John Mandeville: Mandeville's Travels

(1939 words)

Mandeville's Travels, also known as The Book of Sir John Mandeville, was one of the most popular vernacular texts of the Middle Ages. It purports to be the memoir of Sir John Mandeville, a knight of St Albans, writing in his old age of his adventurous life in Europe and the East. In the course of his travels Sir John made pilgrimages to holy sites including Rome and Jerusalem, saw military service with the Sultan of Egypt and reported on the peoples, customs and histories of the lands through which he passed. The current critical consensus, however, is that there was no such person and that the author, whoever he was, travelled only in his imagination. There is no reliable corroborating evidence of the existence of a Sir John Mandeville of St Albans, and the majority of the text has been shown to have been adapted from other sources, including the narratives of genuine travellers. Medieval readers and writers did not consider such unacknowledged recycling of factual information to be an inherently deplorable practice. Modern readers who know of the text's construction nevertheless often find its surface plausible, for the author united his disparate materials with great skill, and the persona of Sir John is a masterpiece of understated characterisation.

There is a long-standing, complicated and inconclusive debate as to the true identity of the author. It is still unknown whether he was French or English, a cleric or a layman, or indeed whether he was, in fact, ‘he': Linda Lomperis suggests inventively that the author may have been a woman who lived in male disguise. The claim that Mandeville wrote the book in Liège whilst masquerading as a physician known as Jean de Burgoyne can be identified as part of an elaborate fantasy constructed around the figure of Mandeville by the Liège chronicler Jean d'Outremeuse. The reconstruction of textual transmission shows that d'Outremeuse himself is no longer a credible candidate for authorship, though he was evidently an enthusiastic recipient and disseminator of the Travels. The most closely argued current identification is that of M. C. Seymour: that the author was a French monk with access to a library of travel writing, possibly Jean le Long of the Benedictine abbey of St Bertin. The author certainly made use of le Long's French translations of Latin travel writing, though some indications of imperfect Latinity fit a bookish layman better than a broad-minded monk. The evidence does not allow for a positive identification, and even if the author were to be definitely identified, his motive for masquerading as Sir John would probably remain mysterious.

It is possible that the original author wrote for a coterie who would enjoy his imposture and appropriation of other texts. However, the vast majority of medieval readers of the Travels appear to have taken it on face value. Originally written in French in c. 1357, the book was translated into Latin as well as all the major European vernaculars, and is extant in over 250 manuscripts. There were five medieval translations into English, known as the Defective, Cotton, Egerton, Bodley and Metrical Versions. Of these, the Defective was by far the most widespread, but the Cotton and Egerton, both of which survive only in single manuscripts, are more often read today. The Travels was first printed in 1496 and has been regularly reprinted ever since. It was often illustrated: the duc de Berry included a version of Mandeville in a luxury illuminated anthology of travel literature, and one Czech manuscript, the Textless Mandeville, eschews text altogether in favour of high-quality grisaille images of the first half of the book. At less exalted artistic levels two fifteenth-century illuminated English manuscripts show entirely different responses to the text: BL ms Royal 17.c.38 likes to draw relics, saints and mountains, and BL ms Harley 3954 has a preference for pagans, monsters and naked wild men. The 1499 printing by Wynkyn de Worde includes a series of vigorous woodcuts. The Travels was read and cited by English authors including Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, Shakespeare and John Dee. Some manuscripts show signs of having been used as guidebooks by travellers, who may well have been disappointed by a world so much less colourful than that of Mandeville's text.

The Travels appropriates numerous genres, including elements of chronicle, hagiography and romance. At base, however it is a combination of two types of travel writing, the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Wonders of the East, which correspond to the author's two principal sources, William of Boldensele's account of his pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land and Odoric of Pordenone's Relatio of his missionary trip to India and China. The two underlying genres quite literally pull the narrative in different directions. Jerusalem, both spiritually and geographically the centre of the world, is the original goal. Biblical history is mapped onto the world throughout the Travels, and Jerusalem is so thick with such history that every footstep seems to invoke a narrative. After visiting this cradle of Christianity, however, Mandeville's narrative takes a lengthy detour to visit the marvels and wonders of pagan regions, and finally brings him home, “worn out by age and travel and the feebleness of my body”, to rest and write his book. As he remarks at an earlier stage of the journey, “it behoves a man who wants to see wonders sometimes to go out of his way”.

Some English versions of the text claim that Sir John stopped off in Rome on his way home to England in order to obtain papal approval and sanction for his book. The passage is clearly an interpolation by someone other than the original author, for it contradicts the statement that the book was written on his return to England. But a claim of papal approval, however spurious, may well have been considered prudent in the light of the text's sometimes less than perfectly orthodox religious positions. Expressions of Christian piety are frequent, and the view that the text is an heretical or anti-papal tract is no longer considered credible. Nevertheless, there is much in it which might interest a non-Catholic or sceptical reader. It opens with a call for a new crusade to conquer the Holy Land, but Mandeville appears to have thought better of this plan by the end of his narrative, and recommends instead that the Christian nations should undergo a searching self-examination followed by political and spiritual reform in order to be worthy to occupy the Holy Land. When the Sultan of Egypt criticises the immoral behaviour of Christians, Mandeville does not defend them, but only enquires “with great respect, how he came by so full a knowledge of the state of Christendom”. Non-Catholic versions of Christianity are often described neutrally or with approval and papal arrogance is rebuked. The Saracens are respectful guardians of the holy sites of Jerusalem, protecting them from the vandalism of pilgrims. Even more exotic religious practices, such as ritual cannibalism, self-mutilation and the worship of idols, snakes, trees or “the first thing they come across in the morning” are rationalised in relation to the belief systems of the people who engage in them. Mandeville explains that “we know not whom God loves nor whom he hates”, and that sincerely offered worship should be respected, whatever its form. This must have been the strand of the text which taught Menocchio, a miller executed for heresy in sixteenth-century Italy, that all religions should be tolerated, for all were human inventions.

Mandeville is capable of regarding other aspects of culture with relativistic tolerance. On several occasions he experiments with cultural perspectives, suggesting that dark-skinned peoples might reverse the typical Western valuations of black and white or that pygmies might consider Europeans to be giants. Good lordship is a key concern of the Travels: the reluctance of the Christian elite to provide leadership is cited at the opening of the text as an explanation for their failure to occupy Jerusalem. Leadership is more effectively exercised in other societies, including the Sultan's Egypt, the Great Khan's Cathay and Prester John's empire. Even a land of man-eating, ox-worshipping dog-headed people is so well regulated by its king that crime is unknown. Monsters, foreigners and idolaters are all used as vehicles for meditation on cultural and religious variety. Unlike many real-life medieval travellers, his own sources included, Mandeville shows little interest in converting or conquering strange peoples, but appears to enjoy their very diversity. Although this cultural relativism attracts and fascinates modern readers, the text's attitudes to other cultures are almost as varied as the cultures themselves. The Travels remains Christian-centred, deferring but not renouncing the reconquest of the East; it has an apocalyptic strand, which is associated with anti-Judaic commonplaces, and denounces some peoples as idolaters and followers of evil customs.

Mandeville's Travels also offers a varied natural history and geography which corresponds closely to contemporary mappaemundi such as the Hereford Map. The world is envisaged as a globe which can be circumnavigated and which is inhabited in its antipodes. In a not entirely consistent scheme, its three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa form a ‘T in O' configuration, with Jerusalem in the centre and Asia and the Earthly Paradise, which Mandeville approached but could not quite reach, at the top. Christian geography locates heaven in the east, while the classical tradition made the east the locale of all things strange, a tension which informs the complexity of Mandeville's world-view. Like a world-map, the Travels features flora, fauna and narratives as defining features of its geography. The book presents a near-infinite compendium of wonders, including, in no particular order, the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, the Gravelly Sea, dragons, bananas, giraffes, goat-men and instructions on breeding diamonds. Mandeville advises the monks who care for St Katherine's relics that they should publicise their shrine more systematically, for it is ungrateful to God to conceal the miracles done by his saints. The rationale could be extended to the Travels itself, in its celebration of the plenitude of God's creation. The Travels, like comparable genres such as the world-map or the bestiary, describes a world brimming with divinely implanted signifiers: even when occasionally uncertain as to the precise import of a wonder, such as shoals of fish voluntarily offering themselves up to the nets, Mandeville is confident that “it does not happen without some great cause or meaning”.

Mandeville's Travels was originally read as a factual narrative, and it is even possible that Christopher Columbus read it for advice on circumnavigation. After it became useless as geography, it survived as a popular fantasy text until the late nineteenth century, when it began to attract scholarly attention. At this point Mandeville's sources were traced and the extent of his imposture recognised. Considering the text's immense medieval popularity and many intrinsic pleasures, it has had a surprisingly marginal position in modern medieval studies: its anonymity and enormous variance perhaps makes it difficult to assimilate to traditional methods of study. Malcolm Letts's Sir John Mandeville: The Man and his Book and his edition of several versions of the text, along with Josephine Bennett's The Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville heralded the start of modern Mandeville studies. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher have discussed the Travels in the context of pilgrimage literature, while C. W. R. D. Moseley and Rosemary Tzanaki have explored issues of textual variance and reception. Christiane Deluz has identified the sources of the text in detail and Iain Macleod Higgins provides an invaluable account of the “mandevillean multitext” in his Writing East: The ‘Travels' of Sir John Mandeville. Post-colonial theory and the study of travel writing stimulate much of the current renaissance in Mandeville criticism.

Salih, Sarah. "Mandeville's Travels". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 March 2004
[, accessed 01 April 2015.]

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