Medieval and earlier people didn’t travel. Unless they did. But it wasn’t far. Unless it was half-way around the world and back, perhaps several times. Or they were always traveling. Being able to move around was a symbol of power, unless it was a sign of poverty – voluntary or otherwise.
Most people, especially serfs and others in a state of villainage (meaning legally bound in some way to a place or person, but not owned outright) only went as far as they had to. Perhaps they might go to a small market, or a fair if it was within walking distance and they got permission. Travel was not easy, and hospitality varied a great deal. There are still people today in Britain and Europe who have not gone more than 30-60 miles from their place of birth, and they are quite happy with that. There are some people who are descended from the people who lived in that same area several thousand years ago, which also suggests that folks didn’t wander or mix all that often.
Religious pilgrimages did encourage travel, perhaps as far as Rome or Jerusalem. Often it was to a closer site, like Canterbury, or Cologne, or St. Ives, or Santiago Campostella, or St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Most pilgrims traveled in a group for safety as well as company. How dangerous were the roads? Again, it varied. If you were traveling on business to the Champaign Fairs in the 1000s-1100s and a little later, it was very safe, because a lot of powerful people benefited from the trade and taxes. If you were well-armed but not wealthy looking, or if you were obviously poor and devout, you’d probably be left alone. That left a lot of people who might be the target of thieves, nobles looking for labor, nobles and others looking for ransom and tax money, and the occasional homicidal maniac (like the guy in France who was a mass murderer. People said he was a werewolf. Nah.)
The Holy Roman Emperors and a few other nobles traveled constantly, because they had to. There were no capital cities, unless you counted Rome and Constantinople. After 1066, London grew in importance, as did Paris, but the capital was where the monarch or ruling noble happened to be. Charlemagne was all over the place on the European mainland, as were his successors. I joke that certain medieval figures were “high mileage” but it was literally true. Otto I and Otto II criss-crossed northern Europe and swung down into Italy a few times. Frederick Barbarossa was all over the map, north and south of the Alps, playing whack-a-mole with Moors, frisky nobles (Henry of Saxony), the occasional pope … They also had the infrastructure to support their perigrinations, something normal people lacked unless you were going on a very well known pilgrimage route.
Merchants and raiders, or merchant raiders (aka Vikings) got around. They had to. By the late 1200s, some were moving less because of the development of banking and letters of credit, but goods still had to be moved and sold. The Hansa merchants always traveled, even after the Italians settled down a little. The Vikings? Oh boy did the young men get around. A few of the women, too. Their victims also saw a lot of the world, although not of their own free well. Going from Norway to Ireland to the Byzantine Empire then up the Black Sea and Dnieper to Kiev thence to the Baltic wasn’t rare. One former Varangian Guard ended up in a remote valley in Austria. I’d love to know his story. Perhaps he had a hot temper and needed to relocate often. Or maybe he had an itchy foot. Or perhaps he made a religious vow and became a sort of hermit in the middle of nowhere. All were possible. Merchants tended to cluster together for business reasons, and a Hansa trader or Italian merchant working the Champaign Fairs had a network of inns, confraternity connections, and other places to stay and rest.
Then you have “that one guy,” the dude who never quite settled down. These are the ones that seem like normal blokes until you find out “oh, yes, his parish record says he went to Jerusalem twice.” Or she, in a few very rare occasions. Or they go wander off here there and everywhere and come back with stories and a little money and some interesting skills. Or they are found a thousand miles from home, per isotope studies, leaving everyone to wonder how he got there. There’s always been a part of the western European population that has to go see what’s over the next hill.
I’ve been talking about men. Why? Because very few women traveled. That wasn’t their job. Some noblewomen moved around for marriages, taking a few servants with them. Some unusual individuals, like Dam Margery Kempe, got around. It was not safe, and often laws required women not to go farther than X distance from their home parish unless they had special permission from their family, their overlord, and their parish priest. Noble women who joined the church were a partial exception, but all scholars I’ve read insist that only because of their male relatives’ power did the church women have any authority. I should add, these are all books about France, Britain, and the Rhineland. The eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire was a rather different story, based on German-language works, but I could well be missing something there.
So it is true that medieval people rarely traveled. It is also true that medieval people traveled all over the place for faith, for war, for business, for personal reasons, for all of the above at once. We can make some general assumptions, but there’s always an exception.