Sir John Mandeville. Marvellous Adventures. 1895.

Preface by John Cameron Grant


“TIME, which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments.” So says one who has written some of our noblest English prose, and the book to which these words serve as an Introduction, is a case in point.

Sir John Maundevile was not a great statesman, nor was he a great divine or a great scholar, but interest in himself and in his work remains, and is likely to remain when many a more potent presence and many a mightier edifice has long crumbled away.

I early conceived an admiration for Sir John, an admiration that increased with my years, and this for many reasons, prominent among them the fact that the old scoundrel had taken me in. I used to consider him the “Cook” of the Middle Ages, personally conducting pilgrims over ground that he had himself first travelled, and at each point of interest I pictured him relating his own personal experiences to appreciative groups of itinerant palmers. Alas! viewed from the standpoint of accurate individual information, he is but an inferior “Murray” or “Baedeker.”

In spite, however, of shortcomings in this respect, we cannot but admire the dauntless literary freebooter, dowered with an imagination so tremendous in its inventiveness as at times to make even the grasping credulity of the Middle Ages stand aghast.

In the Frontispiece the Artist represents Sir John in his study, on his own testimony somewhat gouty-grown and rheumatic, seated at work with his amanuensis, and has chosen for illustration that supreme psychological moment when faith wanes and doubt waxes until the narrator brings back belief by his colossal trust in himself, and his utter disbelief as to the limits of human gullibility.

But take Sir John with an open mind, and in the spirit of his age, and you will find his “Voiage and Travaile” one of the most entertaining and delightful of books. The illustrations, moreover, help to bring back his time and faithfully reflect the surroundings of the period, as he and his fellows saw them. I speak not here of their artistic merit, which does not at present concern me, but these drawings are throughout accurate to the spirit of the Fourteenth Century in all things that touch on clothing, arms, ornament, equipment by land and by sea, shipping and architecture. It has been the intention of those responsible for this last edition of Sir John Maundevile’s travels, to produce a book that, but for technical and other qualities necessarily inherent in any work produced almost at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, might well have been issued under the supervision of the stout old Knight himself.

Sir John Maundevile is believed to have been born at St. Albans, setting out upon his travels in the year 1322, and Liège is said to have been the place of his burial in A.D. 1382. The latter city may be credited as the scene of his literary labours, for there his book, it is stated, was written in the year 1355. It is strange that practically nothing should be known about one whose work was to become so widely appreciated and so popular, not only with his own countrymen, but with all the readers and listeners of the time. There is, I imagine, but little doubt that he travelled a good deal, visiting among other places Palestine and Egypt, but I am inclined strongly to think that it is far less to Sir John Maundevile as a traveller that we are indebted for his “Boke of Trauels” than to Sir John Maundevile’s interesting personality and caddislike characteristic of tacking on to his own livery the straws and crystals of other writers, the flotsam and jetsam of his and all preceding centuries. That Sir John knew what he was talking about when he appealed to the love of travel, which he says characterises the English race, and that his book above all others met the liking of his contemporaries, or that it continued to please, there can be no doubt whatever, for there are, in the British Museum alone, close on a hundred different printed editions and versions in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Walloon, German, Bohemian, Danish, and even in Irish; and as for the different MS. versions there are said to be over three hundred known. No book of any respectable age, except the Bible, and possibly Tyll Owlglass, has been so often copied or printed.

Sir John is withal intensely human, and therefore intensely interesting, and his dish has been, and must be, judged on its own merits and not analysed and dissected, and the various ingredients and their sources considered. I fear, were one to look into a good many literary larders, the owners would not fare better than has our Knight at the hands of some of his critics: moreover, at the period in which he wrote, literary plagiarism was as little thought of as highway robbery, or judicial torture, and in each instance drew protest from none but the individual sufferer.

It is evident that in the case of such a book as Maundevile’s there must be an immense field for scholarship and research, and those who would go into the matter of text and textual criticism are referred to the preface of Halliwell and the magnificent bi-lingual edition published by the Roxburgh Society, where they will find all such matters fully treated of and in such a thorough way that it would hardly be interesting, even if possible, to give the veriest outlines of their labours in a preface to a popular edition such as is this last.

It may be mentioned, however, that the text generally followed throughout the present volume is that of the Cotton MS., with only such alterations as to make it easily readable by an Englishman of the Nineteenth Century, and, though in every instance it is not an actual verbal reproduction of the original, the spirit of the whole has been most faithfully reproduced without interpolation, and with scarcely an omission.

Where the Cotton MS. is obviously at fault on comparison with the French and Latin versions the better reading has been used; for example, where the French version says “entre Montaignes,” it has been expressed in the old English rendering as “between Mount Aygnes,” an obvious absurdity and blunder on the part of the translator. Maundevile’s work was first written in French. Or again where the first English translator has rendered “limons,” limes or lemons, as “snails,” obviously mistaking the word for “limaçons;” or again where “Nuns of a hundred orders” is given as the translation of “Nonnes Cordres” viz., “Nuns Cordelers,” where, for some reason best known to himself, probably carelessness, the translator has separated the “c” from the “ordres” and treated the initial letter as the Roman numeral for a hundred.

Wherever any doubt could arise and wherever identification has been possible the real or modern names of places have been inserted in brackets, as for instance “Nyfland [Livonia]”; but though in this volume there have been some further identifications, it has been quite impossible to follow our author in all his peregrinations, mental or actual. For example, he tells us of an Island at which every traveller touches upon leaving Genoa. He calls it Greaf, but, with the delightful insouciance of the spelling of the period, also, indifferently, Gryffle, Gresse, Grif, &c. It has been surmised, though it seems on somewhat slender circumstantial evidence, that the place referred to is Corfu. The reader may judge the confusion likely to arise, and, in fact, often caused in the originals, from this airy way of treating proper names, a disorder which in this present edition has been reduced to the order of more modern exigencies. His Monkish Latin too is at times most distressing; and vague indeed his references to the Bible.

As it may interest some, I subject to the reader’s judgment a couple of passages which will show that the following of Sir John’s quaint speech is not an altogether easy matter for the average Englishman of to-day, and the turning of it into English sufficiently modern to be easily read and yet preserving accurately the spirit, if not absolutely the actual words of the original, is not quite such a simple matter as some might be inclined to think.

  • “And than thei make Knyghtes to jousten in Armes fulle lustyly; and thei rennen to gidre a gret randoum; and thei frusschen to gidere fulle fiercely; and thei breken here speres so rudely, that the Tronchouns flen in sprotes and peces alle aboute the Halle. And than thei make to come in huntyng, for the Hert and fer the Boor, with Houndes rennynge with open Mouth.”
Or again.
  • “This Bryd Men seen often tyme, fleen in tho Contrees: and he is not mecheles more than an Egle. And he hathe a Crest of Fedres upon his Hed more gret than the Poocok hathe; and his Nekke is zalowe, aftre colour of an Orielle, that is a Ston well schynynge; and his Bek is coloured blew, as Ynde; and his Wenges ben of Purpre Colour, and the Taylle is zelow and red, castynge his Taylle azen in travers.”

The above two passages are taken at random from the book and are fair samples of Maundevilese: I fear few ordinary readers would be able, straight off, to give the modern equivalent for “rennen to gidre a gret randoum,” or “castynge his Taylle azen in travers.”

For the first time, as far as I know, has a popular Edition of Maundevile been properly indexed: to my mind an immense gain to any volume—of course I do not refer to such splendid works as the Edition of the Roxburgh Society, and the like, which are quite of another order and practically inaccessible to the general public—and I think I am not in error when I say that in this Edition the text has for the first time been properly paragraphed.

Few have suffered so much as Sir John at the hands of some of his Editors. One widely circulated Edition contains—and this no solitary example—a laughable blunder. The text has it that Alexander the Great sent a message to the people of Bragman, whoever they were, that he would come and conquer them, and their reply was to beseech him not to think of doing so, as their only riches consisted of love for one another “and accord and peace.” Our Classical Editor goes out of his way to state that this people’s only treasure was “acorns and peas,” and the Editor of a sequent popular Edition had far too much respect and appreciation for the care and erudition of his Classical Colleague to dream of error, and followed on cheerfully with the same rendering. Poor Sir John! this is far from being the only or even the most ridiculous mistake on the part of some of your would-be correctors.

Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who have no commentators, no laudators, no detractors; about whose relics play no cold winds of after-criticism. It is better to be fast forgotten than to suffer the correction of the careless. Much that is true and truly written down is read out for false, the eyes of the lector seeing not but the type set prominent by his own perceptions. So comes change, not alone from natural causes and the determining effects of nature, but also, in frequent case, from the trenchant edge of accident.

  • “The knight’s bones are dust,
  • His good sword is rust,
  • His soul is with the Saints, we trust.”
And with this last pious hope we will let all of him that is not mortal speak for Sir John Maundevile. Not mortal! Nay—“There is nothing strictly immortal but immortality. Whatever hath no beginning may be confident of no end;—which is the peculiar of that necessary essence that cannot destroy itself;—and the highest strain of omnipotency, to be so powerfully constituted as not to suffer even from the power of itself: all others have a dependent being and within the reach of destruction.”