This quirky and intriguing book, Coryate’s Crudities (1611), is the record of one man’s journey from Odcombe in Somerset, through Europe in the early 17th century. With sections on the Jewish Ghetto, female actors at the playhouses, and the courtesans of Venice, the book offers its English audience a fascinating glimpse of an exotic foreign city. But – like Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice – it also confronts them with questions about gender and ethnicity that are relevant to life in England.
Coryate’s Venice (pp. 157–60)
After a table showing the number of miles from his native Somerset, Thomas Coryate (1577?–1617) describes how Venice ‘ravishes’ his senses (p. 157). But despite its seductive powers, the city is then compared to a ‘mayden’ (p. 158) or ‘glorious … Virgin’ (p. 160) because it was ‘never conquered’ (p. 158).
The Ghetto and The Merchant of Venice (pp. 230–37)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Coryate’s Crudities is the earliest English book to include the word ‘Ghetto’. It is used in this context to describe a Venetian island which housed a ‘fraternity’ of 5,000–6,000 Jews. Coryate explores Jewish customs – a service at the synagogue, male circumcision, abstinence from pork – with an unsettling mixture of prejudice and grudging admiration.
In particular, he notes that Venetian Jewish women are ‘as beautiful as ever I saw’ (p. 233). This is interesting in relation to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, where the ‘beautiful’ and ‘gentle’ Jessica is described as a ‘most sweet Jew’ (2.3.11; 2.4.34), by contrast with her father who is shunned as ‘the dog Jew’ (2.8.14).
Coryate regrets how rarely Venetian Jews convert to ‘the Christian religion’ (p. 234). But he explains that, if they do so, their ‘goodes are confiscated’ to punish them for making ‘their fortunes by usury’ (p. 234) – lending money at interest – as Shylock does in The Merchant of Venice. Coryate himself makes a failed attempt to convert a learned man, and faces the threat of attack from a group of ‘forty or fifty’ Jews (p. 236). He is rescued only in the nick of time by the English Ambassador, Henry Wotton, who happens to be passing ‘in his gondola’ (p. 236).
Women at the playhouses (pp. 247–48)
Coryate then describes a ‘Comedie’ which he has seen performed at a Venetian playhouse. He is struck by the unfamiliar sight of women performing on stage, having seen only all-male companies in England, and he reports that the women fulfilled their roles as well as any ‘masculine Actor’. He is also fascinated by the ‘noble & famous Cortezans’ who sit in the audience wearing ‘double-maskes’. Their intriguing disguises almost mirror the deceptions enacted on the main stage.
The ‘Venetian Cortezans’ and Othello (pp. 263–71)
Coryate’s section on the courtesans or prostitutes of Venice is extensive and finely illustrated – though he insists that he wrote it in the name of careful research rather than ‘wanton’ pleasure. Titillating details of the women’s ‘beauties’ (p. 265), their ‘sumptuous’ rooms (p. 265) and seductive clothing (p. 267) are carefully balanced with warnings on how to resist temptation.
Coryate shows us the double standards at work in Venetian society, explaining that the courtesans are not only tolerated but given official ‘dispensation’ (p. 264). They are thought to provide an outlet for men’s lust (p. 265), protecting ‘the chastity of their wives’ in the period before marriage (p. 264). This idea unravels in Othello, as we are introduced to the courtesan Bianca (3.4.170), but we also see the hero’s increasingly obsessive view of his wife as a ‘cunning whore of Venice’ (4.2.88).
Venice as the gem in the world’s ring (pp. 290–91)
Coryate concludes his ‘treatise’ on this ‘incomparable city’ with a crazy mix of metaphors. He describes Venice as ‘this most beautifull Queene, this untainted virgine, this Paradise, this Temp[l]e, this rich Diademe and most flourishing garland of Christendome’. If the world was a ring then, for Corayte, Venice would be its ‘gemme’.
Coryate and Henry, Prince of Wales
This unique copy of the book, with hand-coloured illustrations, was presented to King James’s teenage son Henry, and bears his initials (H.P.) on its velvety binding. Coryate (whose portrait appears on the engraved title page) served the Prince of Wales as a kind of unpaid court jester, and asked for permission to dedicate this book to him.
Manuscript notes, and letter from Coryate, dated 15th November 1610
In the margins of this copy there are a number of manuscript notes scrawled in the margins. One striking example is on p. 268, where the word ‘cl*toris’ is written, as a translation of the Latin ‘cos amoris’ or rock of love. If these notes are written by Coryate (as the British Library catalogue entry suggests), then this note may even pre-date the OED’s first recorded use of the word in 1615.
Attached at the end is a wax-stained envelope and letter from Coryate to Sir Michael Hickes (1543–1612), who was at one time secretary to the Elizabethan statesman Lord Burghley. Coryate pleads with Hickes to help him get a licence to print the Crudities, boasting of his ‘Herculean’ efforts in researching the book.