descriptions of the world: english travel literature in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – part II


One outcome of the travel literature of this period [1589-1640] was the frequent appearance of works devoted to describing the world and the discoveries of the world. These works were for the most part based on the personal travels of the authors themselves and were not only intended for use as encyclopedic reference books, but were also intended to be used as guides for the future traveler. If one intended to travel, it was in the potential traveler’s best interest to educate themselves as to the customs, language, history and geography of their intended destinations.

One important foreign work, translated into English by Hichard Hakluyt [1552?-1616] was Antonie Galvano’s The Discoveries of the World from their first originall vnto the yeere of our Lord 1555 [1601]. Galvano, a Portuguese Governor of the Maluco Islands, is described by Hakluyt as having written a work more important than any of the current histories of the East Indies.

Originally written in 1555 from papers left at Galvano’s death, this piece was reprinted on a few occasions, Hakluyt’s version being published in 1601, at the forefront of a proliferation of other travel and discovery literature in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Hakluyt explains the absence of Englishmen in the pages of this discourse by explaining “… when this authour ended this discourse [1555] there was little extant of our men’s travailes …” His contention, even in 1601, was that when the English voyages of travel and discovery “come to more perfection, and become more profitable to the adventurers, [they] will then be more fit to be reduced into briefe epitomes …”

In this work, Galvano begins by setting forth the number of years since creation, and asks “…who were the first discoverers since the time of the flood … some affirme that they were the Greekes, others say, the Phoenicians, others also the Egyptians. The people of India agree not hereunto; affirming that they were the first that sailed the sea.”

The next twenty or so pages are devoted to the discoveries of the ancients through the middle ages, until the reader reaches the central focus of the work, the Portuguese discoveries, beginning in 1415. The next seventy pages, indeed to the end of the work, deal with only the century and a half of exploration and discovery up to 1555, concentrating on Portuguese and Spanish discoveries. Published at a time when England was experiencing an increase in travel, it is no surprise that Galvano’s Discoveries would have aided the traveler in his thirst for geographical and historical knowledge as much as travel how-to books would have.

A few years earlier [1599] , George Abbot’s [1562-1633] popular work, A Briefe Description of the Whole Worlde was published, which contained a description of all the kingdoms, empires and monarchs of the world at the time. It went through eight reprintings before 1640. This work differs from Botero’s The Travellers Breviat, which appeared two years later, in that it is more thorough in its coverage of the number of kingdoms and monarchs in the world, although coverage of each is more anecdotal and superficial.

For example, Abbot, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, devotes only two paragraphs to Spain, one topographic, and the other simply listing the kingdoms to be found there. On France, he chooses to underscore the specific importance of the Salic law in preventing women from becoming the monarch.

On Italy, he provides what he terms a common proverb: “Naples for nobilitie, Rome for religion, Millane for beautie, Florence for pollicie, and Venice for riches.” Abbot’s coverage of the Orient, Asia and Africa is wider but not as deep. Unlike the Breviat, the focus of this work seems to be more of a description rather than a guide, although in many cases the line between the two is vague. Peter Heylyn’s [1599?-1662] Mikrokosmos [1631] not only describes the world, but gives the reader a picture of the German landscape during the Thirty Years’ War. In his introduction we see the idea of a German national identity in the midst of the war “The growth of the children, argueth the strength of the parents. For this cause, the warlike nation of the Germans ordained that marriage should be delayed in their young men, and not hastened in their virgins.” His method of writing is presented to the reader, Heylyn utilizing “Historie, Geographie, Policie, Theologie, chronologie & Heraldrie …” as well as “Philologicall discorses …”

His ambition as well is presented, “good Reader, judge of me, as thou findest me… for my selfe, I am neither ambitious of applause nor afraid of censure. Give me leave so farre to be mine own parasite, as to flatter my pains, in the words and hope of Tacitus: hic interim liber, aut laudatus erit, aut faltem excusatus.”

Mikrokosmos is, in effect, an attempt at writing an encyclopedic history of the world as seen by Peter Heylyn, who traveled to many of the lands described in his work in the early seventeenth century. It is one of the most complete works of its type published in the half century before the Puritan Revolution. He lists, alphabetically, a “Table of the Principal Countries, Provinces and Seas,” a “Table of the Ancient Tribes and Nations” [taken from Strabo and Ptolemy], and an extensive table of contents or “Principall things herein contained.” He provides other useful information such as a table for currency conversion and a table of climates by region. Mikrokosmos was not simply a means by which Heylyn expressed his travels, but functioned as a guide for the serious traveler, who was interested not only in the current state of the world, but in its history as well. The work is heavy in its use of and importance relegated to geography “… according to Ptolemy, a description of the known Earth: or all the known earth imitated by writing and delineation ..” which would suggest a usage by the author as an aspiring man of science.

Next installment in the series:  Histories, surveys, political commentaries, diplomats and envoys.


Abbot, George.  A Briefe Description of the Whole Worlde.  London, 1599.  Reprint, The English Experience No. 213, New York: Da Capo Press/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1970.

Botero, Giovanni.  The Travellers Breviat.  London, 1601. Reprint, The  English Experience No. 143, New York: Da Capo Press/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1969.

Galvano, Antonie.  The Discoveries of the World from their first originall vnto the Yeere of our Lord 1555.  London , 1601. Reprint, The English Experience No. 112, New York: Da Capo Press/Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm, Ltd., 1969.

Heylyn, Peter. Mikrokosmos.  A Little description of the great world. Oxford, 1631. New York Public Library, New York. STC 13280. Microfilm.