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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir John Mandeville (Fourteenth Century)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE MOST entertaining book in early English prose is the one entitled ‘The Marvelous Adventures of Sir John Maundevile [or Mandeville], Knight: being his Voyage and Travel which treateth of the way to Jerusalem and of the Marvels of Ind with other Islands and Countries.’ Who this knight was, and how many of the wondrous countries and sights he described he actually saw, are matters of grave discussion. Some scholars have denied his very existence, affirming the book to be merely a compilation from other books of travel, well known at the time, and made by a French physician, Jehan de Bourgogne, who hid his identity under the pseudonym of the English knight of St. Albans. As a matter of fact, the assertion of Sir John in a Latin copy notwithstanding, research has proved beyond doubt that the book was first written in French, and then translated into English, Latin, Italian, German, Flemish, and even into Irish. It has been further shown that the author drew largely on the works of his contemporaries. The chapters on Asiatic history and geography are from a book dictated in French at Poitiers in 1307, by the Armenian monk Hayton; the description of the Tartars is from the work of the Franciscan monk John de Piano Carpini; the account of Prester John is taken from the Epistle ascribed to him, and from stories current in the fourteenth century. There are, furthermore, large borrowings from the book of the Lombard Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone, who traveled in the Orient between 1317 and 1330, and on his return had his adventures set down in Latin by a brother of his order. The itinerary of the German knight William of Boldensele, about 1336, is also laid under contribution. What then can be credited to Sir John? While learned men are waxing hot over conjectures the answers to which seem beyond the search-light of exact investigation, the unsophisticated reader holds fast by the testimony of the knight himself as to his own identity, accepting it along with the marvels narrated in the book:—

          “I John Maundevile, Knight, all be it I be not worthy, that was born in England, in the town of St. Albans, passed the sea in the year of our Lord Jesu Christ, 1322, in the day of St. Michaelmas; and hitherto have been long time over the Sea, and have seen and gone through many diverse Lands, and many Provinces and Kingdoms and Isles, and have passed through Tartary, Persia, Ermony [Armenia] the Little and the Great; through Lybia, Chaldea, and a great part of Ethiopia; through Amazonia, Ind the Less and the More, a great Part; and throughout many other Isles, that be about Ind: where dwell many diverse Folks, and of diverse Manners and Laws, and of diverse Shapes of Men. Of which Lands and Isles I shall speak more plainly hereafter.
  “And I shall advise you of some Part of things that there be, when Time shall be hereafter, as it may best come to my Mind; and especially for them that will and are in Purpose to visit the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Places that are thereabout. And I shall tell the way that they shall hold hither. For I have often times passed and ridden the Way, with good company of many Lords. God be thanked.”


And again in the epilogue:—

          “And ye shall understand, if it like you, that at mine Home-coming, I came to Rome, and showed my Life to our Holy Father the Pope,… and amongst all I showed him this treatise, that I had made after information of Men that knew of things that I had not seen myself, and also of Marvels and Customs that I had seen myself, as far as God would give me grace; and besought his Holy Father-hood, that my Book might be examined and corrected by Advice of his wise and discreet Council. And our Holy Father, of his special Grace, remitted my Book to be examined and proved by the Advice of his said Council. By the which my Book was proved true…. And I John Maundevile, Knight, above said, although I be unworthy, that departed from our Countries and passed the Sea the Year of Grace 1322, that have passed many Lands and many Isles and Countries, and searched many full strange Places, and have been in many a full good honorable Company, and at many a fair Deed of Arms, albeit that I did none myself, for mine incapable Insufficiency, now am come Home, maugre myself, to Rest. For Gouts and Rheumatics, that distress me—those define the End of my Labor against my Will, God knoweth.
  “And thus, taking solace in my wretched rest, recording the Time passed, I have fulfilled these Things, and put them written in this Book, as it would come into my Mind, the Year of Grace 1356, in the 34th year that I departed from our countries.”
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  The book professes, then, to be primarily a guide for pilgrims to Jerusalem by four routes, with a handbook of the holy places. But Sir John’s love of the picturesque and the marvelous, and his delight in a good story, lead him to linger along the way: nay, to go out of his way in order to pick up a legend or a tale wherewith to enliven the dry facts of the route; as if his pilgrims, weary and footsore with long day journeys, needed a bit of diversion to cheer them along the way. When, after many a detour, he is finally brought into Palestine, the pilgrim is made to feel that every inch is holy ground. The guide scrupulously locates even the smallest details of Bible history. He takes it all on faith. He knows nothing of nineteenth-century “higher criticism,” nor does he believe in spiritual interpretation. He will point you out the
        “rock where Jacob was sleeping when he saw the angels go up and down a ladder…. And upon that rock sat our Lady, and learned her psalter…. Also at the right side of that Dead Sea dwelleth yet the Wife of Lot in Likeness of a Salt Stone…. And in that Plain is the Tomb of Job…. And there is the Cistern where Joseph, which they sold, was cast in of by his Brethren…. There nigh is Gabriel’s Well where our Lord was wont to bathe him, when He was young, and from that Well bare the Water often-time to His Mother. And in that Well she washed often-time the Clothes of her Son Jesu Christ…. On that Hill, and in that same Place, at the Day of Doom, 4 Angels with 4 Trumpets shall blow and raise all Men that have suffered Death.”
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  He touches on whatever would appeal to the pious imagination of the pilgrims, and helps them to visualize the truths of their religion. When he leaves Palestine,—a country he knew perhaps better than ever man before or since his day,—and goes into the more mythical regions of Ind the Little and More, Cathay and Persia, his imagination fairly runs riot. With an Oriental love of the gorgeous he describes the “Royalty of the Palace of the Great Chan,” or of Prester John’s abode,—splendors not to be outdone even by the genie of Aladdin’s wonderful lamp. He takes us into regions lustrous with gold and silver, diamonds and other precious stones. We have indeed in the latter half of the book whole chapters rivaling the ‘Arabian Nights’ in their weird luxurious imaginings, and again in their grotesque creations of men and beasts and plant life. What matter where Sir John got his material for his marvels,—his rich, monster-teeming Eastern world, with its Amazons and pigmies; its people with hound’s heads, that “be great folk and well-fighting”; its wild geese with two heads, and lions all white and great as oxen; men with eyes in their shoulders, and men without heads; “folk that have the Face all flat, all plain, without Nose and without Mouth”; “folk that have great Ears and long that hang down to their Knees”; and “folk that run marvelously swift with one foot so large that it serves them as umbrella against the sun when they lie down to rest”; the Hippotaynes, half man and half horse; griffins that “have the Body upwards as an Eagle and beneath as a Lion, and truly they say truth, that they be of that shape.” We find hints of many old acquaintances of the wonder-world of story-books, and fables from classic soil. The giants with one eye in the middle of the forehead are close brothers to the Cyclops Polyphemus, whom Ulysses outwitted. The adamant rocks were surely washed by the same seas that swirled around the magnetic mountain whereon Sindbad the Sailor was wrecked. Sir John was in truth a masterful borrower, levying tribute on all the superstitions, the legends, the stories, and the fables current in his time; a time when the distinction between meum and tuum, in literature as well as in other matters, was not as finely drawn as it is now. Whatever a man could use, he plagiarized and considered as his own. Where the robber-baron filched by means of the sword, Sir John filched by means of the pen. He took his monsters out of Pliny, his miracles out of legends, his strange stories out of romances. He meant to leave no rumor or invention unchronicled; and he prefaces his most amazing assertions with “They say” or “Men say, but I have not seen it.” He fed the gullibility of his age to the top of its bent, and compiled a book so popular that more copies from the fourteenth-century editions remain than of any other book except the Bible.  3
 
 
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