Medieval Meandering: Lady Matilda’s Guide to Travelling During the Black Death

(A – sometimes – accurate look at travelling in the Middle Ages, from the people who brought you “Entertaining During the Black Death: A Wife’s Guide to Meals, Mood, and Miasma”.)

It’s summer, and you’ve decided to travel. Perhaps to a foreign country, or a pilgrimage to pray for your ailing hunting dog, or even just a visit to one of your many manors. But where to start?

Travelling can be fraught at any time but these days, what with the disease, pestilence, failing crops, poor weather, extraordinary rates of thievery, and the lack of decent help that’s just so prevalent, it pays to be extra vigilant.

Lady Matilda and her team are here to help! Here at Lady Matilda’s we like to ensure that the best, most up-to-date information is presented to our loyal readers. Today we’d like to share a few handy travel tips we’ve gathered through our usual careful but thorough research methods.

Preparation

When packing for one’s voyage, ensure the servants include all of the essentials for a comfortable trip. Be sure they pack your usual bedding, furniture, clothing, shoes, wimples, goblets, spoons, dishes and napkins, but also a few extras necessary for the times in which we live. Your favourite blanket is essential, as is a supply of crushed emeralds to mix with your wine at dinner to prevent the plague. Of course you could try and obtain these while travelling but why take the risk of purchasing inferior quality items at inflated prices set just for travellers? There are a lot of charlatans out there – the Romans were onto something when they left behind their warnings of caveat emptor! Buyer beware indeed! It’s best to stick to a local merchants whom one trusts.

Leave the actual packing to the servants – they know what they’re doing and, believe it or not, wish to avoid the plague as much as you do! Take advantage of the travel sizes that exist for almost everything. Why take your full-sized altar when a travel size will do?

Pack remedies for the most common illnesses, you never know when a bubo or headache will strike:

  • snail slime – for sore throats and burns, easily stored in a small jar and keeps fresh for weeks
  • dead moles – for those pesky travel headaches, can easily fit in any small compartment (hint: pack with lavender!)
  • salves – can be premade for specific, personal needs
  • vinegar – always ensure you have a good supply of vinegar on hand to protect you from the plague; even if you need to pack more lightly, take vinegar
  • mix enough of St Paul’s Potion to last your entire trip (especially good for stomachs upset by sea travel)
  • arsenic – another important remedy for the plague and much easier to carry than vinegar

One of the joys of travelling is that you can get your dung at any time along your journey. Remember: fresh is best!

Travel Woes:

Woe: The servants have forgotten to pack something.
Solution: Not a problem! Send them around to the local market to purchase whatever was missed and take the cost of their wages later.

Or you could just make do with what you’ve got. Missing a wimple? Try using a linen table cloth. With a few pins and some creativity, you’ll be a trend-setter. Forgot a favourite pair of shoes? Just arrange your dress to cover your feet and wear something you’ve already got.

W: A bottle of your favourite perfume has broken in your case while en route, covering all of your clothing.
S: Air out your clothes as best you can upon arrival. Then be sure to dab urine all over. The smell will disguise the perfume and you can say you’re protecting yourself from the plague.

Getting There

Still the most efficient way of travelling between one manor and another, the horse and cart is reliable and convenient.

Pros:

  • can be covered so no one can see/stare at you
  • can be decorated to suit personal tastes and station
  • lots of room for extra urine jars
  • can be smeared with dung for added protection
  • Cons:

  • has hit the mainstream – even the servants have started using them
  • can be an uncomfortable ride at times – remember to pack pillows
  • wheels need constant attention, especially now that the plague has decimated the population and road maintenance has almost disappeared
  • snail attacks
  •  

    If one needs to travel abroad, however, a sailing vessel will be needed. Careful supervision is recommended should a sea voyage be necessary, as so many personal items go ‘missing’ during these trips. Try to book passage on ships well in advance of your travel dates unless you enjoy travel on a merchant ship with sheep and inferior quality wine! Generous tipping of one’s captain can ensure all of your belongings arrive safe and sound at your destination.

    Travel Woes:

    W: You’re asked to leave the ship because they’ve booked too many passengers.
    S: This is very annoying, to say the least. You booked well in advance and then some wealthy merchant who travels for business comes and takes your place at the last minute. There is really nothing you can do except accept the situation with grace. Ensure your belongings are all collected and be civil. Remember, you have your reputation to protect and no other captain will take you if you’re labelled ‘difficult’. Book your passage on the next ship heading to your destination.

    W: You drink just a little too much of the ship captain’s wine.
    S: A situation many of us here at Lady Matilda’s have experienced! After a particularly embarrassing evening, discreetly ask your fellow passengers about your behaviour the next day. Many voyagers over-indulge and may not even remember anything about the previous night. If this is the case, good, you have nothing to worry about, your reputation is intact. However if anyone comments, take them aside and politely remind them of your position and friendship with the Bishop. Offer them a token payment to keep their stories about you to themselves.

    Where to Go

    How do you decide on where to go? There are many reasons one may have for leaving the manor, but one of the most popular these days is a pilgrimage. With so many holy places and cathedrals around, you’re spoiled for choice. Rather than listen to that man in the village who claims to be a captain and who’ll offer unwanted advice about obvious subjects, Lady Matilda is pleased to share the fruits of our interview with the well-travelled Sir Geoffrey Fodor, who is currently writing an poetic allegory on the benefits of wagon maintenance.

    Some of the more popular places to visit are (home):

    • Glastonbury Abbey – home of the famed Glastonbury Thorn tree, planted by none other than Joseph of Arimathea. Arouse your senses with the scenery, and your intellect with the mysteries of the Holy Grail.
    • Canterbury – where the relics of beloved saint Thomas Becket lie. Be warned, this is a VERY popular destination for pilgrims, be prepared for long wait times to see the relics as well as crowds of people of all classes.
    • Walsingham – where the beloved Virgin herself deigned to reveal herself and where a vial of her holy milk resides. Need some help? Having trouble conceiving? Why not go right to the top.
    • Bury St. Edmund’s Abbey – where the relics of the martyred king St Edmund rest. Can you truly call yourself a citizen of England and NOT visit?

    (Abroad):

    • Santiago de Compostela, Spain – home of the apostle James the Great
    • Cologne Cathedral, Germany – send a prayer or two to the relics of the Three Magi!
    • Chartres Cathedral, France – see the cloak the Holy Mother wore while giving birth to our Saviour, but make sure your visit coincides with one of the main fairs held around the cathedral!
    • Rome, Italy – once a popular pilgrimage destination; despite now being Holy Fatherless, the city is still worth a visit.

    Remember to buy a badge from each pilgrimage you make. These pilgrim badges are VERY collectible and your display will not only make you the most blessed person in the village, it’ll also make you the envy of it!

    Accommodation

    Let’s say you’ve decided on an exciting overseas pilgrimage! You’ve packed and planned your route and have arrived in one piece with all of your belongings. The first thing you’ll want your servants to do is to find appropriate lodgings. Too small an accommodation and not only will you not have space for all of your belongings but, depending on your social standing in your neighbourhood, your carefully cultivated reputation will undoubtedly suffer. Even amongst strangers and other travellers and pilgrims, one must protect one’s standing.

    A decent, modest-sized inn is ideal; one that is not so large as to be vulgar, but not so small as to minimize one’s own standing. And one in a good location! An inn close to our chosen pilgrimage site is perfect, although a journey on foot is said to be soul-cleansing and gain the sympathies of the saints. It’s also something to casually drop into conversations when you return home: “Why yes, I did walk all the way from the inn to the abbey, up hill all the way and without any help. And you? You haven’t done a pilgrimage? What a shame.”

    Travel Woes:

    W: A bothersome inn keeper keeps pestering you with cheap wine and boar meat.
    S: Beware! Anyone who offers free or cheap ale, wine, or food is after some favour from you. Tread cautiously, make excuses to not partake (“I’m so sorry, I’m saving myself for wine at mass.”).

    W: Something other than yourself in the bed.
    S: A common problem for travellers is your bed being inhabited with unwanted guests.  Mice, rats, small dogs, lice, even children. While a few fleas won’t hurt anyone, insist that your bed be cleared of anything else you don’t want.

    Being a Tourist

    Something to keep in mind when travelling is, although this may be a new place for you, you’ll be interrupting the daily lives of those who actually live in this area. Remember: while you are touring, the people around you are just trying to get on with their business and will not welcome the interruption to their daily schedule. Be respectful! Get out of the way for cow or sheep farmers. Or the plague wagons bearing victims to the latest burial pits. This benefits both you AND them!

    Travel Woes:

    W: You don’t enjoy the local cuisine.
    S: A common complaint made by many a English traveller! Ask around, there’s bound to be a local tavern where you and your fellow compatriates can find proper English cuisine.

    W: You don’t understand the locals.
    S: It’s always a good idea to memorise a few phrases in the language used at your travel destination. Even if you’re only travelling a few counties away from your own manor, some of the accents and expressions can be a fright to understand! (Lord Evans says he’s speaking English, but with that Welsh accent, who can tell?)

    W: You don’t enjoy the strange people.
    S: A common misconception, but they aren’t really strange people, they’re the locals. And they probably find YOUR dress and mannerisms confusing. Smile and nod while passing by, be polite and you’ll be fine.

    W: You’re exhaused after a long journey.
    S: You’re not alone! Many people experience fatigue after travelling long distances in wagons or in ships. It’s almost as if your body lags behind those around you. While you can’t fight this wagon-lag or ship-lag, you CAN minimise the effects by getting plenty rest and by making an oxymel by boiling together honey, water, and vinegar until a syrup then drinking. You’ll be back to yourself in no time.

    W: There are reports of the plague at your destination.
    S: Something more and more of us have to worry about these days! And there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.

    • Get servants to speak to strangers on the road. It’s one thing to ask for directions or utter a word or two about the weather, but lengthy conversations are to be avoided. You just don’t know where people have been.
    • Try to avoid major city centres. If possible, stay at smaller monasteries or less developed towns.
    • Avoid signs of the plague! If you see smoke from plague fires, immediately alter your route.
    • Ensure your servants listen to other travellers and their stories while you maintain a safe distance. Have them report back rumours involving the plague. Forewarned is forearmed!
    • Travel roads less populated by the lower classes – their knowledge of how to avoid the plague will be less than yours, they’ll not be able to afford the latest treatments (those emeralds and pearls do cost a pretty penny), and they travel with their many children (children have been known to attract the plague).

    W: You’re being robbed by outlaws.
    S: A fearful situation indeed! While you could use any rakes or hoes that are handy to defend yourself, the best way to fight off an outlaw is with fake bubos. These can be purchased before you leave and applied quickly to an armpit or groin. One flash of the underarm and the outlaws will be running.

    A Word of Caution

    Travelling is said to build one’s character. If you want or need more character, by all means continue to travel for this purpose. But if you believe, or have been told, that your character is already complete, refrain from further travel (or at least from frequent and/or long distance travel) and continue to live your life at your own home manor. Too much character can be a dangerous thing and will NOT impress the Bishop.

    The team at Lady Matilda’s hope you found this article interesting and informative, and wish you luck and success in your own travels!

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