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Explore 15th century manuscripts in the history hunter’s report

As many of you know, my next series is set in medieval Rhodes and Cyprus, and I’ve been buried in research about that part of the world for months.

Pilgrim diaries

Rhodes was a popular destination for medieval travelers. Pilgrims typically stopped there between Crete and Cyprus on the way to or from Jerusalem. When I first discovered this, I hoped to find rich first-person descriptions by medieval pilgrims about what they saw in Rhodes. Very few accounts have made it through the mists of time since the 15th century, however. And what is recorded can be disappointing or just plain baffling.

For example, medieval pilgrim Pietro Casola, in 1494, climbed to the highest point in Rhodes Town and reported: “There is no order, neither in the palaces, nor in the layout of the walls. The city cannot be described as long, square, or triangular.”

OK, Pietro, that’s leaving a lot to the imagination.

How about the Genoese medieval pilgrim Anselmo Adorno, who visited Rhodes in 1470? Adorno was a bit more descriptive. He called the city “solid, fortified thanks to its mighty walls, in which great towers are interposed…on the very thick walls there is always a provision of stones and other arms ready to be thrown at enemies.”

Voyagers tended to heap praise on the hospital of Rhodes Town, the centerpiece of the Hospitaller vocation of the Order of St. John. Traveler Pero Tafur described “Great halls sumptuously decorated, many tapestries, one of the most beautiful houses of charity I have ever seen.”

Medieval pilgrims were also impressed by the miles of gardens that extended around the walls of the city, irrigated by canals filled using a windmill-powered fountain. I’ve found several references that explain these gardens were owned by knights. It appears wealthy knights built suburban villas on these garden properties where they relaxed and entertained their friends. Anselmo Adorno wrote that the gardens were planted with “an abundance of lemons, figs, grapes, pomegranates, capers and other similar fruits…”  Clearly, the knights’ vow of poverty was really more of a guideline.

Pilgrims who can draw = research nirvana

While there are some useful nuggets in the pilgrim accounts remaining to us, it’s still difficult to imagine what they saw. This is why I was so thrilled to find not one but two illustrated medieval pilgrim travelogues in recent weeks.

German pilgrim Bernhard von Breydenbach made a 1483 trek to the Holy Land. Like most pilgrims of the era, he traveled via ship to various Mediterranean and Aegean ports en route to Jerusalem. His book about the experience includes a series of breathtaking woodcut drawings made by fellow traveler Erhard Reuwich. Reuwich, a Dutch artist, created the first known use of fold-out panoramas to depict cities.

You can view the entire book online here. The panorama of Rhodes is located at Image 35. This artist’s rendering shows the city as he saw it in 1483, about three years after the first siege of Rhodes. (The black-and-white woodcut image at the top of this post is Reuwich’s illustration of Rhodes Town).

It’s worth paging through the rest of the book (which is written in Latin) to see the other beautifully crafted woodcuts of Venice, Jerusalem, and other medieval cities. Be warned: you might lose yourself in the gorgeous details for a long time. This is time travel at its best! For more details about Breydenbach’s book, check out this website.

Another medieval pilgrim who set his experiences down on paper was German Konrad Grünemberg. His pilgrimage to the Holy Land took place a few years after Breydenbach’s journey. Grünemberg apparently made his own drawings of the various locales he visited, though some may have been influenced by Erhard Reuwich’s work in the Breydenbach manuscript.

You can see Grünemberg’s book here. Images 20 and 21 contain his drawing of Rhodes. The book is written in medieval German, and the drawing of Rhodes includes some tantalizing notes (see the image above). I speak and read a little German, just enough to get me even more intrigued. A German friend of mine will soon find a copy of the Rhodes drawing in his email inbox with a plea for help…I would love to learn what Grünemberg jotted down about Rhodes six hundred years ago.

No matter how many academic papers I sift through, nothing compares to the thrill of opening up a medieval manuscript and seeing a full-color drawing of a place—and an era—I’ve been dreaming about for months. I’ll be taking many more virtual journeys to the past with these precious documents as I continue to write my new series.

1 Comment

  1. Julie says:

    Soooo much intriguing research!!! Love, love, love these manuscript images. I am going to go for a deeper dive for sure!

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