The second writer I’ve chosen for my series of English-language texts about Germany is Fynes Moryson. Born in 1566, he spent the years between 1591 and 1597 touring through Europe and the Near East, and many of the following years writing them up at a somewhat leisurely pace.
I’ve chosen him because, in a way, he reminds me of sixteenth-century version of myself. Just like yours truly, he went to Oxford and then decided he fancied exploring Europe, making something of a base out of Germany for quite some time. Unlike me, however, he seems to have principally lived off his wealthy father’s allowance, as was the custom at the time for anyone with the leisure and resources to travel for its own sake.
Where, how & why did he write about Germany
In his eight years abroad, Moryson frequently passed through Northern Germany, entering Europe via the medieval Hanseatic port of Stade and moving on through Hamburg and Lüneburg into Germany proper. The extract I’ve chosen is his description of Hamburg as he travels through it the first time in 1591.
What to look out for
For readers with little time/short attention spans – or looking for dinner-party quips/neat essay segues
1. The “Limey bastard” factor: Being British abroad at the moment is a relatively sweet deal. People in Europe tend to like London, the Royal Family and a lot of the music our fair islands have produced, so you generally tend to get a warm reception wherever you go. This hasn’t always been the case, of course, as Moryson discovers in Hamburg. Even before City-style financial capitalism went wild, the English have always had a tendency to be neo-liberal, and the fact that the port of Stade just twenty miles down the River Elbe was offering slightly better conditions was reason enough for English traders to up sticks and break of hundreds of years of cooperation with the port of Hamburg.
2. The “Wow, he speaks German!” factor: Nevertheless, Moryson gets a “heads up” on the widespread dislike of the English amongst the Hamburg harbour workers as he overhears a couple of them scheming to throw a ten-pound sack of merchandise at his head. Moryson had a good command of the German language, something that, today, makes English people even more popular in Germany than they already are.
The passage by water to Hamburg had beene much easier, especially for a stranger, and a boat daily passeth from Stode thither in some three hours space, if the winde bee not contrary, wherein each man paies three Lubecke shillings for his passage: but all Passengers without difference of condition must help to rowe, or hire one in his stead, except the winde bee good so as they need not use their Oares; besides that the annoyance of base companionsw ill easily offend one that is any thing nice.
Hamburg is a Free Citie of the Empire, and one of them which (as I said) are called Hans-steten, and for the building and populousnesse is much to be praised. The Senate house is very beautifull, and is adorned with carved statuaes of the nine Worthies. The Exchange where the Merchants meet is a very pleasant place. The Haven is shut up with an iron chaine. The Citie is compassed with a deepe ditch, and upon the East and North sides with a double ditch and wall. Water is brought to the Citie from an hil distant some English mile, by pipes of wood, because those of lead would be broken by the yce, and these pipes are to bee scene under the bridge, whence the water is convaied by them unto each Citizens house. The Territory of the Citie extendeth a mile or two, and on one side three miles out of the walles. It hath nine Churches and six gates called by the Cities to which they lead. It is seated in a large plaine and a sandy soyle, but hath very fatte pasture ground without. On the South side and some part of the West, it is washed with the River Elve, which also putteth a branch into the Towne, but on the North and somewhat on the East side, the River Alster runneth by towards Stode, and falleth into the Elve. The streets are narrow excepting one which is called Broad-street (vulgarly Breitgasse.) The building is all of bricke (as in all the other Sea-bordering Cities, lying from these parts towards Flanders) and all the beautie of the houses is in the first entrance, having broad and faire gates into a large Hal, the lower part whereof on both sides is used for a Ware-house, and in the upper part lying to the view of the doore, the chiefe houshold-stuffe is placed, and especially their vessell of English Pewter, which being kept bright makes a glittering shew to them that passe by; so as the houses promise more beauty outwardly then they have inwardly. Here I paid each meale foure Lubeck shillings, and one each night for my bed. The Citizens are unmeasurablyil l III affected affected to the English, to whom (or to any stranger) it is unsafe to walke out of the gates after noone, for when the common people are once warmed with drinke, they are apt to doe them injury. My selfe one day passing by some that were unloading and telling of Billets, heard them say these words: Wirft den zehenden auff des Englanders kopf, that is, cast the tenth at the Englishmans head. But I and my companions knowing well their malice to the English for the removing their trafficke to Stode, were content to pass bey as if we understood them not.
My two pfennigs
For readers with large amounts of time, and attention spans to match
Hamburg then and now
One reason I chose this extract is because I currently live in Hamburg, so it is naturally of interest to me to read what an Englishman was writing about the place five centuries ago. What is striking is just how recognisable the portrait is, despite the intervening years and the Great Fire of 1842, which destroyed most of the medieval Hamburg Moryson is describing. The “Senate House”, for example, perished in the flames, but the new Town Hall is a fine building also “adorned with statues”. Meanwhile, whilst the city has expanded considerably, the remains of the ditches Moryson writes of are still visible in the form of a belt of green parks surrounding the city-centre.
The typical merchants’ houses he describes, in which the bottom floors are used as a warehouse and the upper storeys for living, may have disappeared by and large, but there are enough of them around to give today’s traveller a feel for the city as Moryson would have experienced it. Ironically though, a trip on the S3 down to Stade is even more informative in this regard. In Moryson’s day, Stade was a major city in the powerful Hanseatic league, on a par with Hamburg and Lübeck in terms of its commercial and military importance; now, it is a forgotten backwater, a satellite town in Hamburg’s orbit which provides a neat day destination for the bicycle-besotted urban middle-classes. In 1591 though, Moryson landed there and was able to pay for his board and lodgings in pounds and shillings. Today, Stade is so behind the times that you can probably still pay in some places using those very same pre-decimal coins – or at least Deutsche Marks.
Then again, it is precisely this loss of power that has spared it for today’s flâneur out for a glimpse of old Northern Europe: the harbour was never developed much beyond its seventeenth century state, and its stock of narrow alleys and timber-framed merchants’ houses has survived the European wars since then intact.
Travel then and now
Maybe the savage conflicts that separate our place in history from Moryson’s make the ease and speed with which he traverses Europe seem so odd in retrospect. We’ve come to think of ourselves at the end of a long development from closed borders through to freedom of movement, but if there’s one thing reading Moryson’s memoires makes clear, history does not always keep moving in the same direction and there have been other times when crossing national boundaries was relatively easy.
Of course, Moryson belonged to a privileged class of traveller and had financial resources which would today be on a par with those of a very wealthy banker, but there is still something invigorating about the speed with which he can charter a coach or board a boat; he does it with the same sort of nonchalance that we modern Westerners reserve for budget airline trips, despite the fact that, on his maiden voyage, his ship to Stade is almost captured by pirates in the English channel (see the opening pages of the Itinerary).
Nevertheless, privileged or not, in this extract, Moryson has to slog his way upstream from Stade to reach Hamburg like any other man: “all passengers without difference of condition must help to row” as he notes, with a veiled hint that he have been slightly displeased by this rather hands-on approach to travel. I find the idea of an English gentleman being conned out of a few bob and then set to work rowing his own passage rather comical, and it’s certainly an indicator of how much travel has moved from being a tiring chore done by most out of strict necessity to something that people nowadays look forward to and see as their right. By setting off on a whim to explore Europe for its own sake (he writes in the introduction of his “innate desire to gaine experience by travelling into forraigne parts”), Moryson is, in fact, one of the first recorded modern travellers; but he’s travelling by distinctly pre-modern means.
Not lost in Germany, at home everywhere else
An interesting question for me however, raised both in this extract and the Itineraries generally, is whether and to what extent Moryson really did travel with the nonchalance and coolness depicted here. He didn’t publish his Itinerary until 1617, a good fifteen years after he set out on his first trip; according to his foreword, he writes from a combination of notes and memory. So by the time he started writing back in England in 1609, he would have passed through Germany four times, and so perhaps this explains the laconic, detached and somehow underwhelmed impression of his writing.
After all, Moryson went on to visit much of the rest of Europe as well as the Holy Lands, and so Germany must have seemed pretty tame to him in hindsight. At least at the time of writing, Moryson is by no means lost in Deutschland anymore. Furthermore, he may well not have admitted in writing if he was. The movement towards the description of one’s own feelings that has become more and more a feature of modern writing was, by most measures, only just beginning with Moryson’s French contemporary Montaigne; until him, most writers were aiming for a more Classical historian style. My bet, though, is that Moryson was probably as enthused, confused and mildly overwhelmed by Hamburg in 1591 as I was the first time I got here.
Dip into the full length Itinerary courtesy of Archive.org here.