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10 Travel Tips From Medieval Explorers

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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. 


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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.”


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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.


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