Journey Through the Past: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

The Travels of Sir John MandevilleThe Travels of Sir John Mandeville by John Mandeville

This is an odd one. Depending on what you choose to believe, it’s either the memoirs of a well-travelled knight, who spent time in the far east, travelling via the holy land, or an early case of literary forgery. As one wag put it, he might not have travelled further than a local library.

Well, alright then. Plenty of good books were written by people who stretched the truth a little bit; an upcoming biography of Johnny Cash is hinging on this. The book’s a blast to read, even if it’s not quite truthful. And, as the editor of this Penguin edition writes, maybe the book’s point isn’t to be read as a travel memoir, but as a book steeped with religious allegory. There’s quite a lot going on here, so let’s break it down a little bit.

If he existed, Sir John Mandeville would’ve been a British knight who lived in the 14th century. He writes of going to the holy land, of serving under the Sultan in the far East and of travels all around the world before retiring back in England. It’d be hard to do this even now, let alone in the 14th century, but it was possible: just look at Marco Polo. Mandeville’s travels include everything from cannibals to people with their faces in their chest to murderous Islamic cults. It’s wild and outlandish stuff.

And at times, it’s even true: that cult actually existed. But even when it’s not, it’s fun reading his stories about strange islands, trials of faith and serving kings in foreign lands. And it shows an interesting sense of humanity: at times, he makes a point of comparing people to Christians, often with a juxtaposition showing they found him as odd as he found them. Considering he wasn’t that far removed from The Sack of Constantinople, it’s a remarkable attitude.

But even on a surface level, it’s a fun read, written with a sly sense of humor: at one point, Mandeville says he’d tell you of an island, but he never went there himself, so he can’t speak to it (consider the source!). And in a time where most people never left their country, except maybe by sea, Mandeville was a fun exception. If he existed, he lived a charmed life. If he didn’t, his author knew how to spin an amusing yarn. And people took it seriously enough to take it with them on voyages: it’s said Frobisher kept a copy on-board and it was the only travel book in Da Vinci’s personal library.

But the same things which made this book popular at one point made it at first a joke and then nearly forgotten. Not long after it’s peak of popularity, the book’s foolishness was well-known enough to be satirized. These days, it’s more often than not used in University courses.

I think perhaps a more apt comparison than Polo (or even Columbus) is Herodotus. Like Mandeville, his Histories are a collection of travel stories, with the truth and tall tales freely mixed together. He got why the Nile flows differently than other rivers, but probably not the giant ants.  And like Mandeville, he went from believed to savaged in the course of a few generations. But that’s almost beyond the point, the larger images of the world they paint, going to all corners of the map in a time when people simply didn’t. And above all else, that’s what I enjoyed most about reading Mandeville: you don’t simply get a collection of stories about the Holy Land and beyond, but an idea of how people from that century viewed the world. 

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s untrustworthy as a literal history, it’s a fascinating read. And Penguin’s edition includes plenty of footnotes, a great introduction and appendixes, too. Recommended for history buffs, especially if they’re into the Crusades or Marco Polo.


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