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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

§ 8. Mandeville Manuscripts

The Travels of Sir John Manderville were translated into almost every European language, and some 300 MSS. are said to be still in existence. The three standard versions are the Latin, French and English, all of which, as early as 1403, Mandeville was credited with having himself composed. Of the five known Latin versions, one was far better known than the others; 12 copies of it survive, and it was the basis of other translations. It contains the allusion to the physician. Not a very early version, it was made from the French, shortened in some respects, but with some interpolations. the French manuscripts are said to be all of one type and many copies remain; some of them were written in England for English readers, proving that, in the fifteenth century, the educated might still read French for pleasure. The best MS. is the oldest, the French MS. of 1371, once in the library of Charles V. Of English versions there seem to be three, represented by (1) the Cotton MS., (2) the Egerton MS. and (3) defective MSS. The Cotton translation was the work of a midland writer who kept very closely to a good French original. The Egerton was made by a northerner who worked with both a Latin and a French exemplar, but whose French model must have differed form any now known, unless the translator, whose touch is highly individual, deliberately composed a free paraphrase. But the version popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was much shorter than either of these, being taken from some French MS. which lacked pages covering nearly two chapters, while the translator, too dull to discover the omission, actually ran two incongruous accounts together and made nonsense of the words juxtaposed. The first printed edition corrected the error only very briefly. Though it is possible that this defective version, represented by several MSS., might come from the same original as the complete and superior Cotton MS., seeing that copyists not unfrequently shortened their tasks, the differences are so numerous that it seems, on the whole, easier to assume an independent hand. There is a curious variation in the dates assigned: the best French and Latin texts and the Cotton give 1322 for the pilgrimage and 1355 or 1357 for the composition of the book: the defective MSS. and the Egerton put the dates ten years later, 1322 and 1366.

Of these three versions, the defective one is the least spirited, the Cotton, is the most vraisemblable, owing to the fulness of detail and the plausibility with which everything appears to be accounted for, as it is in the French, while the Egerton is the most original in style and, though it omits some passages found in the Cotton, sometimes expands the incidents given into a more harmonious picture. The change of the impersonal “men” to “I,” the occasional emphatic use of “he [char]is,” “he [char]at” instead of the mere pronoun, the vivid comparisons—the incubator “like a hous full of holes”—and countless similar touches, give a special charm to the tale in this version. So vigorous and native is the composition that it scarcely gives the impression of a translation, and gallicisms, such as “[char]at ilke foot is so mykill [char]at it will cover and oumbre all the body,” are rare exceptions. We find plenty of old and northern words, Slight hints of antipathy to Rome may be detected, and there are some additions to the recital not found in other English copies, in particular a legend of St. Thomas of Canterbury, oddly placed in Thule. The writer of this version so far identifies himself with Sir John as to add to the account of the see of gravel and the fish caught therein an assertion that he had eaten of them himself. It matters little that there are sundry inaccuracies of translation, such as the rendering of latymers (Fr. lathomeres=interpreters) by “men pat can speke Latyne”; but the proper names are terribly confused; we not only get “Ysai” and “Crete” for “Hosea” and “Greece,” or “Architriclyne” as the name of the bridegroom at Cana, but also other quite unintelligible forms. Indeed, the transformations of place-names might be worth while tracing: thus, the town Hesternit appears in Latin as Sternes ad fines Epapie, in a French version as Ny epuis of fine Pape, in Cotton as “Ny and to the cytie of fine Pape,” in Egerton as “Sternes and to pe citee of Affynpane.” The names of the Cotton version are far more accurate than those of the Egerton, as its vocabulary and spelling are also less archaic, but the translator sometimes errs by transferring the sound of his French original; so, pay d’arbres becomes “lytill Arborye,” izles of Italy become “hills,” and, with like carelessness, porte du fer is turned to “gates of hell,” signes du ciel to “swannes of hevene,” cure d’avoir to “charge of aveer” (Egerton, “hafyng of erthely gudes”). The Cottonian redactor is strong in scientific explanations and moral reflections, and, like his Egertonian brother, must add his mite to the triumphs of the traveller; to the account of the vegetable lamb he adds: “Of that frute I have eten, alle thoughe it were wondirfulle but that I knowe wel that God is marveyllous in his werkes.”