Covid Passports – 1600 style

Collections - Posted 17-05-2021

Proving one’s state of health may be a current preoccupation with modern would-be travellers, but that is by no means a new phenomenon.

Before he journeyed to Italy with two friends in 1600, Elizabethan author and poet Robert Parry of Tywysog, Denbighshire, tells us in his diary that he had first to obtain a ‘lycence’ for overseas travel from Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil. Like the modern passport, this document enjoined those officials whom they would encounter to give them aid and protection as they departed their own land, and whilst they travelled abroad. It was also a means of monitoring the movement of individuals in-and-out of Elizabeth’s rather paranoid realm!

Clutching his vital lycence as he landed at Calais on 22 February, Parry had to face an obstacle to his journey. Intending to travel to Italy through France, the party discovered that areas of Savoy in the Western Alps, and Piedmont in north-west Italy, were experiencing outbreaks of plague, common enough at that time. Quite naturally, the Italians were worried by the spread of the disease:

“the Italians are very curious & circumspect in receavinge any strayngers into theire Contreyes wthout Bulletynes which could not be had but in places free from disseases the meanynge whereof in place more apte I will declare: for that I nothinge doubt, but that this worde bulletyne is straynge to our nation especially those that have not travelled in forren contreyes.”

Not to be thwarted, the intrepid travellers entered Switzerland, and travelled into Italy via that route, thus avoiding the need to satisfy the Italians by producing bulletynes of health!

Robert Parry seems more interested in the word than in the implications of his action. He suggests that this meaning for the English bulletin(s) – adapted from the Italian bullettino – was new. It may not have been accepted into wide-spread parlance, as the earliest instance in the Oxford English Dictionary is its use over forty years later by John Evelyn.

Thankfully, Robert Parry returned safely from his six-month ‘Iter in Italia’, minus the plague, and carrying a new English word as a souvenir. He entered it into his diary, now at the National Library of Wales: the earliest surviving diary written by a Welshman.

Maredudd ap Huw
Curator of Manuscripts


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