Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Greek Traveller in Tudor England

Tonight I'll be watching Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey, and it occurred to me that some Greeks must have visited England during the mid-Tudor period for either business or curiosity. I finally discovered one traveler by the name of Nicander, and found this account of his travels in Britain. I have selected extracts that I found amusing and revealing of his point of view.   
In 1545, nearly two years before the death of Henry VIII, there came to England Nicander Nucius of Corfu. He stayed some months, and later wrote an account of his visit in classical Greek. 
Nicander came to England with his patron Gerard, whom the Emperor Charles V had dispatched as an emissary to Henry. We know little about Nicander himself, but there are hints that he had recently left his home owing to some personal tragedy. Corfu was then a part of the Venetian Republic and it was to Venice that he made his way, there to meet Gerard, who was travelling to the court of Sultan Suleiman. Nicander accompanied him to Constantinople. His knowledge of local conditions would make him a useful travelling-companion, and it is probable that he also proved helpful as a diplomatic assistant. At any rate, he remained a member of Gerard's suite and followed him faithfully on the long journey through Germany and Belgium which finally brought them both to Calais. Here they received a travel-permit (xs1F10υλóσιμον), and after a false start crossed to Dover.
It  is  clear  that  much  of  Nicander's Report is based on intelligent observation. It is also clear, however, that the influence of his classical background obtrudes with great frequency. This is particularly noticeable in his general description of Britain. 'The whole island is an intricate pattern of fertile hills and plain, and abounds in marshes and fine oak-forests. Then again, we find Britain lacks asses and mules, for these creatures do not occur in the colder region', and that the cold is responsible for the absence of horns on the sheep and cattle. He speaks with enthusiasm of the horses, cattle and sheep and particularly of the sheep [he must have been in Wales]. 
His description of people is amusing: 'the race is white skinned and rather fair, tall and upright in posture. The hair of their beards and heads is golden [did he overlook the dark Celtic Welsh?] their eyes for the most part blue, and their cheeks ruddy. They are pugnacious and brave, and generally well built, carnivorous, with an insatiable appetite for meat, simple-minded, unrestrained in their impulses, and full of suspicion. But they are extraordinarily loyal to their king and non of them will tolerate hearing anything distasteful of him because of their deep respect for him. So that their most momentous oath is that which is sworn in the name of the king, God save him!'
The behaviour of the women, both in public and at the home, shocked Nicander deeply. 'Trade' he writes, 'is open not only to men, but in high degree also to women, who have an extraordinary enthusiasm for it. In the market-place and streets of the city, one could see married women and young girls engaging without disguise in handiwork, barter, and business affairs. The behaviour of men towards women is traditionally regulated by a natural simplicity and absence of jealously. For not only do relatives and intimate friends kiss women and greet and embrace them but even those who have never seen them before.  And this is not considered in any way improper.'

 D. E. Eichholz 

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