A 17th Century French Traveller in England: ‘Discours des Empires, Royaumes, Estats, seigneuries, duchez et principautez du monde’ par Pierre d’Avity

Worcester Cathedral Library contains, as you would expect, a number of books written in French. Four of these, large, leather bound volumes, make up an encyclopedia of the world.

This ambitious publication was the work of Pierre d’Avity. He was born in Tournan, France in 1573, studied law and became a soldier. Between military campaigns, he somehow found time to compile his encyclopedia, which he first published in 1614. He made additions to it until his death in 1635 and others continued to do so posthumously. The edition held in Worcester is dated1637.

Worcester Cathedral Library

Early C17th Frenchman, planning their holidays. Detail from the frontispiece of the first volume of D’Avity’s work. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The encyclopedia covers Europe, Asia, Africa and America and there is even a section on Outer Space. The description of each country is amazingly detailed and you can only imagine that d’Avity must have had a large cohort of helpers travelling round each country gathering the information he required. Take the section on Great Britain, for example. He starts with a description of the origins of the country and then talks of its geography, quality (weather, countryside, fauna, natural resources etc), ancient customs, modern customs (Englishmen are more civilized than many think but there are those who say that they cannot cope without the ‘three Bs’: Beer, Beef and Bed ….), defence, government, religion and genealogy. There follows a detailed description of each county.

How interesting it was to read about Worcestershire, the origin of its name, exact location, size, make-up and governance. He talks about the county’s towns, including Droitwich with its production of very white salt, and the various rivers, full of good fish, particularly lampreys. He mentions the pleasant and healthy air, the beautiful forests, the land, among the most fertile in the country producing a good quantity of wheat, the lovely pastures cropped by many sheep and the orchards full of pear trees. He enjoys perry, a fortified wine made from the pears, which he compares favourably with perry from Normandy!

Grosse Worcestershire Cathedral Library

Worcestershire – our favourite county! Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

D’Avity’s greatest compliments are reserved for Worcester itself, after giving his usual detailed description, including the length and shape of the city walls, he mentions the magnificent Cathedral and, leaving the best for last, he talks about the inhabitants of Worcester (something he rarely does in his commentaries on other counties), commending them for their great courtesy:

Mais le plus grand ornement de cette ville consisite non seulement au nombre des églises et beauté de ses maisons mais encore en ses citoyens, qui sont en grand nombre, fort cortois, et riche par le moyen de leurs ouvrages de laine.

Obviously a man of great discernment!

Julia McCreath

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