Monday, November 11, 2013

The Bible Of Unconscious Buffoonery

by Stephen J. Gertz

Extra engraved titlepage.

Imagine that you've written a book that no one will publish; it's considered over-long and looney. So, to pump-up its importance, impress, and tacitly solicit subscriptions, you ask eminent men, oh, around sixty of 'em, to contribute "panegyricke verses upon the Authour and his booke" extolling your wonderfulness and that of your volume. Amazingly, they do. But your contributors ridicule the book.

You include their mockery, anyway. Some attention is better than none. You underwrite the cost of printing the book yourself and in doing so produce one of the great vanity publications ever issued, and if your contributors insult you, well, how flattering to your vanity that these great men took the time to do so.

Such was the case of Thomas Coryat (1577-1617) and his book, Three crude veines are presented in this booke following (besides the foresaid Crudities): no less flowing in the body of the booke, then the Crudities themselues, two of rhetoricke and one of poesie…, popularly known by its title from the engraved titlepage/frontispiece (and subsequent editions) as Coryat's Crudities: Hastily gobled up in five moneths trauells in France, Sauoy, Italy, Rhetia com[m]only called the Grisons county, Heluetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany, and the Netherlands. Newly Digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, now dispersed to the nourishment of the traveling Members of the Kingdome.

Coryat's traveling shoes.

Within, Coryat records his step-by-step 1,975 mile schlep across Western Europe. He didn't intend for it to be funny, it just turned out that way. Outlandish, toilsome and wacky adventures are related with such sober and solemn seriousness that the clod is completely unaware that he is a clown in his own touring circus.

"There probably has never been another such combination of learning and unconscious buffoonery as is here set forth. Coryate was a serious and pedantic traveller who (as he states in his title) in five months toilsome travel wandered, mostly on foot, over a large part (by his own reckoning 1,975 miles) of western Europe. His adventures probably appeared to his contemporaries as more ridiculous than exciting, but at this remove, his chronicle by its very earnestness provides an account of the chief cities of early seventeenth century Europe which is at least valuable as it is amusing. It was probably his difficulties with the booksellers which induced Coryate to solicit the extraordinary sheaf of testimonials prefixed to the volume. Possibly he acted upon the notion apparently now current among publishers of social directories that every person listed is a prospective purchaser of the work. At any rate he secured contributions from more than sixty writers at the time. Among his panegyrists appear the names of Jonson, Chapman, Donne, Campion, Harington, Drayton, Davies of Hereford, and others, each contributor vying to mock poor Coryate with solemn ridicule." (Pforzheimer) 

Now, imagine you're Ben Jonson, one of the contributors. You've read the book, and, after re-inserting your eyeballs - which, as if in an animated cartoon, grew to the size of softballs and popped-out of their sockets - you consider what to make of this. As your contribution you write a verse explanation of the engraved frontispiece, decoding its emblematic illustrations. It reads, in part:

Our Author in France rode on Horse without stirrop,
And in Italic bathed himselfe in their syrrop.

His love to horses he sorteth out strange prettilie,
He rides them in France, and lies with them in Italie.

You get the idea. It's an Elizabethan comedy roast but the roastee (known as the British Ulysseys, with accent on Odd-essy), basking in the attention, is deaf to the jokes. It's Mystery Science Theater 3000, the book edition, with eminent readers hurling written wisecracks at the deliriously ridiculous and over-long text while they peruse it from their reading chair, rather than vocally razzing a deliriously ridiculous and over-long movie from their seats in the theater.

Here's an excerpt from John Donne's panegyric to Coryat and his Crudities:

This Booke, greater than all, producest now,
Infinite worke, which doth so farre extend,
That none can study it to any end.
Tis no one thing; it is not fruite, nor roote;
Nor poorly limited with head or foote.
If man be therefore man, because he can
Reason, and laugh, thy booke doth halfe make man.
One halfe being made, thy modesty was such,
That thou on th' other halfe wouldst never touch.
When wilt thou be at full, great Lunatique?


Coryat apparently experienced this - and the other testimonials - as "Oooh, they like me, they really like me!"

I am sory I can speake so little of so flourishing and beautifull a Citie [as Turin]. For during that little time that I was in the citie, I found so great a distemperature in my body, by drinking the sweete wines of Piemont, that caused a grievous inflammation in my face and hands; so that I had but a smal desire to walke much abroad in the streets. Therefore I would advise all English-men that intend to travell into Italy, to mingle their wine with water as soone as they come into the country, for feare of ensuing inconveniences... 

In short, Coryat was drunk during his entire stay in Turin.

Complete copies of Coryat's Crudities are scarce. "Perfect copies with the plates intact are not common...The D.N.B. has repeated the statement that the Chetham copy is the only perfect one known" (Pforzheimer).

A complete copy has, however, recently come into the marketplace.  Offered by Whitmore Rare Books, the asking price is $25,000. Despite its faults it's one of the great travelogues.

"Coryate drew on his experiences in writing Coryats Crudities (1611), which was intended to encourage courtiers and gallants to enrich their minds by continental travel. It contains illustrations, historical data, architectural descriptions, local customs, prices, exchange rates, and food and drink, but is too diffuse and bulky - there are 864 pages in the 1905 edition - to become a vade-mecum. To solicit ‘panegyric verses’ Coryate circulated copies of the title-page depicting his adventures and his portrait, which had been engraved by William Hole and which he considered a good likeness. About sixty contributors include many illustrious authors, not all in verse, some insulting, some pseudonymous" (DNB).

Coryat Meets Margarita Emiliana bella Cortesana di Venetia,

As for Thomas Coryat, the "great Lunatique" died in 1617 and now permanently sleeps with the horses in Italy, which beats sleeping with the fishes in Sicily. It's the difference among character assassination, corporeal execution, and the bestial joy of equine companionship on an arduous journey; bathing in horse-piss in Italy was a bonus, pass the Purell, please - and a barf-bag and incontinence pad, the better to endure Coryat's voyage to France and his feed to hungry fish as written in chapter one's first sentence:

I was imbarked at Dover, about tenne of the clocke in the morning, the fourteenth of May, being Saturday and Whitsun-eve, Anno 1608, and arrived in Calais (which Caesar calleth Ictius portus, a maritime towne of that of part Picardy, which is commonly called le pais reconquis; that is, the recovered Province, inhabited in former times by the ancient Morini) about five of the clocke in the afternoone, after I had varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach, as desiring to satiate the gormandizing paunches of the hungry Haddocks (according as I have hieroglyphically expressed it in the front of my booke) with that wherewith I had superfluously stuffed my selfe at land, having made my rumbling belly their capacious aumbrie.

It isn't often that an author opens his book with a tableau presenting the painting of a ship with his (or anyone else's) diarrhea. It's a riveting first sentence with repulsive denouement; readers may spew the contents of their now tumultuous stomachs through their northern orafice. Yes, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, a dark and stormy night, with emphasis on the dark storm raging at Coryat's southern orafice. Yet sunny skies and silliness await the intrepid reader. Be not afraid. Read on ye armchair traveller, you have nothing to lose but your sanity to this seventeenth century version of your friend's interminable seminar with soporific slideshow about a recent vacation, no detail too picayune to omit. Coryat, for instance, never fails to tell the exact time of day that something occurred, and, it seems, reports on everything he put in his mouth -

 I did eate fried Frogges this citie [Cremona]

- and everything he encountered, with the possible exception of dust motes. He then concludes his exhausting review of each city with a breezy, unintentionally amusing, "so much for Paris;" "so much for Venice;" "so much for Milan." It's so very much.

Yea, verily and alas, the booke lacketh backgrounde musik by the eminent Elizabethan composer and performer, Boots Randolph, playing that olde English aire, Yaketie Saxe, to highlight its slapsticke gravitie and the inadvertent Keystone Cop qualitie of Coryat's adventures chasing after Europe, and enliven his dreary descriptions.



CORYAT, Thomas. [From engraved title]: Coryats Crudities. Hastily gobled up in five moneths trauells in France, Sauoy, Italy, Rhetia com[m]only called the Grisons county, Heluetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany, and the Netherlands. Newly Digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, now dispersed to the nourishment of the traveling Members of the Kingdome. London: Printed by W[illiam]. S[tansby]., 1611. First edition.  Quarto in eights (8 1/8 x 6 inches; 206 x 153 mm). [-]2; a8-b8 ([-]1 inserted after a3); b4; c8-g8; h4-l4; B8-D8 (D3 inserted after preceding D); E8-3C8; 3D4; [-]2 (first is signed 3E3; both are errata). Extra engraved titlepage (i.e. frontispiece) by William Hole, five engraved plates (three folding), two text engravings and numerous woodcut initials and head-pieces. With two leaves of errata.

Pforzheimer 218. Cox 98. Keynes 70.

Images courtesy of Whitmore Rare Books, currently offering this volume, with our thanks.

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