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Who Were The First European Travel Writers?

Dec 17, 2007
Travel writing is a major genre. Go into any bookshop and see the vast array of travel writings aimed to appeal to every type and taste. There are food travel books for food enthusiasts, historical travelogues for the historians, humorous travel books for the irreverent, and every other imaginable slant on travel. But where did this interest in the travels of others begin?

One of the earliest European travel accounts, where the writer traveled for the sake of travel and wrote about it afterwards was written, oddly enough, not during the heydays of Greece or Rome but in the year 1336 A.D. Petrarch, an Italian scholar, poet and one of the earliest Renaissance humanists -- the man credited with perfecting the sonnet and making it one of the most perfect art forms to date -- climbed Mount Ventoux and wrote about it afterwards. It was a climb that resulted in far more than just the view he described or his account of the satisfaction of reaching the top. He introduced an entire new activity to humanity: travel writing.

True to the genre as well, Petrarch was critical of his fellow travelers or, in this case, those who refused to accompany him. He described his companions who stayed at the bottom of the slope frigida incuriositas, an insult that fell just short of calling them stupid. A loose translation is "people with a cold lack of curiosity". Petrarch not only talked of the toil involved in reaching the peak but went a little overboard, by today's standard, making allegorical comparisons between climbing the mountain and his own moral progress in life. It was a sort of vertical Pilgrim's Progress, but it would be several centuries before John Bunyan followed Petrarch's lead.

Then there was Michault Taillement, a poet for the Duke of Burgundy, who traveled through the Jura Mountains in 1430 and diarized his personal reflections, which included naked terror when confronted by sheer rock faces and blind fear when observing cascading waterfalls.

In the same era Antoine de la Sale, author of Petit Jehan de Saintre, climbed to the crater of a volcano in the Lipari Islands in 1407 and recorded his impressions. He put his impulse to undertake the climb to "councils of mad youth".

In the mid 15th century Gilles de Bouvier gave a delightful explanation of why one should travel and write. In his Livre de la description des pays he wrote: " Because many people of diverse nations and countries delight and take pleasure, as I have done in times past, in seeing the world and things therein, and also because many wish to know without going there, and others wish to see, go, and travel, I have begun this little book."

In 1589 Richard Hakluyt published Voyages, a text which became the template for the travel literature genre for many centuries.

In the 18th century, travel literature was commonly known as the Book of Travels, and most often these consisted of maritime diaries and the public couldn't get enough of them. Captain James Cook's diaries (1784) were the equivalent of today's best sellers. It was in the 18th century that travel writing matured as a genre. Every writer had a travel book or two and today nothing much has changed in this respect.

Other later examples of travel literature include accounts of the Grand Tour written by countless aristocrats, clergy, and others with money and leisure time, who traveled Europe to learn about the art and architecture of its past. The tradition of the Grand Tour lasted well into the 20th century and was still a feature of the Belle Epoque (the 1920's). Another travel literature pioneer was Robert Louis Stevenson in the late 19th century whose "Travels with a donkey" introduced a light-hearted tone to the genre.
About the Author
Justine has been a journalist for 20 years and is a contributor to Just The Planet, the online luxury travel magazine for independent travelers.
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