Thomas Coryat: Jeremy Tomlinson

Jeremy’s talk on Wednesday 5thJune was both learned and entertaining.  His subject was that astonishing early seventeenth century traveller, Thomas Coryate, the self-styled “Oddcombe Legge-Stretcher,”author of the famous Coryat’s Crudities(1611).   Odcombe in Somerset is where he hailed from: and, as Inigo Joneswryly punned: “Odde is the Combe from whence this Cocke did come”. But if he was a bit of a cockscomb (well, what else would one expect him to be, after having worked for four years as unofficial court jester to Prince Henry?), he was also an inveterate traveller, who travelled across Europe to Venice and back in 1608, almost half the way on foot.  This was a feat he later repeated at much greater length (it took him five years) all the way to India, via Constantinople and Persia.  Although we might consider him to have been linguistically a little lazy in Europe, since he relied on his excellent skills as a Latinist instead of the local vernacular tongues, when he travelled further afield, he acquired Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Hindustani, and was deservedly honoured as something of a polyglot by the few Englishmen he encountered en route.

Although this is never evident from the somewhat flattering illustrations to his book of travels by William Hole, his ‘oddness’, as Jeremy reminded us, was not merely a question of his extraordinary personality.  He was physically abnormal as well.  “The shape of his head,” mutters Thomas Fuller in his Worthies(pursing his lips as he wrote this, one imagines), “had no promising form, being like a sugar-loaf inverted, with the little end before, as composed of fancy and memory, without any common-sense”.   Jeremy described Coryat as ‘tall and thin’ with a long and narrow face. This must have helped him in his earlier career as a palace clown.  Many comedians have a head-start over the rest of us, in that their faces inspire mirth before they’ve even opened their mouths.  By all accounts, Coryat had a wickedly sharp tongue and was an incessant talker.  This endeared him to the literary types who haunted the famous Mitre and the Mermaid taverns (though this never stopped them also making their own jokes at his expense).  Jeremy thinks he must also have known Shakespeare at this time.

And, as Jeremy wittily remarked, eccentricity goes with the territory for the son of any provincial parson.  From Winchester, Coryat proceeded to Gloucester Hall (formerly Gloucester College, and latterly Worcester College) in Oxford.  He then had to butter up the local bigwigs, one of whom, his ultimate ‘Maecenas’, Edward Phelips, got him the jester’s job with Prince Henry.

He is credited with having more or less invented what we now think of as ‘travel-writing’ (and also with single-handedly making popular the whole idea of what soon became the gentleman’s obligatory ‘Grand Tour’).  On top of that he claimed to have brought both forks and umbrellas back to England for the first time (he was probably right about the umbrellas), earning the Latin nickname of ‘furcifer’ as a result. He was also greatly impressed by the Italian habit of using fans to cool themselves in summer.

Like many subsequent travel-writers he didn’t just record the people and places he came across; he also provided handy hints for those whom he fully expected to follow in his footsteps. He counsels us, for instance, against eating too many melons in Italy. Can we then think of him as providing the first ‘Rough Guide’ or ‘Lonely Planet’ manual, as well as blazing the trail for Hester Stanhope, Robert Byron, Gertrude Bell et al?  Truly this was, for his contemporaries, “a Pandect . . . and a Universall Booke” (John Donne).

But it’s the sheer weight of detail that makes him so original: everything from the colourful mountebanks in St Mark’s Square or the row of severed heads outside the Doge’s Palace, to the football players of San Stefano or the almost bare-breasted women walking around the streets of Venice on chopines.

Jeremy helpfully calls him the ‘first back-packer’: and indeed he did travel light.  He was quite prepared to use other modes of travel than Shank’s pony from time to time: boats, coaches, carts, sedan chairs etc.  Unlike many modern British travellers abroad, he was never afraid to sample the local cuisine.  For example, he tucked into a dish of frogs with relish.

He made a habit of scribbling down notes about any funerary or other inscriptions he encountered, thus earning another nickname: ‘the Tombstone Traveller’.

They say that ‘the style is the man’.  His verbosity does not endear him to Jeremy, who clearly prefers the plain style.  Exuberantly euphuistic in the style of the University Wits, this “great and bold Carpenter of words” or “Logodædale” (Jonson) never uses one word when five or six can be used instead (“Almost for every Step, he took a Word” says Donne), and is often happy to invent new ones when he feels it necessary.  Sea-sickness, for instance, is described thus: “[I] varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach . . .”  (Having fun with language is surely what one expects from a recently decommissioned court jester.)  It is also only fair to point out that when he’s being objective and descriptive about the interesting things he saw and heard on his travels, his style becomes considerably less flowery and a lot more transactional.  He frequently takes the trouble to provide measurements, admittedly of a rough and ready variety (by pacing up and down a piazza, or by wrapping his fingers round a column, for instance).

And it would perhaps be unfair to expect a near contemporary of Sir Thomas Browne to write like George Orwell.  Logorrhoea was the order of the day.  Purchas, who helped preserve some of the writing our hero sent back from the Middle East, quotes him thus: “[I have been] such a propateticke. . . that is, a walker forwardon foote, as I doubt whether you have heard the like in your life”.  Coryat justifies his use of this odd word, some might say a little pedantically, as follows: “I will not call my self ‘peripateticke’ because you know it signifieth one that maketh a perambulation about a place”.  Now, isn’t that’s Coryat all over?  And I just call this creativity in the pursuit of accuracy, not pedantry at all.

If Coryat had been able to make use of modern dating apps, his Tinder profile would surely have included that hoary old cliché, ‘GSOH’.  But he can, in fact, be remarkably funny.  “The Fox is not so full of Wiles / As this Book full of learned Smiles . . .”  opined John Owen.  And he is nearly always good-humoured.  Indeed, at one point, when addressing his reader, he aptly calls himself “thy benevolent itinerating friend”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one of those present who rushed back to find out more about this remarkable individual, and to hunt down a copy of his book.  (Volume 1 is freely available online, but volume 2 is proving much harder to track down.)  Many thanks, on behalf of us all, to Jeremy for this fascinating introduction to an unjustly neglected pioneer.

Kevin Maynard