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Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury

Sir John Mandeville

[It has been doubted, and not without reason, whether there ever was such a person as Sir John Mandeville or Maundeville, who gives himself out as the author of an exceedingly popular and interesting book of travels. This book appeared (probably in French originally, then in Latin and English) towards the end of the third quarter of the fourteenth century. It has been with still more reason doubted whether the book itself, even supposing that there was a Sir John Mandeville and that he was its author, is anything more than an ingenious patchwork constructed out of the writings of Marco Polo, of Friar Odoric, of Hayton the Armenian, and of others. Indeed, the passages borrowed have been identified with great precision. Neither of these points can be argued out here, though the opinion of the present writer, if it is of any importance, is decidedly against both the existence and the experience of Sir John. Almost all that is known on the subject will be found summarised in an article by Mr. E. B. Nicholson, and the late Colonel Yule, in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Mr. Nicholson’s final conclusion, since strengthened by fresh discoveries, is that a certain physician of Liège assumed the name of Mandeville and wrote the book. Here it is sufficient to say that the writer of the book asserts himself to have been a native of St. Albans, and to have spent about forty years (from 1322 onwards) in the service of the Sultan and Great Chan (Emperor of China), and in travelling about the greater part of Asia and a smaller part of Africa. Later writers add that he died at Liège, and give particulars of a monument there to him. Unluckily they also specify its armorial bearings, which are not those of any known family of Mandeville. No contemporary or nearly contemporary authority says anything about him. But the book which goes by his name was enormously popular, and a vast number of MSS. exist of it in different languages. It was first printed in English by Pynson, but the standard edition, which requires re-editing, is that of 1727, reprinted with a few notes and an introduction by the late Mr. J. O. Halliwell (-Phillipps) in 1839, 1866, and 1883. There is also an edition of one MS. printed for the Roxburghe Club.]

THE PERPLEXITIES which concern the authorship of the book passing under the name of Mandeville, and the personality of Mandeville himself, do not at all affect the literary interest and value of that book. Whether it be an authentic record of the experiences, imaginations, and credulities of an actual traveller, or a clever literary imposture executed at a time when professional men of letters were already pretty numerous, it is certainly one of the first examples of a book of general literature, written in prose which is indisputably English in the full modern sense. That it was originally written in French, which had not yet ceased to be, as it was to Brunetto Latini a century earlier, the common dialect of Europe for the lighter purposes of literature, was suspected long ago, and may be said to have been established by Mr. Nicholson. And there can be hardly more doubt that translation into English was speedy if not immediate. If it was really a literary hoax, then, no doubt, the hoaxer shot his bolt almost simultaneously at three different sets of game, by issuing it in French and Latin and English. It is a very unlucky thing that the one common edition in which it is accessible to English readers, that of Bohn’s Library, is manipulated after a fashion which would be surprising from any one, but which is doubly surprising from so good a scholar and so sound a medievalist as the late Thomas Wright. But even in that version the charm of the book—that singular charm which distinguishes medieval work, and is alike absent from classical, Oriental, and modern literature—must be apparent. This is the charm of the romantic-marvellous. Sometimes, of course, the good Sir John indulges in marvels which are very marvellous, which are not at all romantic, and which have not quite unjustly earned him the reputation of being a descendant of Lucian or Lucian’s originals and an ancestor of Baron Munchausen. To this day it is difficult to imagine what made him say gravely, that he had often tried the experiment of keeping diamonds wetted with May dew, and had found them increase in size. Yet it requires no great critical expertness to see that this unhesitating precision of statement lends much of their charm to such stories as those of the Castle of the Sparrowhawk and the Lady of the Land. It is more difficult to explain the difference between this precision and the often excessive and sometimes disgusting minuteness of Oriental wonder-tales.

If, however, Mandeville is interesting when modernised, he is far more interesting in the 1727 text, though it is by no means certain that the spelling of this represents the oldest MS. authority, and it is certain that it is not in the modern sense critical. This text is, in point of orthography and vocabulary, rather more modern than the received text of Chaucer, and presents a minimum of difficulty to any educated person. Its style, as is often the case with examples of that period of a language which coincides with the current literary use of other languages, is simple, clear, and by no means awkward or inelegant. The sentences are of moderate length, and the clauses are connected and arranged with an orderliness evidently dictated by practice in Latin composition. Nor is there lacking a certain effort at cadence and harmony: indeed there is more of this than in the commoner examples of prose even two centuries later. But the real charm of the book lies in a combination of simplicity and colour which is eminently picturesque. In this it has no equal, the best passages of Malory excepted, among English prose books before the Renaissance, and there can be no doubt that its wide diffusion had a great influence in the romantic direction on the minds of its readers. The somewhat idle and disputable title of Father of English Prose has been taken from Mandeville of late and given to Wycliffe. But Mandeville, or the person who took his name, is certainly, as his date, his subject, and his great popularity show, the father of all such as use modern English prose for purposes of profane delight, and his book is as full of that delight now as when it was first written.