A Frenchman in Tudor England

Norman Lloyd Williams analyses the observations of Etienne Perlin during his visit in 1553.

Foreign visitors' impressions of Britain are likely to be superficial, and this is their value. They give glimpses of the surface of things: the natives’ tricks of speech, dress, behaviour. They reveal lyrically the prejudices of the writer’s own countrymen, and report in dudgeon the prejudices of the English.

They relate events on the basis of the misinformation that was common currency, reminding us that educated people’s knowledge of public events was as inaccurate in the sixteenth century as in the twentieth.

Etienne Perlin was a fairly lively young Frenchman, described on the title page of his Description des Royaulmes d’Angleterre et d’Escosse as ‘maistre’ but in his licence to publish as ‘estudiant en l'université de Paris’. He was in England and Scotland in 1553, when Edward VI died and Mary was crowned. In 1558 he published his 6,000 words on England and 3,000 on Scotland, and dedicated them to the Duchesse de Berri, sister of Henri II.

In the same year he published in Latin a work on the human body and its ills, almost twice as long, and dedicated it to Henri himself, ‘unconquered King of France, future Monarch of all the World’. This medical work has no originality, but it is carefully ordered and well expressed, while the Description reads as if unplanned and uncorrected, like unskilled dictation, with flashes of vivacity.

In the quotations that follow I have taken out some repetitious words and put together separated passages. For the French text one can go to a London reprint of 1775 which, except for a couple of words, is an accurate transcript of the original Paris edition.

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