It seems surprising that the madcap adventures around Europe of Thomas Coryat have not made him more well-known. His under-resourced walk from England to Italy in the early seventeenth century won him both friends and ridicule at court and those who discover his exploits are rewarded with a catalogue of tomfoolery in the first first-person travel narrative.
Born the penniless son of a rural rector, elevated to Prince Henry’s court by his quick wit and aristocratic connections, he very unusually undertook the journey from England to Italy on foot with few resources and even less experience of travel.
Very little research has been done on Coryat – academic interest has generally been limited to a few biographies and re-prints of his account of his travels, first published in 1611 as Coryat’s Crudities. His legacy lives on, however, in more cultural channels. Twenty years ago, for example, the humourist and travel writer Tim Moore was inspired to re-enact Coryat’s journey, now published as Continental Drifter: Taking the Low Road with the First Grand Tourist. We must also thank Coryat every day for what he brought back from his travels – he introduced the word ‘umbrella’ into the English language, and was the first Englishman to bring a fork back from Italy, thus changing the cutlery conventions of the United Kingdom for centuries to come; prior to the fork’s sudden take-off at the Stuart court, Englishmen had dined using knives and spoons alone.
While Coryat travelled all over Europe and India to find women, alcohol, epitaphs, architecture and culture, my own journey to find Coryat took a very different course. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to work in the heritage sector - it was therefore a joy and a privilege to spend my school Year 10 work experience placement at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust back in 2013. What I didn’t know at the time was how much that week would lead to. I’ve just finished my degree in History at the University of Oxford, having completed my thesis on Coryat – who I would never have encountered if not for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
I returned to Collections as a volunteer for a few years before becoming a casual member of staff, joining the team as a Reader Services Assistant in summer 2017. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, I helped to research and prepare displays for the Heritage Open Days. It’s been such an interesting experience, with each year’s topic completely different from the last – ‘Shakespeare’s Gardens’, ‘Travels in Europe’, and ‘Women in History’. It was the second of these that was to have the biggest impact on me to date, however.
I spent a large portion of the summer of 2017 reading and researching early printed books in the SBT collection on the subject of travel, language, and culture; Fynes Moryson’s An Itinerary (1617), John Bulwer’s Anthrometamorphosis (1650), John Florio’s Second Frutes (1591), and Thomas Coryat’s Crudities (1611). It was fascinating to spend so much time researching the practicalities of seventeenth-century travel, from the Italian idioms listed by Florio to Moryson’s sheer enthusiasm for continental travel: “the fruit of travel is travell it selfe”.
Oxford gives its history undergraduates completely free choice of their thesis topic; the prospect of producing 12,000 words made me realise the necessity of choosing something I was genuinely intrigued by and keen to learn more about. I knew I wanted to investigate the early seventeenth century, and was keen to incorporate as much of my experience with early printed books as possible – having worked with such books throughout my time at the SBT, as well as while volunteering as a Conservation Assistant as Charlecote Park, the idea of combining secondary historical research with more a more hands-on approach to primary sources was very appealing. I also wanted to build on how much fun I’d had researching early modern travel for Heritage Open Days, and it was with this in mind that I came to Thomas Coryat’s Crudities as the topic for my thesis.
Between June 2018 and March 2019, I read just about every book and article – academic or otherwise – ever published about Thomas Coryat. I read the Crudities from beginning to end, and travelled around England and Scotland to see eighteen first-editions of the 1611 book; so far as I can tell, this sample represents roughly half of the extant copies surviving today. My research even took me to Venice to explore some of the sights outlined in the book.
I discovered that Thomas Coryat has largely been discounted from the historiography surrounding travel in the early modern period on account of his apparent eccentricity, and I argued that he deserves to be reinstated and heralded as a typical early modern traveller who epitomised the genre of travel writing in this time.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of researching Coryat’s Crudities were the text itself, and comparing so many different copies of the first edition. On his travels, Coryat experienced many unusual things which make for very entertaining reading. He ate dried frogs in Cremona, for example, noting that:
“they were so curiously dressed, that they did exceedingly delight my palat, the head and the forepart being cut off”
In Venice, he tried to measure the width of various columns by wrapping his arms around them, before getting pelted with eggs by a courtesan he had forgotten to pay for her services.
The majority of the copies of Coryat’s Crudities I examined contained annotations. The copy at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is fairly typical; a later traveller has made additions to the text based on their own experiences abroad. On page 22, for example, they note that what Coryat describes as “a goodly bridge of white free-stone” over the river Seine is known as the Pont Neuf. Some of the most interesting annotations I found came from the copy at St. John’s College, Oxford – predominantly written in secretary hand, suggesting a reader fairly contemporary to the book’s publication, the notes corroborate Coryat’s descriptions of Europe.
It’s been such a brilliant adventure so far, and I’m excited to see where my experiences at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust might take me next!