Europe - as it appeared to travellers in the Eighteenth Century

All travellers are liars, asserted Lucian in the 2nd century.  Yet travel tales have long been at the top of the best-seller lists and continue to provide readers with a window onto the world.

European travel has a complex history.  Until the late seventeenth century, most Europeans travelled for practical reasons:  for business, on diplomatic service, as students, pilgrims, migrants or soldiers.  Although recreational travel was not unknown, only in the eighteenth century did travel for its own sake become common, part of the upbringing of young noblemen and increasingly of wealthy middle class males.  In that period, typically, it involved a visit to Rome to view sites that were familiar from an education in the classics.  This became known as the 'Grand Tour', and those undertaking it were called 'tourists'.  Some were awed by the experience, while others profited from the opportunity to escape from parental control.  Indeed, some wealthy families quite deliberately sent young men abroad to 'sow their wild oats' and get any rebelliousness out of their system before coming home to settle down.  Needless to say, there was debate about the benefit of travel.  Many writers stressed the educational possibilities, while some English commentators worried that too much exposure to French culture might lead young men to become effeminate.

Growing prosperity and the popularity of leisure travel spawned a huge number of travel books.  Young men were encouraged to keep a diary of their Grand Tour, and some wrote with publication in mind.  In the 1830s, the emergence of mass tourism was marked by the appearance of standardized guides published by Murray and Baedeker.  As artists and scientists began to travel more, accounts were illustrated with engravings that reinforced the veracity of the text.  Middle-class women also began travelling in significant numbers and produced accounts that were different from but complemented male ones.

Although travel accounts purported to be accurate reflections of what the traveller had seen and experienced, they in fact constitute a literary genre, going back to ancient times, with its own evolving style and conventions.  Many travellers did recount what they saw, albeit filtered by their own presuppositions and prejudices, although some plagiarised earlier descriptions.  Yet the idea of what was interesting, both to see and to record, changed over time.  Early modern travellers write almost exclusively about cities and towns, taking no interest in the countryside or in scenery.  Both the sea and the mountains were regarded with fear, and travellers sometimes made long detours to avoid them.  Only in the nineteenth century did they deliberately set out to enjoy the wonders of mountain scenery and flock to the seaside to enjoy the fresh air and the waves.

Travel writers knew what readers expected, and many stuck to a well-tried script.  Paris and London were compared; the depiction of Rome was often romanticised, fitting a historical view of decline and fall.  By the early 19th century, as Western Europeans began to extend their travels to the Balkans, the oppression of the Greek people by Ottoman rulers was added to the repertoire.  For those who now went as far as Constantinople, a description of a harem was indispensable, even if it is unlikely that most visitors had any first-hand experience.  In depictions of Eastern Europe, Russia became synonymous with Oriental despotism.  Behind the stereotypes, in fact, lay a process of self-fashioning.  The typical English travel accounts, for example, reinforced a perception that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England was the heir to imperial Rome and to Greek democracy, taking up the torch of civilization from the fallen giants of the past.  This idea was later taken up by Americans.

Prof David Garrioch, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Faculty of Arts.