"To the ship she followed him and when he had gone aboard, she turned back with a terrible cry; and soon after the knight died. And from that time on no knight has been able to see her without dying soon afterwards. But when a knight comes who is bold enough to dare to kiss her, he shall not die, but he shall turn that damsel into her proper shape, and he shall be lord of her and of the islands." The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, p. 54.
I have to say, I think out of all the medieval literature I’ve read this semester The Travels of Sir John Mandeville has to be my favourite of all. It’s well written, lively and ridiculous.
First appearing in 1356, Mandeville’s travel guide was immensely popular throughout the following centuries even though it was wildly inaccurate in its descriptions of other races and of the lands to the East. However, it was for this very reason that it attracted such attention - it satisfied the curiosity of those wishing to learn of the world outside of Christendom.
Mandeville claimed to have travelled throughout the Holy Land, Egypt, India and China and to have interacted with the people there, observing and recording their habits minutely. He went into great detail in regards to their outlandish appearances and customs, describing deformed and cannibalistic men, gold-digging ants the size of dogs and religious practices offensive to the God-fearing West. He advised travellers - most notably merchants and pilgrims - of the best routes to take via land and sea, what provisions they would need and what troubles and local hostilities they would run into along the way. He wrote as if he knew such places intimately.
But in reality, the likelihood of him ever setting foot outside of his own country is somewhat dubious. If examined closely we see that the work is one elaborate mishmash of other medieval travel guides and chronicles, that Mandeville borrows widely from other authors and relies heavily upon myth and hearsay, as opposed to fact and first-hand experience. Even the authorship of the work is disputable. Purportedly written by an English knight, the name ‘Sir John Mandeville’ is probably a fictitious persona or pseudonym used to mask the true identity of the author. Despite the best efforts of academics nothing is known for certain of the true author of The Travels, apart from what he chooses to tell us at the start of the book. Is this outright deception, a literary device, or something else entirely? We will probably never know his motivations, only the impact his work had.
The outcome of the publication was quite amazing in terms of assessing the medieval world view, especially if we consider the number of copies which still survive today - nearly 300! By 1400 it was available in every major European language, with copies serving the pioneering adventurers of the Renaissance such as Columbus, Frobisher, and Raleigh. Even Leonardo da Vinci had a copy in his library. It was still immensely popular by the 17th century, a more enlightened time when virtually nobody would take it seriously as a piece of geographically accurate reference material.
The reason for this is probably the same reason I have for loving the book - it is fantastical, humorous and incredibly entertaining. If you haven’t read it I heartily recommend it! If you’ve ever looked at a medieval map and wondered why it is so misshapen, why there are mutants and mythical creatures crawling at the edges, or why Jerusalem is depicted as the centre of the civilized world, then this book will give you the answers to all of your questions. It paints a worldview which to our modern eyes seems impossible, even absurd, but at one point in history it seemed very real indeed.
For more about the theories regarding Sir John Mandeville, check out the work of historian C. W. R. D. Moseley, C. M. Seymour and R. Tzanaki.