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Book Review 314: Odd Tom Coryate

March 29, 2014 - Harry Eagar
ODD TOM CORYATE: The English Marco Polo, by R.E. Pritchard. 272 pages, illustrated. Sutton

If you were to walk today -- as Tom Coryate did between 1608 and 1616 -- from England to India, the chief difference would be that you would not see gallows and corpses hanging on poles every few miles.

Odd Tom was a quirky, amusing travel writer, and he has found a quirky, amusing biographer in R.E.Pritchard. (Pritchard has recently taken on the scandalous Earl of Rochester, which I have not read but who should fit his snarky style even better than the somewhat prissy Coryate.)

Another big change from then to now: Coryate was able to “put out” 100 marks in a kind of reverse travelers’ life insurance. If he returned alive, as he did once, he would collect twice or thrice the premium. He had to sue for it, but apparently the gain financed the self-publication of his book “Coryate’s Crudites,” another modern-sounding aspect of Odd Tom’s life.

As he traveled, he encountered other Englishmen, but they were all merchants, diplomats or young grandees on the Grand Tour. Coryate was among the first to travel for the pleasure of it. His book introduced the story of William Tell to England, and for us today it has its own revelations.

For example, the Muslim practice of daily prayer had its Christian analogue in Venice, where everyone dropped to his knees, wherever he was, twice a day on a bell signal to worship the Virgin Mary.

His tramp across Iraq -- Pritchard says he was the first European since Alexander to walk from the Mediterranean to India (though Alexander himself likely rode) -- also sounds very modern. It was suicidal for a Christian (or anybody for that matter) to travel without protection.

Coryate was a solitary traveler although he joined groups when it was convenient or prudent. When traveling to Jerusalem, even a caravan of several thousand was not big enough to deter attacks from Bedouin.

But the violence and insecurity of the Koran Belt, still familiar today, was unusual when Coryate walked. He went alone and unarmed most of the time. In Europe, the only really dangerous patch was along the Rhine, an armed camp during the Twelve Years’ Truce between the Netherlands and Spain.

Coryate was thrice lucky. Had he walked a little earlier, he would have been blocked by the wars of religion in France, a little later by the wars of religion in Germany. And at all times he was in danger from his big mouth.

A decided Protestant, of apparently conventional Anglican views, he liked to harangue Catholics, Jews and Hindus. Once, in Venice, he was lucky to escape without a drubbing, and it appears he was wise enough to curb his tongue while in the Ottoman territory. In India, he was tolerated because he was judged to be mad.

Among fellow Englishmen, he was likable enough, a bit ridiculous, as he still seems today.

 
 

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