They meet in Venice where they take the Venetian galleys which have been allocated, by auction (it was a lucrative trade) to take pilgrims to the Holy Land. The book details the voyage, via Dubrovnik and Rhodes and Cyprus, and the hardships the pilgrims endured (and grumbled about). They then travelled overland to Jerusalem where they 'did the sights' like any modern tourist would. There were not terrible dangers (though some of them died from sickness) nor bandits (though they encountered and escaped from a pirate ship) nor incredible rip-offs (although there were enumerable small ones). Nevertheless this book gives an authentic account of life near the end of the middle ages.
After Jerusalem most of the party returned home the way they had come although one very small group continued to the monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. On the way back this group went to Matariya, on the outskirts of Cairo, where the Holy Family (the book is of an age where all such references are capitalised) rested during the flight into Egypt and a Garden of Balm trees grew up; it was then claimed (is it still true) that this was the only place in the world where these trees (Commiphora opobalsmum) grew. Although wikipedia records that Matariya was part of the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, the gardens nor the legend of the Holy Family are not recorded; balm is recorded as stemming from a variety of trees from across the world, it is associated with the Balm of Gilead from the Bible and with a potential ingredient of Greek Fire.
Perhaps there is a book to be written on balm.
The pilgrims also saw a giraffe (a "zaraffa"): "white skinned with red spots; it is lower at the read end than at the front. It has a supple neck of three arms' length, a long head with a pointed nose, eyes that are large and rather like those of an ox, large ears like a cow's, on the top of its head two little horns like those of a young goat." (p 158). A pretty good description"!
Other nice bits:
- "In medieval times most laymen, as well as the great majority of clerics, led extraordinarily static and insipid lives." (p 15)
- "Ordinary men and women ... faced the rigours and hardships without flinching, indeed, with every sign of pleasure." (p 15)
- "a Venetian ducat ... was worth less in Cyprus than in Rhodes. It would seem that the value diminished as the distance from Venice diminished." (p 19)
- "On a pilgrimage the mouth of your purse must always be open." (p 25)
- "Also take with yew a lytel cawdren and frying pan, dysches, platterys, sawserrys of tre, cuppes of glas, a grater for brede, and such necessaryes." (p 51)
An interesting account of an obscure voyage: keep it for reference! June 2017; 184 pages