Mandeville, John

Mandeville, John
(fl. 1357)
   Although most people in the 14th and 15th centuries who were familiar with MARCO POLO’s Travels (Le divisament dou Monde, 1299) decried his account as fantastic and as a pack of lies, the much more imaginary and fanciful Travels by the English author John Mandeville enjoyed a considerably higher reputation and was regarded as deeply authoritative for centuries despite its almost entirely fictional nature. Even Christopher Columbus consulted Mandeville in preparation for his journey to the West.We know very little of Mandeville, except what he tells us himself in his book. He claims to have been an English knight from St. Alban who traveled to Egypt, served under the sultan, and then made his way to the Far East, where he served the great khan from 1322 to 1356. Modern English scholars generally discount his claim of English origin, whereas Belgian and French scholars mostly assume that he was an Englishman who lived at Liège. Mandeville wrote the account of his travels in Anglo-Norman, a variant of medieval French spoken in England after William the Conqueror had established his authority over that country in 1066. Mandeville’s Travels, first composed sometime between 1356 and 1366, but probably published first in 1357, were extraordinarily popular and were translated until 1400 into practically every European language, including Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Irish, Latin, and Spanish. Counting all language versions, there are some 300 copies extant today (Polo’s Travels have survived only in about 70 copies).After the invention of the printing press ca. 1450, Mandeville’s Travels were also printed many times all over Europe because readers simply enjoyed, as the author states himself, “newe thinges and newe tydynges ben plesant to here” (228).
   The huge number of manuscripts can be divided into two groups—an insular, English group, and a continental version. The latter group connects the author with two people, Jean de Bourgogne (d. 1372) and Jean d’Outremeuse (1338–1400), but it has remained unclear what the relationship between them and Mandeville might have been. The continental version, today still extant in 32 manuscripts, originates from a French manuscript compiled in 1371 by the Paris stationery Raoul d’Orléans for Gervaise Crétain (or for Charles V of France); it was first printed in 1480. The insular group, extant in 23 manuscripts, began quite some time before 1390 when a Latin translation was written at Abington Abbey. This English version was used by CHAUCER and the poet of CLEANNESS. The third version, the Liège version, is extant in seven manuscripts and originated at Liège in 1373. In his prologue, however, Mandeville claims that he translated his text from Latin into French, and then again from French into English so that he could reach out to the widest audience and appeal to their curiosity.
   Mandeville’s Travels heavily depend on a long and ancient tradition of monster lore (teratology), deriving much material from Pliny, Aethicus, Solinus, and Herodotus. He also drew from other travel accounts, such as those by the monks Odoric of Pordenone and John of Plano de Carpini, and the merchant Balducci Pegolotti. In fact, considering the large number of sources apparently used by John Mandeville, such as Albert of Aix’s Historia Hierosolymitanae expeditionis (1125), the Letter of Prester John (ca. 1165), Jacopo de Voragine’s GOLDEN LEGEND (Legenda aurea, ca. 1275),William von Boldensele’s Itinerarius (1337), Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (ca. 1223), and Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Trésor (ca. 1264), John Mandeville’s Travels prove to be an inspired agglomeration of fictional and nonfictional texts that indeed appealed to a large audience all over medieval and early-modern Europe. Surprisingly, Mandeville did not resort to Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s encyclopedic De proprietatibus rerum (ca. 1245) and Ranulf HIGDEN’s Polychronicon (ca. 1347), both highly popular, more or less scientific texts from late medieval England, which might suggest that Mandeville did not live in England when he composed his Travels. Overall, however, Mandeville created his influential text on the basis of vast library holdings, summarizing the current knowledge of world geography. In all likelihood they were not the results of real travel experiences. The travel account takes the reader from England to Constantinople, from there to the Holy Land, Cyprus, Babylon, Egypt, Sicily, then back to Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the River Jordan, Syria, Albania, and Libya, then to India (with a separate chapter on the alleged apostle St. Thomas), Java, and finally to Cathay in the Far East (perhaps China), ruled by the great khan.Mandeville’s greatest interest focuses on the organization of the court of that ruler, and the religion and customs of the Tatars, but he does not hesitate quickly to switch to Persia and fanciful countries beyond Cathay.We also hear of the mythical Prester John and his Christian kingdom somewhere in the middle of Asia, of places associated with paradise and hell, and outlying posts in the earthly sphere, not overlooking the enigmatic country of the Amazons.Marco Polo in essence had attempted to relate his personal experiences as accurately as possible and to provide concrete information for merchants and other businessmen interested in the trade with the East. By contrast, John Mandeville created a most fanciful and highly effective fictional blend of theological, geographical, literary, and chronological accounts about the Holy Land, Egypt, Tatary, and China, which deeply appealed to popular interests in the exotic and enigmatic Orient. Directly appealing to widespread curiosity about the wonders of the East and relying on a large number of learned treatises dealing with the East, Mandeville wrote one of the most successful best sellers of his time and found avid readers such as Jean, duke of Berry (1340–1416), CHRISTINE DE PIZAN (1364–1430), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Martin Behaim (1459–1507), Martin Frobisher (1535?–94), and Richard Hakluyt (1552?–1616).
   ■ Mandeville, Sir John. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Translated with Introduction by C.W. R. D. Moseley. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1983.
   ■ Seymour, M. C. Sir John Mandeville. Aldershot, U.K.: Variorum, 1993.
   ■ ———, ed. Mandeville’s Travels. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
   ■ ———. Mandeville’s Travels: The Defective Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
   ■ Tzanaki, Rosemary. Mandeville’s Medieval Audiences: A Study on the Reception of the Book of Sir John Mandeville (13711550). Aldershot,U.K.: Ashgate, 2003.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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