Sir John Mandeville Introduction

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,007 words.)