Harnessing Summer Excitement: Using a Medieval Travel Book to Spark Critical Thinking

This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

As the weather gets warmer, summer vacation can seem like it’s right around the corner. Naturally, the desire to escape the confines of the classroom, if only for a long weekend, distracts even the most focused students and teachers.

From Page 9 of Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam by Berhard von Breydenbach. Woodcut by Erhard Reuwich, 1490

Harness the excitement for a summer trip into a creative learning opportunity with the help of one of the first printed and illustrated travel books. Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam, Journey to the Holy Land, is the detailed account by Berhard von Breydenbach of a pilgrimage with a group traveling from Venice to Jerusalem and on to Egypt in 1483-84. The book, first printed in 1486, was unique in its detailed descriptions of geography, daily events, animals encountered, and ethnographic information. It also contains several multi-page woodcuts depicting the cities, holy sites, and peoples that the group encountered while on pilgrimage. Created by Erhard Reuwich, a Dutch painter who was also a member of the pilgrimage, these woodcuts mark the first time that images created by someone also in the Holy Land accompanied a pilgrim’s account. The book was a 15th century bestseller with 12 editions printed between 1490 and 1522.

Focus students’ excitement for summer by encouraging them to:

  • Analyze the images and craft a list of observations,
  • Make predictions about the images based on their observations, and
  • Tie their observations and predictions together by synthesizing a short narrative for others to evaluate.

As a class students might list essential details needed for a book on traveling. Students might evaluate the cityscapes and other images shown in the Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam and make predictions as to where, geographically, they are and what life there might have been like.

For example, students might identify the harbor and fortification in the image on page 38, the city of Modon (modern day Methoni, Greece), and hypothesize that it’s a sea-faring trade community. This prediction might be supported by the number, and detail, of ships in the image as well as the people on the dock and cargo around the waterfront throughout the image. As time permits, students might further support their predictions with independent research. Students could then discuss each other’s predictions and rationale to explore the importance of using evidence from the source when evaluating primary sources.

Modon, from page 38 of Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam by Berhard von Breydenbach. Woodcut by Erhard Reuwich, 1490

At the end of the activity, students could apply their learning to create their own travel guide for a civilization or area previously studied in the year. Students might describe best routes to get to the location, types of wild life one could expect to encounter, major resources, or other attractions. These guides can then be used as student-generated study guides for end of year exams or as part of a larger year end wrap up project.

How do you engage students with primary sources at the end of the year?

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