OLD CZECH BOOKS OF TRAVEL
I. Defining the travel writing
When attempting to deal with travel
writing, one notices from the very beginning how changeable, variable, and even
Protean the representations of this literary genre can be, as the term ‘travel
writing’ may be related to many works of various origin, form, structure, and
composition. This is not that surprising and the fact has been pointed out by
several scholars. Among Czech books of travel, for instance, there are travel
diaries written by Czech noblemen, narratives written by pilgrims to the
Joan-Pau Rubiés gives the following definition of travel writing: “Travel literature is therefore best described as a ‘genre of genres’, since a variety of kinds of literature defined by a variety of purposes and conventions share travel as their essential condition of production.” Other scholars, however, are reluctant to admit whether there exists an independent genre of travel writing as such. Jan Borm argues that “it is not a genre, but a collective term for a variety of texts…whose main theme is travel” and remarks that “travel writing or travel literature can be a useful heading under which to consider and to compare the multiple crossings from one form of writing into another.”
My conception of travel writing is closer to that of Rubiés. I agree with his term a ‘genre of genres’ he used for travel writing and I accept it, even if I am fully aware of some of Borm’s legitimate objections. Following, then, both the above-mentioned definitions of travel writing I argue that it can be defined as ‘a literary depiction of travel’, since both travel and its literary depiction are the distinctive and key features of all travel writing and the components common and present in all of them.
Simplified though this may seem, we could hardly find a more appropriate definition which would apply to the whole corpus of these writings, at the same time giving us a solid point of departure for our research. A more appropriate one, because it is this particular theme of individual travel – set, of course, within the specific temporal, spatial, and social contexts, and depicted in many various ways – that constitutes the central and the main theme of the works in question, and thus the wealth and colourfulness of the texts examined (which makes Borm so uneasy about the term ‘genre’). Admittedly, it may also seem to be a less appropriate definition, because from the point of methodology such a formulation – ‘travel writing is a literary depiction of travel’ – may seem to be, if a definition at all, somewhat inaccurate and vague.
Nevertheless, we will face up to these obstacles. The opening definition will serve us as a basis for a classification of travel writing.
II. Classification of travel writing (with regard to the Czech output)
There are several classifications of
travel writing, some of them being more general and aspiring towards the
universal validity within the genre, the others more specified, based rather on
a particular situation within the specific literary output. The example of the
former one is the dichotomy of Percy G. Adams, as set out in his Travel literature and the evolution of the
On the other hand, the classification produced by the Czech scholar Eduard Petrů is an example of the latter one – within the Czech travel literature he distinguishes, predominantly referring to content and in a historic perspective, four main lines of development (travel accounts, travel reports, scientific book of travel and Humanistic travelogue). However, I do not consider these terms as exact since they combine the characteristics of travel books on different structure levels and from different points of view within one system. Yet, Petrů notices some of the fundamental features of old Czech books of travel here, and in this respect we will attempt to continue his efforts and try to make his typology more precise.
Taking into consideration also the findings of German scholars who have in great detail, as one might expect, classified functional and typological characteristics of travelogues (pilgrimages, travels of noblemen, diplomatic missions, travels of tradesmen, study trips etc.), and in the view of our definition above that ‘travel writing is a literary depiction of travel’ I propose the following classification of (old) Czech travel writing: I see this genre as a continuous spectrum which is differentiated and structured within by means of various literary forms, e.g. by form of letter, diary, report etc. Adjoining forms are closer to each other whereas more distant have less in common. It is necessary to say that these ideal and pure forms are theoretical constructs only, as their specific realisations are never absolute and they include also distinctive features of other forms. Nevertheless, the predominant characteristics are principal.
What is, then, our classification like? At one extreme there is a travel diary. Then follow travel letter, travel memoirs, travel report (reportage), pilgrimage book, Humanistic travelogue, account of a travel, travel guidebook, and travel encyclopaedia at another extreme. Employing the starting definition of us, each of these literary forms can be defined as a ‘literary depiction of a travel in a form of...’ – a letter, for instance.
Schema: + + + + + travel diary individual
+ + + + letter(s) of travels self-centred
+ + + travel memoirs
+ + travel report(age)
+ pilgrimage book
– account of a travel
– – travel guidebook other-centred
– – – travel encyclopaedia general
Travel diary and travel encyclopaedia are the extreme points of the spectrum stretching from ‘individual’ to ‘general’ depictions of reality. Let me explain this: the individual depiction (such as travel letter) is valid individually, and, in its representation, tends to be subjective, whereas the general one (such as travel guidebook) is valid generally, and thus tends to be objective. The former is self-centred (and written in the first person) while the latter is other-centred (and prefers the third person). In the middle, at rough estimate, I put the Humanistic travelogue the form of which I regard as ‘unmarked’, since it integrates distinctive features of both individual and general depiction. More fitting term, therefore, might rather be ‘all-marked’ form. This all-integrating universalistic form is, in my opinion, also the most difficult (and challenging) to be mastered, and that is why it is found at the very peak of the development of old Czech travelogues, namely in the late Renaissance period.
It is my belief that the idea of Renaissance encyclopaedism, which is very characteristic of thought of this period, succeeded in finding the adequate and corresponding all-integrating form also within the genre of travel literature.
III. Two Czech pilgrims in the
In the last decade of 15th
century, two Czech pilgrims set out on a journey to the
Martin Kabátník was sent, in
company with three other members of the Unity, to find out “whether there are
still the people anywhere in the world who preserve the rules and order of the
early Holy Church” since from its birth the Unity of the Brethren was
determined to continue these old traditions seeking ‘the truth’ (which echoes
one of the most essential ideas of the Hussite movement). Kabátník and his
fellows set off on a journey on 1st March 1491 and after a year and
eight months they returned safe and sound. They travelled on land, which is
also quite unusual for that time, via
Another interesting point is that Kabátník was an illiterate person and he dictated stories he had lived through to the scripter Adam Bachelor of Litomyšl about ten years after his travels. The book called Cesta z Čech do Jeruzaléma a Egipta was published in 1539 and then again several times. According to Adam Bachelor’s testimony Kabátník must have been very sincere and open-hearted person and, apparently, he must have had a very good memory. His narration is extremely valuable because of its colloquial features and an individual portrait of local reality, including his own experience. Within the classification we have proposed the travelogue of Martin Kabátník can be defined as a ‘travel report’ – its author narrates directly and naturally, he looks at things at close quarters, he comments on and compares the reality he has never seen before with the reality in Bohemia. Reading his travel book one feels to be in the middle of events which are being described at the moment of narration.
In view of a distinction between ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ or ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ that we have just mentioned it is possible – and inspiring – to analyse Kabátník’s account also within the framework of cultural and anthropological studies. As Czech scholar Lucie Storchová comments, “the narration of Kabátník is structured by a minimum of pre-texts” as he had not most likely studied any specialised literature related to the region or pilgrimages before his journey, and references to the Bible or occasional hints at popular stories are the only traces of his literacy within this field. That is why this travelogue is so unique since it presents quite clear and impartial observation of life in the East which is not pre-structured or pre-formed by any contemporary literary text or other person’s experience. What is Martin Kabátník’s book actually like?
The whole journey from Litomyšl to
Kabátník tried to fulfil his religious
mission, too, and from time to time he asked local people about the religious
situation, but in this respect – in finding the successors of the early Church
– he did not succeed. From Constantinople he continued inland journey via
Secondly, an illustration of
cross-cultural experience: “I stayed in
And finally, how Martin Kabátník saw a
giraffe in the streets of
Hasištejnský set out on a journey to the
Unlike his Czech predecessor two years
ago, Jan Hasištejnský firstly travelled westwards via Pilsen, towns in Bavaria
and Tyrol to Venice in Italy which was the most important setting-off point for
pilgrims of his time. Staying for more than three weeks in
However, Hasištejnský knows how to draw
the reader’s attention by inserting short and attractive stories related to the
site he visits, the bulk of them being – in contrast to Kabátník – not his
personal experience. When comparing places, he makes a successful use of the
same model as Kabátník, and so “the city of
The narration of the pilgrimage to the
Here are several extracts to give you an
idea of Hasištejnský’s style and narration. Firstly, let’s have a look at
Hasištejnský as a critical observer: “In
Secondly, his observation of dolphins:
“After all, we were sailing, and sailing we saw many dolphins which were
jumping just next to the ship. These dolphins are sea fish, and they act
courteously, as if they were tumbling.” I cannot omit the audience with the
And finally, a brief narration from Jerusalem: “They showed us also the St Veronica’s house in front of which the Lord wiped his face, and having impressed it on the garment he gave it back, and I saw this garment in Rome. Other people say that the genuine garment is the one which is kept at Karlštejn Castle and that it came there thanks to the king Charles who had borrowed the genuine garment from the Pope in Rome, had the new one painted after that borrowed one, then hid the genuine one and sent that fake one, which was very similar to the previous garment, back to the Pope. I have seen that one in Karlštejn, too, and dear God knows the best which one is genuine.”
To summarise briefly, I am pointing out the most significant conclusions: the genre of travel writing may be grasped and understood as a continuous spectrum which is differentiated and structured within by means of various literary forms, e.g. by form of letter, diary, report and so on. This methodological tool enables us to classify the concrete realizations of such forms, i.e. the individual travelogues, on the typological level, and then to analyse thoroughly their structure, narration, the specific discourse they are set in, artistic value, and impression on a reader. I tried to illustrate such an approach with examples in today’s lecture.
 ‘Travel Writing as a Genre: Facts, Fictions and the Invention of a
Scientific Discourse in Early Modern
 ‘Defining Travel: On the Travel Book, Travel Writing and
Terminology’, in Perspectives on Travel Writing, edd. Glenn Hooper and
Tim Youngs (
 P. G. Adams: Travel
literature and the evolution of the novel.
 E. Petrů: Vzrušující skutečnost: fakta a fantazie ve středověké a humanistické literatuře’. Ostrava, 1984.
 Kabátník’s travel report(age) was written in 1500. The first new
edition Martina Kabátníka Cesta z
Čech do Jerusalema a Kaira r. 1491-92 was edited and published by J.
 In ‘Mezi houfy lotrův se pustiti’, see above.
 Z. Tichá: Jak staří Čechové poznávali svět: výbor ze starších českých cestopisů 14. – 17. století. Prague, 1986.