The Gap Year today has transformed from an idea of taking some time between school and university to experience the world to a rite of passage, tackled by many in the quest for culture, fun, work and travel. But this ritual undertaken by thousands every year is not entirely new to this world and has deep historical roots.
In the eighteenth century, the basis of the aristocracy did not lie in economic or military power but in cultural intelligence. This was what defined the elite and separated them from the other classes. But how did the future of Britain, the young men of the upper class emerging from their sojourns at Oxford and Cambridge, go about gaining this knowledge? They embarked on their version of the Gap Year, known as the Grand Tour.
This journey found its roots in the wake of Christian pilgrims who travelled to holy sites across Europe, and would bring back relics. However, after the reformation, many sneered at the idea of religious travelling and so a new justification was needed to undertake these fantastic adventures: education was that new excuse and so cultural learning took its place.
It was also based on the seventeenth century idea that travelling is key to learning and understanding. The thinking of the time demonstrated that learning was a product of the external senses and therefore the environment around you. When one had lived in an area for too long, he had taken in all he could and consequently required a change of location to reinvigorate, develop and expand one’s thought. This idea was summed up in a quote by the English writer Samuel Johnson who said, ‘A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see’. This was the cultural learning curve that every young man had to undertake.
The Tour became a symbol of power and wealth as well, not only because one could afford to undertake it but also, upon their return, they came back with art, books, sculptures, plants and various other souvenirs that would be displayed in their homes and therefore became symbols of wealth and status, proving that they had completed the Grand Tour.
The Tour itself was never a fixed route and changed over the years but typically began in Dover where one would cross the channel either to the Spanish Netherlands or to Calais. From here, the gentleman could travel by coach to Paris and integrate with French high society learning diplomacy or visiting the court of the French king. After Paris, the next destination would be Switzerland, a centre of protestant reformation and therefore a heart of religious learning. The next phase would be the crossing of the Alps into Italy, a hard undertaking made easier depending on how much money one was willing to spend. Turin was the next destination and sometimes Milan, followed by the renaissance cities of Florence, Padua and Venice, where one would take in the fine arts. As Ancient Roman culture was becoming more and more obsessed over in England, one had to visit the ruins in Rome and possibly other Ancient Roman sites nearby such as Pompeii. In later years, the gentlemen might acquire a yacht and travel as far as Greece depending on funds but Italy was usually the farthest point and from here, the traveller would turn back towards the Alps to visit Innsbruck, Vienna, Berlin and Potsdam. Finally, before the last stretch home, some more art appreciation in Holland.
The traveller would have a guide accompany them, usually in the form of a tutor and they carried very little money due to the risk of highway robbery, instead carrying letters of credit from their banks in London. Although the tour was meant to be educational, many pursued more social encounters such as drinking, gambling and sex. However, there was a certain tension involved in these tours as destinations such as Rome and Paris, which were centres of Catholicism, were seen as daring and subversive destinations to visit, keeping in line with the English post-reformation thought.
It was the lifestyle of the wealthy, to travel and experience the wonders and luxuries of Europe with an ‘educational’ frame of mind. Although the Gap Year of today would not be so grand or eloquent, there are many resemblances in the endeavours and pursuits of those undertaking these journeys, even though today’s traveller might not be so lucky as to be carried over the Alps.