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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 7. John Leland

Alas for the vanity of human hopes! It is easy to travel; it is not easy to convert a traveller’s note-book into literature; and John Leland, elegant poet though he was in the Latin tongue, found the work of arrangement and composition beyond his powers. Unhappily, he seems to have known the limit of his talent. He complains that “except truth be delycately clothed in purpure her written veryties can scant fynde a reader.” This purple vesture it was not his to give, and the world looked in vain for his expected masterpiece. When, at last, he recognised that it was for others he had gathered the honey of his knowledge, he went mad, “upon a foresight,” said Wood, “that he was not able to perform his promise.” Some charged him with pride and vainglory without justice. He was not proud, merely inarticulate. The work he designed for himself was done by Camden. And, now that his Itinerary is printed, it is difficult to understand the enthusiasm of his contemporaries. It makes no pretence to be written. It is the perfection of dryasdust, and the only writer with whom Leland may profitably be compared is the author of Bradshaw’s Guide. Here are two specimens of his lore, chosen at random:

  • Mr. Pye dwellit at … a litle from Chippenham, but in Chippenham Paroche.
  • One told me that there was no notable Bridge on Avon betwixt Malmesbyri and Chippenham. I passed over 2 Bekkes betwixt Malmesbyri and Chippenham.
  • The statements are superbly irrelevant, and it is clear that the old tailors had the better of the vaunted scholar.

    As a topographer, indeed, it is Stow who takes his place by Camden’s side. The Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (1598 and 1603) is a diligent and valuable piece of work, at once faithful and enthusiastic. For Stow, London was the fairest, largest, richest and best inhabited city in the world, and he gave it all the care and study which he thought it deserved. Other travellers went further afield. To Richard Carew, we owe A Survey of Cornwall (1602); and John Norden cherished the wider ambition of composing a series of county histories. Only a fragment of his vast design, which he would have entitled Speculum Britanniae, has come down to us—a “preparative” to the whole work, together with brief sketches of Middlesex and Hertford (1593). The failure is more to be regretted because Norden himself was a man of parts. He came of a “gentile family,” says Wood, was authorised, in 1593, by a privy council order to travel through England and Wales, “to make more perfect descriptions, charts and maps” and was a very deft cartographer, as is shown to all in Camden’s Britannia. The liveliest of his works, the Surveyor’s Dialogue (1608), may still be read with pleasure. Therein, Norden deplores, like many another, the luxury which had come upon the country under the rule of the Tudors; he observes, with sorrow, the enhanced prices of all commodities, the smoke of many chimneys, which “hinders the heate and light of the Sunne from earthly creatures,” and the many acres of deforested land. The farmers, he says, are not content unless they are gentry, and “gentlemen have sunke themselves by rowing in vanities boa[char].” In brief, he sees about him the signs of ruin and desolation, and his treatise may aptly be compared with some passages of Harrison’s Description of England.