08 January 2013

Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations: William Lithgow

Scottish writer-traveller-explorer William Lithgow (1582-1645) travelled extensively throughout the Levant in three substantial journeys between 1610 and 1622. He completed his major work, The Total Discourse of the Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations of Long Nineteen Years Travails from Scotland, to the Most Famous Kingdoms in Europe, Asia and Africa in 1632. When the book appeared, it must have surprised and delighted readers, especially readers who had never travelled outside their own town.

Shapero Rare Books, who auctioned Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations in 2012, wrote: This book is probably the earliest authority for coffee-drinking in Europe, Turkish Baths, a pigeon post between Aleppo and Baghdad, Turkish tobacco-pipes, artificial incubation and the importation of currants from Zante to England. This classic account first appeared in 1614 and went through numerous additions, being constantly added to as Lithgow made more travels. He visited Italy, the Ionian Islands, Athens, Crete and the Aegean Archipelago in 1609 and stayed for a time on Chios, where he met two French merchants whom he joined to visit Greek monuments and antiquities. Lithgow travelled some 36,000 miles as described in this work.

woodcut of Lithgow dressed as an Ottoman
Photo credit, Shapero Rare Books

Particular note was made about how Lithgow suffered torture by the Inquisition in Malaga in Spain (as a spy, not a religious heretic). He was released at the intervention of King James I, and was later imprisoned in London for assaulting the Spanish Ambassador.

There were many lovely woodcut illustrations in the book, including the woodcut frontispiece portrait of Lithgow in Ottoman dress. Estimated value of the book at auction was £6,500 or Aus $10,000 or USA $10,550.

Why did William Lithgow have an irresistible desire to visit strange lands and how did he fund these extensive trips? Significant Scots believed that wanderlust was the ruling passion of his life. Together with a roving, unsettled and restless disposition, wanderlust was the principal agent in compelling him to undertake the formidable journeys which he accomplished, and enabled him to bear up with such a series of hardships and bodily sufferings, as perhaps no man ever before or since has endured. He made it a strict rule, but probably not for financial reasons, to not use any conveyance during a journey when he could accomplish it on foot, except for crossing water. During all his travels he never mounted a horse, or put his foot into a carriage, or used any type of vehicle whatever.

Only late in his career did a financial windfall occur to Mr Lithgow. He had the good fortune to join up with three Dutchmen at Jerusalem, who were journeying with a caravan in the same direction. These he joined, and kept by them until they reached the Egyptian capital. Here his three companions speedily killed themselves by drinking local alcohol. As each man died, he left the survivors all his money and jewellery, and the last bequeathed the whole accumulated amount to Lithgow! Thanking God for his good fortune, Lithgow now proceeded, quite at his ease as to money matters, to inspect every thing that was curious in the city.

photo credit: Bloomsbury Auctions

After I'd written up the Shapera auction, I found that Bloomsbury Auctions had had a very similar book in their sales back in May 2011. William Lithgow’s book Nineteen Years Travels through the most Eminent Places in the Habitable World, had originally been published under the title The Total Discourse of the Rare Adventures in 1632. Here the publishers wrote "Lithgow travelled extensively throughout the Levant in three journeys between 1610-22: Greece, Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean from 1610-13; North Africa and Italy from 1614-19; and Spain from 1619-21. He travelled mostly on foot and had a greater knowledge of the interior of the countries he visited than most travellers of this period. He provides interesting details of the society, men and manners he observed".

I don't know if Lithgow really was the earliest authority for coffee-drinking in Europe, Turkish Baths, a pigeon post between Aleppo and Baghdad, Turkish tobacco-pipes, artificial incubation and the importation of currants from Zante to England. But he was a very impressive, intrepid and curious traveller. And a fascinating writer.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I just looked at some samples of Lithgow's writing, which amounted to a diatribe against Ireland. Based on my small sample, he seems an early example of travel writers (like Mrs. Trollope or Dickens) who take great pains to travel, but ultimately decide that the Home way of doing everything is better.

Lithgow has a salty and outspoken way of expression that makes his writing interesting, at least in small doses. Here is a sample discussing corrupt preachers (which reminds me a little of John Dryden's Spanish Fryar):

"The alehouse is their church, the Irish priests their conforts; their auditors be, Fill and fetch more; their text Spanish sack, their prayers carousing, their singing of psalms whiffing of tobacco, their last blessing aqua vitae, and all their doctrine found drunkenness."

I will be on the lookout for some books of his, although not $10,000 originals.
--Road to Parnassus

Andrew said...

Fantastic intrepid travels. Last year I read a book written by a woman travelling on her own in 19th century Japan. We are terribly spoilt now when we travel.

I am not sure I would be so happy about such an inheritance, but who could look a gift horse in the mouth.

Hels said...


I am quite conflicted on this question. On one hand, writers did indeed find that the home way of doing things was better. On the other, Lithgow went to places like Jerusalem, Aleppo, Baghdad, Crete and Cairo 200 years before other Western Europeans ventured into these remote and exotic locations.

Hels said...


nod.. incredibly spoilt. Our idea of a holiday damaged beyond repair is when we are given Marmite on toast in a hotel, rather than Vegemite.

There was a lot of Grand Touring throughout the entire 18th century, but we don't hear about pre-organised package tours until Thomas Cook in the 1840s. Back in 1610 and 1622, William Lithgow was truly intrepid!

jeronimus said...

I love the title of Lithgow's book.

Hels said...


I do too :) Sometimes we assume that editors select titles, but the words "Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations of Long Nineteen Years Travails" have a ring of personal authenticity :)

Auriel Ragmon said...

Then there was Doughty, Travels in Deserta Arabia with drawings by the author. he was a Scots Presbyterian who was not at all impressed by the Muslims there. But that was more in our times. Thanks for the info on Lithgow. He must have had an interesting journey!

Hels said...


Thanks for that. Although I don't know Doughty, I do know other traveller/writers. Celia Fiennes wrote up her extensive English travels approx 1685-1705.

Between 1692-5 Defoe travelled in Europe, particularly visiting the wine trade in Spain and Portugal. Back at home, he wrote a great travel book, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27).

In 1716 Edward Wortley Montagu became Ambassador at Constantinople. Lady Mary accompanied him to Vienna and onwards for 2 years, publishing her findings in Letters from Turkey.

Note of course that Lithgow travelled far earlier and wider than any of the others.