Mandeville’s “Gret Meruaylle”

  • Frank Grady
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


To paraphrase Sir John himself, there are two ways to begin a critical account of Mandeville’s Travels: some start by remarking upon the book’s extraordinary medieval popularity, as evidenced by the hundreds of surviving manuscripts and incunabula and its early translation into multiple European vernaculars, while others prefer to discuss the book’s critical reputation, paying particular attention to the sneering dismissals of its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editors, whose work on the book’s sources led them to brand the Travels a hoax or a plagiarism.1 But both of these approaches, like different routes to Jerusalem, lead essentially to the same place, a loose but consistent critical consensus that may not be able to agree on exactly what the book is (a “romance of travel?” a satire? a geog- raphy? pre-modern prose fiction?2) but generally agrees on the attitude it expresses: a genial, ironic, worldly wisdom that exhibits a surprising and thoughtful interest in, and a hedged approval of, the practices, beliefs, and virtues of non-Christian, non-Western peoples.3 The texts of the Travelsprovide ample evidence for this view—so much, in fact, that Mandeville’s Travels has more often been described than analyzed by its scholarly readers over the last half-century. The text, through its undogmatic voice, its paratactic style, and its ungovernable form, often seems to cast a spell over those who would study it such that they adopt its conclusions as their own: that the world, though fallen, is nevertheless blessed through its widespread acknowledgment of one god; that pious devotion and fidelity to one’s beliefs outrank mere doctrinal or theological correctness; that borders are not impassable, boundaries of all sorts are not absolute, and that all of us, made wise by travel and experience of the world (even if only vicariously accomplished), can get along.


Moral Authority Christian Faith Final Chapter Precious Stone Holy Book 
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  1. 1.
    For a succinct account of the relevant facts about author and text, see M.C. Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, Authors of the Middle Ages 1 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994). The best recent book on MandevillesTravels is Iain Higgins’s Writing East: TheTravelsof Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), an encyclopedic (almost Mandevillean) account of the sources and textual and manuscript traditions of the Travels and an indispensable companion for anyone interested in the Travels’ composition and reception.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    These are the conclusions, in order, of J.W. Bennett, The Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1954)Google Scholar
  3. Douglas R. Butturf, “Satire in Mandeville’s Travels,” Annuale Medievale 13 (1972): 155–64; Christiane Deluz, Le livre de Jehan de Mandeville: Unegeographieau XIVe siecle, Textes, Etudes, Congres 8 (Louvain-la-Neuve: Institut d’études médiévales de l’Université catholique de Louvain, 1988); andGoogle Scholar
  4. Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing 400–1600 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988). In an important chapter on the Travels in Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), Geraldine Heng also describes the work as a “travel romance,”“a prime representative of that hybrid genre of inextricably conjoined, seamlessly indistinguishable fact and fantasy we have been calling romance” (240).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    The most compelling versions of this claim are those of Donald Howard, “The World of Mandeville’s Travels,” The Yearbook of English Studies 1 (1971): 1–17, revised in Howard’s Writers and Pilgrims: Medieval Pilgrimage Narratives and Their Posterity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), chap. 3; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  7. 4.
    On Mandeville’s anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic tendencies, to which I return in my conclusion, see Higgins, Writing East, pp. 16–17 and 80–81; Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 50–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    My inclusion of Mandeville’s Travels in a book on English writing is based on the fact that at least six different English writers in the later Middle Ages tried to adopt the text as their own. See Higgins, Writing East, pp. 21–23. Taking the view that I do of the text’s structure does not preclude agreement with David Lawton’s characterization of the persona of “Sir John”:“The ‘I’ of Mandeville, and the text’s embellishments, is for the most part a series of different first-person pronouns drawn directly from the different sources from which the account is compiled…There is no single subjectivity in the text but a series of subject positions, drawn from or responding to context, for readers to colonize in reading.” Part of the text’s genius is its collocation of subject positions sufficiently similar to encourage a relatively coherent process of readerly colonization—a process that continues in ongoing modern critical attempts to unearth the “real” Sir John Mandeville among extant medieval records. See David Lawton, “The Surveying Subject and the ‘Whole World’ of Belief: Three Case Studies,” NML 4 (2001): 25.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    See Chronica Monasterii de Melsa, ed. E.A. Bond, Rolls Series 43 (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1866–68), III. 158–59. A better known chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, was also acquainted with the Travels, though he does not seem to have read it closely; though he includes “Johannes de Mandevile” in his list of famous sons of St. Albans, and even acknowledges that he composed his book in French, he also claims that Sir John took part “in many wars against the enemies of our faith” (“in multis bellis contra nostrae fidei adversarios”), a claim hardly sustained by the text. SeeGoogle Scholar
  13. Annales Monasterii S. Albani, ed. H.T. Riley, Rolls Series 28 (London: Longmans, Green, 1870–71), II.306. I owe both of these citations to David Wilmot Ruddy, “Scribes, Printers and Vernacular Authority: A Study in the Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Reception of Mandeville’s Travels,” Ph.D. Diss, University of Michigan, 1995.Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Philippe de Mézières, Le Songe du Vieil Pelerin (2 vols., ed. G.W. Coopland [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969]), II. 405: “les espies par lesquelles on puet mieulx savoir l’estat de ses ennemis ce sont les marchans Lombars et estranges, qui pour la marchandie ont occasion en personne ou par leurs facteurs et par leurs lectres de mander de l’une parte et de l’utre; et par espicial par les marchans qui pour les pierres precieuses et joyaux ont entree et privee amitie avec les roys et princes.”Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Evidence of Western travellers fluent in Arabic does not seem to be extensive, although Norman Daniel does cite one anecdote from Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s chronicle of Richard I’s crusade in the 1190s that describes both the fluency and the Egyptian clothing of “Bernard, ‘the king’s spy.’ ” See Daniel, The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London: Longman, 1975), p. 199. For a more recent survey of the topic see Hussein M. Attiya, “Knowledge of Arabic in the Crusader States in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,” Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999): 203–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 29.
    As usual, this claim is based on a story that is partially true. During the Mongol expansion westward in the thirteenth century, Hulagu had captured Aleppo on January 25, 1260, but Mangu’s death forced him to return to the east before he could advance on Damascus and Jerusalem. In his absence, the Mamluks were able to retake their lost territory. Thus the author of the Travels goes beyond (or simply wishfully misreads) his source, Hayton’s Fleurs des Histors D?Orient, which reads thus: “Apres ce que Haloon [Hulagu] ot ordene ce que faisoit mestier entour la garde de la citei de Halape [Aleppo] e de Damas, e des autres terres entor, les queles il avoit conquises contre les Sarazins, si come il entendoit entrer au roiaume de Jerusalem por delivrer la Terre Sainte e rendu cele as Crestiens, vesci venir un messaige que lui conta come sa frere Mango Can estoit trespasse de cestire siecle, e come les barons le queroient por faire le empereor.” See Hayton, Fleurs des Histors D’Orient in Recueil des Historiens des Croisades: Documentes Armeniens ed. Éd. Dulaurier (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1906), ii. 172; emphasis added. The author of the Travels also omits Hayton’s account of what happens after Hulagu’s departure: his deputy has a falling out with some Christians who have slain his nephew, and the subsequent rift in the alliance leads to the Saracens’ recovery of their lost lands. See Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 54–55; and for Hayton’s (or Hetoum’s) career, see A Lytell Cronycle: Richard Pynson’s Translation (c. 1520) of La Fleur des histoires de la terre d’Orient (c. 1307), ed. Glenn Burger, Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations 6 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. x–xxiii.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    On this passage, see Higgins, Writing East, pp. 168–69. The source of the prophecy is John de Plano Carpini, available via Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale. Hamelius cites the relevant passage—sans archers—at ii. 124; see also Letts, i. 174n.1, and Christopher Dawson, Mission to Asia Medieval Academy Reprints 8 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 25–26: “They have fought now for forty-two years and are due to rule for another eighteen years. After that, so they say, they are to be conquered by another nation, though they do not know which; this has been foretold them. Those who escape with their lives, they say, are to keep the same law which is kept by those who defeat them in battle.” John was not very interested in toleration; in fact, much of his History of the Mongols is given over to warnings and advice to the West about a potential Mongol invasion, which seemed possible in the mid-thirteenth century.Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    On the shifting history of these assignments in both medieval thought and modern scholarship, see Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 103–42; Braude discusses the Travels on pp. 115–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 36.
    For a summary of the Brahmans’ appearances in medieval literature, see Thomas Hahn, “The Indian Tradition in Western Medieval Intellectual History,” Viator 9 (1978): 213–34, and chapter 3 below. The Brahman episode may be the most conventionally “Orientalist” moment in the Travels, in Edward Said’s terms; theirs is always imagined as a timeless, static culture, as virtuous and nudist in Alexander’s time as in the later Middle Ages. SeeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1994).Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    See chapter 3, and also Westrem, “Against Gog and Magog,” whose work supersedes A.R. Andersen, Alexander’s Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1932). Zacher, Curiosity and Pilgrimage, p. 142, briefly notes the resemblance between Mandeville and Alexander.Google Scholar
  22. 38.
    Iter ad Paradisum, ed. Julius Zacher (Konigsberg: T. Thiele, 1859); and Mario Esposito, Hermathena XV (1909): 368–83. For a discussion of the sources of this legend, which is of Hebrew origin, seeGoogle Scholar
  23. George Cary, The Medieval Alexander, ed. D.J.A. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956; repr. 1967), pp. 18–21Google Scholar
  24. Paul Meyer, Alexandre le Grand dans la littérature fran?se du moyen âge, 2 vols. (Paris: F. Vie weg, 1886), ii. 47–51; for its connection to the English Alexander texts seeGoogle Scholar
  25. Mary Lascelles, “Alexander and the Earthly Paradise in Mediaeval English Writings,” Medium AEvum 5 (1936): 31–47, 69–104, 173–88, especially pp. 81–92.Google Scholar
  26. 39.
    On the issue of circumnavigation in the Travels, see Higgins, Writing East pp. 132–39. On conventional medieval notions of geography, see G.H.T. Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen & Co., 1938) andGoogle Scholar
  27. Leonard Olschki, Marco Polo’s Precursors (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942). E.G.R. Taylor,“The Cosmographical Ideas of Mandeville’s Day,” (in Mandeville’s Travels: Texts and Translations, ed. Letts, I. li–lix), claims that Mandeville’s position on circumnavigation argues for the author’s university education, probably at Paris.Google Scholar
  28. 40.
    See for example David May, “Dating the English Translation of Mandeville’s Travels: The Papal Interpolation,” NQ n.s. 34 (1987): 175–78, and Heng, Empire of Magic, pp. 263–64. Higgins assumes, I think correctly, that the interpolation that appears in the Cotton text is an earlier form than that preserved in the Egerton and Defective versions.Google Scholar
  29. 41.
    Mandeville’s Travels ed. Hamelius, ii. 146. For Odoric see Manuel Komroff, Contemporaries of Marco Polo (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1928), pp. 244–45.Google Scholar

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© Frank Grady 2005

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  • Frank Grady

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