10 Travel Tips From Medieval Explorers


We’ve all heard the typical travel advice to pack light, get to the airport early enough, and buy a disposable cell phone to save money abroad. But centuries ago, medieval explorers shared their own sage travel advice. Here are 10 things we can learn from noted medieval globe-trotters Ibn Battuta and Sir John Mandeville about the art of travel.


Ibn Battuta was a Muslim scholar who explored parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe between 1325 and 1354. After spending time in Cairo, he hired camels to travel through the desert into Upper Egypt. During his journey through the desert, Ibn Battuta learned the importance of keeping a close eye on his baggage. In his account of his travels, the Rihla, he wrote:

“One of our halts was at Humaythira, a place infested with hyenas. All night long we kept driving them away, and indeed one got at my baggage, tore open one of the sacks, pulled out a bag of dates, and made off with it. We found the bag next morning, torn to pieces and with most of the contents eaten.”


Sir John Mandeville was said to have been a knight from St. Albans, England, who wrote about his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and his travels to places such as India, China, and Ethiopia during the 14th century. The text attributed to him, often called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, is full of wacky fabrications and plagiarized passages, and scholars still debate who really wrote it. It’s worth taking it with a grain (or a heavy helping) of salt, but that doesn’t mean it doesn't contain interesting travel pointers. 

While traveling along the Indian coast, Mandeville saw a well at the foot of a mountain. The water from the well supposedly cured people of their illnesses. It tasted and smelled great, and Mandeville drank only a few sips, but seemed to feel better afterward. In his book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, he wrote: 

“And they that dwell there and drink often of that well they never have sickness; and they seem always young. I have drunken thereof three or four sithes, and yet, methinketh, I fare the better. Some men clepe it the well of youth. For they that often drink thereof seem always young-like, and live without sickness. And men say, that that well cometh out of Paradise, and therefore it is so virtuous.”


While Ibn Battuta traveled along the Niger River in western Africa (he mistook it for the Nile), his nether regions had a close call with a crocodile’s jaws. Luckily, a local man came and stood between Ibn Battuta and the river, blocking the crocodile. Ibn Battuta mistook the local man’s protective action as rudeness. From the Rihla:

“I saw a crocodile in this part of the Nile, close to the bank; it looked just like a small boat. One day I went down to the river to satisfy a need, and lo, one of the blacks came and stood between me and the river. I was amazed at such lack of manners and decency on his part, and spoke of it to someone or other. [That person] answered. ‘His purpose in doing that was solely to protect you from the crocodile, by placing himself between you and it.’”

Another way of saying this: When you're traveling, sometimes you have to be open-minded about your personal space.


Ibn Battuta began his travels by setting out from his home in Tangier, Morocco. He was just 22 years old, and he admitted that it was difficult to leave his parents, friends, and home. As he wrote in the Rihla:

“I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself … I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home. As my parents were still alive, it weighed grievously upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow.”

After suffering a fever en route to Tunis in North Africa, Ibn Battuta felt so lonely upon his arrival (he didn’t know any of the locals) that he cried. A kind pilgrim saw his distress, however, and comforted him. As Ibn Battuta described it in the Rihla:

“The population of the city came out to meet the members of our party, and on all sides greetings and question were exchanged, but not a soul greeted me as no one there was known to me. I was so affected by my loneliness that I could not restrain my tears and wept bitterly, until one of the pilgrims realized the cause of my distress and coming up to me greeted me kindly and continued to entertain me with friendly talk until I entered the city.”


Ibn Battuta complained about how the women in Mali walked around topless, saying it was distracting and immodest. As a devout Muslim, he was especially taken aback by seeing nude women in public, a sight he was not used to seeing at home, writing in the Rihla:

“Among their bad qualities are the following. The women servants, slave-girls, and young girls go about in front of everyone naked, without a stitch of clothing on them. Women go into the sultan's presence naked and without coverings, and his daughters also go about naked.”


In certain countries that Mandeville purportedly visited, he learned that women signified their marital status in different ways. For example, some unmarried women denoted their availability by wearing coronets on their heads. More bizarrely, some married women wore a fake man’s foot on their heads, bedazzled with jewelry … which is a much more complicated way of saying “I’m taken” than wearing a ring on your left hand. From The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

“And all those that be married have a counterfeit made like a man's foot upon their heads, a cubit long, all wrought with great pearls, fine and orient, and above made with peacocks' feathers and of other shining feathers; and that stands upon their heads like a crest, in token that they be under man's foot and under subjection of man. And they that be unmarried have none such.” 


If you’re traveling in foreign lands, relying on the hospitality of strangers, don’t insult the food and drinks you’re offered. Instead, discreetly leave your drink untouched and focus on the food and drinks that you do like. In Turkey, Ibn Battuta tasted beer, found it bitter-tasting, but played it cool, as he wrote in the Rihla:

“Everyone is given his share in a plate with curdled milk, and they drink it, afterwards drinking curdled mares milk, which they call qumizz. They have also a fermented drink prepared from the same grain, which they call buza [beer] and regard as lawful to drink. It is white in colour; I tasted it once and found it bitter, so I left it alone.” 


Mandeville described an island called Pytan where the inhabitants are all small men, though not as small as pygmies. These men don’t bother with farming the land because all they need to do to survive is smell wild apples—no food required. When they leave their country, they bring wild apples with them to sniff so they don’t die, as described in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

“And beyond these isles there is another isle that is clept Pytan. The folk of that country ne till not, ne labour not the earth, for they eat no manner thing … But the small be as dwarfs, but not so little as be the Pigmies. These men live by the smell of wild apples. And when they go any far way, they bear the apples with them; for if they had lost the savour of the apples, they should die anon.”


Mandeville, borrowing a story from Book Three of Herodotus’ The Histories, describes how giant ants in a place called Taprobane dug gold from the ground and tried to stop the townspeople from collecting the gold. As he wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

“In the isle also of this Taprobane be great hills of gold, that pismires [ants] keep full diligently. And they fine the pured gold, and cast away the un-pured. And these pismires be great as hounds, so that no man dare come to those hills, for the pismires would assail them and devour them anon.”

Although this story sounds completely made up, it actually has some basis in reality. Marmots (a type of large squirrel) that lived around India and Pakistan spread gold dust when they dug the sandy ground, and the locals collected this gold dust. The old Persian word for marmot was similar to the word for mountain ant, hence the origin for the story. 


Wikimedia Commons //Public Domain

In Asia, Mandeville claimed to have seen a tree that grew gourds containing little hairless animals, similar to lambs. This vegetable lamb appears in writings and folklore of multiple cultures, and Mandeville said he ate the fruit and enjoyed it—a quick and easy way to get protein and fiber in your diet when you’re on the road. He wrote:

“And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a- two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but that I know well that God is marvellous in his works.”


Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.

Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.

Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
National WWII Museum Launches a European Tour Tracing the 'Band of Brothers' Path
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Thanks to Stephen E. Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries of the same name, the story of "Easy" Company of the United States Army is among the most famous to come out of the Second World War. Now WWII buffs have a whole new way to experience that chapter in history: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is offering a 13-day European excursion that traces the company's footsteps from Britain to Nazi Germany.

Easy Company suffered from one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. company during World War II. They landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

All of those highlights are covered in the WWII Museum's tour called "Easy Company: England to the Eagle's Nest." The museum was founded by Ambrose, and the new tour gives guests an intimate look at the sites mentioned in his book. During the excursion, tour members will be treated to commentary from museum historians and guest appearances from the actors who portrayed Easy Company soldiers in the miniseries. Admission to historical sites at each stop, as well as meals, transportation, and accommodations, is included in the price.

The next available tour starts September 9, with tickets costing $8490 for single guests and $6495 for each guest traveling as a couple. And if you're looking for another book-related escape for your next vacation, Rail Europe's literary tour of the continent may suit your tastes.


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