Coryat’s Crudities

Title page of Coryat’s Crudities by Thomas Coryat.  London: 1611.  The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, EL1 .C833c

I’ve been kicking around the idea of developing a Hands-On Tour relating to humor (if you haven’t been on one of our Hands-On Tours yet or don’t know what they are you can learn more about them and find upcoming topics here).  That’s a broad topic, obviously, but in a collection as diverse as the Rosenbach’s I know I and many of my colleagues often come across items that are good for a laugh or keep us smiling for days, whether because they’re quirky or witty or ironic or just absurd.  Those are laughs and smiles that should be shared with visitors, and there’s plenty of books and objects to choose from.  Shakespeare and Ben Jonson penned plenty of merry jests in their day and between George Cruikshank’s political cartoons and Jonathan Swift’s books we’ve got lots of satire in our collection.  But in a slightly more obscure vein, we also have a book that I think might represent an early instance of a type of comedy Dean Martin popularized in the 1970s: the celebrity roast.

The book is Coryat’s Crudities from 1611, written by English courtier Thomas Coryat of Odcombe.  It’s an account of his travels through Europe from May-October 1608, and the title deserves to be quoted in full: Coryat’s Crudities: Hastily Gobled up in Five Moneths Travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia Commonly Called the Grisons Country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, Some Parts of High Germany and the Netherlands; Newly Digested in the Hungry Aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, and Now Dispersed to the Nourishment of the Travelling Members of this Kingdome.  You can gather from the title that Coryat considered himself quite the wit, but aside from its style his travelogue had a lasting impact on English society, popularizing several Italian innovations such as the umbrella and the fan, the use of forks in dining, as well as the gentleman’s custom of taking a Grand Tour throughout Europe to complete one’s education.

Coryat’s adventures abroad included a gondola ride in Venice during which he was pelted with eggs, a long bout of sea-sickness on the journey from Dover to Calais, and ascending part of the Alps in a chair.  He also climbed on top of the Great Heidelberg Tun (a huge wine barrel)…

…and had a run-in with a courtesan in Venice, whom he described as “the crafty and hot daughter of the Sunne.”   

Coryat solicited some clever verses in praise of the book from various friends, a common practice at the time (and still done today on dust jackets, albeit not usually in verse).  It was at this point that his patron, Prince Henry (James I’s eldest son)–who may have considered Coryat something of a buffoon–stepped in and secretly asked other members of his court and literary men to inundate Coryat with as many verses as they could write.  Coryat wrote in his prefatory material that he received over 1000 verses from such literary luminaries as Ben Jonson, John Donne, Michael Drayton, the architect Inigo Jones, and others.  “I solicited not half those worthy Wights for these verses,” Coryat wrote, adding that Prince Henry, “gave me a strict and expresse commandment to print all those verses which I had read to his Highness.”  The final number of verses printed, 55, was still outlandish, forcing readers to plow through almost two hundred pages of sarcastic poetry before getting to Coryat’s actual travelogue.  It didn’t help that Coryat was a bit eccentric, a little provincial, and that he happened upon some misadventures in his travels.  All of this made him an easy target for his wittier roasters, with Ben Jonson taking on the role of Roastmaster in a series of prose and verse introductions to the work.  Jonson joked in a note on the “character of the author,” “It is thought he lives more by letting out of ayre then drawing in; and feared his belly will exhibite a Bill in Chauncery against his Mouth for talking away his meals.  He is always Tongue-Major of the company, and if ever the perpetual motion be to be hoped for, it is from thence.” Donne mocked the ponderously large volume itself: “Infinite worke, which doth so farre extend,/ That none can study it to any end;” “If man be therefore man, because he can/ Reason, and laugh, they booke doth half make man;” “Therefore mine impotency I confesse;/ The healths which my braine beares, must be far less;/ Thy Gyant-wit o’rethrowes me, I am gone,/ And rather than reade all, I would reade none.”  George Henton zinged some good one-liners at poor Coryat, “Whose Brain-pan hath more Pan than Braine by odds,/ to make thee all Pan with the semi-gods.”

The verses roasted Coryat in seven languages, including Greek and Welsh, as well as “Utopian” (concocted by Henry Peacham).  But the most over-the-top contribution was John Hoskins’s nonsense introduction to his verse (comparing Coryat to a porcupine): “Encomiological Antispastics consisting of Epitrits, the fourth in the first syzugie, which the vulgar call Phaleuciac hendecasyllabes; trimeters Catalecticks with Antispastic Asclepiads, trimeters Acatalectics consisting of two dactylicall commaes of some learned named Choriambicks both together dicoli distrophi, rhythmicall and hyperrythmical, amphibological, dedicated to the undeclinable memory of the autarkesticall Coryate, the onely true travelling Porcupen of England.”  Hoskins even wrote a tune to help you sing his verse out loud:

Coryat took the mostly good-natured ribbing in stride, and his book proved influential enough that he may have had the last laugh in all this. And at the very least, Coryat’s Crudities has earned a place in any humor/comedy Hands-On Tour we might offer here, though we’d love to know what you think of that idea.  Sound like a fun tour or more like something that would draw hecklers?  Any other historical roasts, jokes, pranks, and witticisms you think we should include?

Patrick Rodgers is a curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library