Romance, Cosmography and the Trading Companies: Albions England and The Preachers Travels
From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)
Jane Grogan, University College Dublin
When the English translation of Sebastian Münster’s hugely popular Cosmographia (1544) was published in 1561, it was partial, focussing only on Scandinavia, probably (it has been suggested) because of King Erik XIV of Sweden’s recent courtship of Queen Elizabeth I. Its translator, George North, dedicated the work not to Elizabeth (to whom his relation Thomas North would later dedicate his Plutarch translation), nor to a wealthy would-be patron or intellectual mentor, but to the ‘English gallant’ (Johnson 1612, C5r), Thomas Stukely. Not yet as notorious as he would soon become, Stukely nonetheless already represented a type of English mobility — adventuring travel, but also mobility of identity — that was fast becoming a domestic staple in various genres of romance. Socially, he occupied a middle ground, neither knight nor citizen nor rogue; instead, travel and the gains of travel were his defining attributes. As North writes of Stukely’s social and physical mobility,‘Besydes these your liberalities [of friendship], your own trauel in foreyne & straunge nacions wyth the perfect vnderstandyng, & almost natural speakyng of theyr languages: importeth you to be as trym a Courtier, as you are knowen to be a worthy Soldiour’ (Münster1561, Aiiiv). At this point, we should remember, Stukely’s soldiering had caused him to fight on several opposing sides (the English, French and the Spanish), as well as being involved in piracy of French ships, but he found himself briefly back in favour in London at the time of the North/Münster publication, where (as a ‘trym … Courtier’) he had recently been appointed to help with the imminent visit of the Irish ‘rebel’ chieftain, Shane O’Neill, to an anxious court in late 1561.2 Stukeley had also, it seems, been planning a colonising trip to Florida for some years, and given the friendship with North, the ‘trauel in foreyne & straunge nacions’ probably included this ambition too. He was, in other words, an ideal exemplification of that slippery figure, the travelling hero.To English an extract from this early and important work of cosmography with the help of Stukely as dedicatee was to acknowledge the strong link between early modern cosmography and romance. It also acknowledges the growing popular interest in cosmography, and the appeal of (mostly romance) narrative modes to engage with it. And it reveals one way in which that link operated in narrative practice: focalised through the actions of a travelling hero. In this translation, in fact, North makes short work of the geographical and ethnographic descriptions — ‘the situacion of their Countries, the maners of theyr people’ (Aiiv) — to speak ‘amply’ instead of the political history behind the rise of Erik XIV to the Swedish throne. The deliberate centring of a hero in North’s translation makes narrative what had been cosmographical description. The same technique would later be used by some of those describing their travels east and west, borrowing romance tropes and centring themselves as a travelling hero, with the added benefit of mediating the novelty of their experiences to domestic readers. But inherited models of chivalric romance, while still current, were not the only model.Early modern romance, Ladan Niayesh writes, is situated ‘Halfway between the nostalgia of medieval chivalry and the enterprising spirit of early modern exploration, piracy and commerce as preludes to a future empire’ (2018, 1).3 Despite the wider decline in the medievalized forms of romance with its aristocratic or royal heroes, early modern romance diversified, and, in many of its late-sixteenth/early seventeenth century incarnations, it proved particularly hospitable to new kinds of local, lower-class heroes, drawn from the world of early modern exploration, piracy and commerce rather than medieval chivalry. It is the cosmographical information disseminated and sometimes elicited by these travelling heroes — in romance but also in travel writing — that this essay seeks to foreground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the infamous figure of Sir John Mandeville plays a significant role, a protean yet transitional version of the travelling hero as it evolved across multiple genres. It is a large field, though, and in this article I attend to a neglected group: those who travelled as mariners on the ships of the joint-stock trading companies, and whose contributions to English cosmographical as well as literary culture have not yet been fully accounted for. The writings of those directly attached to the companies are important both because of their authors but also their audience, the social and knowledge networks in which they circulated. Romance served ‘servants and citizens’ (ibid.) as well as élites, and it was, therefore, a genre receptive to cosmographical knowledge generated or disseminated by servants and citizens of the joint-stock trading companies. This may well have been particularly true of stage romance, given the many vectors linking the London theatres and companies (especially Bankside) with the merchant communities.4 But prose and verse romance, and the many romance-flavoured varieties and diversifications of popular prose and translations across the turn of the century are also worth attending to.The remainder of this essay focuses on two representative examples showing where we might look to identify further such materials: in personal or professional ties, in romance or in romance-flavoured travel writing. The cosmographical quasi-romance writings of William Warner (1558/9–1609), whose father was one of the sailors on the first English ships sent to investigate a north-east passage (and which prompted the establishment of the Muscovy Company) is my first example; the travel writings of John Cartwright (fl. 1600–1611), sometime chaplain on East India Company voyages is my second; each may have had an influence on some of the new genres of travel play such as The Travailes of the Three English Brothers (1607) and citizen romance such as Thomas Heywood’s Four Prentises of London (1615) in early seventeenth-century London. But I begin with an overview of the conceptual links between romance, travel and cosmography in the period.