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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

§ 7. Jean d’Outremeuse

The genius which evolved this wonderful literary forgery sent it forth to fame from the great commercial city of Liège in the latter part of the fourteenth century. The unquestioned myth of its origin was that John de Mandeville, knight, of St. Albans, had left England in 1322 to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem; he afterwards travelled all over the world and, returning homewards in 1343, was laid up at Liège by arthritic gout and attended by a doctor, John ad barbam, whom he had previously met in Cairo. At the physician’s suggestion he wrote, to solace his enforced dulness, a relation of his long experiences, which he finished in 1356 or 1357. Such is the statement given in the principal Latin edition; but neither the gout nor the physician is mentioned in the earliest MS. now known, which is in French, dated 1371, and was originally bound with a medical treatise on the plague by Maistre Jehan de Bourgoigne autrement dit à la Barbe, citizen of Liège, physician of forty years’ experience, author (before 1365) of various works of science, of whose plague treatise several other copies still exist. Now, there was at this time resident in Liége a voluminous man of letters, Jean d’Outremeuse, a writer of histories and fables in both verse and prose. He told, in his Myreur des Histors, how a modest old man, content to be known as Jehan de Bourgogne or Jean à la Barbe, confided on his death-bed to Outremeuse, in 1372, that his real name was John de Mandeville, comte de Montfort en Angleterre et seigneur de l’isle de Campdi et du chateau Perous, and that he had been obliged to fly from home in 1322 because he had slain a man of rank. Unluckily, Outremeuse’s story only confounds Mandeville’s own, as set forth in the Latin travels, and adds impossible titles to this knight turned doctor. Outremeuse also added that he himself inherited the old man’s collection of foreign jewels and—damaging admission—his library. He quotes Mandeville sometimes in his own historical works; but he does not confess the use he makes of the genuine travels of friar Odoric—and neither did “Mandeville.” According to Outremeuse, Sir John was buried in the church of the Guillemins, and there, by the end of the fourteenth century stood his tomb, seen by several trustworthy witnesses in the succeeding centuries, adorned by a shield bearing a coat, which proves to be that of the Tyrrell family (fourteenth century), and an inscription differently reported by each traveller. Tomb and church were destroyed during the Revolution. At his birthplace, St. Albans, the abbey boasted a ring of his gift, and, of course in time, even showed the place of his grave.

Whether John the Bearded really told Outremeuse that he was John de Mandeville of the impossible titles, or whether OUtremeuse only pretended that he did, we cannot hope to ascertain. The puzzling point is the selection of so plausible a name: for there was a John de Bourgogne concerned, though not as a principal, in the troubles of Edward II, who had a pardon in 1321, revoked after Boroughbridge, 1322, when he fled the country. And there was a John de Mandeville, of no great importance, also of the rebellious party, who received a pardon in 1313, but of whom no more is known. The facts ascertained so far about the real author or authors of the Travels are: that he was not an Englishman; that he never visited the places he describes, or visited them without making any intelligent observation; that he wrote at Liège before 1371, and in French; that he was a good linguist and had access to an excellent library; that he was a good linguist and had access to an excellent library; that his intimate acquaintance with nearly all the works of travel and of reference then known implies long and diligent study hardly compatible with travelling; that he gauged exactly the taste of the reading public and its easy credence; and, finally, that he (or they) carried out the most successful literary fraud ever known in one of the most delightful volumes ever written. It would be curious if Liége contained at one two men so well read as Outremeuse and “Mandeville,” both compiling wonder-books, secretly using the same basis, and not in collusion, and it is remarkable that the Latin version with its tale of the physician contains some adventures, not in the French and English versions, of Ogir the Dane, a hero on whom Outremeuse wrote an epic.

To the statements made by the author himself no credit need be attached. This greater than Defoe used before Defoe the art of introducing such little details as give to fiction the appearance of personal recollection. He is great on numbers and measurements not in his originals, on strange alphabets, some real, some garbled or “not to be identified”; and, as his statements about himself cannot be verified, there is no more ground for believing that he visited Cairo and met Jean à la Barbe there, or was laid up at Liè with arthritic gout, than that he drank of the fountain of youth and knew the road to the earthly paradise. Similarly, the statement of the French MS. that the author ought to have written in Latin, to be more concise, but preferred Romance as more readily understood by travelled gentlemen who could testify to his truthfulness, is to be accepted on the ground of internal evidence and because the Latin versions all betray a later date and a French original. That the writer was no Englishman, may be deduced from the absence of any local colouring, and from his ignorance of English distances, more surely than from the erroneous titles and coat of arms.