Andrew McRae’s Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

literature and domestic travel in early modern england (cover)I recently had occasion to dip in and out of Andrew McRae’s new-ish Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England (Cambridge U P, 2009), which investigates the meanings and significance of travel in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Because I’m interested in Interregnum pamphlets about peripatetic types like highwayman James Hind and former waterman-turned-travel writer James Taylor, I’ve been looking for a monograph (247 pages) like McRae’s for a long time: a cultural analysis of popular mobility in early modern England. So in case a brief summary might be useful to others, here’s a brief run-down of McRae’s thesis.

The book argues that the unfettered mobility of common folk–a source of anxiety, particularly in the sixteenth century–gradually became attached to “the definitive transformations of the era: from the shift towards capitalism, through the ongoing spatial redistribution of the population, to the political reconceptualization of passive subjects as active citizens” (7). Be assured that McRae’s prose is usually not that opaque: basically, he sees human and commercial mobility as agents of change. Underpinning McRae’s claim about early modern mobility is Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the historical transition between absolute space (“‘a product of the bonds of consanguinity, soil and language'”) and abstract space (“‘the space of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism'” (11). McRae, though, is careful not to suggest a teleological history of popular mobility–from a danger to feudalism to a boon to capitalism–insisting that the meanings of mobility remained “multifarious.” He pays this multifariousness more than lip service in his perceptive readings of a riot of texts, which range from maps and river poems to Ben Jonson’s The New Inn and Celia Fiennes’s travel writing.

The book is organized in halves. The first, “Routes,” considers rivers, roads, and inns/alehouses–those natural or man-made features that made travel possible–while the second, “Travellers,” examines particular kinds of travel–the royal progress, the pleasure tour, and the commercial route. For purposes of my research, I was drawn to the chapter on roads, where McRae, citing Quaker George Fox’s Journal and Bunyan’s Heavenly Foot-man and Pilgrim’s Progress, points out that religious non-conformity–i.e., godliness–became increasingly associated with travel. I found the section on the history of royal progresses suggestive, too. There McRae contrasts Elizabeth’s state-buttressing travels through the countryside with the ignominious “progresses” of Charles I and Charles II fleeing their enemies, noting Marchamont Nedham’s observation that a monarch whose movements cannot be plotted is not a monarch at all.

Sometimes books are suggestive–good tools to think with–when you need a thinking boost, and this was one of them for me. For far more complete reviews of Literature and Domestic Travel, see Linda Woodbridge’s piece in Renaissance Quarterly 63.2 (2010), Paul Slack’s in The English Historical Review 126.520 (2011), or Laura Ambrose’s in The Journal of British Studies 49.4 (2010).



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