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CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE), ISTOCK (AIRPORT)
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE), ISTOCK (AIRPORT)

10 Travel Tips From Medieval Explorers

CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE), ISTOCK (AIRPORT)
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE), ISTOCK (AIRPORT)

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.

1. KEEP YOUR BAGS SECURELY CLOSED AT ALL TIMES.

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.”

2. DO DRINK THE WATER—AT LEAST IF IT’S A FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH.

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.”

3. DON’T URINATE NEAR A CROCODILE.

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.

4. DON’T WORRY—HOMESICKNESS AND LONELINESS WILL PASS.

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.”

5. DON’T BE SHOCKED IF THE LOCALS DRESS DIFFERENTLY THAN YOU.

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.”

6. DON’T FLIRT WITH WOMEN WHO HAVE FEET ON THEIR HEADS.

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.” 

7. BE GRACIOUS TO YOUR HOSTS, EVEN IF THEIR BEER TASTES GROSS.

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.” 

8. IF YOU ENCOUNTER A RACE OF SMALL MEN, TRY GIVING THEM APPLES.

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.”

9. IF YOU’RE RUNNING LOW ON MONEY, LOOK FOR GIANT ANTS.

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. 

10. SAVE TIME BY EATING FRUIT AND MEAT FROM THE SAME TREE.

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.”

 

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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