Rachel Fulton
Department of History
The University of Chicago

Winter 2001


On August 3, 1492, a onetime pirate and self-professed follower of scriptural prophecy named Cristóbal Colón set sail from the Spanish port of Palos as captain of the decked ship "Santa María," accompanied by two small caravels, the "Pinta" and the "Niña." The results of Colón's voyage are well-known: the discovery of a "New World" across the Atlantic and the consequent expansion of European economic, military, political and cultural hegemony around the globe. In popular imagination, Colón (better known as Columbus) is often depicted as a lone adventurer, stubbornly insisting that the earth was round and refusing to be silenced by "medieval" appeals to superstition and spiritual authority. Columbus, so the story goes, was the only man in fifteenth-century Europe courageous and curious enough to set forth across the Ocean Sea, his contemporaries being either discouraged by the Catholic Church against seeking new knowledge about the world or trapped in an oppressive social nexus of lordship and servitude. Further, it is assumed, medieval people in general traveled little or not at all, and their vision of the world was circumscribed by the local village, town or monastery, in which they might live out their whole lives in almost complete ignorance of the larger world around them. A few ruthless adventurers had armed themselves under the sign of the Cross and journeyed to the Holy Land as Crusaders, but for the majority of Europeans, the world outside the parish was a perilous desert populated only by monsters and heathens. It was better to stay at home - or so we are told.

It is the purpose of this course to complicate this perception of pre-Columbian European society, culture and belief as stagnant and incurious prior to the birth of the modern world. Far from being the lone adventurer of children's storybooks (and some history textbooks), Columbus was heir to centuries of missionary, mercantile and military expansion, and he sailed from Spain armed with a faith both in the shape of the earth and in the necessary triumph of Christianity shared by the majority of his contemporaries. He was also armed with the latest in military technology (four-inch guns firing heavy granite balls), and his caravels, albeit not the largest ships of their day, were specially-designed for long-distance voyages, being both highly maneuverable and very fast. Columbus himself was Genoese by birth. From the eleventh century, his natal city, along with its rivals Venice and Pisa, had established trading posts throughout the Mediterranean, and in 1291 the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa had sailed west and southward along the African coast in search of India (they were last seen off the coast of Morocco). Earlier in the same century Italian merchants from Genoa and Venice, including the Polo brothers, had traveled overland to Cathay (or China) and established trading posts there under the Mongol Great Khans. And in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese sponsored first by their prince Henry the Navigator and subsequently by king John II had explored the western coast of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope in their caravels.

Intellectually, religiously, technologically, commercially and politically, Columbus was therefore very much a man of his age. His voyage was the mid-point of a long process of expansion that had begun in the eleventh century and that was to have repercussions into the twentieth. In order to understand why European civilization came to have the impact that it has on human history, it is therefore necessary to look not only to the immediate preconditions and consequences of Columbus's voyage, but also to its larger prehistory. Why were European merchants, monarchs, soldiers and colonists able to take such swift advantage of the opening of the seas and the discovery of new lands and peoples in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Why did they respond as they did to these new opportunities and to contact with new cultures? What precedents and preconceptions did they have for the encounter with the New World to the west and the Old World to the east?

In this course we will attempt to answer these questions from the perspective of those who traveled during the Middle Ages and who left accounts of their travels in the form of pilgrimage handbooks, crusade narratives, geographical treatises, and diplomatic résumés. We will begin in the eighth century, with the isolation of northern Europe from the urban cultures of the Mediterranean in the wake of the Germanic invasions of the ancient Roman empire, and we will conclude with the immediate repercussions of Columbus's voyage in the conquest of "New Spain." Our focus will be the development of a distinctively European, or rather Frankish society and culture, from the mid-eleventh century, and its expansion south and west via pilgrimage, crusade and commerce in the succeeding centuries. During this period, Europe developed from a rural, localized society into one centered on towns linked by networks of diplomacy, colonization, pilgrimage and trade. It will be our task to situate the travelers within their larger social, cultural, economic and political contexts, while at the same time coming to terms with their reasons for travel and their particular world view.

This course will depend upon both lectures and discussions. The discussions will focus on the primary sources as indicated in the syllabus (the texts marked by an asterisk). To prepare for the discussions, you will be required to type and turn in to me on the day we discuss the text one or two questions or comments (1-2 pages) arising from your reading. These eight typed comments will constitute 20% of your final grade. In addition, there will be two larger writing assignments:

  • A take-home mid-term exam (6-8 pages), to be handed out in class on Thursday, February 15, and due in class the following Tuesday, February 20. This exam will constitute 35% of your final grade.
  • A final essay (10-12 pages), to be turned in no later than Friday, March 16. This essay will be an exercise in constructing an imaginative-but appropriately researched and documented-narrative based on one of the journeys that we will have discussed over the course of the quarter. This essay will constitute 45% of your final grade.

BOOKS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore

Gerald of Wales. The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.

Melczer, William. The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela. New York: Italica Press, 1993.

Benjamin of Tudela. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Travels in the Middle Ages. Trans. Masa'ot shel Rabi Binyamin, with Introductions by Michael Signer, Marcus Nathan Adler and A. Asher. Malibu, CA: Joseph Simon/Panglos Press, 1987.

Joinville and Villehardouin. Chronicles of the Crusades. Trans. M.R.B. Shaw. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Dawson, Christopher. Mission to Asia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955.

Marco Polo. The Travels. Trans. Ronald Latham. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1958.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Trans. C.W.R.D. Moseley. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983.

Bernal Díaz. The Conquest of New Spain. Trans. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Ohler, Norbert. The Medieval Traveller. Trans. Caroline Hillier. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989.

Phillips, J.R.S. The Medieval Expansion of Europe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.


Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Campbell, Mary B. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Harvey, P.D.A. Mappa Mundi: The Hereford World Map. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Flint, Valerie I.J. The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.


Jan. 4 Introduction

Jan. 9 The Geography and Technology of Travel
Ohler, Medieval Traveller, pp. 3-140

Jan. 11 Travel in the "Dark Ages"
Phillips, Medieval Expansion, pp. 3-16, 154-73
Ohler, Medieval Traveller, pp. 143-68

Jan. 16 Commerce and the Growth of Towns
Bartlett, Making of Europe, pp. 5-23, 106-32, 167-96
Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, pp. 43-134

Jan. 18 Encountering the other next-door
*Gerald of Wales, Journey to Wales and Description of Wales, 63-274

Jan. 23 Pilgrimage
Melczer, Pilgrim's Guide, pp. 1-81

Jan. 25 The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
*Melczer, Pilgrim's Guide, pp. 84-227 (skim notes, but read text carefully)

Jan. 30 Networks of Faith
*Benjamin of Tudela, Itinerary, pp. 59-140

Feb. 1 Crusade
Bartlett, Making of Europe, pp. 24-105, 243-68
Phillips, Expansion of Europe, pp. 17-51

Feb. 6 Constantinople, 1204
*Villehardouin, The Conquest of Constantinople, pp. 29-107

Feb. 8 The Mongols
Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, pp. 136-84
Phillips, Medieval Expansion, pp. 55-131

Feb. 13 Mission to the Mongols: The Friars
*"The Journey of William of Rubruck," in Dawson, Mission to Asia, pp. 89-220

Feb. 15 Mission to the Mongols: The Merchants
*Marco Polo, The Travels, pp. 33-45, 74-162, 260-94

MID-TERM EXAM handed out in class on February 15. Due in class on February 20.

Feb. 20 Travel after the Black Death and the Effects of European Expansion
Bartlett, Making of Europe, pp. 197-242, 269-314
Phillips, Expansion of Europe, pp. 213-46

Feb. 22 Imaginary Travel
Campbell, Witness and the Other World, pp. 47-86
Flint, Imaginative Landscape, pp. 3-41
Harvey, Mappa Mundi, pp. 1-53
Phillips, Expansion of Europe, pp. 177-210

N.B. For this class we will meet in Regenstein Library Special Collections

Feb. 27 A Guide to Asia
*The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, pp. 43-189

Mar. 1 Columbus
Flint, Imaginative Landscape, pp. 42-214
Campbell, Witness and the Other World, pp. 165-209

Mar. 6 A New World
*Bernal Díaz, Conquest of New Spain, pp. 216-307 and passim TBA

Mar. 8 Conclusion

FINAL PAPERS due March 16 at 5 pm

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