“The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” book review

“The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” book review B

This book is said to be written by someone who was probably of some rank as a knight in France, but who lived in England a long time. It starts out with his voyage in the year 1322. How much of the book is based on his eye-witness accounts, and how much is based on what others told him (probably when drunk), is anyone’s guess. But in reading the book, it becomes obvious that no single person could have possibly seen all the places of even those places that are not obviously science fiction.

The English in the version I read was quite old, and I learned a new word (to me): “housel” while reading this book. Some people say that this book had, after the Bible, the biggest impact on the development of the English language in its time frame, up to about the time of Shakespeare. It is very interesting (but difficult) to read, as it has many fantastic stories, and is said to have had a great impact on later European, especially English thinking about the rest of the world. There is no doubt some truth in it, but there are so many ridiculous things, that one is tempted to lump it all together as the trash of a superstituous period in the Dark Ages, but if one reads with a mind to understand the people of that era, one can see that there is a desire for adventure and incredible things that matches our current society’s desire to be entertained with science fiction movies and TV shows. So how much of this book was treated as fact back then, and how much was treated as fiction, I don’t know.

Personally, I read the book because I was searching for travelogues written by people who visited Jerusalem before 1800. I’ve read several now written by people in the mid 1800s, but wanted to get something before that, so I could compare. This volume didn’t really meet my expectation in that line, as there is very little regarding Jerusalem itself, and it is mostly from a Catholic viewpoint, as the writer obviously is a died-in-the-wool Roman Catholic. Irritatingly, he even quotes Bible in Latin, as if that were some kind of holy tongue. And yes, in his day, it no doubt was seen as a holy tongue by the RCC. He says he wrote the book all in Latin, translated it into French, and then into English.

Here are some interesting quotes that also give a flavor for what kind of book it is:

” In that city (Alexandria) was Saint Catherine beheaded: and there was Saint Mark the evangelist martyred and buried, but the Emperor Leo made his bones to be brought to Venice.”
This is information, whether true or not, but gives an idea of what people 600 years ago probably believed about Mark’s end.

“in that chapel sing priests, Indians, that is to say, priests of Ind, not after our law, but after theirs; and alway they make their sacrament of the altar, saying, Pater Noster and other prayers therewith; with the which prayers they say the words that the sacrament is made of, for they ne know not the additions that many popes have made; but they sing with good devotion.”
He is talking about how there were a couple Christian groups from India in Jerusalem at that time! Of course “India” back then was much larger than it is today, probably stretching all the way including most of modern-day Saudi Arabia, but still it is interesting, and lends more force to the idea that Thomas went to India and evangelized the people there before he was martyred.

“And nigh that altar is a place under earth forty-two degrees of deepness, where the holy cross was found, by the wit of Saint Helen, under a rock where the Jews had hid it. And that was the very cross assayed; for they found three crosses, one of our Lord, and two of the two thieves; and Saint Helen proved them by a dead body that arose from death to life, when that it was laid on it, that our Lord died on. And thereby in the wall is the place where the four nails of our Lord were hid: for he had two in his hands and two in his feet. And, of one of these, the Emperor of Constantinople made a bridle to his horse to bear him in battle; and, through virtue thereof, he overcame his enemies,”
The parts about what later people did is probably true, showing some of the extreme superstition existing then, and also showing at least one reason why God hid the true crucifixion and other spots in Jesus’ life, because humans would idolize the physical, to the neglect of the spiritual.

“And there beside is the place where our Lady appeared to Saint Thomas the apostle after her assumption, and gave him her girdle. And right nigh is the stone where our Lord often-time sat upon when he preached; and upon that same he shall sit at the day of doom, right as himself said.”
There are many places where he shows his devotion to the Virgin Mary.

“Also a seven mile from Nazareth is the Mount Cain, and under that is a well; and beside that well Lamech, Noah’s father, slew Cain with an arrow. For this Cain went through briars and bushes as a wild beast; and he had lived from the time of Adam his father unto the time of Noah, and so he lived nigh to 2000 year.”
Really weird!

“And he said me, “Truly nay! For ye Christian ne reck right nought, how untruly to serve God! Ye should give ensample to the lewd people for to do well, and ye give them ensample to do evil. For the commons, upon festival days, when they should go to church to serve God, then go they to taverns, and be there in gluttony all the day and all night, and eat and drink as beasts that have no reason, and wit not when they have enough. And also the Christian men enforce themselves in all manners that they may, for to fight and for to deceive that one that other. And therewithal they be so proud, that they know not how to be clothed; now long, now short, now strait, now large, now sworded, now daggered, and in all manner guises. They should be simple, meek and true, and full of alms-deeds, as Jesu was, in whom they trow; but they be all the contrary, and ever inclined to the evil, and to do evil. And they be so covetous, that, for a little silver, they sell their daughters, their sisters and their own wives to put them to lechery. And one withdraweth the wife of another, and none of them holdeth faith to another; but they defoul their law that Jesu Christ betook them to keep for their salvation. And thus, for their sins, have they lost all this land that we hold. For, for their sins, their God hath taken them into our hands, not only by strength of ourself, but for their sins. For we know well, in very sooth, that when ye serve God, God will help you; and when he is with you, no man may be against you. And that know we well by our prophecies, that Christian men shall win again this land out of our hands, when they serve God more devoutly; but as long as they be of foul and of unclean living (as they be now) we have no dread of them in no kind, for their God will not help them in no wise.”…

“Alas! that it is great slander to our faith and to our law, when folk that be without law shall reprove us and undernim us of our sins, and they that should be converted to Christ and to the law of Jesu by our good ensamples and by our acceptable life to God, and so converted to the law of Jesu Christ, be, through our wickedness and evil living, far from us and strangers from the holy and very belief, shall thus appeal us and hold us for wicked livers and cursed.”
Here he is quoting what probably a Mongol leader told him. He tells how simply those people lived, and shows admiration for many aspects of their lives.

He often mentions the “Great Chan”, which no doubt is the emperor of China then, who was fabulously wealthy. Reading the account, even taking into consideration his penchant for exaggeration, it is clear that whoever told him about the Chan’s court and manner of living, saw it as much more advanced in everything than the Europeans’ of the day, except that only a few of his court were Christian.

“And some men say, that in the isle of Lango is yet the daughter of Ypocras, in form and likeness of a great dragon, that is a hundred fathom of length, as men say, for I have not seen her. And they of the isles call her Lady of the Land. And she lieth in an old castle, in a cave, and sheweth twice or thrice in the year, and she doth no harm to no man, but if men do her harm. And she was thus changed and transformed, from a fair damosel, into likeness of a dragon, by a goddess that was clept Diana. And men say, that she shall so endure in that form of a dragon, unto [the] time that a knight come, that is so hardy, that dare come to her and kiss her on the mouth; and then shall she turn again to her own kind, and be a woman again, but after that she shall not live long.”

“In one of these isles be folk of great stature, as giants. And they be hideous for to look upon. And they have but one eye, and that is in the middle of the front. And they eat nothing but raw flesh and raw fish.

“And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul p. 134stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyen be in their shoulders.

“And in another isle be folk that have the face all flat, all plain, without nose and without mouth. But they have two small holes, all round, instead of their eyes, and their mouth is plat also without lips.

“And in another isle be folk of foul fashion and shape that have the lip above the mouth so great, that when they sleep in the sun they cover all the face with that lip.

“And in another isle there be little folk, as dwarfs. And they be two so much as the pigmies. And they have no mouth; but instead of their mouth they have a little round hole, and when they shall eat or drink, they take through a pipe or a pen or such a thing, and suck it in, for they have no tongue; and therefore they speak not, but they make a manner of hissing as an adder doth, and they make signs one to another as monks do, by the which every of them understandeth other.

“And in another isle be folk that have great ears and long, that hang down to their knees.”
These are several examples of “science fiction”, meant, I believe, to amuse and titillate his readers with ridiculous stories.

According to Mandeville, Amazonia was a kingdom next to Chaldea, an island nation that only allowed females in it.

He tries to explain how worshiping images is different from worshiping idols (because idols are of imaginary things, he says!)

“And so say they of the sun, because that he changeth the time, and giveth heat, and nourisheth all things upon earth; and for it is of so great profit, they know well that that might not be, but that God loveth it more than any other thing, and, for that skill, God hath given it more great virtue in the world. Therefore, it is good reason, as they say, to do it worship and reverence.”
Here he’s making excuses for sun worship…….

I learned quite a bit about old English, old thinking (Prester John etc.), some probable facts about various places, and old tales in this book. It is very clear how superstitious Roman Catholic believers were. Yet in all that, there is quite a bit of tasty information to mull over, making this book worth the time to read.

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