Sir John Mandeville

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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...

(This entire section contains 1007 words.)

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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