy tomb, sometimes for days, in order to receive cures or divine revelations. In this sense, the pilgrim in his fundamentals was comparable to many modern-day travellers: an experiential traveller, absorbed in the act of journeying, partaking in a detox – not merely of the body as at a luxury spa, but also of the soul – like a modern meditative retreat achieved while on the move.

As international pilgrimage expanded dramatically in the central Middle Ages, southern Italy took on a key role in the pilgrim’s journey; it acted as a bridge to salvation by connecting two of the greatest shrine centres of the Christian world: Rome and Jerusalem.

This ‘bridge’ was a geographic reality. Southern Italy possessed one of medieval Europe’s more sophisticated travel infrastructures. Being so close to the heart of the former Roman empire, it still boasted several functioning Roman roads – the motorways of the Middle Ages – which linked into the Via Francigena, the main route that brought travellers from western Europe across the Alps to Rome. Roads such as the Via Appia and Via Traiana enabled travellers to move across the south Italian Apennines to the coastal ports of Apulia, while the Via Popillia wound through Calabria and directed visitors to the bustling Sicilian port of Messina. Thanks also to the Norman conquest, the region equally offered relatively safe maritime travel.

South Italian ports hosted fleets of well-informed local ships as well as those of the emergent commercial powers of Genoa, Pisa and Venice that traded in them.

Strong foundations

The pilgrim could therefore rely on secure, efficient and direct travel connections. At the same time new hospitals, inns, bridges and monastic houses emerged along southern Italy’s main pilgrim routes, or near shrines which foreign visitors would attend.

The junctions at Capua, and Benevento, and the major Apulian and Sicilian ports (which often hosted pilgrim hospitals belonging to Holy Land military monastic orders – the Templars and Hospitallers), were full of such buildings offering shelter and sustenance to the traveller.

Unfortunately, as no reliable statistical data exists on how many travellers, pilgrims and crusaders (the three often indistinguishable) traversed these roads, and sailed to the Holy Land from these south Italian ports, we must rely on indirect evidence that suggests the region was one of the most frequented in the medieval world. This evidence can be found in the creation of all that travel infrastructure, and in contemporary accounts of the region’s ports teeming with travellers.

One commentator of the First Crusade noted that “many went to Brindisi, Otranto received others, while the waters of Bari welcomed more”. The Spanish Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr, passing through Messina in 1184, described it as a frenetic port adapted to foreign travel; it was a “market of the merchant infidels [ie Christians], the focus of ships from the world over, and thronging always with companies of travellers by reason of the lowness of prices… Its markets are teeming, and it has ample commodities to ensure a luxurious life. Your days and nights in this town you will pass in full security.”

Later, in the mid-13th century, the English chronicler Matthew Paris produced a superb illustrated strip-map showing a travel itinerary from London to the Holy Land in which he pinpointed Apulia and the port of Otranto as the best route, orientating the reader to Otranto pictorially through a series of symbols and the image of a boat.

The foreign visitors to the region were of diverse social status. Most of the surviving evidence focuses on elite travellers – kings, counts, bishops – primarily because their status and wealth drew comment. But travel, and pilgrimage in particular, was also undertaken by the very poorest. Monastic rules outlined their monks’ duty to offer free hospitality to travellers, and we have many instances of poor pilgrims visiting Christendom’s most far-flung shrines. One poverty-stricken man, for example, from southern Italy had been able to visit the Holy Sepulchre and the shrine of St Cataldus at Taranto primarily through the proceeds of begging. It was also good advertising for shrine centres to be seen to cater for all backgrounds. Indeed, attracting foreign visitors was, as it is today, desirable and lucrative – they spent money on local services and profitable tolls. Like today’s travel agents, the guardians of many of southern Italy’s shrine centres targeted, and competed for, travellers.

The iconography within some shrine complexes catered for the pilgrim’s transcendental mindset with images echoing the theme of salvation and depicting Christ as a pilgrim. Texts were also produced to show, for example at the shrine of St Nicholas the Pilgrim at Trani, that the saint entombed within had a particular penchant for saving pilgrims. The city of Benevento produced a treatise in c1100 which attempted to divert pilgrims to its own shrines and away from the popular one of St Nicholas’ at Bari by slandering the latter city’s hospitality towards foreign visitors; it claimed Bari was a “merciless land, without water, wine and bread”.

But many south Italian shrines did not need to produce such ‘travel brochures’, as they were already renowned across Europe. The likes of St Nicholas’ at Bari, St Matthew’s at Salerno, St Benedict’s at Montecassino and St Michael’s at Monte Gargano, received a vast influx of visitors, and provided vital spiritual release points as the pilgrim travelled to wherever his final destination may be.

Unsurprisingly, the Norman rulers of southern Italy were eager to portray themselves as protectors of pilgrims, and issued legislation to back this up. However, the need for protection also revealed the dangers of travel. The threat of robbery, shipwreck and disease was omnipresent. In the 1120s, the north Italian St William of Montevergine aborted his pilgrimage to Jerusalem after he had been mugged in Apulia; no wonder pilgrims often travelled in groups.

Many pilgrims suffered from debilitating conditions, and struggled to cope with the demands of medieval travel. Many died passing through southern Italy. One chronicler of the First Crusade saw the drowning of 400 pilgrims in Brindisi harbour. At least dying as a pilgrim brought the hope of salvation – the medieval equivalent of travel insurance.

Southern Italy also served not merely as a logistical bridge to salvation, but as a metaphorical one too. These potentially fatal outcomes were indeed part of the experience and attraction of travel that many pilgrims embraced. Redemption required suffering and this could certainly be found in the demanding setting of southern Italy and Sicily. In modern terms the region provided a superb outdoor adventure experience for the thrill seeker, a sinister landscape steeped in supernatural, classical and folkloric traditions which were channelled back to western Europe as travel increased in the central Middle Ages.

Fearsome tides

Southern Italy’s landscape was characterised by features that elicited wonder and fear. Its surrounding seas could be treacherous, especially the busy Straits of Messina, full of whirlpools and tidal rips. The Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr described the waters as boiling like a cauldron, and suffered a near-fatal shipwreck in the Straits in the 1180s.

Unsurprisingly, it was here that classical legend located the two sea monsters named Charybdis and Scylla, a vortex and a giant multi-headed sea-dog respectively. Commentators like the Englishman Gervase of Tilbury attempted to de-bunk these legends in the 12th century (he believed the whirlpools were created by the release of winds trapped below the seabed) but in doing so showed that many believed them to be real and/or were avidly interested in such tales. Indeed, the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi, dating to the late 13th century, offers a particularly vivid portrayal of the two sea monsters lurking in Sicilian waters.

Southern Italy, as today, was also a hotspot for seismic activity. Several eruptions were attested in the Middle Ages at Vesuvius and Etna, while earthquakes were a regular feature: one which struck Sicily in 1169 was said to have killed 15,000 people at Catania. While some medieval commentators tried to analyse these events in a natural, scientific framework, many still viewed them as portentous signs, often indicating God’s disapproval.

The region’s volcanoes were endowed with even greater potency through a set of myths connecting them to the entrance to hell. Increased medieval interest in Virgil, the ancient poet and author of the Aeneid, led to renewed Vesuvius and the gateway to the Underworld; for it was there that Virgil’s hero Aeneas appears to have located it. Gervase of Tilbury noted the “spine-chilling cries of lamenting souls” heard in the vicinity of Vesuvius and who were apparently being purged in the Underworld.

Medieval commentators also spoke metaphorically of the “infernal torments” and “cauldrons” of Sicily. In the 12th century the diplomat Peter of Blois said that the island’s mountains “are the gates of death and hell, where men are swallowed by the earth and the living sink into hell”.

Land of legends

A strange and beguiling world materialised in 12th-century southern Italy, one that seemed to exist halfway between heaven and hell, and must have challenged the medieval visitor’s psychological landscape to its very core.

The reviving 12th-century interest in the classical past also contributed to the aura of curiosity, danger and attraction which southern Italy exerted on visitors. Alongside those ongoing tales of Scylla and Charybdis, we find the revival of legends on Virgil and his supernatural protection of Naples (where he was allegedly buried).

Gervase of Tilbury recorded some of these in detail: Virgil’s protection of the city from snakes, an Englishman who found Virgil’s bones in the 1190s with a book of magic, and the city gate where Virgil bestowed good fortune on those passing through the correct side.

In c1170 a Spanish Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, passed Pozzuoli near Naples and marvelled at the sight of an ancient city submerged just off the coast where “one can still see the markets and towers which stood in the midst of the city”. Benjamin also noted Pozzuoli’s famous hot spring baths which “all the afflicted of Lombardy visit [...] in the summertime” to benefit from the restorative properties of its waters. Indeed, many travellers also came to the region to access and benefit from cutting-edge medical knowledge, the fusion of Arabic and ancient Greek learning, available at the great medical school of Salerno.

Another 12th-century English author, Roger of Howden, also included within one of his chronicles a literary tourist guide highlighting sites in southern Italy associated with Pontius Pilate and Virgil. The great 13th-century preacher Jacques de Vitry railed against people travelling to witness the bizarre, and it is clear that many of the accounts we have mentioned were tailored for an inquisitive audience, a segment of which were more than likely to visit southern Italy.

It would seem therefore that medieval travellers displayed traits which reflect aspects of our modern understanding of tourist travel, and particularly the trend for travel which produced transformative and morally meaningful experiences. Of course, to avoid obvious anachronism, the parallels between medieval and modern must remain loose, and account for the multiple differences that developed in the intervening centuries.

Nevertheless, medieval people travelled regularly, and sometimes long distances, encountering lands that were unfamiliar and challenging. But these challenges and new experiences were actually often sought as ends in themselves. Southern Italy encapsulated these trends – and offered an experience for travellers in all their guises. It had developed travel and service infrastructures, it catered for those seeking spiritual detox, for those who were interested in the distant past and in intellectual nourishment, and for those who sought physical and psychological tests – its volcanoes, earthquakes, volatile seas, and entrances to the Underworld made the region akin to a modern-day theme park.

For the medieval traveller, salvation, life enrichment and damnation all sat together in southern Italy – helping to create an alluring travel hotspot.


Dr Paul Oldfield is a senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Manchester