"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Leg-Stretcher of Odcombe

Thomas Coryat

You would think that someone who was a popular Early Modern travel writer, and who also knew pretty much everybody who was anybody in his era--half Baedeker, half Zelig--and who was dubbed "The Odd," would be better remembered today. But such are the vagaries of history.

This week, let us pay tribute to this undeservedly obscure Englishman, one of the quirkier figures of a decidedly quirky era.

Thomas Coryat (or Coryate) was born circa 1577 in the Somerset town of Crewkerne, although he grew up in the village of Odcombe, where his father George Coryat was rector. The family was not wealthy, but George was able to see to it that his son got a good education at Winchester College and Oxford. After Thomas left the university, he found himself unable to decide what to do with his life. His class-conscious era offered few desirable opportunities for a young man who had more brains than he did money.

Coryat, like so many people in his situation, made use of his wits as best he could. He had enough "connections" to get himself a place in the court of James I's son Henry. Coryat was a gregarious, witty fellow with a gift of gab, so he managed to earn his keep by keeping his wealthy, important acquaintances amused. Prince Henry granted him ten pounds a year to act as his unofficial court jester. His contemporary Thomas Fuller wrote that "Sweetmeats and Coryate made up the last course of all court entertainments. Indeed, he was the courtiers' anvil to try their wits upon; and sometimes the anvil returned the hammers as hard knocks as it received, his bluntness repaying their abusiveness."

It was a comfortable enough job, but a demeaning one.  Like so many other comedians, Coryat wanted to be taken seriously. He cared little for mere money, but he longed for fame and, even more importantly, respect. Playing the fool for the entertainment of the nobility was no way to achieve either of those desires. He came up with a remarkable career plan. He would travel--alone--across Europe, then write a book about his adventures. Surely, then, he would win lasting acclaim?

Coryat set off on his journey in May 1608. His limited funds meant that he had to walk a good part of the way. (He proudly dubbed himself "The Oddcombe Legge-Stretcher.") In the course of nearly half a year, Coryat "leg-stretched" his way through France, Italy, Venice, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Once back in England, he gave thanks for his safe return by donating his well-worn clothes and shoes to Odcombe Church, apparently with the thought that they should be venerated as relics. (The items, rather remarkably, remained on display until the 18th century.) In 1611, he recorded his achievement in a book, "Coryat's Crudities, hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Italy, &c." His friend Ben Jonson arranged to have the work published, and also wrote a forward where he described Coryat as "an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers, and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle Head dictating." Coryat enlisted his other literary friends, such as John Donne and Inigo Jones, to write promotional verses (the 17th century equivalent of "blurbs") for the beginning of the book. He perhaps did not anticipate that his pals would gleefully take this as an opportunity to satirize and mock him. This literary celebrity roast proved so popular that a pirated reprint of the verses was published, omitting Coryat's material "for thine and thy purses good."

The imposing (over 200,000 words) "Crudities" is entirely characteristic of its author: Energetic, garrulous, amusing, eclectic, and slightly cracked. (It is the only book I know of to feature a frontispiece showing the author being pelted with eggs.) The streets of Paris "are the dirtiest, and so consequently the most stinking of all that ever I saw in any citie in my life." After describing a harrowing trip through the Alps, he noted that Aiguebelle featured many people with throat goitres, which he attributed to "the drinking of snow water." Savoy had beds so high "that a man could hardly gette into his bedde without some kind of climbing." Coryat deplored the Italian habit of sprinkling cheese over their food, "which I love not so well as the Welchmen doe." He did, however, appreciate one aspect of Italian dining: how they "doe alwaies at their meales use a little forke when they cut their meat...This forme of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forkes being for the most part made of yron or steele, and some of silver...The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all mens fingers are not alike cleane." Forks were not entirely unknown in England, but it took Coryat's promotion of their hygienic benefits to bring them into wider use.

Coryat also took note of another Italian innovation: "what they commonly call in the Italian tongue umbrellaes, that is, things that minister shadow unto them for shelter against the scorching heate of the Sunne. These are made of leather something answerable to the forme of a little canopy, & hooped in the inside with divers little wooden hoopes that extend the umbrella in a pretty large compasse." This is believed to be the earliest use of the word "umbrella" in English, although it would take about a century for the instruments to come into general use among Coryat's countrymen.

Venice fascinated him. It "yeeldeth the most glorious and heavenly shew upon the water that ever any mortal eye beheld." He described the architecture in astounding detail (often borrowed wholesale from earlier guide books.) Coryat earned the undying gratitude of music historians for his vivid descriptions of performances of the Venetian School, considered to be one of Europe's most well-known and influential musical movements.

On a less sublime note, he recorded the city's ubiquitous brothels, complaining that "if a stranger entereth into one of their Gondolas, and doth not presently tell them whither he will goe, they will incontinently carry him of their accord to a religious house [his sarcastic term for a bordello] forsooth, where his plumes shall be well pulled before he commeth forth againe." Coryat estimated that Venice had at least 20,000 prostitutes, "whereof many are esteemed so loose, that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow." He added his fear "least I shall expose my selfe to the severe censure and scandalous imputations of many carping Criticks, who I thinke will taxe me for luxury and wantonnesse to insert so lascivious a matter into this Treatise of Venice." Our Thomas knew that nothing sells books like a little sex.

Coryat followed up the success of "Crudities" with a sequel, "Coryats Crambe," a grab-bag of material consisting of some verses that had been submitted too late for inclusion in the previous book, petitions to Prince Henry and other members of the Royal Family, and the text of a speech Coryat made in the Court of Chancery. It too had a respectable sale, earning the author a decent amount of fame. Coryat became an accepted member of London's lively literary society, hobnobbing with (in the words of John Aubrey,) "all the witts then about the towne." John Hoskyns wrote a lengthy poem about this Jacobean Algonquin Round Table where Coryat ("This orator of Odcombe towne") was immortalized with lines such as,
But yet the number is not righted;
If Coriate bee not invited,
The jeast will want a tiller.
For wittily on him, they say,
As hammers on an anvil play,
Each man his jeast may breake.
When Coriate is fuddled well,
His tongue begins to talke pel-mel,
He shameth not to speake.
Hoskyns concluded his "tribute" by noting,
But Coriate liveth by his witts,
He looseth nothinge that he getts,
Nor playes the fool in vayne.

Coryat was still feeling restless and unfulfilled. His wanderlust urged him on to tackle even more exotic adventures. On October 20, 1612, he set out on another solo journey. He walked through Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Coryat was one of the few Englishmen to tour the Ottoman Empire while it was still nearly at the height of its power and renown. He joined up with a caravan traveling through Palestine to Jerusalem. Coryat was utterly charmed by the region. His letters carry rapturous descriptions of monasteries with beautiful walled gardens, grand mosques with a thousand pillars, and cheap but excellent food. He called Damascus "an earthly paradise." In Jerusalem, Coryat piously had his arm tattooed with the arms of Jerusalem and the words "Via, Veritas, Vita" ["the Way, the Truth, the Life"] and visited the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre and other religious sites. By July 1615, he had arrived in India, where he was pleased to encounter a small group of Englishmen who were doing negotiations on behalf of the East India Company. He had been walking for some nine months, and was ready to take a rest in this little British enclave. The letters he sent home during this period were published in 1616 under the title of "Greetings from the Court of the Great Mogul." (A sequel appeared in 1618.)

Coryat made an appearance the court of the Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer. He presented a petition to Jahangir where he described himself as a "poore traveler and World-Seer," come to see "the blessed face of your Majesty," elephants, and the Ganges, presumably in that order. He asked the Emperor's permission to travel to Samarkand. Jahangir replied that his hostile relations with the Tartars made it impossible to help Coryat make the journey, but he did give the traveler a small sum of money. Coryat was grateful for this donation, as "I had but twentie shillings sterling left in my Purse."

Coryat visited Agra, which was then a great trading city. He observed religious festivals (as a devout Protestant, he did not really approve of any of them,) and toured grand tombs and exotic holy sites.

However, Coryat was tired. The strain of months of foot travel through largely inhospitable lands was finally taking its toll. He confided to an Englishman of his acquaintance that as he usually traveled alone, he feared he might die and "be buried in obscurity and none of his friends ever know what became of him."

In November 1617, Coryat made his way to Surat, popular as both a trade city and a port of embarkation for Mecca pilgrimages. It was his final journey. According to Edward Terry, an East India Company chaplain who had befriended the wanderer, Coryat's end was characteristically serio-comic: "He lived to come safely thither, but there being over-kindly used by some of the English, who gave him sack which they had brought from England; he calling for it as soon as he first heard of it, and crying: 'Sack, sack, is there such a thing as sack? I pray give me some sack'; and drinking of it (though, I conceive, moderately, for he was a very temperate man,) it increased his flux which he had then upon him."

This combination of English wine and Indian dysentery proved fatal for Coryat in December 1617. The location of his grave is now uncertain. Just outside of Surat is a domed Muslim-style monument which legend says is his burial site, but it is also possible that Coryat was laid to rest in Surat's English graveyard.

It is a sadly anonymous fate for someone so eager to make his mark in the world. However, although Coryat did not achieve the level of permanent historical recognition he probably craved, his could not be called an unsuccessful life. He was a brave, likable man who had adventures unheard of by most of his contemporaries and, for the most part, he seems to have had a jolly good time doing them. He deserves to be remembered.

I for one raise my fork to him.

1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of Coryat, and he certainly deserves to be heard of. The only adventure close to what he did of which I know is Patrick Leigh Fermor's walk across Europe in the early 1930s. But Coryat must surely be one of history's great adventurers and explorers: though he explored those areas already known, none of them would have been well-known, at least to much of Europe. Well done, Coryat.


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