Originally written in old French circa 1360, the book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, also known as Le Livre des Merveilles du Monde, was quickly translated into about ten European languages. It portrays the travels of an English knight in Asia and enjoyed popularity for many centuries after its publication.
Sir John Mandeville was the author behind that grand adventure, and he, as his book claims, was born and raised in St. Albans, north of London. His journey began in 1322, and he returned to England only in 1356, wherein he wrote an account of his experiences. This, however, is contested by many English scholars and historians. So, who was behind the penname “John Mandeville”?
A Literary Persona or an Adventurous Knight: Who was John Mandeville?
Within the genre of travel literature, Mandeville’s book was one of the most popular ever written at the time. The earliest known manuscript was copied for Charles V of France in 1371. The information transmitted in his work was generally acknowledged to be true. He says, “ I, John Mandeville, knight, …. Was born in the town of St. Albans and crossed the sea in the year of Our Lord 1332, on Michael Mass say.” The writing of his book is stated to have taken place in 1366. Later studies, however, cast heavy doubts about the identity of the author behind The Travels. He is one of the virtually untraceable authors of the medieval period. In the quest for the authorship of Mandeville, scholars reached the point of further research consisting mostly of speculation. The likely author of the actual book was probably French.
There were some suspicions as to the identity of the real author very early on. Jean d’Outremeuse, a medieval French courtier and chronicler, wrote that one such Jean de Bourgogne confessed as he was nearing his death that it was he who, in 1322, fled England after killing a peer nobleman. Then he adopted the name John Mandeville and traveled to the Far East. He died in 1372. Although this version of events was initially acknowledged as plausible, it cannot be taken at face value, for many more likewise unsupported claims of authorship came up in the times to follow. Later investigations pointed to the possibility of Jan de Lange, a French abbot, being the author behind The Travels. Did a French clergyman travel all the way to the Far East and back, afterward writing a marvelous story? This is quite improbable, as abbots tended to be tied to the responsibilities of their post, leaving little or no time for travel.
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A Rich Tradition of Travel Writing: Mandeville’s Unique Take
The authorship of the book is further complicated by the study of earlier texts. Travel accounts of the near and far east existed in Europe a few centuries earlier. This indicated, almost unequivocally, that the author of the Travels was a compiler as well as a writer, but almost certainly not a traveler. Authors like Vincent of Beauvais, Odoricof Pordenone, and some others successfully wrote their travel accounts from their journeys through Asia. After careful consideration, it became fairly obvious that Mandeville had collated these works into something of his own. This is not to be dismissed as plain plagiarism. Far from that, the author made an invaluable piece of literature that showed an inquisitive and ingenious criticism of contemporary European society. In addition, he created his own tale, narrating the experiences of the knight in a memorable and joyful style. He copied parts of his book from earlier writers; was he therefore an “armchair traveler”? Evidence does not support this, as he may have actually traveled. However, all attempts to make a cohesive biography of Mandeville have proven elusive and never definitive.
His work was of unknown purpose, but researchers delved into the question and they concluded that the book was written for two main reasons: to make a social critique and to recount a geographic exploration, both of which reflected the current developments in Christian Europe. In his work, Mandeville emphasized the political instability in Europe at the time, particularly the tensions between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy in Rome, which was under Babylonian Captivity.
A Diseased Society, or Mandeville’s Playful Critique?
Mandeville’s writing reacted to the political crisis in Europe and reflected this in two main ways. The first of these probable purposes is a critique of society. This seems to be quite obvious in the way he follows the steps of John Prester’s Letter, who, 200 hundred years before, engaged in an assault on Western society and contrasted it to an idealized East. Although the Near and Far East were little known to Europeans of the time, a sense of marvel and wonder was reflected in popular depictions of these regions. In addition, as shown below, the opposite occurred in Christian Europe. As the many events of the 14th century destabilized Christian Europe, pessimism and discontent filled the lives of literate Europeans. They, therefore, looked east for enlightenment and sophistication. It is worth assuming that other literary works were also written in a manner of societal and cultural critique (like that of Prester), but few made such a cherished and lasting impact as Mandeville’s.
The fact that his work was so widely popular also has to do with the fact that his strange and widely unrealistic descriptions of the lands and peoples he discovered may have been deliberately playful and a purposeful work of fiction. But, besides this matter, there is remarkable criticism of the idea of empire, an introspective look at the European notion of Christendom by contrasting the inhabitants of the outer, unexplored world outside Europe. Thus, the story the book presents, that of a wandering knight visiting foreign and strange lands, is, contrarily, a collation of geographical sources and an exemplary tale. Despite the question of the intent of the book, or its authorship, the literary work clearly keeps an open and enquiring attitude toward human diversity. In this sense, Mandeville “holds up a mirror” to Europe and, in the recent words of the scholar Karma Lochrie, his work “provincialize[s] Europe” and dismantles the “cosmopolitan worldview.”
The Travels’ Geographical Ambitions
The second, geographic purpose of Mandeville’s Travels was to test whether it was possible to circumnavigate the globe and reach the southern hemisphere. Here, he mixes accurate information with other outlandish, inaccurate discoveries—for example, facts about celestial navigation that could not have been possible in the southern hemisphere. It may spring to mind that this would have upset the Papal authorities, but there is no actual indication of such an attitude towards The Travels. The reason could have been that it had a great deal of fantastic narrative that, in the end, Mandeville’s work could have been interpreted as pure fiction. Nevertheless, and regardless of Mandeville’s intent when writing these fragments, they were very likely collaged from other texts whose authors had only partial knowledge of such geographical matters.
The lack of objection from the Catholic Church about a book that seems to criticize the Papacy and promote the cultures of the East can be explained by the fact that few clergymen had made efforts to conceal knowledge of the material world before the Reformation movement. In Mandeville’s time, the Catholic Church was not concerned with whether the Earth was round or not, as is the common misconception, but rather whether or not the equatorial regions of the planet were too hot to sustain human life. As a consequence, the question arose as to whether the Southern Hemisphere was at all reachable. At the time, those attempting to discover the truth of this matter would set out and never return.
John Mandeville, the Author
Mandeville’s Travels was re-edited and reinvented many times throughout the four centuries since its first publication. Each new edition was adapted to the current culture, which has made it all the more difficult for scholars to identify the precise author. Thus, the question “who was John Mandeville?” remains too elusive to be confronted directly; moreover, some scholars have suggested that the different versions of the same book have aided in distinguishing the cultural and political climate from one epoch to another. In short, the book that could have been initially written by Sir John Mandeville was thus rewritten and reshaped by subsequent writers and editors.
John Mandeville has proven to us here quite an elusive subject to chase. Whether a French abbot or an escapee Englishman, his work has a surprising consistency. Although it presents serious problems for literature scholars, The Travels is, short of being unique, a marvelous piece of medieval literature. It was capable of performing a social critique and looking beyond the borders of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. It was, in many ways, a sophisticated piece of writing for contemporary readers. Furthermore, it proved to be an adaptive work in changing times with the great virtue of retaining its original essence. It is in this way that we may think of Sir John Mandeville, as a persona, a fictional character, a literary author. Or maybe all of them at once; hence his identity is of no real relevance, but the people he reached and the societies he criticized over four centuries of re-editing, publishing, and translating are the real Mandeville.
Lochrie, Karma (2009), Provincializing Medieval Europe: Mandeville & Cosmopolitan Utopia, in PMLA124.4, pp. 592-599.
O’Doherty, Marianne (2017), Imperial Fantasies: Imagining Christian Empire in Three Fourteenth-Century Versions of the Book of Sir John Mandeville, MEDIUM AEVUM, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 2, pp. 323-349.
Sobiecki, Sebastian I. (2002), Mandeville’s Thought of the Limit: The Discourse of Similarity and Difference in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 329-343.