Earlier this week I accompanied a class of primary school children on a day out to visit the replica Matthew, built to commemorate the 1497 voyage of John Cabot from Bristol to … well, where exactly is not known for certain, but Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or even the coast of Maine have all been suggested (there’s an excellent book by Peter E. Pope, The Many Landfalls of John Cabot, Uni. of Totonto P., 1997, looking at exactly this issue of mythmaking vs evidence). Let’s leave the academic debate on Cabot’s voyage(s) aside for another time. I was as fascinated by the reaction of the children as they were by the replica boat. “It’s tiny!”, “Did they really go to sea in this?”, “Where were the toilets?” were the common kinds of questions. Which made me think about our modern preconceptions of travel in the Middle Ages as something very few people did, something highly dangerous, and subject to the whims of fate. What a pity then that only today, in my regular ‘random reading’, did I stumble across a short little source that might have put the picture straight for those schoolkids.

On 25th March 1391 Richard II granted a licence to one Thomas Norton, that before Michaelmas he may ship in the George of Bristol as many pilgrims as he pleases, one voyage only, to Corunna, “whereof he may make proclamation in every part of the realm, but the pilgrims must be of the king’s allegiance and amity, and must not carry gold or silver, in bullion or money, contrary to statute” (Calendars of Patent Rolls, Richard II, 4, p. 387, cited by Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, I.B.Tauris, pb 2001, p. 190).

So putting it in terms primary school kids might understand this short note tells us: that just over a hundred years before Cabot sailed from Bristol other people were organising trips abroad for lots of passengers; the boat was to sail to northern Spain [La Coruña], which involves some exposure to the Atlantic (in fact, to the notorious Bay of Biscay), and Mr Norton expected he would get a full contingent of fare-paying passengers; the trip was advertised nationwide, like a package holiday might be today by a tour operator with offices in major towns; and then there’s the political bit that might be harder to explain to eight-year-olds but has less to do with people being afraid of travelling by boat and more to do with the medieval equivalent of national security. In short, if people were taking boat trips as part of a ‘package holiday’ 100 years before Cabot, that kind of puts medieval ships in general and Bristol boats in particular in better perspective.

Addendum (30 October 2011): A little more random reading in economic history (E. M. Carus-Wilson (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages, Bristol Record Society 7, 1936, pp. 60-63) further illustrates the “package tour” nature of pilgrim transport from Bristol: between 16 March and 12 July 1428 five licences were granted to different merchants and shipping-agents to take respectively 80, 100, 100, 100 and 80 pilgrims to St James of Compostella – a total of 460 people embarking from the port of Bristol in one season alone; the next flurry of organised tours came between 25 February and 22 June 1434, when this time six licences were granted for 80, 60, 80, 30, 50 and 30 pilgrims to Compostella – smaller ships but still a respectable total of 330 people. Beyond the scope of this blog, but simply raised here as points to ponder, is the answer to the questions: what had changed in the intervening six years, why were smaller ships used, was it because of less demand from pilgrims wishing to embark for Compostella, in which case what political, economic or even cultural factors made less people want to do the “tour” in the later year?

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