Sir John Mandeville

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Sir John Mandeville

Sir John Mandeville is the pen name used by the unidentified 14th-century English author of one of the most famous and widely read travel romances of Europe—The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight.

Originally written in Norman French about 1360 and translated into 10 major European languages, including English and Latin, by the end of the century, the Travels enjoyed undiminished popularity for over 400 years. Purporting to be a travel guide emphasizing the exotic wonders of the Near and Far East, it is generally considered one of the finest works of imaginative literature of the medieval period.

The question of authorship has met with much controversy in recent years. In the Travels the author claims that his name is Sir John Mandeville, born and educated at St. Albans, England, and that he began his travels in 1322, returning home in 1356 to write the account of his experiences. This is further expanded by Jean d'Outremeuse (1338-1400), the Liège chronicler, who writes that one Jean de Bourgogne, also known as John with the Beard, confessed on his deathbed in 1372 that he was the Sir John Mandeville who left England in 1322 after killing a nobleman. Although this view is accepted by Malcolm Letts, Josephine Bennett rejects it as fiction, noting that the Liège version of the Travels, the most corrupt of the three French versions, was made from the Paris, not the Norman French, copy. Thus she concludes that it is highly unlikely that the original Norman French version could have been written by one who lived in Liège for 30 years and yet was unknown there.

Regardless of who actually wrote the Travels, it is generally accepted that the author may never have traveled at all. It has been shown that practically the entire work was compiled from several earlier authors such as Vincent of Beauvais (active 1260), John of Piano Carpini (active 1245), Odoric of Pordenone (active 1330), and the German friar William of Rubruck (active 1250). However, the author of the Travels brilliantly organized the eclectic travel material into an artistic first-person narrative. He begins with a guide to the Holy Land, relating many anecdotes of his "experiences" and "observations." Then he describes the fabulous wealth and wonder of the court of the Great Khan and details of Prester John's kingdom. Among the marvels he describes are various types of monsters such as dog-headed cannibals, flatfaced people without noses or mouths, a race of hermaphrodites, people with ears hanging to their knees, and men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.

Although there is no question that the author of the Travels plagiarized his material, he did cast it into his own highly entertaining style in what has been correctly described as a masterpiece of literary collage.

Further Reading

The best available edition for the general reader is the 1964 reprint of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, edited in modern spelling by A. W. Pollard (1900). Sir John Mandeville, Travels, edited by Malcolm Letts (2 vols., 1953), contains a comprehensive introduction followed by the Egerton text in modern spelling, annotated, with the oldest (1371) French version and the Bodleian English translation.

A succinct analysis of Mandeville is in chapter 3, "The Beginnings of English Prose," by Alice D. Greenwood, in volume 2 of The Cambridge History of English Literature (15 vols., 1919-1931). For an interesting analysis of the Travels, its author, and its sources see Malcolm Letts, Sir John Mandeville: The Man and His Book (1949). However, the latest and most definitive study to date, which refutes Letts's theory that Mandeville was John of Bourgogne, is Josephine Bennett, The Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville (1954), in which the author thoroughly discusses the problems of authorship, the sources, and the literary quality of the Travels.

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Sir John Mandeville

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