Samuel Purchas Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.”