On the radio

12 Jun

Well, that was exciting.

As part of the AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers programme, yesterday evening I got to present an essay on Radio 3’s excellent Night Waves. I chose to talk about disguise and subterfuge in sixteenth-century travel, looking in particular at Fynes Moryson (1565/6-1630), whose massive Itinerary, published in 1617, is one of the most vivid sources for the realities of continental travel in the early modern period. Moryson’s travels took him ‘through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland’, and as far as Jerusalem – with his brother, Henry, dying on the road. I also tried to make it clear how debates on dissimulation in travel related to wider cultural and religious anxieties – something I’m looking at in more detail in the PhD research.

If you like, you can hear the essay here – it’s only five minutes long, and starts at 30 minutes in. The rest of the show is great, too, with a review of The Amen Corner at the National, and a discussion about conspiracy theories, all held together by regular presenter Dr. Matthew Sweet.

There was one more story I’d hoped to discuss in relation to disguise and dissimulation, but sadly time was against me and we didn’t manage to squeeze it in. So I thought I might pop it up here on the blog, like some bizarre textual extended cut.

Here you go:

“Henry Wotton, like Fynes Moryson, left university to spend a chunk of the 1590s on the continent. During a language-learning stop in Heidelberg, he wrote ‘I dare boldly say that before I visit Italy there is no German that shall not take me for a German. And I mean by God’s grace to be many degrees beyond an Italian’s discovery’. Wotton was after information and experience that were usually inaccessible to an English Protestant on the continent. He wanted, too, to show he could get places that others couldn’t. For this young Englishman, this meant Catholic Rome.

Protestant travellers could visit the eternal city, but had their movements and activities observed and restricted. Wotton decided to put his language skills to good use, and in the spring of 1592, he set off from Venice to Rome, in the guise of German. Apart from some fellow-travellers who were in on the scheme, Wotton seems to have fooled a lot of people, by employing the counter-intuitive but apparently effective tactic of making himself as conspicuous as possible, wearing ‘a mighty blue feather in a black hat’ and becoming ‘reputed as light in my mind as in my apparel’. No-one, he surmised correctly, would suspect an idiot German – and a badly dressed one, at that – of being a dangerous spy. The plan worked, until he narrowly escaped having his cover blown after a chance encounter with an English Catholic. He wrote home to boast that ‘No Englishman, containing himself within his allegiance to her Majesty, hath seen more concerning the points of Rome than I have done’, and promptly high-tailed it to Florence where, practising his Italian, he noted proudly that he was learning ‘to speak well and do ill’. It was a skill that would help to make his diplomatic career.”


Thanks to anyone who listened in and commented on the piece. I hope you enjoyed it, and am really looking forward to working more with the brilliant team at Night Waves (which is always worth a listen, in case you’re not already a fan) and to taking up the many opportunities that the NGT programme has in store.

There’s not a lot of freely accessible material on Fynes Moryson online, unfortunately, though you can get access to the Itinerary via archive.org – here’s Volume One. UCL’s digital collections allow you to view the original printed edition, too. If you’ve got access to the Dictionary of National Biography (most public libraries do), you can find his life story here. His DNB entry describes him as ‘without much literary skill’, which is inexplicable to me – I mean, he’s not Tolstoy but his writing is alive with detail, committed to debate, and not afraid of jokes. Ideal, really.

Henry Wotton has a bit more online information: his Wiki page is a decent introduction, and his DNB entry has more. An old edition of his letters with a biography attached is online here, but he really does deserve a brand-new up-to-date study. As does Moryson. So, if you’re a billionaire oil baron with deep pockets and a thing for the seventeenth century, do drop me a line.

6 Responses to “On the radio”

  1. samklai June 12, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Nice essay! + extras. There is the 2003 book on Wotton by Gerald Curzon (cf. review in Ren Studies 20.4, 2006). But you probably know this.

    Remind me to tell you about Thomas Wilson sometime. He disguised himself as an Italian..

    • earlymodernjohn June 12, 2013 at 11:17 am #

      Thanks Sam! I know the Curzon book indeed, but still reckon there’s more to be done. And I can’t wait to hear about Wilson – have thought there’s an amazing project to be done entirely on disguise & dissimulation in 16th- & 17th-century Europe. So if that renaissance-obsessed billionaire is reading…

  2. Helen Finch June 12, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    How wonderful! Congratulations on the programme.

    I could only wish that more contemporary English people set out to learn German so well that Italians and Germans alike took them for Germans. I’m also intrigued that, long before the Cold War, German was clearly the language of espionage.

    • earlymodernjohn June 12, 2013 at 11:15 am #

      Thank you, Helen!

      I think German & its varieties are fascinating in early modern language-learning, and am always intrigued to come across English-speakers who learnt it. It’s also interesting to note that in spite of pressure from his tutor and correspondent Hubert Languet, Philip Sidney – famously multilingual as he was – resisted learning German on his travels. There was an element of snobbery in play, but I can’t help thinking it might also have something to do with English-speakers’ anxieties about their own Saxon language – anxieties which were to the fore in sixteenth-century England!

      • Helen Finch June 12, 2013 at 11:21 am #

        Oh fascinating! When you say ‘anxieties about their own Saxon language’, do you mean that they still felt that it would be more elegant if they spoke a Romance language, hence all the learned latinate importations into C16 English? Why is it German that particularly excites anxiety, rather than Dutch or indeed French?

      • earlymodernjohn June 12, 2013 at 11:26 am #

        The anxiety is definitely one which comes from comparisons with classical languages and with Romance vernaculars – specifically Italian and French. And you’re right that this is at the heart of the ‘inkhorn controversy’ over borrowed words. French & Italian become, to some extent, model vernaculars – the Pléiade in France and post-Petrarchan writing in Italy make compelling cases for the capacity of those languages to sustain a great vernacular literature, while sixteenth-century English-speakers (and translators) are still uncertain as to whether English can do the same. As to why German would be any different to Dutch, it’s difficult to say – though Dutch had such crucial commercial applications that perhaps the debate could be more easily bypassed? I’m not sure, though – I think there’s a lot more research needed on English ideas about their own language and its relation to others in this period.

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