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Mandeville, Sir John (supp. fl. c.1357), supposed writer, was assumed to have written the Voyages de Jehan de Mandeville chevalier, which appeared anonymously in France c.1357; the name of the work's author is unknown. The book is a vernacular account of the known world, loosely based upon the alleged travels of its narrator, and was immediately and immensely popular. Alongside the French version and its recensions there were translations (often more than one) into German, English, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Irish, Danish, and Czech. Altogether over 250 manuscripts survive in twenty-two versions. In England alone there were four Latin and four English translations and a rhymed version. In the book the narrator declares that he is Sir John Mandeville, born and bred in St Albans, who left England in 1322 and travelled the world for many years, serving the sultan of Cairo and visiting the Great Khan, and finally in 1357 in age and illness setting down his account of the world. This account is essentially in two parts, a description of the Holy Land and the routes thither and a description of Asia and other partes infidelium. There is no historical corroboration of the author's claims. On the contrary, nine-tenths of the substance of the Voyages can be precisely traced to written sources, which range from Pliny to Vincent of Beauvais and include many itineraries of genuine travellers like William of Boldensele and Odoric of Pordenone, and the remaining tenth almost certainly derives from sources yet to be traced. The intention of the author to produce a popular account of the world in French was possibly part of the fashion for such exotica that flourished in and about Paris c.1350. Though the framework of the narration by Sir John Mandeville is fictitious, the substance is not. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the author reported in good faith what his authorities recorded and that his book was seriously intended.

The fiction of the author as a genuine English knight–adventurer easily imposed itself on the middle ages. Even the Benedictine Thomas Walsingham lists Mandeville in his Annales among the worthies of St Albans; long resident at St Albans Abbey and in the best possible position to investigate the identity of the author, he was as a professional historian content to take the book at its face value. Consequently it is no surprise to find posthumous grafts on the story. At St Albans an effigy of Mandeville in armour was erected and later replaced with a plaque with verses, and various ‘relics’ of the traveller were on display. At the Benedictine cathedral priory at Canterbury a forged letter from Sir John Mandeville of c.1450 appeared to authenticate a piece of lignum aloes which the traveller allegedly brought back from a river flowing out of the earthly paradise, and this and other associated ‘relics’ including an apple miraculously preserved in a crystal orb were shown to the faithful and reported by John Leland. Such inventions helped to sustain the myth of a historical Sir John Mandeville which, despite the disclosure of his sources and his literary context, commands credence in some quarters.

One variation of this myth developed in Liège and ran an extraordinary course. Shortly after the death in 1372 of Jean de Bourgogne, a physician and author of a plague tract, there appeared in Liège a recension of the French version which claimed that Mandeville wrote his book at Liège at the request of Jean de Bourgogne. A Latin translation of this French recension developed this claim c.1375, describing a meeting between author and physician in Cairo when both were in the service of the sultan. Behind both claims lies the imagination of Jean d'Outremeuse (d. 1400), a Liège chronicler and notary much given to literary fantasies. He extended his fictions even further by writing in his Myreur des histors (c.1388) that on his deathbed Jean de Bourgogne revealed that he was Sir John Mandeville, ‘count of Montfort’, who had lived in retirement at Liège since 1343 (thus somewhat curtailing the length of his alleged travels). Even later, in his Tresorier de philosophie (c.1390), d'Outremeuse cited Mandeville as one of the authorities of his lapidary and claimed that he possessed the gems that were given to Mandeville during his stay in Alexandria. One manuscript of the Liège recension (Musée Condé, Chantilly MS 699) contains four short tracts (a cosmography, a cosmology, a herbal, and a lapidary) allegedly written by Mandeville.

One consequence of these stories was that an epitaph to Sir John Mandeville, with an engraved device resembling the coat of arms of the Montforts, was erected in the Guillelmin church at Liège where Jean de Bourgogne was buried. Another consequence was that a house in Liège which in 1388 had been described as formerly the lodging of Master Jean à la Barbe was in 1459 described as formerly the lodging of Sir John Mandeville. The chronology of the successive accretions of the d'Outremeuse version of the Mandeville myth is plainly obvious, but his fictions still have their champions.

Those who seek a scholarly investigation of authorship must, in the absence of other evidence, search the original French version of the book and its bibliographical context and disregard the embroideries of various redactors, editors, translators, and romancers. Detailed analysis of this primary record reveals that the author had no knowledge of St Albans but was a fluent French-speaker; that he composed his work c.1357 in a large, almost certainly ecclesiastical, library; that he was an ecclesiastic, with a cleric's knowledge of the Bible, and probably a member of a regular order; that he was a fluent reader of Latin but lacked any knowledge of Greek or Arabic; that he was an informed and intelligent reader of books describing the Holy Land and other foreign parts; that he had mastered the theories of Sacrobosco and his commentators, possibly at the University of Paris, on the rotundity of the world and was aware of the possibility of circumnavigation; that he had never travelled to the lands he describes; that he was aware of current French accounts of foreign lands and was in a position to launch his own work into the mainstream of the Parisian book-trade.

This coherent picture of an anonymous religious, perhaps the librarian of his house, is strengthened by certain parallels between his work and one of his major sources, the translations of Haiton, Odoric, William of Boldensele, and others made by Jean le Long (d. 1388), the librarian of the Benedictine abbey church of St Bertin at St Omer, then within the English pale and on the main route between Calais and Paris. Genuine pilgrims and travellers to the Mediterranean and the Near East habitually used this road and stayed at the abbey. Its library contained all the works used by Mandeville in the compilation of the Voyages, including the comparatively scarce French translation of the Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum made by the hospitaller Jean de Vignay (c.1340). In such a context a Benedictine authorship is entirely possible and the nationality of the author an open question. English monks lived in French houses, especially within the pale, and there are some pointers towards an English presence in the book, though these are probably artful details to support the larger fiction. Whatever his identity, his work is more certainly part of English than of continental literature.

M. C. Seymour


M. C. Seymour, Sir John Mandeville (1993), vol. 1 of Authors of the Middle Ages