The travels of Sir John Mandeville
An exhibition by Andrew Pinder
What are the travels?
Around 1370 manuscripts begin to appear in Europe, written in Anglo-Norman French (the language of the
aristocracy in England and much of France) and claiming to be the story of the 35 year long travels (1322 - 1357),
over most of the known world, of Sir John Mandeville. The book is in two parts, the first is a sort of travel guide
to the sights of the holy-land and the middle-east, the second is about the authors travels further east through
Russia, India, the east Indies, China and the lands of ‘Prester John’. The text was soon translated into Latin and
English and later into Spanish and nearly every other European language. With the invention of movable type it
became one of the first printed books, and continued to be popular into the seventeenth century.
Who wrote it?
Whoever wrote the book it probably wasn’t Sir John Mandeville, the elderly and gout-ridden knight of St Albans.
There is no good evidence that he ever existed. Neither is there any real evidence that the author ever travelled
further than to a well stocked library. Most academics believe that it was written in France possibly by a retired
doctor, Johains a le Barbe who had worked for a time in Egypt, or, more likely, the benedictine monk and writer
Jean le Long d’Ypres.
Why was it so popular?
At the end of the thirteenth century Marco Polo had produced his, almost certainly true, account of his travels to
China, as had the franciscan friar Oderic of Pordenone, but these were never as popular as the made up travels of
Sir John. Why?
Basically the travels are fun. The fictitious character of the narrator is a very attractive figure, amusing, witty,
bucolic, modest and tolerant. Why would anyone want to read about the administration of China when they
could find about dragons and gryphins, strange customs and even stranger people (the Panotii with their huge
ears, the Sciopds with one giant foot, Atomi with no mouth, but who live on the smell of apples).
Why is it important?
The travels give a unique view of how the world was believed to be in the medieval period.
They were believed. The great Mallorcan cartographer Cresques Abraham used the travels to add information to
the Catalan Atlas. Christopher Columbus took a copy of the book with him on his voyages to the New World as a
sort of guide book to the east. More importantly he presented the king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, with a
copy of the book in order to persuade them to finance the voyage, because, in the travels Sir John discusses the
shape of the world. Educated people in the medieval period believed the world was round. However they argued
over whether it was possible to circumnavigate it. Most believed that as one travelled around the globe it would
eventually be too hot to continue, but a group of scholars at Paris university argued that it was possible, and the
book not only suggests that it was possible but even that it had been done several times by mistake!
The author is tolerant. The Church was in crisis, the Pope was at Avignon, Jerusalem had been lost to the
Muslims. ‘Sir John’, a devout Christian, respects and admires Islam, in fact he is employed as a mercenary by the
Sultan of Egypt. Whilst hardly politically correct by modern standards, the book often a compares favorably,
even the most barbarous customs of the ‘East’ with Christian Europe.