Sir John Mandeville Criticism

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Malcolm Letts (essay date 1949)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 speaks in his Epilogue of the destruction and slaughter and the accumulations of evils produced by the war, and of the two kings having made peace, but writing, as he appears to have done, in his library at Liége, the struggle, under God's protection, left him untouched. Liége cannot, however, have been always a haven of rest. The town went through much the same domestic upheavals as other Flemish towns, and local disturbances must have figured largely in the daily life of the people, even if they left our author in peace.

During the whole of the century the hope of recovering the Holy Land was never absent from men's minds. The Crusade of 1270 led by Louis IX of France had ended in disaster, and Mandeville, like others, must have viewed the growing power of Islam with dismay. He refers again and again to the need for a new crusading spirit, but he realised that, unless Christian princes composed their differences and presented a united front with the Church, there was no hope of success. The Holy Land was lost by sin and could only be recovered by righteousness. But quite apart from the quarrels of princes, the affairs of the Church were in such disorder that no joint effort was possible. Between 1305 and 1378 the popes were at Avignon. The Franciscans were demanding evangelical poverty for the pope and all churchmen. They denounced the wealth and splendour of the papal court and were preparing the way for Wycliffe. Mandeville makes no effort to conceal his feelings about the papacy, but he was probably only reflecting the views of thousands of others. There is no reason to believe that his anti-papal feelings affected his general outlook or disturbed his peace of mind.

There was one event, however, which must have gravely affected our author's tranquility—the Black Death, which decimated Europe from 1347 onwards. There is no reference to this in the 'Travels,' but Mandeville, alias de Bourgogne, lived through it. He speaks of himself in his de Pestilentia as having practised medicine for forty years, and refers to his experiences at Liége during one outbreak which raged there in 1356.

Mandeville knew what he was doing when he sat down to write a book of travels, for during the first part of the fourteenth century, travel was in the air.1 The Polos had returned to Venice in 1295 from their long sojourn in Asia, and for the next fifty years, that is roughly between 1290 and 1340, a steady stream of travellers took the eastern road. The Tartar conquests of the first part of the thirteenth century had accomplished one of the most striking revolutions in history, by bringing the East into touch with the West. In 1214 the Tartars swept from Mongolia upon China, taking Peking and conquering most of Eastern Asia. They then turned westward, spread across Asia and over a large part of Russia, into Poland, Hungary and Persia, so that by 1259 one empire extended from the Yellow River to the banks of the Danube, and from the Persian Gulf to Siberia. At first Europe was horror-struck by the invasion. It seemed as if the end of the world was at hand, and that Gog and Magog and the armies of anti-Christ had at last burst forth from their mountain fastnesses to destroy Christianity and overrun the whole world. Then, after much hesitation and confusion of mind, it dawned upon the West...

(The entire section is 64,000 words.)