The “Art of Travel” Database

A medieval historian buddy sent me a link the other day that I had to share with y’all. The National University of Ireland, Galway, has put together an awesome database of historical European travel writing dated between 1500 and 1850. There’s even a fancy name for this genre of writing: ars apodemica, or the art of travel.

I made a quick pass through the database and identified four women out the project’s current collection of 166 travelers:

  1. Sophie Volland (French?)

Unfortunately, the essays by the English-language writers (Cavendish’s “An Oration concerning the Forein Travels of Young Gentlemen” and Macaulay’s critique of the Grand Tour) are both trapped behind library logins. Volland’s letters have been lost to history, but some of Félicité’s articles are available open source via her database page.

The limited number of women in the collection is likely due to the curators’  narrow definition of texts that qualify as “apodemic,” their word for texts that offer moral and philosophical commentaries on travel as a modern social practice. From the database About page: “Travel focuses upon European writing on theories and methods of travel rather than practical travel advice such as travel guides, route descriptions, or travel almanacs.”

That sounds super smart and heady, but by overlooking “travel guides and route descriptions,” the curators are excluding a large number of female diaries and letters, some of which almost certainly include the sort of philosophical musings on travel that the database aims to preserve. All we can hope is that later phases of the project will expand its scope and soften up a bit on the restrictions. (I really hate to point this out, but the curatorial team is composed of five men.)

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Anyway, Mary F. McVicker’s Women Adventurers, 1750-1900 is a better resource for those looking for a bibliography of early travel writing by women. Though the majority of entries are about English women, there are a few continental Europeans, too, along with about a dozen Americans. And every entry includes an excerpt of the woman’s own writing.

So click around the Galway database, but don’t let it fool you: women throughout history have been travelers, writers, and philosophers, too, regardless of whether some 21st-century dudes in Ireland invite them to the party.

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The Legacy of the White Pantsuit

Today, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s words ring as true now as they did a hundred years ago: “The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.”

If nothing else, Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy has sparked a renewed enthusiasm for talking about America’s suffragettes. Much of that interest is tied to Hillary Clinton’s “white pantsuit,” a conscious nod to the color that was most associated with the Votes for Women movement, along with the mass uptick in Election-Day pilgrimages to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite in Rochester, New York.

The suffragettes learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but perhaps chief among those lessons is that change is a journey — a journey that includes crossing lots and lots of borders in pursuit of a more equal world.

To be literal about it, Clinton traveled to 112 countries during her time as secretary of state, a number that makes her the most widely traveled U.S. state secretary ever. But long before Clinton’s miles of experience landed her the Democratic nomination for president, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to London in 1840.Read More »

Just the facts, ma’am: Resources on Harriet Bell Merrill

We don’t know much about limnologist and Amazon traveler Harriet Bell Merrill, but what we do know is very much at risk of an impending Error 404 error.

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Amazonian yerbe mate cups Merrill donated to the Milwaukee Public Museum

Merrill was one of the first limnologists in the country, and possibly the first female limnologist to be hired by an American university (the University of Wisconsin). She was an expert in tiny, algae-eating lake crustaceans known as Cladocera, and she went above and beyond the call of duty by traveling twice to South America to conduct fieldwork (1902-1903 and 1907-1909). Unfortunately, she died as her career was peaking, and for the next 75 years, she was almost entirely forgotten by her field. But in the 1990s, her grandniece brought her out of total obscurity by publishing a biography, and the University of Illinois stepped up to preserve her papers.

Why do we care? Well, Merrill kept remarkably detailed journals and wrote A LOT of letters to her friends, not only about her scientific work, but also vivid descriptions of Brazil and about the cultures she encountered during her fieldwork. She brought back South American items for Wisconsin museums, and some of her travel stories were published in a local newspaper. Her solo journeys were all the more unique because she was in ill-health for the better part of her adult life.

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