Traveler’s Lab Manifesto

The Travelers’ Lab is an open research group based at the Quantitative Analysis Center at Wesleyan University.  Our goal is to prepare, analyze, and disseminate information about movement, travel, and communication in databases or formats that are both usable in our own work, and accessible to other scholars. We also aim to create teaching resources and project guidelines that can be adapted to undergraduate or graduate student research. Lab work is linked by shared and overlapping puzzles, techniques, and concepts. While most of us are medievalists, we are increasingly expanding into other periods and even non-European geographies.

As Katherine Holmes and Naomi Standen recently noted, the ability to communicate and the availability of information in pre-industrial Europe, “has important implications for our understanding of other periods when the long-distance and the localised were (and continue to be) engaged in complex and dynamic relationships.”*  Information before the steam and electronic ages traveled in letters, came from official messengers, and was cried out in cities by administrative edict.

A few medieval travelers — Egeria, William of Rubruck, Benjamin of Tudela, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Margery Kempe — gained fame both in their own time and in ours by covering vast distances on audacious voyages. Events like the crusades moved whole armies large distances and created huge changes in strategies of communication. These high profile events still capture the imagination. However, we want to include both tangible records as well as the more invisible movements of information – the exchange of rumor between merchants and peasants at markets, or the private news brought by occasional travelers between towns.

We are fascinated by a wide variety of questions and invite collaboration from other scholars animated by similar interests: Who, and how many, people engaged in exchanges of information over both short and long distances? When nobles or kings moved, who came with them? What information spread through such entourages? What was the relationship between written and oral information, public or private communication? What can we know about the treatment of secrets in these exchanges: how did people keep them and what did they want kept? Can we recover, and quantify the volume of short-distance movements that must have occurred but only infrequently left any records?

These questions connect to some larger issues that offer to extend the Traveler’s Lab beyond the particular geographic or temporal frameworks out of which it began. How do the characteristics of communication and travel compare from one context to another? Are there identifiable trajectories of development that we might describe under the categories of information dissemination, travel networks, and the experience of mobility and time? What do travel and communication tell us about the relationship between medieval, early modern, and even modern structures and attitudes?

*”Defining the Global Middle Ages,” Medieval Worlds No. 1 (2015): 106.