Sir John Mandeville mid-fourteenth century Essay - Critical Essays

Sir John Mandeville mid-fourteenth century


Sir John Mandeville mid-fourteenth century

Travel writer whose precise identity is unknown.

Mandeville's Travels, most likely written in 1356 or 1357, purports to chronicle the travels of English knight Sir John Mandeville. In the years immediately following the return to Europe of such famous travelers as Marco Polo and Friar John of Plano Carpini, accounts of travel in the Middle East and Far East were in demand. More than 270 manuscripts of the book, in ten European languages, survive today, attesting to its immense popularity. In addition, authors of subsequent travel books retold Mandeville's stories, and his accounts influenced thought and literature until the mid-1500s, when settlement of the New World shifted interests.

Biographical Information

Scholars originally believed that Sir John Mandeville was an English knight who had traveled extensively throughout his life and in his old age settled in England to write an account of his jpurneys. Nineteenth-century commentators, however, discovered that the author of the book had plagiarized accounts from other travel writers. The sources include the works of William of Boldensele and Odoric of Pordenone, published in the 1330s, the Letter of Prester John (published in the late twelfth century), the encyclopedia of Vincent of Beauvais (1250s), and William of Tripoli's description of Muslim culture (1273). What is more, the scholars argued, an author with such an extensive reading background could not have had time to travel himself. The author of Mandeville's Travels also placed events out of chronological sequence, further proof that the author did not actually experience the events described. Scholars have offered several theories as to the identity of Mandeville: Jean de Bourgogne, a physician from Liège; Jean d'Outremeuse, a romance writer from Liège; Brother Jean le Long, a Benedictine monk; an anonymous Continental author; or an Englishman, perhaps named John Mandeville and perhaps also a knight. In addition, commentators have been unable to determine whether the work was written originally in Latin, English, or French, although most scholars now support the view that the work was written in French.

Major Works

Mandeville's Travels chronicles the experiences of Sir John Mandeville, an English knight who traveled for more than thirty years through Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia. The text is divided into two parts. The first describes a number of routes from Europe to the Holy Land and discusses important historical and religious sites that he encountered along the way. In the prologue, Mandeville states that the book is intended as a guide for religious pilgrims planning to travel to Jerusalem. The second half of the narrative describes the world to the East beyond the Holy Land. At the center of Mandeville's adventure is the Earthly Paradise, which he describes in great detail but claims not to have entered because he believes himself unworthy. Mandeville describes the customs and cultures of the people he encounters, including the Chinese and the Muslims, as well as the geography and physical characteristics of the Middle and Far East. Included in the narrative are descriptions of headless giants, mute pygmies, and mythical beasts, as well as anecdotes about Mandeville himself, including stories about his passage through the Far Eastern Valley Perilous and his military service to the sultan of Egypt and the khan of Cathay. Although the original manuscript of Mandeville's Travels is not extant, most scholars believe that it was written by someone living in northern France and that three of the French manuscripts—The Continental Version, dated 1371; The Liège Version; and The Insular Version—are independent derivatives of the original. There are four principal English versions of Mandeville's Travels in manuscript: the Bodley, Cotton, Defective, and Egerton versions. The Bodley Version was translated from a Latin source, while the Egerton Version is a revision of either the Cotton or Defective versions. Scholars believe that one of the latter was translated from a French text shortly before 1400 and that the other was a revision of the earlier translation. Two renditions in English verse—one metrical, the other stanzaic—have also been discovered, although the stanzaic version exists only as a fragment. Although the Defective Version was the first English edition to be printed (c. 1496), the Cotton Version, first printed in 1725, has enjoyed a wider popular and scholarly influence on the narrative's history in English than the other three versions.

Critical Reception

Mandeville's Travels enjoyed wide popular appeal from the late fourteenth century through the mid-1500s. It was respected among scholars, who at one time considered Mandeville the "Father of English prose"; explorers, including Christopher Columbus; and cartographers, who consulted it as a reliable source on the Far East. During the nineteenth century, a number of scholars attacked Mandeville's Travels as a hoax, charged the author with plagiarism, and found evidence to suggest that the author was not an English knight but a Continental writing under an assumed name. During the twentieth century, however, Mandeville's Travels has enjoyed a revival. Commentators have noted that "plagiarism," as it applies to Mandeville's Travels, was not an uncommon practice in the Middle Ages. Other commentators have argued that Mandeville's Travels should be approached as a work of imaginative literature and argue its importance to the development of the novel. Josephine Waters Bennett, for instance, has written that the Travels "is incomparably richer than the materials out of which it was made because the imagination of a writer of genius has shone upon those materials and brought them to life. Mandeville is neither a plagiarist nor a 'forger,' but the creator of a romance of travel." Others have argued that Mandeville was approaching his subject as a scholar, a compiler of an encyclopedia of knowledge, and that his mode of presentation was intended to be interesting rather than deceptive. As C.W.R.D. Moseley has stated: "The huge number of people who relied on the Travels for hard, practical geographical information in the two centuries after the book first appeared demands that we give it serious attention if we want to understand the mental picture of the world of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance."

Principal Works

*The Book of John Mandeville [Mandeville's Travels] (travel) c. 1356

*This work was originally written in French and circulated in numerous translations and editions.


Malcolm Letts (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "The Times," in Sir John Mandeville: The Man and His Books, The Batchworth Press, 1949, pp. 23-40.

[In the excerpt below, Letts describes the historical context in which Mandeville wrote and remarks on his critical reception and influence on other writers.]

Before we come to the journey itself, it may be well to sketch in outline the historical background against which Mandeville lived and wrote. During practically the whole period covered by the so-called travels England and France were at war. The Hundred Years' War broke out in 1338. Crécy was won in 1346, Calais was taken in 1347, and at Poitiers, in 1356, the French King was taken prisoner. Mandeville...

(The entire section is 4012 words.)

Zoltán Haraszti (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville," in The Boston Public Library Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4, October, 1950, pp. 307-16.

[In the following essay, Haraszti provides an overview of Mandeville's Travels, remarking on the subjects treated in the account, the identity of its author, and the work's sources and textual history.]

At the Kreisler Sale held in New York on January 1949 the Boston Public Library acquired a number of extremely valuable fifteenth-century and other early printed books. One of the most valuable among them was a copy of the German translation of the Travels of John Mandeville—Reysen und Wanderschafften durch das Gelobte...

(The entire section is 3521 words.)

Josephine Waters Bennett (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Transformation of the Materials" and "The Romance of Travel," in The Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville, The Modern Language Association of America, 1954, pp. 26-38, 39-53.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett compares Mandeville's Travels with the account of Odoric of Pordenone's travels, from which Mandeville borrowed extensively, and argues that Mandeville's text is far richer because his imagination and literary skills brought the materials to life.]

Mandeville has been called a forger, a "mere plagiarist," and even a "mere translator." His debt to William of Boldensele has been somewhat exaggerated, although it is real enough; but his borrowings...

(The entire section is 10038 words.)

M. C. Seymour (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: An introduction to Mandeville's Travels, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1967, pp. xiii-xxi.

[In the excerpt below, Seymour comments on style and structure in Mandeville's Travels and places the work in the context of medieval literature.]

Mandeville's Travels was written in French on the Continent, possibly at Liège and probably not by an Englishman, about 1357. Nothing else is known, and little more can be inferred, about the immediate origins of the book. None of the various attempts to pierce the author's anonymity, which began in the fourteenth century at Liège and which have successively associated the book with Jean de Bourgogne, a...

(The entire section is 2577 words.)

Christian K. Zacher (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Pilgrim as Curious Traveler: Mandeville's Travels," in Curiosity and Pilgrimage: The Literature of Discovery in Fourteenth-Century England, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, pp. 130-57.

[In the following excerpt, Zacher presents an overview of Mandeville's Travels, focusing on Mandeville's treatment of the Holy Land, and argues that the work is worth interest because of "its peculiar attitude toward pilgimage and exploration, its intricate sturcture, and its sophisticated point of view. "]

Mandeville's Travels was internationally popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (over 250 manuscript versions of it...

(The entire section is 14853 words.)

C. W. R. D. Moseley (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 9-39.

[In the following excerpt, Moseley discusses the work's author, reputation, values, and sources. The critic contends that the popularity of Mandeville' s Travels demands that the work be given serious attention if scholars want to understand the world view of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.]

When Leonardo da Vinci moved from Milan in 1499, the inventory of his books included a number on natural history, the sphere, the heavens—indicators of some of the prime interests of that unparalleled mind. But out of the multitude of travel accounts that Leonardo could have...

(The entire section is 11955 words.)

Mary B. Campbell (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "'The Other Half': Mandeville Naturalizes the East," in The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600. Cornell, 1988, pp. 122-61.

[In the excerpt below, Campbell argues that Mandeville's Travels was a parody and an early precursor of the modern novel.]

With Mandeville's Travels, the developing genre of travel literature in the West reaches a complicated and long-sustained climax. The book's popularity has been greater than that of any other prose work of the Middle Ages, and its practical effects farther reaching.1 To investigate the reach and nature of its artistic effects, it will be necessary first...

(The entire section is 17044 words.)

Further Reading


Bennett, Josephine Waters. "The Woodcut Illustrations in the English Editions of Mandeville's Travels." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 47 (1953): 59- 69.

Discusses the origins of the woodcuts used first in a German and later in English editions of Mandeville 's Travels.

Burnett, Charles, and Patrick Gautier Dalché. "Attitudes Towards the Mongols in Medieval Literature: The XXII Kings of Gog and Magog from the Court of Frederick II to Jean De Mandeville." Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22 (1991): 153-67.

Examines the...

(The entire section is 468 words.)