Samuel Purchas Essay - Critical Essays

Purchas, Samuel


Samuel Purchas c. 1577-1626

English editor, travel writer, and essayist.

Purchas was the compiler and editor of travel narratives and the author of prose works derived from his reading of travel writings. His Purchas his pilgrimage (1613) profoundly influenced generations of readers, from James I to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. King James is said to have read it seven times, and the work's description of Xanadu inspired Coleridge's Kubla Khan. Purchas is, however, better remembered today for Hakluytus posthumus, or Purchas his pilgrimes (1625), his four-volume collection based on the writings of Richard Hakluyt, the most prominent travel writer of his time. A clergyman, Purchas saw his publications not merely as historical and geographical studies but as works of moral and religious instruction. The titles of three of his major works contain references to the concept of pilgrimage, and, as James P. Helfers has observed, in these volumes of travel literature, “Purchas takes upon himself the task of spiritual interpreter for the history of English travel and exploration,” a project in which pilgrimage becomes “less a concrete journey than a metaphor for spiritual growth.”

Biographical Information

Purchas was born in Thaxted, Essex. The date of his birth is uncertain, but various records and references in his works suggest a date of around 1577. He obtained his master's degree from St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1600 and married the following year. From 1604 to 1613 he served as vicar of Eastwood in Essex, not far from the port of Leigh, where he likely came into contact with seamen and other travelers. In 1613 he published his first work, Purchas his pilgrimage, a survey of the world's religions. It was a great success, and in 1614 he was named the personal chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, who had written a geographical work himself. Further appointments and honors followed. The publication of Purchas his pilgrimage also marked the beginning of Purchas's relationship with Richard Hakluyt. The first edition of Purchas's work acknowledged a debt to Hakluyt's chronicle of his travels in the Americas, Principall Navigations, and Hakluyt provided manuscripts that Purchas used in the 1614, expanded, edition of Purchas his pilgrimage. A third, enlarged, edition appeared in 1617. After several deaths in his family, Purchas entered a meditative period during which he produced Purchas his pilgrim. Microcosmus, or, The Historie of Man (1619). By 1621 Purchas was at work on his presentation of Hakluyt's travel writings, Hakluytus posthumus which was pulished in 1625; he died just one year after that work was released, and only months after the fourth edition of Purchas his pilgrimage was issued.

Major Works

In Purchas his pilgrimage Purchas provides a survey of world religions that is geographical as well as historical. In the preface he describes his intention and method: “I here bring Religion from Paradise to the Ark, and thence follow her round about the World, and (for her sake) observe the World itself, with the several Countries and Peoples therein.” To produce Purchas his pilgrimage Purchas drew upon the works of seven hundred authors—a number that would grow in the course of the subsequent editions to thirteen hundred. Purchas his pilgrim. Microcosmus, or, The Historie of Man similarly reviews world cultures, religions, and geography, but in the form of an eight-hundred-page meditation on the origins, degeneration, and potential salvation of humanity. While the voluminous Hakluytus posthumus is founded on Hakluyt's writings, Purchas supplemented those narratives with material from other travelers; George Parks has estimated that only forty percent of the work is derived from Hakluyt. In Hakluytus posthumus Purchas struck a distinctly nationalistic tone, glorifying England and advocating overseas commerce and colonization.

Critical Reception

Purchas's works were extremely popular with his contemporaries, as evidenced by the successive editions of Purchas his pilgrimage, the several appointments he received after its initial publication, and the favorable comments of both King James and King Charles, to each of whom Purchas presented a copy of his first work. Over the centuries Purchas's editorial methods have occasionally been censured, as some critics have judged Purchas undiscriminating in his selection of materials, while others have lamented the loss of sections he excised from his sources. Some scholars have detected contradictions between accounts of the same incidents in different works by Purchas. E. G. R. Taylor and others, however, have defended Purchas's methods, arguing that while it may be true Purchas “mutilated” some of the manuscripts he worked with, he should be judged by the standards of his time rather than modern ones. Colin Steele, in his detailed evaluation of the works of Hakluyt and Purchas, has declared that the efforts of these two “set a standard of achievement and enterprise which was not to be realised again in the seventeenth century. They ensured that travel literature became established in the public interest, free from the myths of the past and the simplicity of the [earlier] compendiums. Not least also was the fact that they, more than any others, made the New World and its narratives known to the Old.”

Principal Works

Purchas his pilgrimage. Or, Relations of the world and religions observed in all ages and places discouered, from the creation unto this present (prose) 1613

Purchas his pilgrim. Microcosmus, or, The Historie of Man. Relating the Wonders of his Generation, Vanities in his Degeneration, Necessity of his Regeneration, Meditated on the words of David. Psalm 39.5. (prose) 1619

The king's towre and triumphant arch of London. A sermon (prose) 1623

Hakluytus posthumus, or Purchas his pilgrimes, contaying a history of the world in sea voyages and lande travells, by Englishmen and others. 4 vols. (prose) 1625


George B. Parks (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Parks, George B. “The Hakluyt Legacy.” In Richard Hakluyt and the English Voyages, edited by James A. Williamson, pp. 223-29. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1928.

[In the following excerpt, Parks discusses Purchas's handling and publishing of Hakluyt's materials regarding his travels.]

Of Hakluyt's collections during these final years before his death in 1616 it is at length time to speak. By an arrangement which has not been fully recorded they passed to another clergyman of somewhat similar interests and were by him, though with what completeness we cannot say, included in the fourth great collection of the records of travel, Purchas His Pilgrims. … This book is Hakluyt's literary legacy. Published in 1625, it continued Hakluyt's career in the catch title of Hakluytus Posthumus.1

One's first impression of the Reverend Samuel Purchas, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, is that he distinctly lacked dignity. The tone of his prefaces is a mixture of naïve parade with fawning humility. The style is a vapid and tasteless euphuism of a sophomoric sort. By contrast Hakluyt immediately increases in moral stature; his lapses, as they seem now, from self-respect become insignificant, his manner of address to men of rank a model of dignity. To dwell on the contrast is to discover a growing dislike to Purchas, whose features gradually and irresistibly resolve into the features of Pecksniff.

Following out the contrast in less unfriendly mood, one discovers that Purchas was a self-made man, as Hakluyt unmistakably was not. Instead of being a gentleman born, Purchas was the son of an Essex farmer or tradesman. Instead of finding a swift road to preferment, leveled by family prestige and official favor, Purchas made his way through St. John's College, Cambridge, and on leaving became a poor curate and household servant of an Essex rector. He married a fellow servant and by the time he was thirty had managed to become the vicar of a neighboring parish. To lift himself from rural obscurity Purchas then devoted his talents to history and, by dint of what must have been a long and labored process of compilation, produced in 1613, when he was forty years old, the folio volume he called Purchas His Pilgrimage.

The volume brought its author instant recognition. Within a year he was made chaplain to the Archbishop, to whom it was dedicated and who had himself written a brief textbook on geography. The King read the bulky volume seven times, though he seems to have given the author no more than the breath of his approbation. But the Bishop of London obtained for Purchas the living of St. Martin's, Ludgate, and subsequently he was able to bring out three successively enlarged editions.

The death of Hakluyt in 1616 gave him new opportunity. Seeking out, it is likely, Hakluyt's son or widow, he obtained Hakluyt's papers. The manuscripts became the nucleus of a new work. He added to them a vast amount of compiling of the records of universal travel; he brought the English travel records down to date; and with the help of “charitable friends” he published in 1625, with a dedication to the new King, the four immense folios of the Pilgrims.

It follows from this personal history that, again in contrast with his predecessor, Purchas was in no intelligible way concerned with the history and development of science or of enterprise. “Being,” he wrote in the preface to his first book, the Pilgrimage, “I know not by what natural inclination, addicted to the study of history, … I here bring Religion from Paradise to the Ark, and thence follow her round about the World, and (for her sake) observe the World itself, with the several Countries and Peoples therein.” At the beginning he was then primarily an anthropologist; and, though his interests may have developed as he took over Hakluyt's heritage, they remained, as far as we know, essentially academic. With him is then reached the final and perhaps decadent stage in specialization which, I have said, conditions the advancement of learning. Hakluyt was the historian and the scientist by profession; but by virtue of that profession he was the man of action as well. Purchas was exclusively the antiquarian. Hakluyt met on nearly equal terms the captains of enterprise. Purchas, except for some possible dealings with Captain John Smith and except for a late acquired membership in the Virginia Company, was an outsider, a bookish clergyman who came hat in hand to copy the records of trade.

So at least the picture composes. Instead of the gentleman, the poor man; instead of the churchman of rank, the holder of a single living; instead of the professional scientist, the self-made historian; instead of the adviser of privy councillors and merchant princes, the obscure penman. Whatever our impression of Purchas' manners, the picture compels admiration for the persistence of his long struggle.

Our feelings toward him thus improved, we may consider his relations with Hakluyt in order to understand his achievement. Purchas' first work, the Pilgrimage, being a sort of religious geography, was dependent for its information on the historians and political geographers of all ages and, for modern times, especially on Ramusio and on Hakluyt, whose works, Purchas acknowledged, “have been two libraries unto me.” The appearance of his immense history of religion, already in its first edition larger than Hakluyt's first English Voyages, apparently brought its author to the geographer's notice. There was an exchange of courtesies, and for his enlarged second edition, printed in 1614, Purchas wrote that “now in this edition I have been much beholden to Mr. Hakluyt for many written treatises in this kind.” Hakluyt had sent him manuscripts; and, in return Purchas launched upon his easy flow of praise. The veteran, he wrote in the same edition, “though known at this time only by those portraitures [the Voyages] hath been an Admiral, holding out the light unto me in these Seas, and as diligent a guide … and now his helps in this second edition have much more obliged me.” And his praise rose to his usual hyperbole when he called Hakluyt “Neptune's Secretary and the Ocean's Protonotary.”2

Then followed a coolness. Perhaps Neptune's Secretary took offense: one is only too willing to believe that Purchas could be offensive; and the third edition of the Pilgrimage, in 1617, presents its author in a nobly forgiving pose. “Although in this third edition,” he wrote, “I could not obtain like kindness from him, I know not how affected or infected with emulation or jealousy: yet shall his name live while my writings endure. … And this [book] is my epitaph in his memory, who hath yet a better, his own large volumes being the best and truest Titles of his House; and if some Juno Lucina would help to bring forth the Posthumus issue of his Voyages not yet published, the World should enjoy a more full testimony of his pains in that kind.”3

One cannot go behind this version of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. One cannot discover from it Hakluyt's dying attitude toward Purchas. It is likewise difficult to be sure of the transactions between Purchas and the Hakluyt heirs. Purchas had probably planned to take on at once, on Hakluyt's death in November 1616, the functions of Juno Lucina; and he did obtain the Hakluyt legacy on “hard conditions,” as he said later. Meantime he set to work on another immense book. In 1619 he published the eight hundred pages of Purchas His Pilgrim. This was subtitled Microcosmus, or The...

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Louis B. Wright (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: Wright, Louis B. “Samuel Purchas and the Heathen.” In Religion and Empire: The Alliance between Piety and Commerce in English Expansion 1558-1625, pp. 115-33. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1943.

[In the following essay, Wright examines the most famous works of Purchas, how and why he came to write them, and the enormous impact they had on his audience.]

On a summer's day in 1797, the Reverend Samuel Taylor Coleridge sought relief from the toothache by taking a dose of opium and reading the works of his brother cleric, the Reverend Samuel Purchas. From the modern point of view, one could hardly find a book better calculated to put one...

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E. G. R. Taylor (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Taylor, E. G. R. “Samuel Purchas: 1612-26.” In Late Tudor and Early Stuart Geography, 1583-1650: A Sequel to Tudor Geography, 1485-1583, pp. 53-66. New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968.

[In the following essay, Taylor analyzes the works of Purchas and finds them to be as invaluable to readers of modern times as they were to readers of the past. In addition, he defends Purchas against his detractors.]

Among the readers of Drayton's Polyolbion was a man who had pored also over the pages of Hakluyt and Ramusio, who had delighted in the Collections of De Bry and in the Virginian pictures of de Morgues. This man was Samuel Purchas, who, born in...

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Colin Steele (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Steele, Colin. “1603-1626: Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas.” In English Interpreters of the Iberian New World from Purchas to Stevens: A Bibliographical Study, 1603-1726, pp. 15-51. Oxford: The Dolphin Book Co. Ltd., 1975.

[In the following essay, Steele examines the skill with which Purchas and Hakluyt put together travel narratives by which “they, more than any others, made the New World and its narratives known to the Old.”]

The translations which appeared between 1603 and 1626 were largely the result of the activity of two men, Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas. Hakluyt continued the work he began in the Elizabethan era, albeit with slightly...

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James P. Helfers (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Helfers, James P. “The Explorer or the Pilgrim? Modern critical opinion and the editorial methods of Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas.” Studies in Philology 94, No. 2 (Spring 1997): 160-86.

[In the following essay, Helfers compares Hakluyt and Purchas, their methods, goals, and critics. Helfers concludes that the harshness of modern critical opinion of Purchas is unwarranted.]

Victorian critic J. A. Froude calls Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations1 “the prose epic of the English Nation.”2 On the other hand, G. B. Parks characterizes Samuel Purchas, editor of Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, as a...

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Further Reading


Foster, William. “Samuel Purchas.” In Richard Hakluyt & His Successors, edited by Edward Lynam, pp. 49-61. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1946.

Surveys the life and career of Purchas.


Echeruo, Michael J. C. “Robinson Crusoe, Purchas His Pilgrimes and the ‘Novel’.” English Studies in Africa 10, No. 2 (September 1967): 167-77.

Considers similarities between Defoe's and Purchas's writings and discusses the influence the works of Purchas had on Defoe, especially on the writing of Robinson Crusoe.

Jennings, Francis. “Savage Form for...

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