Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The word ‘traveller’ has been in continuous use in English since the fifteenth century to refer to a person who goes from place to place, undertakes a journey or is a passenger. The French derivation from ‘travail’ suggests hardship and suffering, a fitting denotation for saints and pilgrims who travelled in the Middle Ages (see pilgrimage). From the late fifteenth century onwards, the term refers more widely to voyagers, scientific travellers and collectors, those travelling for leisure, forced to travel for various reasons or travelling habitually as a way of life or in search of employment like commercial travellers and journeymen. In Britain, it has specific application to so-called New Age travellers and to Gypsies, who have for centuries lived on the margins of society and can claim ‘traveller ethnicity’ (Belton 2005).
‘Travellers’ have often been regarded with suspicion. Gypsies and others who choose an itinerant lifestyle have been met with widespread prejudice, even when travelling under the aegis of religious orders. Indeed, the development of the English novel owes much to travellers’ stories and the figure of the ‘travel liar’ (Adams 1962). Yet in the eighteenth century, when young English aristocrats were sent to Europe for their ‘education’, it was these ‘blockheads’ who were subjected to gulling and cheating by unscrupulous innkeepers and antiquarians (Smollett 1979 ). Taking a more elevated view of himself as a traveller, Laurence Sterne (2003 ) reduced the ‘whole circle of travellers’ to:
To these are appended the ‘Travellers of Necessity’, a heading which includes the ‘delinquent’, the ‘felonious’ and the ‘unfortunate’. Distancing himself from these, he labelled himself ‘Sentimental Traveller’ (10–11).
Sterne's Yorick epitomized and parodied the traveller for whom travel was more of a performance than an education. Yet the idea that the traveller should focus on contact with people, rather than gather information and document sights, marked a significant shift in the traveller's mode and sensibility. The ability to record feelings and impressions as well as facts is crucial here as Sterne self-consciously turns the labour implied in ‘travail’ to that of writing. An ‘intense bond’ between travel and writing would find further intensity in the Romantic era (Butor 2001 , 69).