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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

III. The Beginnings of English Prose

§ 6. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville had been a household word in eleven languages and for five centuries before it was ascertained that Sir John never lived, that his travels never took place, and that his personal experiences, long the test of others’ veracity, were compiled out of every possible authority, going back to Pliny, if not further.

The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, knight, purported to be a guide for pilgrims to Jerusalem, giving the actual experiences of the author, It begins with a suitably serious prologue, exhorting men to reverence the Holy Land, since, as he that will publish anything makes it to be cried in the middle of a town, so did He that formed the world suffer for us at Jerusalem, which is the middle of the earth. All the possible routes to Jerusalem are briefly dealt with in order to introduce strange incidents; and mention of saints and relics, interspersed with texts not always à propos, presses upon more secular fables. We pass from the tomb of St. John to the story of Ypocras’s daughter turned into a dragon; a circumstantial notice of part Jaffa concludes by describing the iron chains in which Andromeda, a great giant, was bound and imprisoned before Noah’s flood. But Mandeville’s geographical knowledge could not all be compressed into the journeys to Jerusalem, even taking one via Turkestan; so, when they are finished, with their complement of legends from Sinai and Egypt, he presents, in a second portion of the book, an account of the eastern world beyond the borders of Palestine. Herein are lively pictures of the courts of the Great Cham and Prester John, of India and the isles beyond, for China and all these eastern countries are called islands. There is the same combination of the genuine with the fabulous, but the fables are bolder: we read of the growth of diamonds and of ants which keep hills of gold dust, of the fountain of youth and the earthly paradise, of valleys of devils and loadstone mountains. You must enter the sea at Venice or Genoa the only ports of departure Sir John seems acquainted with, and go to Trebizond, where the wonders begin with a tale of Athanasius imprisoned by the pope of Rome. In the same way, all we learn of Armenia is the admirable story of the watching of the sparrow-hawk, not, says Sir John cautiously, that “chastelle Despuere” (Fr. delesperuier) lies beside the traveller’s road, but “he pat will see swilk mervailes him behoves sum tym pus wende out of pe way.”

Both parts of the book have been proved to have been compiled from the authentic travels of others, with additions gathered from almost every possible work of reference. The journeys to Jerusalem are principally based upon an ancient account of the first crusade by Albert of Aix, written two-and-a-half centuries before Mandeville, and the recent passages from a number of pilgrimage books of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The second half of Mandeville’s work is “a garbled plagiarism” from the travels of a Franciscan missionary, friar Odoric of Pordenone (1330), into which, as into Boldensele’s narrative, are foisted all manner of details, wonders and bits of natural history from such sources as The Golden Legend, the encyclopaedias of Isidore or Bartholomaeus, the Trésor of Brunetto Latini, Dante’s tutor, or the Speculum of Vincent de Beauvais (c. 1250). Mandeville uses impartially the sober Historia Mongolorum of Plano Carpini or the medieval forgeries called The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and The Letter of Prester John: no compilation of fiction or erudition comes amiss to him. He takes no account of time; though he is quite up to date in his delimitation of that shifting kingdom, Hungary, many of his observations on Palestine are wrong by three centuries; a note he gives on Ceylon was made by Caesar on the Britons; some of his science comes, through a later medium, from Pliny; his pigmies, who fight with great birds, his big sheep of the giants on the island mountain, boast a yet more ancient and illustrious ancestry. The memory which could marshal such various knowledge is as amazing as the art which harmonised it all on the plane of the fourteenth century traveller, and gave to the collection the impress of an individual experience.