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Places of Knowledge in Early Modern Travel Writing

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

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Place is at the centre of the broad cultural and intellectual shifts that occurred in England and in Europe more widely in early modernity. The expansion of diplomatic networks, trading routes, and colonial and imperial projects precipitated fresh debates about the relationship of place to cross-cultural encounters. At the same time, the production of new maps and modes of geographical description gave rise to alternative models for the representation of place, including of the world itself. Writing about place thus involved negotiating the distance between the known and the unknown, attempting to reconcile different kinds of knowledge, and making judgments about the forms in which knowledge should be recorded and disseminated. 


This talk examines the strategies early modern English travellers used to understand and write about place. It pays particular attention to how these travellers negotiated the relationship between the texts and ideas of the classical tradition and what they conceive as geographical “discoveries”. It demonstrates that the travellers of the period turned repeatedly to classical models in the composition of their accounts, both to the examples of specific authors as well as to the forms that were inherited and imitated by the literary culture of early modern Europe through the study of rhetoric. It argues that travellers’ experiments with form did not only enable them to describe their experiences of transcultural and transnational encounter but also structured the encounters themselves. In doing so, it offers new perspective to the study of early modern travel writing by positioning the classical tradition as a background in which to view its aesthetics and politics in sharper relief. 


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