Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 9. Mandeville’s Style

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

§ 9. Mandeville’s Style

This identification of themselves with Mandeville is partly the cause of the high place which these three (or two) translators occupy in the history of English letters. In all literary essentials their work is original; tautology has disappeared; they find in their model no temptation to repetition or to jingling constructions and they add none; the narrative goes smoothly and steadily forward, with an admirable choice of words but without any phrasing, as different from the lavish colloquialism of Trevisa as from the unshapen awkwardness of the Wyclifite sermons. This natural style of simple dignity undoubtedly aids the genius of the original author in investing his fairy tales with that atmosphere of truthfulness which is the greatest triumph of his art. In the first place, Mandeville had the boldness not to be utilitarian, but to write with no other aim than entertainment. It is true that he professes to begin a manual of pilgrimage, but the thin disguise is soon cast aside, and the book could scarcely be mistaken for either a religious or a solidly instructive work. It was a new venture in literature—amusement had been hitherto the sphere of poets. And what vivifies the book, what marks it off from medieval tales like those of a Gesta Romanorum, was also a new thing in prose: the sense of a human interest which is really the inspiring principle of the whole and forms out of scattered anecdotes a consistent story. The descriptions are of people and their behaviour, and in the midst is the quiet but discernible figure of Sir John himself. It was to the interest in human life that Mandeville appealed and this, in turn, he educated. He had, moreover, skilful devices for creating the feeling of reality: the wonders are sometimes accounted for by what appears a rational cause; touches of criticism or personal reflection contradict the supposition of simplicity; with equally circumstantial gravity he describes the trees which bear “boumbe,” or cotton, and those which bear the very short gourds “which, when ripe, men open and find a little beast with flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool.” Certainly, he was abreast of the most recent knowledge of his time in his account of the cotton-tree and in his assurance of the roundness of the earth. His readers, he says, written well that the dwellers on the other side of the earth are straight against us, feet against feet, and he feels certain that by always going onwards one may get round the world, especially since Jerusalem is in the middle of the earth, as men may prove by a spear pight into the ground which casts no shadow at midday in the equinox. Then, as many journeys as it taken to reach Jerusalem, so many more will bring one to the edge of the world, after which one must proceed to India and other places on the underneath side; “I hafe oft tymes thoght on a tale [char]at I herd when I was [char]ung” of a man who travelled till be reached an island where he heard one calling to plow oxen in words of his own tongue; “but I suppose he had so long went on land and on see envirounand [char]e werld [char]at he was commen in to his awen marchez” (Egerton).