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:
Margaret Cavendish (English)
Stéphanie Félicité, Mme de Genlis (French)
Catharine Macaulay (English)
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.)
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.