Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook

Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook

by Nicholas Parsons

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The guidebook has a long and distinguished history, going back to Biblical times and encompassing major cultural and social changes that have witnessed the transformation of travel. This book presents a journey through centuries of travel writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752496047
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/24/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 378
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 9 - 11 Years

Read an Excerpt

Worth the Detour

A History of the Guidebook

By Nicholas T. Parsons

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Nicholas T. Parsons
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9604-7


Beginnings: Antiquity and the Origins of the Guidebook Genre

The describer of distant regions is always welcomed as a man who has laboured to enlarge our knowledge and rectify our opinions.

(Dr Johnson, 1760)

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.

(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Knowledge is Power

'The travellers of one age are officials, of another devotees, of another, scholars, of another men and women of fashion.' A generalisation perhaps – one could add migrants, traders, explorers, soldiers and so forth – but this observation by one of the first scholars to deal seriously with guidebooks does highlight the main categories for which they tended to be written before the age of leisure tourism. Nowadays a guidebook is a consumer article like any other, but it started life as an official document, probably even a 'classified' one for restricted circulation. Indeed, one of the earliest topographical documents having elements of a guidebook is the quasi-legal (but also intelligence) report on Palestine ordered by Joshua after the death of Moses and loosely reckoned to have been undertaken at the end of the thirteenth century BC.

Three men from the seven tribes of Israel were to go and survey the promised land and divide it into seven parts, so that they should enter into the inheritance God had prepared for them (a polite description for land-grabbing): 'Joshua charged them that went to describe the land, saying, Go and walk through the land, and describe it,' whereupon 'the men went and passed through the land, and described it by cities into seven parts in a book'. The Renaissance scholar Jerome Turler similarly looks back to the methodology of this epoch-making survey in his advice to scholarly travellers published in 1575: they are to

prosecute everie thing most exactlye, imitating the example of Moses, who most diligentlye discovered the differences between Mountaynes, Hilles, Landes, Peoples, Townes, Fieldes and Forestes, adding moreover what is to be considered in them all. For this hee sayde to them whom he sent to view the lande of Canaan: When yee shall come unto the Hilles, consyder the lande what maner one it is, and consyder the people that dwell therein, whether they bee stronge or weake, many or fewe: the lande good or bad. What cyties there bee? Walled or not walled ...

The ur-colonialism of the children of Israel may serve to remind us that the accumulation of knowledge is the accumulation of power. However, the nexus between knowledge and empowerment can, of course, be viewed at a less banal level than that of mere rivalry between nations. It is at this deeper level that the real origins of the guidebook lie, as an expression of man's desire to understand the world in which he lives, to explore the unknown, to create an intellectual order from an incoherent mass of data, to document, classify and pass on to others the fruits of observation and autopsy. Most of what we instinctively know about how to tackle such tasks was first tried out in the ancient world, and, although many such experiments have been lost or are known only by report, enough has remained to show how curiosity allied to economic (sometimes military) motivation drove men to penetrate far beyond the Mediterranean, to investigate and report, to probe the truth of existing myths and sometimes invent new ones. The systematisation of this body of knowledge, both factual and practical, provided the intellectual foundations out of which the guidebook genre was to emerge. Moreover, these foundations are very varied and include sailing manuals, maps and accounts of voyages or land journeys, as well as the earliest ventures into such fields as anthropology, ethnography, history, geography, topography and medicine. The more striking examples of works in these fields that have a bearing on the development of the guidebook deserve a closer look, which this chapter will endeavour to provide.

Spying, Surveying, Self-Improvement and Self-Indulgence

The reports of Joshua's spies dovetail with guidebook information in so far as the information could have been useful to the layman for gaining a better understanding of the land he or she was about to enter (and in this case settle). Yet military, diplomatic and political considerations would have been even more important to the commissioners of such a survey, a fact that raises a recurring issue in the history of guidebooks, namely their role in disclosing information to outsiders that more or less paranoid inhabitants, or especially their rulers, might prefer to keep under wraps. On the one hand, a nation's authorities may wish to control its image through the selection of information available to the visitor; on the other hand, rulers and officials are perennially concerned about 'sensitive' information seeping into the public domain (and worse, a domain of foreigners). Context determines the impact of data: apparently harmless and objective information made available to the tourist or scholar might also, when read in a different context, reveal strategic weaknesses or help to narrow a commercial advantage. All knowledge is power, but a lot of power depends on ignorance.

That this was a live issue in the ancient world is reflected in a multitude of different ways. To take a few at random, Xenophon (c. 430–c. 354 BC) recommends that spies be disguised as merchants, partly because the latter were many and it was an effective disguise, and partly because the merchants among whom they would consort were necessarily among the best-informed people. They needed to protect their interests by being well informed not only about routes, markets and prices, but also about local politics and general social conditions. There were, of course, other sorts of alert traveller, among them itinerant philosophers or scholars, typically the sort of individuals who would bear report or even write down their findings. For example, Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.91) mentions the intelligence provided to Sparta, probably by this type of traveller, reporting on the efforts of the Athenians to rebuild their walls.

Then again, the collection of information could be quite open, particularly if you were travelling with a powerful army. Alexander the Great took an entourage of learned men and geographers on his campaigns, including a group of surveyors called bematistai, who were charged with writing up the countries through which his conquering army passed. These 'bematists' compiled an archive of key distances in Alexander's empire (not surprisingly, one of them, Philonides of Crete, was famous as a distance runner). Their observations were published as stathmoi ('stages'), in which precise distance calculations were combined with reports of fauna, flora and local customs. The descriptions of the local customs have been described as 'outrageous', but the distance measurements proved valuable to the Seleucids, who succeeded Alexander, and they were also drawn on by Eratosthenes (c. 285– 194 BC) for his geography of Asia. Alexander's campaigns were thus as much exploratory as military, and indeed the king's secretary, Eumenes of Cardia, was charged with compiling a daily expedition report, which unfortunately has not survived.

All this may seem a far cry from the intellectual milieu of even the best-informed guidebooks of today, since the latter aim primarily at the leisure traveller interested in culture, history and the prospects for entertainment or gastronomic pleasures. The Renaissance and Enlightenment writers of travel manuals had other priorities, as we shall see later. Passages from Turler's book cited above have been compared, for example, with Machiavelli's The Prince, in which the prospective ruler (one of the specific categories of traveller at whom Turler and similar writers aimed their works) is given, inter alia, a list of topographical tasks requiring application and endurance, all of which are to be carried out on the journey. He is instructed 'to inure his body to labour and travel, and learn to know the nature and citation of diverse places, marking the heights of the mountains, the opening of the valleys to admit entrance, and how the plains lie, by this means also ... [to] know the course of the rivers, their depths and passages, the nature of the marsh grounds, and divers other things'. It is obvious that the future prince's keenness to acquire detailed knowledge about other countries arises from twin motivations of a desire to further the national interest and a love of learning; this was an ambiguity that persisted at least until the Enlightenment, when European nobility on fact-finding tours are to be found complaining of the reluctance of some English manufacturers to allow them to look over their factories. Such surveys originated with the ancient Greeks, who boasted the first literate society with a fully developed system of phonetic writing, which ensured that the interpretation of scripts could no longer be monopolised by manipulative insiders such as priests. It also meant that travellers' reports could, again for the first time, become instruments of 'pure objective research' (not that they always were).

The Greeks, who anticipated us in this, as in so many other things, even formulated the idea of leisure travel, which was possible only in conditions of peace, relative security and at least reasonable communications. As Mary Beard and John Henderson report in their short guide to the classics (though they must be exaggerating about guidebooks), 'the Greeks and Romans were tourists too; they toured the classical sites, guidebooks in hand, braving the bandits, fleeced by the locals, searching out what they had been told was most worth seeing, hungry for "atmosphere"'. It is again Xenophon, writing after the end of the Peloponnesian War, who provides a glimpse of perhaps the earliest systematic tourism. In a papyrus on public finance entitled 'Ways and Means', he drew attention to the advantages of Athens as a tourist centre and the potential that this implied for earning money. Among his suggestions for increasing the flow of visitors was the idea of building hotels to accommodate them, financed by the state. The strict and efficient administration of hotel categories that has always rendered travelling in Greece so pleasurably predictable and economic seems to have had very ancient roots.

Homeric Geography

The earliest attempts at purely geographical description are centred on the physical and mental world from which their authors sprang, namely the Greek world of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. For centuries the binding element of their vision was what is picturesquely known as 'Homeric geography', an account of territories derived from information in the two great Homeric epics, the Iliad (written down c. 750 BC) and the Odyssey (c. 725 BC). The prestige of Homer, as the bard supplying the myth that established a shared self-perception among the scattered Greek settlements, long made it virtually obligatory for writers to reconcile physical realities with Homeric lore. For example, the idea that the earth was a disc, 'exactly round, as if drawn with a pair of compasses, and the Ocean flowing all around it', which Herodotus ridiculed, had long held sway on account of its derivation from the Homeric poems. 'From all we know of the progress of the Greek mind,' writes one historian of geography, 'there can be no doubt that they would be very slow to emancipate themselves from the influence of an error once established upon such authority.' Strabo himself, the famous geographer of the Augustan age, was still sufficiently a Greek to describe Homer as 'the first geographer'. Similar attempts to mould the available information to a revered Weltanschauung were to recur in the Christian cartography of the Middle Ages, which usually made Jerusalem the centre of the world and painted dragons on the territories about which little or nothing was known.

From its enduring hold on the Greek mind, it seems fair to assert that 'Homeric geography' was deemed to supply for its proponents a fruitful combination of the cognitive and the mimetic, the twin pillars of an overall Greek-centred vision of the world. And it was fruitful precisely because it encouraged a speculative curiosity that existed in creative tension with empirical observation. In the same way that scientific discoveries often spring from an imaginative insight that surpasses mere ratiocination, so poetry for the ancient Greeks could point the way for science. As Charles Fornara has written: 'Just as genealogical writing was inspired by Hesiodic poetry reflecting a natural interest in what the Greeks conceived to be their heroic past, so the poetry of Homer reveals a natural curiosity about foreign lands, partly real and partly imaginary, that ultimately helped to inspire ethnography.' In the Iliad, Greek self-perception is at once symbolic and concrete, for example, in an impressive onomastic recital evoking the Greek homeland, the famous 'catalogue of the Greek ships'. The ritualistic naming of places, which again also features in Hesiod, the other great founding father of Greek literature, may also be seen as a rhetorical adumbration of guidebook practice; furthermore it constitutes the more precise part of Homeric geography covering an area the poet or poets probably knew well either by reliable report or from personal experience. To name a place (even an imaginary one) was at least to assert its contingent reality, to 'put it on the map' as the saying goes (though it might only be a mental map). To name a place within a specific heroic or cultural context already brings it into the purview of the guidebook.

On the other hand, the fabulous islands and territories of Odysseus' wanderings in the sequel to the Iliad seem to be purely fictional, and even the identification of Corcyra (Corfu) with Scheria, the land of the easy-going and self-indulgent Phaeacians, has now been largely abandoned by scholars. In early Homeric commentary, it was often claimed that Homer was being deliberately vague about the location of his hero's wanderings, a form of mystification that was given the appellation exokeanismus. This phenomenon too may be seen as the distant precedent of a recurring subtext of the guidebook, namely its ambivalent relationship with 'the Other'. In John Elsner's subtle analysis, the cultural appropriation of foreign ground vicariously offered to the readers of travel books is counterpointed by that same ground's unknowable and unattainable 'Otherness'. 'Who wants to know what they already know?' asks Elsner rhetorically:

For the Other to maintain its attraction and to generate the desire of readers to purchase books about the far away, the Other must remain for ever the Other. One of the great tensions of travel writing as a genre is that it is about making the Other comprehensible and yet making sure that it is Other enough to continue generating the attraction of the foreign, to continue to defy total domestication.

Open almost any guidebook and this sort of tension will make itself felt: the exotic experience is tempered by reassurance (perhaps in the 'Practical Information') that it can be obtained within a context of physical security and without threatening the traveller's own identity. Such a tension is often treated with some subtlelty by the ancient Greeks, in whose works startling facts (or fiction) about foreign cultures are counterpointed by the first glimmerings of scientific ethnography, or 'pseudo-scientific "ethnology"' as Paul Cartledge describes it. In a thought-provoking analysis of the Greek sense of the Other, he suggests that homogenised stereotyping of 'barbarians' dates to the mid-fifth century and the traumatic experience of the Persian invasions. Like ancient democracy's underpinnings of slavery, this potentially embarrassing issue for Europeans, who see in ancient Greece the foundation of their civilisation, is now receiving an increasing amount of detailed scholarly attention.

Structuralist social anthropology and the influence of works like Edward Said's Orientalism have led to an interest in 'alterity', defined by Cartledge as 'the condition of difference and exclusion suffered by an "out" group against which a dominant group and its individual members define themselves negatively in ideally polarized opposition'. Shorn of its academic camouflage, this is essentially the accusation that the Greeks were racists and cultural supremacists; any for whom the cap does not appear to fit are said to have been the exceptions that prove the rule. A case in point is Herodotus, who was denigrated by Plutarch (c. AD 46–c. 126) in one of his Moral Essays as philobarbaros. The expression is provocatively rendered as 'wog-lover' by Cartledge, who goes on to explain how this 'accusation' was as inaccurate as its implications were unworthy.


Excerpted from Worth the Detour by Nicholas T. Parsons. Copyright © 2013 Nicholas T. Parsons. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I The Ancient World,
Chapter 1 Beginnings: Antiquity and the Origins of the Guidebook Genre,
Chapter 2 Pausanias: The 'Baedeker of the Ancient World',
Part II Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: The Pilgrims' Guides,
Chapter 3 The Pilgrim's Way: Guides for Pilgrims to the Holy Land,
Chapter 4 Santiago de Compostela: Legend, Legerdemain and the Love of God,
Chapter 5 All Roads Lead to Rome,
Part III From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Scholars, Moralists and Men of Taste,
Chapter 6 'The Art of Being away from Home': The Scholar or Patriot's Guidebook from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,
Chapter 7 The Long Tutorial: Bear-Leaders, Antiquarians and Connoisseurs Write up the Grand Tour,
Part IV The Bourgeois Traveller and the Beginnings of Mass Tourism,
Chapter 8 Annexing the Tourist World: John Murray III and Murray's Handbooks,
Chapter 9 The Baedeker Dynasty: Guidebooks as Agents of Canonicity,
Chapter 10 How the Other Halves Lived: From Cookites and Middle-Class Excursionists to Dilettante Explorers,
Part V From Inventory to Ideology: Aspects of the Modern Guidebook,
Chapter 11 Up-Market, Down-Market: The Specialist's Bible or an Ariadne's Thread for Everyman,
Epilogue: Mind-Travelling and the Survival of the Guidebook,

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