The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was written in approximately 1357 and is an account of Sir John Mandeville’s 30-year odyssey throughout Europe, North Africa, the Far East, and Arabia. The Travels was originally written in French and because of its immense popularity was translated into all major European languages, of which three hundred survive today. The Travels became a major source for geographical information for the next two centuries. Two notable historical figures that relied upon Mandeville’s guide were Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus. It is unknown whether Sir John Mandeville is a man or myth.

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He claimed to be an English knight from St. Albans. However, aside from this book, there is no proof of his nationality or if he actually lived. Furthermore, it is unknown whether he actually traveled to all the locales which he documents. Historians believe that he did indeed travel, but not as extensively as people had been lead to believe; Mandeville also adopted the facts of other people’s travels as his own. The Travels gives us a broad overview of the world during the Fourteenth Century and how Mandeville viewed the world, along with directions and geographical markers for travel by land or by sea.

For each locale, Mandeville tells us of his encounter with other peoples. He also goes into detail about their culture and customs and their religious viewpoint or lack thereof. Throughout the Travels, Mandeville focuses on morals and religion and this is one of the main themes in the book. He is particularly enamored with the Far East and the Holy Land. He even recalls of having traveled to Rome and asking the Pope and his council to review his book for approval. Not only did Mandeville’s book get their approval, they said it must be the truth.

He tells many fanciful tales such as of the bird phoenix in Arabia, of finding fruit in the kingdom of Cadhilo that when opened, a flesh and blood animal is inside and of hippopotami, which are half men and half horse, which ate men whenever they could. He also tells us of the bed made of sapphire, set in gold, which makes its owner sleep well and destroys lustful thoughts, of men and women who have heads like dogs, who are called Cynocephales. These are but a few of the fantastical tales that helped mesmerize readers of the late Middle Ages.

However, Mandeville was not concerned with whether his tales were believable or not. His purpose, more so than a guide to travel for your average citizen, was to show people that there were others in this world with thoughts and ideas and maybe those thoughts and ideas deserved some merit. Throughout his book, Mandeville is very specific about morals and values, especially Christian morals and values. In Chapter 32, he tells of the Isle of Bragman and the people who live there who are not Christians.

He says “In this land are no thieves, no murderers, no prostitutes, no liars, no beggars; they are men as pure in conversation and as clean living as if they were men of religion”. (p. 178) Mandeville believed that God loved them because they were good people, despite the fact that they were not Christians. He tells us of Christian men: Jacobites, Saracens, Surrianes, Arians, Nubians, Indians and Georgienes who have different laws and customs, but all believe in God although their rites and beliefs may be different than your own.

Mandeville was calling on Christians to reform and wake up! Judge not! One would also to think that that Mandeville wanted to instill in people a thirst for geography. He goes into an excessive amount of detail on how to get to or get out of a country or city by land and sea. Along the way, he gives us interesting tidbits of information, points of interest regarding religious history, relics and the customs of other cultures: where Peter’s head rested when he was first beheaded, the beginning of Muhammad to sexual practices of the people of Lamory (Sumatra) and Amazonia.

It would be interesting to know how Mandeville chose where he would travel and the places he would just write about. It makes you wonder whether he decided to follow the yellow brick road and see what was around the corner or if he picked places at random while reading other people’s works. Nevertheless, Mandeville was able to create a body of work that will last “through the ages” and hopefully, inspire others. Bibliography The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Trans. C. W. R. D. Moseleyn. Penguin Putnam, Inc. 1983.

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