08 January 2021
A virtual get-away, medieval style
In these dark days of January, we all dream of escape. Perhaps it's time for a virtual vacation, medieval style. Here are some options to choose from.
Paris is the ultimate city of romance and culture — a firm favourite of tourists. This miniature shows the River Seine and perhaps the Ile de la Cité with the Palais (now the Conciergerie) on the right. You are unlikely to meet armoured men there nowadays, though you may see some ‘gilets jaunes’.
Knights in armour blockade Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind, in Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, 1270–1380 (Paris, 1380–1400): Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 135v
Or how about renting a chateau in the French countryside?
The Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes, in the Roman de la Rose (Bruges, c. 1500): Harley MS 4425, f. 39r
Tuscany has it all — rolling hills with stunning vistas, hilltop villages of luminous Tuscan stone, sunshine, art and wine — and Florence, beloved home-town of Dante Alighieri, pictured here flying over the landscape with Beatrice, in his vision of Paradise.
Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice (Tuscany, c.1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 157r
Or how about a package holiday to sunny Spain? A Spanish trip should always include a ‘Costa’ as the sun is bound to shine and the nightlife is great. Do you prefer the Costa Blanca, Costa Brava or Costa del Sol?
The Sun with an angel and birds, in the Silos Apocalypse (Northern Spain, c. 1100): Add MS 11695, f. 197r
Lisbon’s palaces, monasteries and its great location on the estuary of the River Tagus make it a perfect place to spend a weekend. This detailed border image in a genealogy of the kings and queens of Portugal shows the major sites and the city, including the Jeronimos monastery (completed 1521) a little way up the coast. It was painted by the artist Antonio de Holanda, who was based in Lisbon.
A genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour (Lisbon, 1530–34): Add MS 12531, f. 7r
Cyprus and the Greek Islands
Cyprus is perhaps the destination for foodies. The well-known medieval armchair traveller, Sir John Mandeville, ‘visited’ Cyprus, where he found various recreational activities including magnificent feasts. Some of the places seen by Mandeville were illustrated by a Bohemian artist.
Recreation in Cyprus with, above, a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast, in an illustrated version of Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, early 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 5v
For those who wish to combine the sun and sea of the Greek Islands with a visit to a World Heritage Site, a visit to the island of Patmos is recommended. It was here that St John the Evangelist was exiled and had his vision of the Apocalypse. The Holy Monastery of the Apocalypse was built on the site of the cave where John heard the voice of God. Images of him writing the Book of Revelations on Patmos are usually found at the beginning of medieval Apocalypses.
John, on the island of Patmos, is visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat (Netherlands or Germany, c. 1400): Add MS 38121, f. 3v
Sun, sand and sea
There are different types of holidays to choose from, some of them further afield, but for most people, a beach holiday is the most popular. Sadly, there are not many pictures of beaches in medieval manuscripts. However, we did find one in a 16th-century notebook of botanical watercolours of plant species and landscapes by the Italian botanist, Gherardo Cibo. The plant, Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed, is shown beside a long beach with fishermen carrying rods, but with no parasols or deckchairs in sight.
Illustration of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background (Italy, 1564–84): Add MS 22332, f. 150r
And for those who enjoy swimming, please do remember your swimming trunks; it's advisable not to wear a crown. This image is from a collection of tales of famous women by Christine de Pizan, and it illustrates the story of Camilla from the Aeneid. King Metabus escapes across the river with his daughter after being dethroned by his enemies.
The Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind, in a Flemish translation of Cité des dames (Netherlands, 1475): Add MS 20698, f. 64v
For exploring Asia, Alexander the Great would be the best guide. With him, you could go diving, visit the trees of the Sun and Moon, and see exotic beasts in India.
Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask, in Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1444–45): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v
The trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander, in Ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 31v–32r
An African Safari
The ultimate destination for the adventure traveller is a safari to Africa. Here are some of the animals you might see if you are lucky – and some you might not!
A leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal, in a bestiary: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 7r
Staying at Home
For our British readers, if this is all too much and you prefer a staycation, there are some lovely places to visit in our own green and pleasant land.
An English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships, in Wavrin, Chroniques de la Grande Bretagne (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 24v
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