english travel literature in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – part I


As we travel in the twenty-first century, in the first in a new series of blog posts on travel literature and print media, I will begin to take a look at English travel writing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In this blog series it is my intention to investigate this travel literature to see if there are any common threads that might provide a clue to the nature of these positions in the different types of travel writing. Are there any other common themes or recurring preoccupations? What were these travelers concerned with describing? What images of traveI and the world were being set forth? What can we learn about ourselves as travelers in the twenty-first century from the writings of travelers more than four hundred years ago?

Perhaps a function of the inherent psyche of the island-nation and perhaps one of the quest for empire, the period between the Armada and the Puritan Revolution [1589-1640] saw the proliferation of foreign travel by Englishmen in a variety of ways unique and unprecedented. The recent discoveries and voyages of discovery opened up new techniques in navigation and travel technology, and the cartographic knowledge of the world was increasing rapidly. With this proliferation of foreign travel came the proliferation of travel literature.

English travel traditions before 1589 were varied, yet they in no way compare to the scope of the various adventures that Englishmen would embark on during the next half century. English travelers in this period traveled on diplomatic missions, on ecclesiastical missions, on pilgrimages to holy places, as soldiers, as merchants and as learned men. Yet it was the addition of “the sophisticated and kindly influences of humanism and the Renaissance” that made Englishmen travel as sight-seers. lt can be said that it was during the century preceding 1589 that the English began to discover the art, architecture and literature of the continent through travel, but it was not until the period after 1589 that they began in large numbers to “brave the physical hardships and dangers of foreign travel for the sole purpose of satisfying their curiosity.”

During the reign of Elizabeth I [1558-1603] travel to the continent became popular, yet it was not until James I [1603-25] that a different mode of travel began to develop. Aided by new scientific technologies, as well as by an improvement in roads, travel became safer. This was true especially in France and Italy, and had to do with not only the government of Henry IV [1589-1610], but also with the congenial relations that the English court shared with Urban VIII [1623-44]. The method for the Giro d’ltalia was, one could say, set in stone by 1650. The touring of England itself became popular in the sixteenth century, being a “Tutor phenomenon … [where] it became a popular pastime amongst gentlemen of leisure to travel for weeks, even months, .in the discovery of their own country.”

The commonly held opinion among scholars is that by the later sixteenth century in England the pilgrimages of past centuries were replaced by a new type of Protestant secular travel. The Protestant Reformation put an end to the religious pilgrimage of the medieval and early Renaissance period, as well as the narratives that came with them. With increasing frequency in the early seventeenth century there appeared as pilgrims substitute the urbane traveler, that is to say the man of culture who was touring Europe to complete his education or to satisfy his spirit of curiosity, or occasionally just to seek notoriety. The period has also been called a time when there was a change from enthusiasm for traveling abroad for the purpose of pilgrimage to traveling abroad for the purpose of educational travel.

“Urbane” travelers were most certainly a new and important phenomenon, and do seem to constitute a “school” of sorts. Educational travel as well was a developing phenomenon, with a host of specific attributes to accompany it. Yet not all English travelers in this period were interested in the kinds of travel included under the umbrella terms “urbane” and “educational.” Some traveled simply to sight-see, some simply for pleasure others in search of wealth or trade advantages. A survey of the available travel literature extant from this period can provide an overview to what was actually happening in England in terms of travel between 1589 and 1640, and what kinds of questions were being addressed. Many books and guides for the traveler were being published at this time, one clear indication that there was a demand or at least a perceived demand for or interest in this type of literature.

There seems to be an inherent irony or contradiction in the traveling and the travel writing of the period. Just as one finds the proliferation on a much grander scale of travel and tourism by the English, intense negative images of the traveler were being put forth. At about the same time that many scientists and philosophers were calling for the massive re-education of the population, the idea of education through travel was being attacked. In the travel writing of this period there is no middle-ground, travel is either portrayed as evil, corrupted and immoral, or as the best thing someone could do to educate themselves. Perhaps this negative approach to education through travel was an outgrowth of the literature of manners. And conduct put forth in the sixteenth century, youth being the age most susceptible to corruption, and therefore in most need of being deterred from being exposed to morally corrupt nations and peoples. Besides the literature specifically designed to promote this negative viewpoint, the travel literature of the period tends more to stress adventure and discovery, promoting the new, strange and fantastic rather than the negative.

Next installment in the series: Descriptions of the World.


Moir, Esther. The English Tourists 1540 to 1840. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

Moryson, Fynes. An Itinerary containing His Ten yeeres Travell through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sveitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland & Ireland. Vols. I-IV. 1617. Reprint, NewYork: The Macmillan Company, 1907.

Penrose, Boise. Tutor and Early Stuart Voyaging. Amherst, Mass.: Folger Books, 1979.

Penrose, Boise. Urbane Travellers 1591-1635. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1942.

Stoye, John Walter. English Travelers Abroad 1604-1667: their influence in English society and politics. New York: Octagon Books, 1968.

Warneke, Sara. Images of the Educational Traveller in Early Modern England. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Pictured above:  World map. Created by Nicholas Visscher, published in Amsterdam, 1652