"Jehan de Mandeville", translated as "Sir John Mandeville", is the name claimed by the compiler of a singular book of supposed travels, written in Anglo-Norman French, and published between 1357 and 1371.
By aid of translations into many other languages it acquired extraordinary popularity. Despite the extremely unreliable and often fantastical nature of the travels it describes, it was used as a work of reference — Christopher Columbus had a copy on his ship when he sailed to the Americas.
A few interpolated words in a particular edition of an English version gained for Mandeville in modern times the spurious credit of being "the father of English prose".
Full-page portrait of Sir John Mandeville. Created 1459.
In his preface the compiler calls himself a knight, and states that he was born and bred in England, of the town of St Albans; had crossed the sea on Michaelmas Day 1322; had travelled by way of Turkey (Asia Minor), Armenia the little (Cilicia) and the great, Tartary, Persia, Syria, Arabia, Egypt upper and lower, Libya, great part of Ethiopia, Chaldaea, Amazonia, India the less, the greater and the middle, and many countries about India; had often been to Jerusalem, and had written in Romance as more generally understood than Latin.
In the body of the work, we hear that he had been at Paris and Constantinople; had served the sultan of Egypt a long time in his wars against the Bedouin, had been vainly offered by him a princely marriage and a great estate on condition of renouncing Christianity, and had left Egypt under sultan Melech Madabron, i.e. Muzaffar or Mudhaffar (who reigned in 1346-1347); had been at Mount Sinai, and had visited the Holy Land with letters under the great seal of the sultan, which gave him extraordinary facilities; had been in Russia, Livonia, Kraków, Lithuania, "en roialme daresten" (? de Daresten or Silistria), and many other parts near Tartary, but not in Tartary itself; had drunk of the well of youth at Polombe (Quilon on the Malabar coast), and still seemed to feel the better; had taken astronomical observations on the way to Lamory (Sumatra), as well as in Brabant, Germany, Bohemia and still farther north; had been at an isle called Pathen in the Indian Ocean; had been at Cansay (Hangchow-fu) in China, and had served the emperor of China fifteen months against the king of Mann; had been among rocks of adamant in the Indian Ocean; had been through a haunted valley, which he places near "Milstorak" (i.e. Malasgird in Armenia); had been driven home against his will in 1357 by arthritic gout; and had written his book as a consolation for his "wretched rest". The paragraph which states that he had had his book confirmed at Rome by the pope is an interpolation of the English version.
Part at least of the personal history of Mandeville is mere invention. Nor is any contemporary corroboration of the existence of such a Jehan de Mandeville known. Some French manuscripts, not contemporary, give a Latin letter of presentation from him to Edward III, but so vague that it might have been penned by any writer on any subject. It is in fact beyond reasonable doubt that the travels were in large part compiled by a Liège physician, known as Johains a le Barbe or Jehan a la Barbe, otherwise Jehan de Bourgogne.
The evidence of this is in a modernized extract quoted by the Liège herald, Louis Abry (1643-1720), from the lost fourth book of the Myreur des Hystors of Johans des Preis, styled d'Oultremouse. In this "Jean de Bourgogne, dit a la Barbe", is said to have revealed himself on his deathbed to d'Oultremouse, whom he made his executor, and to have described himself in his will as "messire Jean de Mandeville, chevalier, comte de Montfort en Angleterre et seigneur de l'isle de Campdi et du château Pérouse". It is added that, having had the misfortune to kill an unnamed count in his own country, he engaged himself to travel through the three parts of the world, arrived at Liège in 1343, was a great naturalist, profound philosopher and astrologer, and had a remarkable knowledge of physic. And the identification is confirmed by the fact that in the now destroyed church of the Guillemins was a tombstone of Mandeville, with a Latin inscription stating that he was otherwise named "ad Barbam", was a professor of medicine, and died at Liège on November 17, 1372: this inscription is quoted as far back as 1462.
Even before his death the Liège physician seems to have confessed to a share in the composition of the work. In the common Latin abridged version of it, at the end of c. vii., the author says that when stopping in the sultan's court at Cairo he met a venerable and expert physician of "our" parts, that they rarely came into conversation because their duties were of a different kind, but that long afterwards at Liège he composed this treatise at the exhortation and with the help (Jiortatu et adiutorio) of the same venerable man, as he will narrate at the end of it. And in the last chapter he says that in 1355, in returning home, he came to Liège, and being laid up with old age and arthritic gout in the street called Bassesauenyr, i.e. Basse Savenir, consulted the physicians. That one came in who was more venerable than the others by reason of his age and white hairs, was evidently expert in his art, and was commonly called Magister Iohannes ad Barbam. That a chance remark of the latter caused the renewal of their old Cairo acquaintance, and that Ad Barbam, after showing his medical skill on Mandeville, urgently begged him to write his travels; "and so at length, by his advice and help, monitu et adiutorio, was composed this treatise, of which I had certainly proposed to write nothing until at least I had reached my own parts in England". He goes on to speak of himself as being now lodged in Liège, "which is only two days distant from the sea of England"; and it is stated in the colophon (and in the manuscripts) that the book was first published in French by Mandeville, its author, in 1355, at Liège, and soon after in the same city translated into "said" Latin form. Moreover, a manuscript of the French text extant at Liège about 1860 contained a similar statement, and added that the author lodged at a hostel called "al hoste Henkin Levo": this manuscript gave the physician's name as "Johains de Bourgogne dit ale barbe", which doubtless conveys its local form.
There is no contemporary English mention of any English knight named Jehan de Mandeville, nor are the arms said to have been on the Liège tomb like any known Mandeville arms. But Dr G. F. Warner has ingeniously suggested that de Bourgogne may be a certain Johan de Bourgoyne, who was pardoned by parliament on August 20, 1321 for having taken part in the attack on the Despensers, but whose pardon was revoked in May 1322, the year in which "Mandeville" professes to have left England. And it should now be added that among the persons similarly pardoned on the recommendation of the same nobleman was a Johan Mangevilayn, whose name appears closely related to that of "de Mandeville", which is merely a later form of "de Magneville".
The name Mangevilain occurs in Yorkshire as early as 16 Hen. I. (Pipe Roll Soc., xv. 40), but is very rare, and (failing evidence of any place named Mangeville) seems to be merely a variant spelling of Magnevillain. The meaning may be simply "of Magneville", de Magneville; but the family of a 14th century bishop of Nevers were called both "Mandevilain" and "de Mandevilain", where Mandevilain seems a derivative place-name, meaning the Magneville or Mandeville district. In any case it is clear that the name "de Mandeville "might be suggested to de Bourgogne by that of his fellow-culprit Mangevilayn, and it is even possible that the two fled to England together, were in Egypt together, met again at Liège, and shared in the compilation of the Travels.
Whether after the appearance of the Travels either de Bourgogne or "Mangevilayn" visited England is very doubtful. St Albans Abbey had a sapphire ring, and Canterbury a crystal orb, said to have been given by Mandeville; but these might have been sent from Liège, and it will appear later that the Liège physician possessed and wrote about precious stones. St Albans also had a legend that a ruined marble tomb of Mandeville (represented cross-legged and in armour, with sword and shield) once stood in the abbey; this may be true of "Mangevilayn" or it may be a mere myth.
It is a little curious that the name preceding Mangevilayn in the list of persons pardoned is "Johan le Barber". Did this suggest to de Bourgogne the alias "a le Barbe", or was that only a Liège nickname? Note also that the arms on Mandeville's tomb were borne by the Tyrrells of Hertfordshire (the county in which St Albans lies); for of course the crescent on the lion's breast is only the "difference" indicating a second son.
Cotton plant as imagined and drawn by John Mandeville; "There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie.".
Leaving this question, there remains the equally complex one whether the book contains any facts and knowledge acquired by actual travels and residence in the East. Possibly it may, but only as a small portion of the section which treats of the Holy Land and the ways of getting thither, of Egypt, and in general of the Levant. The prologue, indeed, points almost exclusively to the Holy Land as the subject of the work. The mention of more distant regions comes in only towards the end of this prologue, and (in a manner) as an afterthought.
By far the greater part of these more distant travels, extending in fact from Trebizond to Hormuz, India, the Malay Archipelago, and China, and back again to western Asia; has been appropriated from the narrative of Friar Odoric (written in 1330). These passages, as served up by Mandeville, are almost always, indeed, swollen with interpolated particulars, usually of an extravagant kind, whilst in no few cases the writer has failed to understand those passages which he adopts from Odoric and professes to give as his own experiences. Thus (p. 209), where Odoric has given a most curious and veracious account of the Chinese custom of employing tame cormorants to catch fish, the cormorants are converted by Mandeville into "little beasts called loyres (layre, B), which are taught to go into the water" (the word loyre being apparently used here for "otter", lutra, for which the Provençal is luria or loiria).
At a very early date the coincidence of Mandeville's stories with those of Odoric was recognized, insomuch that a manuscript of Odoric which is or was in the chapter library at Mainz begins with the words: Incipit Itinerarius fidelis fratris Odorici socii Militis Mendavil per Indian; licet hic ille prius et alter posterius peregrinationem suam descripsit. At a later day Sir T. Herbert calls Odoric "travelling companion of our Sir John"; and Samuel Purchas, most unfairly, whilst calling Mandeville, next to Polo, "if next ... the greatest Asian traveller that ever the world had", insinuates that Odoric's story was stolen from Mandeville's. Mandeville himself is crafty enough, at least in one passage, to anticipate criticism by suggesting the probability of his having travelled with Odoric (see p. 282 and below).
Much, again, of Mandeville's matter, particularly in Asiatic geography and history, is taken bodily from the Historiae Orientis of Hetoum, an Armenian of princely family, who became a monk of the Praemonstrant order, and in 1307 dictated this work on the East, in the French tongue at Poitiers, out of his own extraordinary acquaintance with Asia and its history in his own time.
It is curious that no passage in Mandeville can be plausibly traced to Marco Polo, with one exception. This is (p. 163) where he states that at Hormuz the people during the great heat lie in water – a circumstance mentioned by Polo, though not by Odoric. We should suppose it most likely that this fact had been interpolated in the copy of Odoric used by Mandeville, for if he had borrowed it direct from Polo he would have borrowed more.
A good deal about the manners and customs of the Tatars is demonstrably derived from the famous work of the Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, who went as the pope's ambassador to the Tatars in 1245-1247; but Dr Warner considers that the immediate source for Mandeville was the Speculum historiale of Vincent de Beauvais. Though the passages in question are all to be found in Piano Carpini more or less exactly, the expression is condensed and the order changed. For examples compare Mandeville, p. 250, on the tasks done by Tatar women, with Piano Carpini, p. 643;l Mandeville. p. 250, on Tatar habits of eating, with Piano Carpini, pp.639-640; Mandeville, p. 231, on the titles borne on the seals of the Great Khan, with Piano Carpini, p. 715, etc.
The account of Prester John is taken from the famous Epistle of that imaginary potentate, which was so widely diffused in the 13th century, and created that renown which made it incumbent on every traveller in Asia to find some new tale to tell of him. Many fabulous stories, again, of monsters, such as cyclopes, sciapodes, hippopodes, monoscelides, anthropophagi, and men whose heads did grow beneath their shoulders, of the phoenix and the weeping crocodile, such as Pliny has collected, are introduced here and there, derived no doubt from him, Solinus, the bestiaries, or the Speculum naturale of Vincent de Beauvais. And interspersed, especially in the chapters about the Levant, are the stories and legends that were retailed to every pilgrim, such as the legend of Seth and the grains of paradise from which grew the wood of the cross, that of the shooting of old Cain by Lamech, that of the castle of the sparrow-hawk (which appears in the tale of Melusina), those of the origin of the balsam plants at Masariya, of the dragon of Cos, of the river Sabbation, etc.
But all these passages have also been verified as substantially occurring in Barrois's French manuscript Nouv. Acq. Franc. 1515 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, mentioned below (of AD 1371), cited B, and in that numbered xxxix. of the Grenville collection (British Museum), which dates probably from the early part of the 15th century, cited G.
Even in that part of the book which might be supposed to represent some genuine experience there are the plainest traces that another work has been made use of, more or less – we might almost say as a framework to fill up. This is the itinerary of the German knight Wilhelm von Boldensele, written in 1336 at the desire of Cardinal Talleyrand de Perigord. A cursory comparison of this with Mandeville leaves no doubt that the latter has followed its thread, though digressing on every side, and too often eliminating the singular good sense of the German traveller. We may indicate as examples Boidensele's account of Cyprus (Mandeville, p. 28 and p. 10), of Tyre and the coast of Palestine (Mandeville, 29, 30, 33, 34), of the journey from Gaza to Egypt (34), passages about Babylon of Egypt (40), about Mecca (42), the general account of Egypt (45), the pyramids (52), some of the wonders of Cairo, such as the slave-market, the chicken-hatching stoves, and the apples of paradise, i.e. plantains (49), the Red Sea (57), the convent on Sinai (58, 60), the account of the church of the Holy Sepulchre (74-76), etc.
There is, indeed, only a small residuum of the book to which genuine character, as containing the experiences of the author, can possibly be attributed. Yet, as has been intimated, the borrowed stories are frequently claimed as such experiences. In addition to those already mentioned, he alleges that he had witnessed the curious exhibition of the garden of transmigrated souls (described by Odoric) at Cansay, i.e. Hangchow-fu (211). He and his fellows with their valets had remained fifteen months in service with the emperor of Cathay in his wars against the king of Manzi – Manzi, or Southern China, having ceased to be a separate kingdom some seventy years before the time referred to. But the most notable of these false statements occurs in his adoption from Odoric of the story of the Valley Perilous (282). This is, in its original form, apparently founded on real experiences of Odoric viewed through a haze of excitement and superstition. Mandeville, whilst swelling the wonders of the tale with a variety of extravagant touches, appears to safeguard himself from the reader's possible discovery that it was stolen by the interpolation: "And some of our fellows accorded to enter, and some not. So there were with us two worthy men, Friars Minor, that were of Lombardy, who said that if any man would enter they would go in with us. And when they had said so, upon the gracious trust of God and of them, we caused mass to be sung, and made every man to be shriven and houselled; and then we entered fourteen persons; but at our going out we were but nine", etc.
In referring to this passage it is only fair to recognize that the description (though the suggestion of the greatest part exists in Odoric) displays a good deal of imaginative power; and there is much in the account of Christian's passage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, in John Bunyan's famous allegory, which indicates a possibility that Bunyan may have read and remembered this episode either in Mandeville or in Hakluyt's Odoric.
Nor does it follow that the whole work is borrowed or fictitious. Even the great Moorish traveller Ibn Batuta, accurate and veracious in the main, seems – in one part at least of his narrative – to invent experiences; and in such works as those of Jan van Hees and Arnold von Harif we have examples of pilgrims to the Holy Land whose narratives begin apparently in sober truth, and gradually pass into flourishes of fiction and extravagance. So in Mandeville also we find particulars not yet traced to other writers, and which may therefote be provisionally assigned either to the writer's own experience or to knowledge acquired by colloquial intercourse in the East.
It is difficult to decide on the character of his statements as to recent Egyptian history. In his account of that country (pp. 37, 38) though the series of the Comanian (i.e. of the Bahri Mameluke) sultans is borrowed from Hetoum down to the accession of Mel echnasser, i.e. Malik al-Nasir (Nãlir ud-din Mahommed), who came first to the throne in 1293, Mandeville appears to speak from his own knowledge when he adds that this "Melechnasser reigned long and governed wisely". In fact, though twice displaced in the early part of his life, Malik Nãsir reigned till 1341, a duration unparalleled in Muslim Egypt, whilst we are told that during the last thirty years of his reign Egypt rose to a high pitch of wealth and prosperity. Mandeville, however, then goes on to say that his eldest son, Melechemader, was chosen to succeed; but this prince was caused privily to be slain by his brother, who took the kingdom under the name of Meleclimadabron. "And he was Soldan when I departed from those countries". Now Malik Nãsir Mahommed was followed in succession by no less than eight of his sons in thirteen years, the first three of whom reigned in aggregate only a few months. The names mentioned by Mandeville appear to represent those of the fourth and sixth of the eight, viz. Salib 'Imgd ud-din Ismail, and Moaaffar (Saif ud-din Majji); and these the statements of Mandeville do not fit.
On several occasions Arabic words are given, but are not always recognizable, owing perhaps to the carelessness of copyists in such matters. Thus, we find (p. 50) the names (not satisfactorily identified) of the wood, fruit and sap of the balsam plant; (p. 99) of bitumen, "alkatran" (al-Katran); (p. 168) of the three different kinds of pepper (long pepper, black pepper and white pepper) as sorbotin, fulful and bano or bauo (fulful is the common Arabic word for pepper; the others have not been satisfactorily explained). But these, and the particulars of his narrative for which no literary sources have yet been found, are too few to constitute a proof of personal experience.
Mandeville, again, in some passages shows a correct idea of the form of the earth, and of position in latitude ascertained by observation of the pole star; he knows that there are antipodes, and that if ships were sent on voyages of discovery they might sail round the world. And he tells a curious story, which he had heard in his youth, how a worthy man did travel ever eastward until he came to his own country again (p. 183). But he repeatedly asserts the old belief that Jerusalem was in the centre of the world (pg, 183), and maintains in proof of this that at the equinox a spear planted erect in Jerusalem casts no shadow at noon, which, if true, would equally consist with the sphericity of the earth, provided that the city were on the equator.
The sources of the book, which include various authors besides those whom we have specified, have been laboriously investigated by Dr Albert Bovenschen and Dr GF Warner, and to them the reader must be referred for more detailed information on the subject.
The oldest known manuscript of the original – once Barrois's, afterwards the earl of Ashburnham's, now Nouv. Acq. Franc. 1515 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris – is dated 1371, hut is nevertheless very inaccurate in proper names. An early printed Latin translation made from the French has been already quoted, but four others, unprinted, have been discovered by Dr J Vogels. They exist in eight manuscripts, of which seven are in Great Britain, while the eighth was copied by a monk of Abingdon; probably, therefore, all these unprinted translations were executed in Great Britain. From one of them, according to Dr Vogels, an English version was made which has never been printed and is now extant only in free abbreviaf ions, contained in two 15th century manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford – manuscript e Museo 116, and manuscript Rawlinson D. 99: the former, which is the better, is in Midland dialect, and may possibly have belonged to the Augtistinian priory of St Osyth in Essex, while the latter is in Southern dialect.
The first English translation direct from the French was made (at least as early as the beginning of the 15th century) from a manuscript of which many pages were lost. Writing of the name Califfes Dr Vogels controverts these positions, arguing that the first English version from the French was the complete Cotton text, and that the defective English copies were made from a defective English manuscript His supposed evidences of the priority of the Cotton text equally consist with its being a later revision, and for Roys Its (Khalif), the author says (Roxburghe Club ed., p. 18) that it is taut a dire come rol (s). II y soleit auoir I'. soudans "as much as to say king. There used to be 5 sultans". In the defective French manuscript a page ended with fly so; then came a gap, and the next page went on with part of the description of Mount Sinai, Et est celle vallee mult froide (ibid. p. 32'). Consequently the corresponding English version has "That ys to say amonge hem Roys Its and this vale ys ful colde"! All English printed texts before 1725, and Ashton's 1887 edition, follow these defective copies, and in only two known manuscripts has the lacuna been detected and filled up.
One of them is the British Museum manuscript Egerton 1982 (Northern dialect, about 1410-1420 ?), in which, according to Dr Vogels, the corresponding portion has been borrowed from that English version which had already been made from the Latin. The other is in the, British Museum manuscript Cotton Titus C. xvi. (Midland dialect, about 1410-1420?), representing a text completed, and revised throughout, from the French, though not by a competent hand. The Egerton text, edited by Dr GF Warner, has been printed by the Roxburghe Club, while the Cotton text, first printed in 1725 and 1727, is in modern reprints the current English version.
That none of the forms of the English version can be from the same hand which wrote the original is made patent by their glaring errors of translation, but the Cotton text asserts in the preface that it was made by Mandeville himself, and this assertion was till lately taken on trust by almost all modern historians of English literature. The words of the original "je eusse cest livret mis en Latin ... mais je lay mis,en römant" were mistranslated as if "je eusse" meant "I had" instead of "I should have", and then (whether of fraudulent intent or by the error of a copyist thinking to supply an accidental omission) the words were added "and translated it a3en out of Frensche into Englyssche". Mätzner (Altenglische Sprachproben, I., ii., 154-155) seems to have been the first to show that the current English text cannot possibly have been made by Mandeville himself. Of the original French there is no satisfactory edition, but Dr Vogels has undertaken a critical text, and Dr Warner has added to his Egerton English text the French of a British Museum manuscript with variants from three others.
It remains to mention certain other works bearing the name of Mandeville or de Bourgogne.
To Mandeville (by whom de Bourgogne is clearly meant) d'Oultremouse ascribes a Latin "lappidaire salon l'opinion des Indois", from which he quotes twelve passages, stating that the author (whom he calls knight, lord of Montfort, of Castelperouse, and of the isle of Campdi) had been "baillez en Alexandrie" seven years, and had been presented by a Saracen friend with some fine jewels which had passed into d'Oultremouse's own possession: of this Lapidaire, a French version, which seems to have been completed after 1479, has been several times printed. A manuscript of Mandeville's travels offered for sale in 1862 is said to have been divided into five books:
- the travels
- de là forme de la terre et comment et par queue manière elle fut faite
- de la forme del ciel
- des herbes selon les yndois et les phulosophes par de là
- ly lapidaire--while the cataloguer supposed Mandeville to have been the author of a concluding piece entitled La Venianche de nostre Signeur Jhesu-Crist fayle par Vespasian fit del empereur de Romme et commeet lozeph daramathye fu deliures de la prizon. From the treatise on herbs a passage is quoted asserting it to have been composed in 1357 in honour of the author's natural lord, Edward, king of England. This date is corroborated by the title of king of Scotland given to Edward, who had received from Baliol the surrender of the crown and kingly dignity on January 20, 1356, but on October 3, 1357 released King David and made peace with Scotland: unfortunately we are not told whether the treatise contains the author's name, and, if so, what name. Tanner (Bibliotheca) alleges that Mandeville wrote several books on medicine, and among the Ashmolean manuscripts in the Bodleian are a medical receipt by John de Magna Villa (No. 2479), an aichemical receipt by him (No. 1407), and another alchemical receipt by johannes de Villa Magna (No. 1441).
Finally, de Bourgogne wrote under his own name a treatise on the plague, extant in Latin, French and English texts, and in Latin and English abridgments. Herein he describes himself as Johannes de Burgundia, otherwise called cum Barba, citizen of Liège and professor of the art of medicine; says that he had practised forty years and had been in Liège in the plague of 1365; and adds that he had previously written a treatise on the cause of the plague, according to the indications of astrology (beginning Deus deorum), and another on distinguishing pestilential diseases (beginning Cum nimium propter instans tempus epidimiate). "Burgundia" is sometimes corrupted into "Burdegalia", and in English translations of the abridgment almost always appears as "Burdews" (Bordeaux) or the like. manuscript Rawlinson D. 251 (15th century) in the Bodleian also contains a large number of English medical receipts, headed "Practica phisicalia Magistri Johannis de Burgundia".
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Mandeville's travels constituted a wide variety of venues, and it was therefore inevitable that his book would become one of the myriad sources used in Alan Moore's two graphic novels The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The venues are mostly visited in the early twentieth century by Mina Murray and Alan Quatermain prior to the latter's death.
- The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
- Works by John Mandeville at Project Gutenberg
- Dr GF Warner's article in the Dictionary of National Biography for a comprehensive account, and for bibliographical references;
- Ulysse Chevalier's Repertoire des sources historiques du moyen âge for references generally; and the
- Zeitschr. f. celt. Philologie II., i. 126, for an edition and translation, by Dr Whitley Stokes, of Fingin O'Mahony's Irish version of the Travels.
- The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a 2006 transcription of the original by E C Coleman published by Nonsuch Publishing.
- Giles Milton - The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville (2001) ISBN 0-340-81945-6
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain