'Where the foot of the compass rests is inexorably the centre'.
This book is an attempt to tell the story of travel writing across the world during the period loosely called ‘medieval’. This choice would seem puzzling: why use ‘medieval’, a distinctly Europocentric and Middle Eastern term, to circumscribe activity around the globe? The joint centre of this book is Europe and the Middle East because the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries CE marked an era of global contact. A series of interlocking conflicts enmeshing the Christian and Islamic civilisations - the eighth-century conquest of Iberia, the Crusading centuries, and the late medieval Ottoman wars - shaped and expanded both Europe and the Middle East. At the same time, Europe and the Middle East explored and expanded into Asia, Africa, and eventually North America.
I deliberately combine Europe and the Middle East into one cultural entity for the purpose of this book. To begin with, neither is a homogenous bloc; and for all their differences, the longue durée stresses the shared logocentric tradition of the Abrahamic faiths, the common heritage in science and philosophy, and the centuries of interwoven experiences, often painful and violent, but just as often culturally enriching and mutually beneficial. After all, Europe only came to dominate the world culturally and economically in the post-medieval centuries, a point eloquently made already in 1989 by Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350.
And while the political entities of medieval Europe play a more significant role in structuring this book than those of other areas, there are attempts to balance this by foregrounding the role of literatures and writers from other parts of the world, none more so than the greatest traveller perhaps in all human history, Ibn Battuta. Yet the term ‘medieval’ is perhaps most problematic in China, where many of the centuries labelled ‘medieval’ in Europe fell into a period of Mongol rule. Thus the scope of the China chapter encompasses the centuries before and after the dominance of the Mongols, covering the Tang and Song dynasties of the seventh to thirteenth centuries but also the Ming dynasty, in power from the late fourteenth century.The re-orienting of the centre of this book away from Europe - however loosely defined - to one built around the embrace of Europe and the Middle East more accurately reflects the then contemporary world. I use orienting in a medieval sense, denoting the position of the east at the top of mappae mundi, or world maps. With the complicated civilisational symbiosis of the European-Middle Eastern Middle Ages at the centre, this book then fans out toward the South and East in its subsequent chapters, charting the travel writing traditions of, and written encounters with, the peoples of Africa and Asia. Some of these narratives do not include Europeans or Middle Easterners, and some are deeply local and regional in their focus, such as Chinese travel writing during much of this period. Other accounts delineate, at times with actuarial precision, the ruthless exploitation of human beings by European and Middle Eastern slavers.