Travel in Early Modern Europe by Antoni Maczak by Ursula Phillips (trans) - review by Susan Elkin

Susan Elkin

Join some Necrophiles on the Great Relic Crawl

Travel in Early Modern Europe


Polity Press 350pp £45 order from our bookshop



l could comfortably have slept with Fynes Moryson. We would never have bickered about the bedclothes. Professional traveller as he was, Moryson had the same problem with German beds in the early seventeenth century as I have in the late twentieth nearly everywhere:

Throughout all Germany they lodge between two feather beds … as well in summer as in winter. This kind of lodging were not incommodious in winter, if a man did lie alone: but since by the high way they force men to have bedfellowes, one side lies open to the cold by reason that the upper bed is narrow, so it cannot fall around about two, but leaves one side of them open to the wind and the weather. But in summer time this kind of lodging is unpleasant, keeping a man in a continual sweat from head to foote.

The horrors of the duvet. You freeze in winter and boil in summer. How I sympathise. Montaigne, on the other hand, was stoically true to form. While his boss tolerantly observed the customs of the places he visited – such as Germany in 1580 – Montaigne’s secretary noted that:

Monsieur de Montaigne tried covering himself in bed with a feather quilt, as is their custom; and he was greatly pleased with this practice, finding that it was a covering both warm and light. In his opinion there is nothing to complain of, except, for delicate souls, the bedding…

Rarely have I read a book a full of intriguing nuggets about the everyday life of the past and with as much potential to trigger engrossing flights of fancy as Travel in Early Modem Europe. Its scope is huge. It ranges through three centuries and a dozen countries.

In spite of high costs, uneven roads, vehicles without suspension, frightening levels of brigandry and piracy, insalubrious inns and the danger of disease, a surprising number of people were at it, travelling thousands of miles across and around Europe. Who were they and why did they go?

Maczak has examples of scholars, artists, pilgrims, exiles, students, emissaries and ambassadors. Men such as John Evelyn, Cervantes, William Temple, John Locke, Calvin, Thomas Hobbes, Albrecht Dürer – to mention just a few. They visited cities, worshipped, looked, listened and, most importantly, left written records of their observations.

There was even the occasional woman. Take Ann, Lady Fanshawe, for example. She was the wife of a prominent Royalist for whom life in England became dangerous with the outbreak of the Civil War. By dint of impersonating a servant and then fraudulently altering the travel document thus acquired, Ann managed to get herself and her children to France to join her husband. There followed many years of European travel attached to the peripatetic court of Charles II and a total of seventeen confinements. Ann’s comments on the Castilian delicacy of dolphin meat and on the delights of Spanish eggs cooked in olive oil are a homely antidote to her fearful account of disguising her sex by borrowing a cabin boy’s cap and coat. She wanted to – and did – stand incognito on the deck beside her husband during a confrontation with a piratical Turkish vessel in the North Sea. The captain had ordered that women should keep out of sight lest their presence reveal that this was a merchant ship and therefore worth robbing.

Of course pirates weren’t the only difficulty on sea voyages. Any sufferer from mal de mer might spare a thought for poor Thomas Coryat. After a seven-hour experience in the Straits of Dover, Coryat recorded having ‘varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excremental ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach’. The verbosity returned with his equilibrium, one presumes.

It’s probably the hygiene – or lack of it – that will linger longest in the minds of most readers of this book, although Maczak carefully reminds us that it is not reasonable to judge it by modern standards. Bathing, of course, was not an everyday occurrence. It was connected with nakedness, spa towns and sexual laxity – to which Maczak devotes a whole chapter coyly entitled ‘The Boundaries of the Permissible’. Hands were washed, but not much else. Shirts were occasionally laundered. Moryson, in describing Italian inns, believed that ‘clean sheetes’ would be supplied to a traveller ‘at least if he curiously demanded them’. As a consequence, scabies was rife, as were lice, fleas and bugs. Human and animal waste was widely disposed of in the streets – and excessively so in Spain, according to two of Maczak’s sources.

Almost as compelling is the near necrophilic adulation of relics: competitive tourist attractions in many European towns. As late as 1677 Teodor Billewicz’s travel journal reverently describes seeing the (presumably pickled?) breasts of St Anne, and the heads of St Stephen and of John the Baptist at St Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague. The writer whom Maczak dubs ‘Our Anonymous Pole’ is pretty unwholesome on the subject of relics. Whilst in Valletta, Malta, in 1595 a priest showed him:

‘The right hand of John the Baptist, very fresh as though it had just been cut off … he gave it to my unworthy lips to kiss … He also gave me a piece of the saint’s nose to kiss, a whole leg belonging to St Lazarus Quadriduani, a finger of St Mary Magdalene and part of St Ursula ‘s head…’

Travel broadens the mind and so does this informative book. As for me, I will endeavour to follow the advice that Maczak quotes from Hazlitt to end his book: ‘take our common sense with us, and leave our prejudices behind us’. However, I doubt l can ever manage impartiality when it comes to spending a night beneath that drafty/hot abomination, the continental quilt. But I’m in good company.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter