In May 1608, Thomas Coryat of Odcombe set out from London with little money and only one pair of shoes on a voyage that took him through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Travelling approximately 1,975 miles (3,175 km) alone and unarmed, sometimes walking as far as 36 miles in a single day, he acquired the well-deserved nickname, “the Odcombian Legstretcher.” Returning to England in October, he hung his well-worn shoes in the church at Odcombe (with the rector’s permission) and began compiling his observations into what would become more than 650 pages of descriptive prose, published in 1611 as Coryats Crudities.
At a time when travel was dangerous and undertaken primarily for reasons of business, religion, or politics, Coryat’s aim was to encourage persons with sufficient means to enrich their minds through continental travel. In his narrative, he described natural, scientific, and archaeological wonders, food and drink, prices and exchange rates, as well as local customs, some of which he helped popularise in England.
He described the use of table forks at dinner, which were at that time common in Italy but virtually unknown in England. He subsequently acquired his own fork and frequently imitated the Italian fashion of eating after his return from the continent.
He is credited in the Oxford English Dictionary with the first recorded use of the word “umbrella” in his description of the Italian practice of shading oneself from the sun.
While in Switzerland he heard and recorded the story of William Tell; his account is believed to be the first time the tale was recorded in English.
In addition to documenting these novelties, Coryats Crudities contributed to the popularity of the Grand Tour, a custom which would become an educational rite of passage from the 1660s until the 1840s.
At the time of the book’s publication, it was customary to solicit commendatory verses in praise of the author. To that end, Coryat circulated copies of the title page, illustrated with a portrait of himself and depictions of his many adventures. Although he kept company with the likes of Ben Jonson, John Donne, and Inigo Jones, Coryat was viewed at court as something of a self-important buffoon who was perhaps a little too fond of the sound of his own voice. He soon found himself the subject of dozens of verses, many of which mocked his high opinion of himself and his florid, euphuistic prose.
Coryat intended to dedicate his volume to King James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, whose patronage he hoped to secure. The teenage prince accepted the dedication, but insisted that the work be published with 55 of the satirical poems intact. In the first edition, they occupy no less than 64 pages. These verses became so popular in their own own right that they were published separately that same year in a pirated edition entitled, The Odcombian Banquet.
Coryat’s wanderlust continued throughout his life. In 1612 he set out once more, travelling through Constantinople, Israel, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and India, and learning Turkish, Italian, Persian, Arabic, and Hindustani along the way. In 1616 he published Thomas Coriate Traveller for the English Wits, and in 1625, Samuel Purchas published Purchas his Pilgrimes, which incorporated Coryat’s notes from the early part of his Eastern voyage, though in drastically abbreviated form.
Cardiff University holds a copy of the 1611 first edition of Coryats Crudities, bearing the armorial crest of Sir William Burrell. Sir William Burrell served as M.P. for Haslemere in 1768, and again in 1774 after a brief stint as a commissioner of excise. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, as well as a director of the South Sea Company.
Burrell had a lifelong interest in antiquities and made an intense study of the history of Sussex. He personally visited nearly every parish in the county to inspect and copy its records, tracing family lines and collecting drawings of churches, houses, and sepulchral monuments along the way. His work was never published, but he bequeathed his entire collection of sketches and other documents to the British Museum.