View of the city of Zurich c. 1576, the Murerplan by Zurich cartographer Jos Murer, colourised.
View of the city of Zurich c. 1576, the Murerplan by Zurich cartographer Jos Murer, colourised. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

A journey across Switzerland in 1608

Drinking and bathing habits, fashion preferences, dealing with death: the astonishing observations of English traveller Thomas Coryat (1577-1617) in early 17th-century Switzerland.

Sarah Rindlisbacher Thomi

Sarah Rindlisbacher Thomi

Sarah Rindlisbacher Thomi is a lecturer in pre-modern Swiss history at the Institute of History of the University of Bern.

Switzerland hasn’t always been a preferred travel destination. Before nature enthusiasts and then tourists started flocking to the Alps in the 18th and 19th centuries to admire our mountain scenery, the old Confederation was mainly seen as a tiresome country through which one had to pass on the way to somewhere else. Little wonder – around 1600 there were no major points of interest in this country, no royal court anywhere, the towns were all quite small, and crossing the Alps was considered dangerous and full of hardships. In any case, travelling as an end in itself, and the delight and fascination of discovering a country and its people, was still a rarity. But there were individual pioneers who, driven by curiosity and a thirst for adventure, set out to explore unknown lands. One such early traveller was Englishman Thomas Coryat (1577-1617), who visited the Swiss Confederation on his wanderings across Europe in 1608. We are informed of his observations by an entertaining account of his journey that bears the impressive title Coryat’s crudities: Hastily gobled up in five moneths travells […]. The account, published in 1611, was dedicated to his patron, the English Prince Henry Frederick.
Frontispiece to Thomas Coryat’s account of his travels, edition of 1611.
Frontispiece to Thomas Coryat’s account of his travels, edition of 1611. Folger Shakespeare Library
Its author was as eccentric as his travelogue. Thomas Coryat was born the son of a clergyman in Somerset, England. After abandoning his studies at Oxford, he entered the service of Prince Henry, where he made a name for himself primarily as a jester thanks to his gregarious nature. In addition to his gift for languages and his command of words, those around him also noted a certain self-importance and a craving for personal recognition. It is possible that Coryat’s own role at court no longer suited him, but in any case in 1608 he decided to go on a tour of Europe. Alone and often on foot, he travelled through France and northern Italy, across the Alps and through what is now Germany before returning to London. This journey did little to quench his wanderlust; indeed, after his return from Europe the Englishman was gripped more than ever by the desire to travel, and several years later he went to India, where he died of dysentery in 1617. Switzerland was just a speck on Thomas Coryat’s big map of the world. He spent just ten days in the Swiss Confederation and the Graubünden region, and his notes are limited to the main centres through which he passed on his journey: Chur, Walenstadt, Zurich, Baden, Rheinfelden and Basel. Unlike later travel writers Coryat was interested not in the untamed beauty of the natural landscape, but in the everyday lives of the Swiss people.
The territory of present-day Switzerland c. 1622.
The territory of present-day Switzerland c. 1622. Universitätsbibliothek Basel
Of the Englishman’s many observations, some may still seem familiar to us today. In Zurich, for example, Coryat was surprised by his bedding. The people of Zurich covered themselves not with a blanket, like his countrymen in England, but with a large and very soft down-filled pad that kept them warm while still being light in weight. It seems the fondness we Swiss still have for our duvets is deeply ingrained. Coryat also found the general level of security in the country worthy of praise. The people were honest and you could go about alone carrying large amounts of money without fear, because robberies were extremely rare. On the other hand, the peculiar Swiss way of indicating distances elicited some brow-furrowing from our hero. If you asked someone how far it was to a particular place, you were given the information in hours instead of miles. Nowhere else in Christendom was it done this way, and the information was useless anyway, since people don’t all walk at the same pace. This too should strike us as familiar. Even today, on our hiking trail signposts the distances are given not in kilometres, but in hours and minutes – in contrast to the practice in many other European countries. Coryat tells one particularly well-known story in connection with a visit to the Zurich armoury. A student acted as his guide and, in addition to the weapon inventory, showed him some “antiquities”. The Englishman was shown not only arrows, banners and ensigns which the Helvetii tribe were said to have used in their battles against Julius Caesar, but also William Tell’s sword. It was a pretty stunning collection that the armoury had to offer, considering that only a handful of relics from the 1st century BC have survived and that William Tell is a mythical figure. Whatever it is that was shown to the credulous Englishman, it seems to have made a powerful impression. Coryat felt moved at this point to retell the Swiss foundation myth, including the shooting of the apple and the Rütli oath – the first rendering of the Tell saga in English. Nevertheless, he did have one piece of criticism: instead of Tell’s sword, he would rather have seen the arrow with which the hero shot dead the tyrant Gessler.

Me thinks it had beene much better to have reserved the arrow with which [Tell] shot through the tyrant, then the sword that he wore.

Thomas Coryat’s critique of the objects on display in the Zurich Armoury.
The armoury in Zurich c. 1700.
The armoury in Zurich c. 1700. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
In addition to many aspects that seem familiar to us even today, Coryat also reported on some things about Switzerland in the early 17th century that seem strange. The Englishman found the supply of food in Zurich so good that

A man may live as cheape here as in any City of Switzerland or Germanie.

Thomas Coryat on the cost of living in Zurich
Coryat also describes Swiss drinking customs, which he considered comparable to those of the Germans. He had to be careful not to give in too often to his table companions’ invitations to drink, lest he imbibe to excess himself. It was customary either to drink, or to leave the table. It may seem odd to hear an Englishman speak disapprovingly of the Swiss love of drinking, given that these days the English are usually counted among the world’s heaviest drinkers. However, this behaviour wasn’t uncommon at the time. Abraham Stanyan (1669-1732), English envoy to the Swiss Confederation some decades after Coryat’s visit, had a similar experience of the locals’ immoderate alcohol intake during his tenure, at one time being forced to defend his reputation after a nasty rumour circulated in Zurich that he was averse to drinking.
Drinking session c. 1650. Print by Conrad Meyer, Zurich.
Drinking session c. 1650. Print by Conrad Meyer, Zurich. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
We may also find rather strange the relaxed and amicable interaction between the sexes in the famous baths at Baden, as described by Coryat with obvious disgust. Women and men – not married to each other – would bathe together, naked from the waist up and separated only by wooden walls with windows in them. This state of affairs seemed downright scandalous to Coryat, as his notes show: “I meane another mans wife, & another man naked upward (as I have aforesaid) in one bath. […] the husband may not be jelous though he be at the bathes, and seeth too much occasion of jealousie ministred unto him.” If he were married, Coryat noted, he would never, ever allow his wife to bathe like this, for fear she would be unfaithful to him.

Men and women bathing themselves together naked from the middle upward in one bathe: whereof some of the women were wives (as I was told) and the men partly bachelers, and partly married men, but not the husbands of the same women.

Thomas Coryat’s somewhat awkward way of expressing his outrage over the conduct he observed in the baths at Baden.
One of the two baths on the Bäderplatz in Baden, in Johannes Stumpf’s chronicle of 1548.
One of the two baths on the Bäderplatz in Baden, in Johannes Stumpf’s chronicle of 1548. At this point, there is no separation between women and men. However, the segregated arrangement will later be described for the two public baths. City Archives, Baden
In his report, Coryat also describes the clothing styles of the time in Zurich and Basel. He was astounded to see that all male inhabitants of the cities of Zurich and Basel – from ten-year-old boys to old men of a hundred – wore a codpiece. This covering flap or pouch on the trousers, which was worn directly in front of the genitals and originally served as protection in a military context, became a fashion accessory throughout Europe in the mid-16 century. Now the codpiece was stuffed and decorated with ribbons in order to emphasise the wearer’s potency. But even in those days, fashion trends came and went: by the end of the 16th century the codpiece had already disappeared from most of Europe – with the exception of certain regions of Switzerland. The Swiss seem to lag behind somewhat when it comes to fashion.
Men’s and women’s traditional clothing in early 17th-century Zurich. Illustration from Johann Heinrich Waser’s Itinerarium, 1621-1630.
Men’s and women’s traditional clothing in early 17th-century Zurich. Illustration from Johann Heinrich Waser’s Itinerarium, 1621-1630. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
Coryat also observed certain distinctive features of the women which he describes as “very strange and phantasticall”, namely that they wore their hair “in two very long locks that hang downe over their shoulders” and which they twisted with “prety silke ribbands or fillets of sundry colours”. What the Englishman is describing here sounds very much like the sort of plaited hairstyle that girls still wear from time to time today.
Woman with a covered basket and long plaits. Baking mould, 17th century.
Woman with a covered basket and long plaits. Baking mould, 17th century. Swiss National Museum
Incidentally, Coryat seems to have been very taken with the ladies of Basel. Only rarely on his travels did he meet women as beautiful and comely as those of the city on the Rhine. Naturally, though, not even the Basel women could hold a candle to the women of England, whom Coryat ultimately preferred for their natural beauty.

I observed many women of this Citie to be as beautifull and faire as any I saw in all my travels.

Thomas Coryat on the women in Basel
It is not only the cheerful and pleasant aspects of Swiss cultural life that are mentioned in Coryat’s account. Several times he also touches on how we deal with death here. He was amazed by the charnel houses in and around the city of Baden, which kept piled-up heaps of bones; why they did that, he knew not. He was also vexed by the burial practice in Zurich, where even the most important churchmen and reform leaders were buried “meanely”, without ornament or epitaph, so that without a guide it was impossible to identify precisely who was lying where. The report also contains a list of the five methods of execution that were common in the Confederation at the time, according to Coryat: beheading for highway robbers and incestuous men, hanging for burglars and arsonists, drowning for incestuous women, burning for witches, sorcerers and heretics and, finally, breaking on the wheel for murderers. What seems strange to us here was by no means unfamiliar to Coryat, and the sight of a gallows – as he describes on the outskirts of Rheinfelden, for example – didn’t shock or appal him.
A murderer is broken on the wheel. Depiction from the Wickiana, 1582.
A murderer is broken on the wheel. Depiction from the Wickiana, 1582. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
Coryat’s account is of such great value to us because it describes not only the unusual features of contemporary life, but also the mundane and the commonplace, through the eyes of a curious outsider. It is precisely these minutiae of everyday life that are rarely ever mentioned in accounts by Swiss people themselves. And why should a Zurich resident of the 17th century put down on paper that he sleeps under a down-filled coverlet, when he knows no other way and obviously everyone else in the city does the same? Coryat’s account of his travels reveals a Switzerland where the amenities of life such as a good supply of food and safe streets were already part of day-to-day living. At the same time the boisterous drinking, and the cheerful bathing culture without any trace of prudishness, may be more difficult to reconcile with the standard image of the Swiss as a rather serious and straight-laced people. It is precisely this bringing together of the strange and the familiar that makes this remarkable travel account by Thomas Coryat such engaging reading.

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