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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Lost Worlds | With forked tongue

In the annals of historical travel writing, few have gone so far, for as little respect, as Thomas Coryat. Coryat was possibly one of the first writers to travel for the sake of travelling, or at least to gain benefit from the travel itself and not to accomplish something at his destination. Coryat was a person of minor significance—almost a jester—at the court of Henry (Prince of Wales from 1594-1612), and attempted to elevate his importance by publishing a book about his travels through Europe.

We don’t know whether Coryat genuinely had wanderlust, or whether he (like Robert Louis Stevenson, discussed here earlier—in “Round the mountain with Modestine", 9 June) travelled only to get a book deal out of his peregrinations. But either would have been an avant-garde idea at the beginning of the 17th century: The idea of travel for pleasure was only beginning to come into existence, thanks to the improvements in shipbuilding, greater urbanization and trade leading to better connectivity and the economic surpluses that the fledgling colonization of the Americas created. As for writing about travel for a large audience, that too was largely without precedent. English language printing was only a little over a hundred years old, and for the first 50 years had been restricted to religious and medical texts and translations or adaptations of classical Greek and Roman literature.

Knowing all this, Coryat’s first travelogue—Coryat’s Crudities: Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Moneth’s Travells—is path-breaking as literature, not just travel literature. After a century of textbooks and religious instruction, here was finally a book in which the author’s own voice and personality were prominent. Considering Coryat’s position as an unofficial court jester, extremely prominent.

Hand drawings from Coryat’s Crudities
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Hand drawings from Coryat’s Crudities

Coryat finished his travels in 1608 and then asked Prince Henry to help him get his book published. Henry extracted a price: The entire first third of Coryat’s Crudities consists of completely over-the-top and sarcastic panegyrics by the rest of the court to Coryat and his travels.

For all that, Coryat’s Crudities left strange and unexpected legacies. Coryat’s descriptions of Italian table manners brought the fork to England, and he has a good claim to having invented the concept of both the grand tour of Europe and travel writing as a genre.

He has certainly inspired other travel writers: William Dalrymple read Coryat as he tried to discover the court of Kublai Khan; and writers Tim Moore and Daniel Allen wrote books in which they retraced Coryat’s route across Europe. Edited excerpts from the original book below:

Coryat starts off with a description of nausea

I was imbarked at Dover, about tenne of the clocke in the morning, the fourteenth of may, being Saturday and Whitsun-eve, Anno 1608, and arrived in Calais (which Caesar calleth Ictius portus, a maritime towne of that part of Picardy, which is commonly called le pais reconquis; that is, the recovered Province, inhabited in former times by the ancient Morini). about five of the clocke in the afternoone, after I had varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach, as desiring to satiate the gormandizing paunches of the hungry Haddocks (according as I have hieroglyphically expressed it in the front of my booke) with that wherewith I had superfluously stuffed my selfe at land, having made my rumbling belly their capacious aumbrie.

Coryat promotes the stereotype of the drunk English

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Hand drawings from Coryat’s Crudities
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