The Travels of Friar Odoric

Two nights ago, thanks to a persistent toothache, I managed to read the entirety of the memoirs of the travels of the fourteenth century Blessed Odoric (sometimes referred to as the Bohemian, owing to reports that his father was in service to the King of Bohemia) to the East from his home in northern Italy, in the work translated by Sir Henry Yule, The Travels of Friar Odoric: Blessed Odoric of Pordonone.  

A Franciscan friar with an aim toward the winning of souls, Odoric sets out for Mesopotamia, India, China, and everywhere in-between (being efficient about following set routes did not seem to bother him much), encountering strange peoples and their cultures.  While he spends the last section of the work testifying to its truth, much of the book would seem to be poppycock to discerning modern readers. For instance, Odoric regales his audience with stories of a vegetable lamb, which, according to his description, is a lamb which hatches out of the rind of a (apparently quite tasty) melon. Additionally, there are all sorts of recountings of men with the heads of dogs and trees which bleed wine and create flour. Odoric himself offers that some of the more fantastic notions contained in the work are second-hand, but from persons whose judgement he still feels comfortable swearing must be true.

While some of his modern readership might have some of their fascination of this middle ages-period account, dating shortly after the explorations of Marco Polo, dimmed by the more fantastic elements in the travelogue, especially as they were made very much of in the particular introduction I read (by Paolo Chiesa, of the University of Udine), as I attempted to read with the eye of imagination I was able to find not too much in the account which could, somehow, not be true. Perhaps the faces of certain people did indeed look like dogs to Odoric, especially in comparison to the great beauty he recollects casting his sights on in China, is it not possibly that the sap of certain trees could taste wine-like, and the lamb sprouting from the the melon, well, perhaps I need to dig further into my mind’s eye awhile?

The Travels of Blessed Odoric is the perfect late-summer read for the recent vacationer who is still attempting to discern some of the wonders he did indeed capture with his own eye, or, better yet, camera. And, reflecting on my own summer travels to Alabama, I can’t help wondering if, to this pair of mid-atlantic-bred eyes, the sights were indeed less fantastic or foreign than those captured by the ramblings of an Italian friar in the East

So, pick up a copy, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to put your own vacation experiences into perspective and down into words, remembering that it is sometimes okay, and maybe even completely truthful, to employ the fantastic.

Colleen Swaim


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