Armchair Travellers: Collecting Travel Books in the Seventeenth Century

Armchair Travellers: Collecting Travel Books in the Seventeenth Century

Hannah Moore

During the last 6 weeks as part of the UROP scheme at the University I have been working in Special Collections housed at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). Whilst there, I worked with my supervisors in the English Department, Michelle O’Callaghan and Chloe Houston to create a catalogue of Early Modern travel writing.

Early Modern, for this catalogue, is defined as any writing concerning travel between 1590 and 1800. William H. Sherman once wrote that the genre of travel writing was a way to “Put the world on paper” and, indeed, there was certainly a huge amount of the world contained in the MERL’s archives. I did not have extensive experience of Special Collections before doing this project but was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to access as well as being such an incredible source of information. It contains 5 core collections: Cole, Stenton, Henley, Overstone and Hawkins cumulatively containing approximately 21,425 volumes covering every subject – I have found books on bee keeping in Syria as well as a man’s musical tour around England during my travel writing search alone. The process of using the Reading Room only requires finding it – tucked into a corner of the MERL opposite London Road, and getting used to filling out the request form. It’s free and there are always staff or volunteers happy to help, it is also a perfect way to boost any secondary reading for essays or in dissertation research.

To provide some evidence of the range of materials that I came across are some of my favourite finds whilst creating the catalogue. For example, a diary-style book detailing a journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in 1740 which was pocket-size (what’s known as Octavo) and conversational. Another book named ‘A new voyage and description of the Isthmus of America’ covered a huge range of subjects including Alligators (which are reported to be ‘very good meat’) as well as spices, wars and the rainy season. I think my particular favourite is a book containing letters between Lord Shaftesbury and Mr. Locke called “Dialogues on the uses of travel’ in which Lord Shaftesbury writes “And is not travelling then, in your opinion, one of the best of those methods, which can be taken to polish and form the manners of our liberal youth, and to fit them for the business and conversation of the world”. To which Mr. Locke replies “I think not” giving a humorous and, perhaps, pessimistic view about the use of the books I have been researching.

Through the UROP scheme I have gained a better understanding of the huge range of resources that the University has as well as how best to use them.