A Hungarian Traveller in Jacobean England: Márton Csombor of Szepes   Leave a comment

 001

Márton Csombor’s Europica Varietas was first published in Hungarian in 1620, but has only recently been translated into English, in 2014, by Bernard Adams, who has also written an introduction. Wendy Bracewell has written a preface. Csombor’s  book, republished in English by Corvina Books, was first printed in Kassa (Kosice, pictured above) as the first travel account published in Hungarian, but is part of the growing genre of European travel writing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He shows us Europe as seen through Hungarian eyes, but it is more than a simple travelogue of place-names and sights. His preface laments the paucity in Hungary of books about the laws, customs, dress and doings of  foreign countries, so that he fills in these details for each successive country visited. Only then does he recount the personal incidents of his journeys and sojourns in each country. He therefore follows a method, one which follows the advice of many contemporary manuals advising travellers how best to systematize the various things seen and heard on their journeys. His Protestantism led him to venerate the beauty of Canterbury, though his visit there was accidental (he confused Cantuaria/ Canterbury with Cantabrigia/ Cambridge and so substituted a visit to the cathedral for a visit to the famous university), and though it lacked any gold or silver decoration.

Born in 1595 in the small town of Szepes, now in southern Slovakia, Csombor was born to a bourgeois tradesman or craftsman about whom we know little. He went to school in Késmark in 1607, having very likely been sent there to learn German. Between 1609 and 1611 he returned to live in Szepes, from where he went on the series of journeys that marked his short life (he died of the plague in 1622, aged only 27). On his first trip, he was accompanied to Transylvania by his tutor, Márton Sámsondi. He then went to school in Nagybánya, where he studied Poetics, Logic, Greek and Theology until 1613. On leaving, he took a trip to Máramaros in Transylvania and on his return to Szepes began to plan other journeys to foreign countries. These were delayed, however, while he completed his secondary studies, and in 1615 he took a post as a schoolmaster in Tekibánya in order to earn a few forints for his travelling plans. In 1616 he set off to study at a gimnázium in Gdansk, Poland (Prussia at that time). He spent over a month walking the seven hundred miles to Gdansk, hitching lifts in carts, thus establishing a trend which he would use in later travels. He arrived there in June 1616 and stayed until 1618, concluding his studies in Philosophy and Theology. From there he set off on his tour of Europe, arriving back in early August 1618, then taking up the post of schoolmaster back in Kassa in February 1619, just as the Thirty Years War was beginning and the anti-Habsburg policies of Gábor Bethlen were beginning to be felt throughout the region. The Bohemian and Moravian estates had rebelled against the Austrians, and Bethlen joined them in the autumn of 1619. Elected Prince of Hungary on 21 September by the Parliament meeting at Kassa, Bethlen fought a successful campaign in Upper and Western Hungary. It was during this time that Csombor wrote his account of his travels of 1618, which he published in 1620. The freshness and immediacy of his writing, in Hungarian, contributed much more to the popularity of the book than the previous material derived from his predecessors could have done

.005 (2)004 (2)

Above: Gábor Bethlen

His book forms an intriguing mixture of travel diary, personal reaction and reminiscence as he passes in swift succession, due to a rapidly shrinking purse, through a series of European towns and countrysides, meeting a wide variety of people and viewing much of lasting interest. It is not autobiographical in purpose; his clear object is to inform and entertain his reader with an account of cherished experiences. Due to that degree of objectivity, it is certainly of great use to historians. From Gdansk, he went by sea to Denmark, then to Holland and Zealand, and from there to England via the Thames, into London. The people of England, he commented early on in his chapter on ‘Anglia’, guard their lineage jealously, and when one speaks with them they trace their descent, be it never so humble, back to a noble or royal generation. The second topic of conversation, predictably to a modern reader, was the weather, and here he also drew a predictable response:

Those that live there say that England is much better and more moderate of climate than Gaul; there is neither such great cold nor such great heat there. It has wheat, rye and barley aplenty, only the ploughlands are all enclosed, from which it appears that it is costly because the people are many that require it, and there is other fruit too in abundance. It has livestock of many kinds, but chiefly many sheep, from the wool of which all kinds of fine cloths are made… they have a plentiful fleece which differs little from white silk. It is said that their sheep have such fine wool because they graze on the herb known as rosemary, which by nature has a sweet and moderate temperament, which matter I believe because on the meat of the sheep, when it has been butchered, a pleasing and delightful scent is to be detected.

He found all kinds of metal being mined and manufactured. Only the King’s coinage was accepted in trade, never any foreign currency, though silver and gold was taken in exchange, only by weight. English coinage was pure silver and gold, and could not be taken out of the country, but was exchanged at the ports into the money of the intended country of destination. Chalk, white marble and alabaster were to be found nowhere as fine as in England. In addition, jet-stone was used for eternally burning candles, which could only be extinguished with oil. There was also a legend that the powder from the stone could be mixed with wine to provide testimony of a maiden’s virginity. If they were virgins, it did not disagree with them, but if they were not, it made them vomit immediately.

There were no wolves in England at this time, though there may have been some in Hibernia (Ireland). Csombor had read in the Annales Civitatum Angliae that one reason given for this was that…

… as in this country the greatest profit comes from the keeping of sheep, in time gone by, since the citizens suffered great loss by wolves, a certain decree went forth from the common government that should a town, as an act of grace and mercy, reprieve a man sentenced to death for his crimes, he would be obliged to produce to the town council within a twelvemonth twelve wolves’ heads for his liberty, which being a frequent happening all the breed of wolves has disappeared from among them, and as (Britain) is on all sides surrounded by the sea there is no way that they can arise.

The date of the extermination of the wolf in England is thought to be around 1500; in Scotland and Wales perhaps as late as the eighteenth century, when the last Welsh wolf was killed, according to tradition, at Bleddfa in Powys. The story of the twelve wolves’ heads as the price of a reprieve connects with the legends of Robin Hood, who was said to have been made a Wolfshead (‘outlaw’) for killing a Norman knight, possibly his step-father, in a fight, hence his exile to the forest. The wolf was also a totemic symbol for the Anglo-Saxons. A fellow-traveller in Delft summed this up in a rhyme referring also to the growth of separatist puritans in England, wolves in England are nowhere to be found, but wolf-like heretics now there abound!  The longest day was said to be nineteen hours, but in summer the nights were so bright that craftsmen could work almost as well as by daylight, since the sun did not sink entirely below the horizon. 

The language was, he wrote, a mixture of the languages of Hibernia, Gallia and Germany. Their pronunciation, to his Hungarian ears, was very bad, since they pronounced every ‘u’ as ‘ü’ (in other words, without phonetics). Since he knew no English before he arrived on the island, his observations are those of an elementary learner, perhaps trying to match up written with spoken forms. Neither did he get as far north as Northumberland and Durham, let alone Scotland or Ireland, so would not have heard other dialects of English or Scots.

Observing the speakers of these odd combinations of vowels and consonants, he found them a handsome people of moderate physique. He thought the women folk were especially beautiful, clear and pale of complexion, tall, kind to foreigners, whom they greet with a kiss, both in the street and indoors, and a curtsy. It was evident, he wrote, that they were Anglae angelae, having so angelic an appearance. The male dress was similar to that of the Gauls, but they also wore wide-brimmed black hats. The women had many kinds of dress,  some wearing  high-crowned hats, plaiting their hair above their ears on both sides some wearing just kerchiefs. They widened their skirts with hoops and all agreed in having passed fourteen but not forty. He also commented on how they displayed their breasts very finely if they consider that they can stand forth in white and shapely form, into the cleavage whereof they hang a costly cross or ‘Agnus Dei’, as they call it. Both men and women rode horses, and the ‘girls’ were so good at racing that they could often out-race their husbands in the fields.

In terms of religion, true English people were of the Helvetian denomination, but bishops, organs, white robes in church and other such paraphernalia were preserved. The two great archdiocese, then as now, were Canterbury and York. In addition, there were 19 bishoprics and 50 chief towns. There were just the two universities, Cambridge and Oxford. In London, he was amazed above all at the people’s ignorance of Latin. In his autobiography, Miklós Bethlen also complained of this during his 1664 visit, though in his case with special reference to the professors at Oxford, whom one might have expected, even at that time, to have had a better command of what was still, for Hungarians, along with German, the international language of letters. Csombor was being rather too optimistic, nearly a decade after the mass printing of the King James Bible in English, to expect the craftsmen, shopkeepers and artisans of London to know anything of a language which people of their sort had largely abandoned at least a century before:

… I went along three whole streets among merchants, furriers, tailors etc. and nowhere found a single person that could speak to me in Latin, but after a long time I came upon an Italian on whom I expended the little Italian that I know, and who directed me to the common master of the Italians, saying that there was there a young Hungarian gentleman, at which I was highly delighted and sought him most assiduously, but although he called himself a Hungarian, he could not speak a word of Hungarian to me because he was a Czech, and had only wished to give himself a good name in coming from a distant land a therefore had called himself Hungarian.

002

He found lodgings at The Fox and Hounds, by the Great Bridge (probably destroyed in the Great Fire, or possibly The Fox Hall Inn), and went out to look at London’s widest streets, probably including Cornhill. There he observed fine paved roads adorned with big houses and countless channels of running water. Water-sellers could be seen contending for this and taking it in wooden buckets from street to street. The buildings were very tall, made of stone, and their were also pillars bearing the coat of arms of Cornhill, decorated with beautiful images, but he soon found that many of the other streets were extremely narrow and not troubled by the light of the sun. He estimated the circumference of the city as being no more than about four and a half miles. He described London Bridge as the third wonder of the land of England, with eighteen arches… a veritable town in itself, with a church on it and countless merchants’ shops. He was drinking at a fountain near to the Tower of London when a Frenchman, thinking that I was of his nation, reproached me most severely; he held it a disgrace that in the eyes of those that lived there that one of his race should drink water, but on learning my country, he embraced me and begged my pardon, and left me honourably. 

018

Entering via a small gate into the City of London, he next encountered a crowd of Saracen girls whom armed robbers had just brought from Ethiopia, and as they were selling them they had dressed them in very fine clothes. He made no further comment on this practice of slavery, being more concerned with describing a huge crayfish, or lobster, presumably more unknown than the slave trade in Hungary. Heading west, through Bishopsgate, with the King’s arms on the outside, and a church to the left on the inside, he saw magnificent grassed gardens where the fine London cloth is dried. Given that the stone wall around the gardens was half a mile in circumference, Csombor was amazed by the amount of cloth that was to be seen within it. He passed through a lower cemetary enclosed for the parish by the City of London just a few years before, in 1615, very near the Aldgate, another of the eight gates into the City. Going on up that street he came to the old Basilica, on the tower of which, before the hour was struck, the statues of two men dragged out a bell,…

… and I was reliably informed that both are cast in pure silver, and neither of them is smaller than me.

Neither the Basilica nor the two figures are mentioned by other contemporary commentators, but it may be St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate, the foundation of which goes back to the Priory dedicated by Matilda of Scotland, daughter of St Margaret (born in Hungary), and wife of Henry I, in 1115, though the origins of the site may go back even further to Saxon times. It was one of four medieval churches, each built by one of the gates to the City and dedicated to the seventh century Saxon saint. The original church was destroyed by the Great Fire, and the current church was built in two phases in the early and mid-eighteenth centuries. Csombor then walked on to St Paul’s Cathedral,

047

… divided into three aisles, its paving-stones… inordinately large, and the sanctuary, in which there are many tombs of white, red and black marble and alabaster, is twelve steps above the nave; the sanctuary is opened only at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but looking in at a window I could see the effigy of a bishop carved in black marble; after the natural corruption of his bones they were dug up and placed above him (with) this verse:

Disce mori mundo, vivere disce Deo

(Learn to die to the world and to live to God)

019

Next to the entrance to the Cathedral was a school, and behind that were streets where only booksellers lived, spread over a wide area, bigger than the Hungarian towns he knew. It took him two and a half hours to walk from Tower Hill to Westminster, so this must have included the time visiting the sights he described. He also visited Westminster Abbey which, because of its fine tombs, he agreed was worthily counted one of the three wonders of England. From there, he made his way through various courtyards and gardens to the King’s palace, without being stopped, and tried to glimpse King James,…

… but learnt from his servants that he… had not left his house for fourteen days, nor would he admit any on account of his great business. These palaces are enclosed on all sides by pleasure gardens, and apart from these walks and gardens have been planted with countless linden trees, so many that other than Italy, I believe, no country may boast more of its city, and any that has seen the king of England’s gardens, the people of his court and his palaces in this city will consider as nothing the graceless peasants of Germany…

Go look on London, you whom Fate had made a wanderer,

You who wish to see the land of England.

Seeing London you will see all that glitters under the English King;

this city is esteemed by the good.

Here are piety, calm safety and true love,

and here the faith is seated in a high place.

Csombor found English fruit, especially cherries, very expensive in London, especially compared with Hungary. He was told that the people of England were of such a disposition that when they see some new thing they will buy it at a high price, some for their lovers, some for their husbands, others for their good friends, some simply to hang it on their ears and keep it there until it becomes plentiful, merely as an ornament.

For him, the population of London was so great that he found it crowded every day. In addition to visitors, it was estimated that there were 300,000 people living there. He was clearly staggered by the amount of food entering the City, so that he could say with confidence that there was not a week in which a hundred and fifty oxen and a thousand sheep were not slaughtered there, not counting the numbers of birds and fish.

014

Csombor gained entry with the schoolmaster at the Cathedral school, to the sanctuary of St Paul’s, where he saw the tombs of Seba, King of the East Saxons, erected in 677 (it was the kings of Essex who first founded the diocese of St Paul’s), that of King Aethelred I (871). He marvelled greatly at the sight of the extremely beautiful tombs of many bishops, because the carved effigy of each was so lifelike… nature could not find fault with their features. 

He was impressed by the custom by which each ship coming up the Thames fired all its cannon for the king’s pleasure, which could happen as many as two hundred times each day.

On leaving London, Csombor made for Canterbury, and found himself having to ascend Shooter’s Hill, but he soon met up with a pleasant Walloon as a travelling companion who nevertheless, after three or four miles, called for a horse and left Csombor. From the top of the hill, he could see far and wide, as it were a little province, over the City of London. There was a large beacon at the top, at which the City had stationed men so that they could send news of any danger to the towns and villages nearby. From there Csombor could observe a large part of southern England. Descending from the hill, he ate beside a spring and carved the following into a nearby tree, in Latin:

As he gazed on the countryside of England, Márton Csombor here ate and drank from this sweet spring.

He went on unaccompanied, passing Gravesend, and was in the forest beyond the town when he suddenly met with a great Saracen with an axe. He had never seen…

… a blacker man in my life, before or since, and he addressed me in English… but I could make no reply, but said nonetheless that I was making my way to Cantaurium; I was much afraid of his axe, but God granted that he parted from me with great civility having pointed out the way.

He then came to Rochester, a little town like a large French village, but half as big. By this time, the castle was already in ruins. He had seen stone bridges both large and small, but this was more beautiful than any, because its whole length had been decorated with painted ironwork and the arms of the King and country. Here he also saw four big galleys and and fourteen of the King’s ships, finer than those which he had seen in Prussia, Denmark, Frisia, Holland or Zealand; every one had ports for twenty-four guns. He went into an inn, not for a drink, but to have something to eat, and for the sake of appearances he asked for a beer. The barmaid came over to him, as if to pity him in his tiredness and long absence from home, and began to squeeze his hand, caress his head, and kiss him frequently, to which, as a Hungarian, he felt unaccustomed. Realising what she intended, he roused his tired limbs and set off again. Evening drew on, and after going a distance further, he slept at a good inn called The Two Monkeys. 

Setting out from Rocheser the next day, he covered the thirty miles to Canterbury in good time. However, unbelievably for modern Europeans, he had mistaken Canterbury for Cambridge, and, not being able to see it from a distance, was surprised to find its buildings quite poor, except, of course, the Cathedral. When he entered the Cathedral gate, he met James Lambe, the archdeacon, as he thought, though Lambe was in fact the vicar of nearby Holy Cross, Westgate. He asked him, in Latin, for the whereabouts of the grave of the Cambridge divine, Whittaker, and Lambe, who had just graduated from King’s College, Cambridge replied that he had mistaken Cambridge for Canterbury. Seeing that Csombor regretted his wasted journey, the priest told him not to worry, since here he would see the first wonder of England. Taking him by the hand, he took him to an inn, where both he and I became very merry on English beer. Lambe then sent for the key to the Cathedral in which, in papist times, the body of St Thomas of Cantuarium had been venerated, opened it, and took Csombor everywhere inside. The Hungarian felt that a more beautiful building no-one ever saw, for which reason it is reckoned as one of the three wonders of England. He went on:

DSC09532

Never in my life would I have believed that so beautiful a church could be without gold or silver (for the golden vessels and vestments have all been removed thence) in this world. It has two exceedingly big towers outside; inside it is very high, and on the vaulting are all the coats of arms of the lords of the land; there are countless aisles in it, supported by some hundreds of black marble columns, many picturesque chapels and high and low flights of steps. There are two sanctuaries; the first, in which the everyday prayers and singing take place, is 22 steps above the nave, and there are the episcopal and the archiepiscopal seats; the lectern is very big, of pure Venetian brass, on which a great eagle holds the book on its spread wings; the second sanctuary is somewhat higher than the first, and in it lies the body of St Thomas. On all the columns in the nave there are books, exceedingly old, and among them, to show the eternal blindness of the papists, the Gospel of Nicodemus too is kept, in which there are as many falsehoods as words. There is no plain glass in the windows, but they are decorated with pictures of scenes from the New and Old Testaments; it is an amazing thing that among so many hundreds of columns every corner of the church is so light. A large chapter keeps the church nowadays too, and almost as in papist time they sing the psalms in antiphonal manner, and man, young and old alike, put on the monastic cowl and sing in monkish fashion.

Around the church on all sides are the palaces of the archbishop, bishop and canons, and a fine school, but principally a cloister, a wonderfully dark and serpentine building, in a word everywhere that one looks in this place one sees huge traces of antiquity. The town is not very big, nor beautiful, nevertheless it is flat, has many ruinous gardens, fine gates and a decent town hall; bread and wine are expensive there, and the beer is good and tolerable in price.

DSC09530

Having seen all these things, Lambe and Csombor returned to the priest’s house where from three to six o’ clock they kept the company of the beer glasses. His host sought to detain him, but Csombor’s purse was becoming very thin, partly due to the cost of everything compared to Hungary, and partly due to the ‘exchange rate’ he was given for his gold forints, which were worth no more than 160 pennies each, about two-thirds of a pound. Taking leave of James Lambe, he set off for the coast; in the evening he came to a dense forest, and as he could no longer see his way ahead, he lay down under a thorn-bush. He was awoken by two peasants gathering wood who directed him to a nearby inn, but, as it was so late at night to disturb the innkeeper, and he had very little English, he decided to stay in the forest, surrounded by the song of nightingales and the doleful cries of owls.

Next morning he rose early and reached Dover at seven. It had two bastions, both overlooking the sea, with four cannon on each, and a strong castle on the hilltop almost like that of Szepes, its walls extending to the seashore. Here, and in the other coastal towns of England, the sailors would not take anyone on board without credentials. He therefore went to the Commissioner of the Passage (an official appointed by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to issue licenses to travel abroad) who mistook him for a Walloon and therefore questioned him in French. When he replied in Latin, the Commissioner continued in German, questioning him as to where he was from and what his religion was. Csombor said that he was a Protestant from the city of Frankfurt ad Oderan in Germany, and was therefore given a pass for the Normandy port of Dieppe. From Dieppe, he went on to Paris and then through Germany to the Czech lands and Silesia, returning to Kassa via Krakow. He arrived home in August 1618, having set off in April. He was then ordained in the Calvinist Church and became Schoolmaster in Kassa in 1619. His little book appeared in 1621, but Csombor died in an epidemic of plague the following year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: