The Book of John Mandeville: Introduction


1 Throughout the volume, we use the title under which the work was usually known in the Middle Ages — The Book of John Mandeville — as opposed to the later Mandeville’s Travels.

2 Moseley, “Availability of Mandeville’s Travels in England,” p. 126. Seymour makes a similar point about the text’s popularity in fifteenth-century England: “There can scarcely have been anyone in the realm who had not heard of the wonderful adventures of the English knight, and most who had the means and the opportunity would have read or heard his story, in hall or refectory. The number and variety of the manuscripts make so much certain” (“English Manuscripts,” p. 175).

3 Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary, cited by Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, p. 1. Seymour’s volume gives the fullest account of the printing history of Mandeville’s Book.

4 Sir Thomas Browne considered Mandeville a liar; see Letts, Sir John Mandeville, p. 36.

5 Buke of John Maundeuill, ed. Warner, pp. xiv–xv.

6 Buke of John Maundeuill, ed. Warner, p. xxix.

7 Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour (1967), pp. 3.36–4.2.

8 Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, pp. xxi–xxii.

9 Higgins, Writing East, p. 6.

10 For Jean d’Outremeuse as author, see Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Hamelius, pp. 8–13; for Jean de Long, see Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, pp. 23–24. For recent surveys of the theories about who might have first written the Book, and where, when, and how, see Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, pp. 5–24, and Higgins, Writing East, pp. 8–13. The Fleet Street veteran is Giles Milton, whose book is The Riddle and the Knight.

11 Higgins, Writing East, p. 10. For the medieval conception of compilatio, see especially Parkes, “Influence of the Concepts of Ordinatio and Compilatio.”

12 Higgins, Writing East, p. 9. See the account of the Mandeville-author’s sources in the Appendix.

13 Christiane Deluz, Livre de Jehan de Mandeville, pp. 428–92. See also Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, p. xlvi n54. Again see the account of sources in the Appendix.

14 For a brief description see pp. 11–12 below. For a full listing of manuscripts and their rescensions see Defective Version, ed. Seymour, pp. xvi–xxvi.

15See Higgins, Writing East, pp. 17–25.

16 Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, p. 25; Seymour counts one hundred such interpolations in French, Latin, English, and Irish manuscripts of the Insular Version alone.

17 Higgins, Writing East, p. 25.

18 While Mandeville’s Book often “feels” like a guide for travelers, this is somewhat deceptive because much of its information, taken from older sources, is quite out of date.

19 For an example of one who does seek to discover a “formal principle” in the work, see Butturff, “Satire in Mandeville’s Travels.”

20 Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour (1967), p. xvii; Higgins, Writing East, p. 11; compare Kohanski, “‘What Is a “Travel Book,” Anyway?’” esp. p. 125.

21 Higgins, Writing East, pp. 66, 264.

22 Howard, “World of Mandeville’s Travels,” p. 9; also in his Writers and Pilgrims, p. 71.

23 Higgins refers to the “composite world” of the Travels in which “charity, prejudice, hatred, piety, and tolerance — no less than entertainment, instruction, self-criticism, and propaganda —are perfectly compatible with each other” (Writing East, p. 81).

24 Higgins, Writing East, pp. 9–10.

25 This is not to say that there might not be dangers in some of the ideas presented in the Book. Carlo Ginsburg recounts the case of a miller who was executed for the heresy of believing in the salvation of non-Christians, an idea that he testified in court he had learned from reading Mandeville’s Book (Ginzburg, Cheese and the Worms, pp. 41 ff.)

26 See Kohanski, “‘What Is a “Travel Book,” Anyway?’”

27 Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions, p. 38.

28 Howard, “World of Mandeville’s Travels,” p. 2; Howard, Writers and Pilgrims, p. 58.

29 Hanna, “Mandeville,” p. 121; Bennett, Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville, p. 5. Moseley claims that the “attractive persona” of Sir John makes the material of the Book memorable (“Metamorphoses,” p. 5.)

30 Howard, “World of Mandeville’s Travels,” p. 4; Howard, Writers and Pilgrims, p. 63.

31 Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions, p. 41.

32 Higgins, “Imagining Christendom,” p. 102.

33 Higgins, Writing East, p. 81; compare Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions, p. 50.

34 Higgins, Writing East, p. 17.

35 Higgins, Writing East, p. viii.

36 Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions, p. 35.

37 See Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, especially pp. 3–5, and Higgins, Writing East, p. 22 and passim.

38 Higgins, Writing East, pp. 24–25.

39 See Seymour’s “Early English Editions of Mandeville’s Travels,” his “English Manuscripts,” and his Sir John Mandeville. See, most recently, Higgins, “Mandeville.” But see also Hanna, “Mandeville,” who divides the manuscripts into six versions, two of which (Coventry Corp. Records Office and Bodleian 3692) are in verse.

40 Seymour, Sir John Mandeville, p. 45; Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, pp. xxii–xxiii. See also Seymour, “Origin of the Egerton Version.”

41 For discussion of differences between the two texts, see Bennett, Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville, pp. 85–86, and Higgins, Writing East, pp. 24, 44, 57, 101–02.

42 See Bodley Version of Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour, and his “Medieval Redactor at Work.”

43 See Metrical Version of Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour; Moseley, “Metamorphoses,” pp. 14–15; Higgins, Writing East, esp. pp. 61–62, 127. Indicative of the plasticity of the narrative voice in the Book, which has already been noted, is that whereas the “I” disappears entirely from the Metrical Version because it is narrated in the third person, other English versions give more emphasis to Sir John’s voice. Although the Bodley Version generally abbreviates, it repeatedly adds and expands first-person statements, such as this unique address to the reader by Sir John just before the Sultan’s speech: “Trowith this wel, for this have I bothe herd and sen with mynne eyne and mynne eryn and myne felawys that were with me that weryn of dyuers regionys, for wete ye wel that al be it wondyr to youre heryng, I am not set to lye yow lesyngis” (Bodley Version of Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour, p. 75.28–31).

44 See Seymour’s “English Epitome”; his “Mandeville and Marco Polo”; his “Secundum Iohannem Maundvyle”; and Horner, “Mandeville’s Travels: A New Manuscript Extract.” Kohanski has argued that the Metrical Version and even more the Stanzaic should not be treated as genuine versions of the Book, but rather as texts that use material from the Book to produce something new (Book of John Mandeville, pp. xiii–xiv).

45 Kohanski puts the number of surviving manuscripts at thirty-five, while noting problems with determining the exact number (Book of John Mandeville, appendix 1 and p. xiii n9), Higgins gave the number as roughly thirty-eight (Writing East, p. 22) and, most recently, as thirty-eight of which thirty-three are complete (“Mandeville,” 105), and Seymour lists thirty-three manuscripts and six fragments in his edition (Defective Version, p. xii). Pynson’s edition was the basis of three editions by Wynkyn de Worde between 1499 and 1510. Higgins notes that it appeared in print “at least fifteen times between 1612 and 1722 ” (“Mandeville,” p. 107).

46 Hanna, “Mandeville,” p. 123.

47 Defective Version, ed. Seymour, p. xiii.

48 See Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, pp. xxxi–xli.

49 See Defective Version, ed. Seymour, pp. xvi–xxvi. Seymour’s 1966 classification of the Defective manuscripts divides them into subgroups A–E, on very basic grounds: “sub-group A (ch. xx) includes an account of the rotundity of the world, otherwise found only in the exceptional MS. Royal 17C. xxxviii; sub-group B (ch. xxxii) gives a duplicate account of Alexander’s discomfiture by the virtuous islanders; sub-group C (ch. xii) omits the Hebrew alphabet; sub-group D corrupts the phrase roys ils (which marks a major lacuna in ch. vi) to yles and valeyes; and sub-group D [sic] (ch. xxxii) interpolates a Latin translation of part of Dindimus [sic] correspondence” (“English Manuscripts,” p. 169). His more recent classification is essentially similar, renaming subgroups A–E as subgroups 1–5, but explains the manuscript groupings largely in terms of omissions rather than inclusions.

50 The appendix to Seymour’s EETS edition of the Defective Version also includes a long but by no means exhaustive list of unique additions and lacunae in individual witnesses. For other examples of variation within Defective, see Kohanski, “Two Manuscripts of Mandeville’s Travels.”

51 Defective Version, ed. Seymour, p. xxi; see also Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, pp. xl–xli

52 The separate derivation of the table of contents, evident in the difficulty of lining it up with the actual contents of the manuscript’s text, has led us to omit this portion of the manuscript from our edition.

53 Seymour concludes that MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii is thus likely to be a “commissioned” work, “most carefully edited by its scribe” (“English Manuscripts,” p. 173).

54 Defective Version, ed. Seymour, p. xiv.

55 Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, pp 5–6.

56 Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, p. 27.

57 Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, pp. 82–83.

58 Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, p. 60.

59 Defective Version, ed. Seymour, pp. xiv–xv, xxi.

60 Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski, p.15.

61 Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour (1968), p. 25.

62 Mandeville’s Travels, ed. Seymour (1968), p. 47.

63 Defective Version, ed. Seymour, p. 189.

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The Book of John Mandeville: Introduction

The Book of John Mandeville has tended to be neglected by modern teachers and scholars, yet this intriguing and copious work has much to offer the student of medieval literature, history, and culture. 1 The Book of John Mandeville was a contemporary bestseller, providing readers with exotic information about locales from Constantinople to China and about the social and religious practices of peoples such as the Greeks, Muslims, and Brahmins. The Book first appeared in the middle of the fourteenth century and by the next century could be found in an extraordinary range of European languages: not only Latin, French, German, English, and Italian, but also Czech, Danish, and Irish. Its wide readership is also attested by the two hundred and fifty to three hundred medieval manuscripts that still survive today. One scholar even insists that “few literate men in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries could have avoided coming across the Travels at some time.” 2 Among others, Chaucer borrowed from it, as did the Gawain-poet in the Middle English Cleanness, and its popularity continued long after the Middle Ages; there were early printed editions in various Continental languages, often, as in many manuscripts, with illustrations. Christopher Columbus apparently consulted the work, as did Sir Walter Ralegh; there were English editions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in his great Dictionary, Samuel Johnson praised the work for its “force of thought and beauty of expression.” 3

The author of the Book identifies himself as Sir John Mandeville, an English knight from St. Albans, and declares that he will present the many amazing sights, creatures, and customs he observed during his more than thirty years of travel. Although The Book of John Mandeville was suspected by some early readers of containing the exaggerations and inventions often associated with travelers, 4 the reputations of both the work and its creator were relatively secure until the discovery in the nineteenth century that much of its material was not only unreliable but had been lifted wholesale from others. Add to this the mounting evidence that the Book had been originally composed in French rather than English, and soon instead of being celebrated as the first great English traveler or as the father of English prose, the Mandeville-author was being roundly denounced as a plagiarist and impostor. In his magisterial 1889 edition of the work, George Warner notes Henry Yule’s very public denunciation in the Encyclopedia Britannica (in an entry titled “Mandeville, Jehan de” expressly to draw attention to the French character of the supposed author). Warner credits Yule with having “disposed once for all of Mandeville’s pretensions to be regarded, at least to any extent, as an authentic and veracious traveller,” and goes on to say that he himself has “endeavoured to complete and press home the indictment by . . . tracing every passage, so far as possible, to its actual source in some earlier writer.” 5 As Warner’s indignation mounts, his usually judicious tone at times becomes increasingly prosecutorial: he charges the author with “fraud and mendacity” and with possessing a “blunted moral sense which saw nothing reprehensible in an elaborate literary imposture.” 6 Since Warner, some have tried to rehabilitate Mandeville in various ways (by noting the different ideas of authenticity in the Middle Ages, for example, or by regarding him as a writer of fiction rather than history), and others continue to believe that he may not have lied about his national origin. Nevertheless, the general scholarly consensus today is that “Sir John Mandeville, knight of St. Albans” was probably not a knight, not named Mandeville, not English, and perhaps never traveled much at all, except among the volumes of a well-stocked library — though any of these claims might yet prove to be true. The general stigma of falsehood and imposture that has since surrounded the book, compounded by a generic complexity that makes it difficult to define or categorize (it is not genuine history or anthropology, of course, but not really literature or theology in the usual sense) has led to its absence from the central canons of medieval writing.

Author, Date Of Composition, And Original Language

Before we can understand why The Book of John Mandeville is important for the study of the Middle Ages, we have to know something about its creation. Unfortunately, there has been little agreement about this over the centuries. The original language of the work has been the subject of much debate. Given that its reputed author claimed to come from St. Albans, English was long assumed, though one version in that language, the Cotton Version, insists that the work was first written in Latin, then translated into French, and only after that translated into English.7 It is now generally agreed that the Book was first written in French, but whether Continental or Norman has been debated.8 Its date of composition is also uncertain, and, in the absence of any definite evidence, the statement found at the end of most of the French texts that it was written in 1357 has been accepted as roughly accurate, given that the earliest datable manuscript (itself derived from a poor exemplar) was copied in 1371.9 Nevertheless, the English texts do not generally agree on a date of 1357 (the manuscript edited here gives 1366) and the actual date remains far from certain.

Debate about the identity of the author also continues. Some popular English opinion still holds out for Sir John Mandeville — there is a plaque in his honor in St. Albans Cathedral and a Fleet Street veteran has recently taken up his cause — but scholars have also suggested other candidates, including Jean d’Outremeuse, a notary of Liège, and Brother Jean de Long of the Benedictine Abbey Church of St. Bertin.10 It seems unlikely that we shall ever be certain about the authorship of the Book. Indeed, applying the term author to this work is imprecise and somewhat misleading. Obviously someone first assembled the materials we know as The Book of John Mandeville, but, as has been noted, he borrowed rather than created most of those contents. Rather than a wholly original author, Mandeville is best considered a compiler, one who collects and rearranges the writings of others into a new form.11

The narrative voice of The Book of John Mandeville constantly makes claims for the truth of what is being related. Sir John (which is what we shall call this first-person voice) often adopts a pedagogical tone, emphasizing points by directly addressing readers with phrases such as “you shall understand” and presenting his testimony as first-person observation. Sir John varies his usual objective reporting with occasional moments that are more private, such as describing his closeness to the Sultan or the beneficial effects of his drinking from a fountain of youth. He even tries to enhance his credibility by mentioning sites that he was not able to visit such as Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat (lines 1434–48) and the Earthly Paradise (lines 2705–06). Many English versions include a passage near the end in which he claims to have submitted his book to the pope at Rome, who declared that everything in it was true (lines 2838–48). The elusiveness of the author of the Book, however, is shown by the plasticity of this first-person voice. Many of Sir John’s most “personal” moments are borrowed from other writers, such as the passage in our manuscript in which he dares to question the opinions of old wise men about the circumference of the earth (lines 1755–58): a passage that appears to characterize Sir John as a daring freethinker but is in fact taken directly from Brunetto Latini. Events such as Odoric of Pordenone’s account of his passing through the infernal valley in India are appropriated and then presented transformed as the experience of the knight, the original traveler’s ideas, beliefs, and interpretations represented as his own (lines 2492–2523).

In addition, the phrases that insist that Sir John has witnessed what he reports and that it is true also vary widely from text to text of the Book. Later redactors, such as the one who produced the English Bodley Version, sometimes add additional first-person statements, such as “I, John Mandeville, say this is true,” thus ventriloquizing the voice of Sir John. Cambridge University Library MS Gg. I. 34. iii, a text of the Defective Version, multiplies the text’s pedagogical tone out of all proportion, adding phrases such as “you shall understand,” “you shall well understand,” “you shall know,” and “you shall well know” on virtually every subject the Book covers. Thus in reading any particular text of the Book, one is dealing with a composite narrator whose persona includes not only that created by the original author/compiler of the Book, but also echoes of the narrators of his sources and additional qualities interpolated by later scribes and redactors.

Sources And Form

The sources that lie behind The Book of John Mandeville are so many and varied that a better alternative title for the work than Mandeville’s Travels might have been Mandeville’s Library (for an annotated bibliography of these sources, see the appendix at the end of this edition). The two most important works behind the Book were originally in Latin, though apparently known by the compiler in French translation, and were written in the 1330s by authentic clerical travelers. The primary source for the first part of the Book (travel to and around Jerusalem) is the Liber de Quibusdam Ultramarinis Partibus (a.k.a. the Itinerarius) by the German Dominican William of Boldensele, whereas that for the second part (travel farther east) is Friar Odoric of Pordenone’s Itinerarius, which tells of the Franciscan’s missionary experiences in China and India.12 Portions of many other works, also apparently known to the Mandeville-author primarily in French translation, were also used to make up the Book: these include some of the most learned and influential reference works of the Middle Ages, such as Vincent de Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale and Speculum Naturale and Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresors, as well as older authorities such as Macrobius and Isidore of Seville. Scholars have also identified material taken from other travel books and from writings as varied as saints’ lives (Jacobus of Voragine’s Legenda Aurea), historical romances (those about Alexander), and at least one scientific work (John of Sacrobosco’s De Sphaera).13 The author’s skill as a compiler is revealed in the deftness with which he melds these various sources into a convincing whole, principally by means of the voice and personality of his narrator: the alert, energetic, and always eager to instruct Sir John Mandeville, who manages to function convincingly as the voice of the narrative in almost every extant text, despite his composite nature.

Just as whoever first put together the Book combined and rewrote previous texts, the work he produced proved equally malleable, for it was itself, in turn, adapted, abridged, and supplemented by later redactors in a variety of ways including but not limited to the kinds of alterations to the narrative voice we have already discussed. What we call the Book resists precise definition because it differs from version to version as well as from text to text within a particular version.14 The Book of John Mandeville refers less to a single stable entity than to what Iain Higgins, in the most illuminating current study of the work, has called a “multi-text.”15 The original composition of the Book did not fix the work because it was so quickly and variously transformed by those who received it. In French three distinct versions survive, and there are four in German/Dutch. As the work was translated into other languages, it was often altered significantly, for, as M. C. Seymour notes, the “book was much given to interpolation.”16 Sometimes the changes are radical. The most popular Latin version, called the Vulgate, significantly modifies the voice of the narrator so that the “originally openminded Sir John here becomes a fierce advocate of Catholic orthodoxy and a sharp critic of pagan blindness.”17 The lengthy passage found in our manuscript about the size and shape of the world (lines 1687–1778) is found in relatively few texts of the Book but becomes a clear focal point of those in which it does appear, greatly enhancing their geographical interest. Many previous commentators on Mandeville, especially literary critics, have made the mistake of assuming that the details or tone they find in the single edition they have before them are characteristic of the work as a whole. But the variance of the texts of the Book often makes such natural assumptions misleading. Instead of treating the Book as the product of a single creator with a single meaning, it is better to regard it as an organic work, continuously metamorphosing over the course of its transmission from manuscript to manuscript and coming over time to mean different things to different audiences.

What Is The Book Of John Mandeville?

Although the textual instability of The Book of John Mandeville should never be forgotten, there are central elements that are shared by most versions and provide a general sense of the original writer’s ambitions and interests. The Book begins with a preface that seems to present the work as a guide for pilgrims to Jerusalem, a well-known medieval genre. After praising the Holy Land because it was the place chosen by Christ to live and die (being in the middle of the world), the narrator introduces himself as one who as the result of his extensive traveling is able to offer information for those intending to visit Jerusalem and the holy places nearby. Although this preface is more militantly sectarian than anything else in the Book (it urges Christians to retake the heritage of the Holy Land given them by God and now in the hands of unbelievers), it already contains hints that the work will be more than just a guide for religious pilgrims. Sir John announces that in addition to the Holy Land, he has journeyed to stranger, non-biblical lands, including Ethiopia and India. He also suggests that his ambitions are not merely pious when he notes the “greet solas, spoort, and comfort” (line 57) that men take in hearing about the Holy Land. Moreover, it is not pilgrimage sites but human curiosity that Sir John emphasizes in respect to the non-biblical lands: he promises to tell of “many diverse folk of maneris and diverse lawes and shappes” (line 66).

The Book proper opens with a description of Constantinople and the routes by which to go there. In addition to discussion of Jesus’ Cross and Crown (lines 109–97), which characteristically emphasizes not the devotional but the material (the physical composition of each relic and where the authentic pieces are currently located), Sir John, as he will throughout, details the practices of the local religion, here Greek Orthodox, especially as it differs from, and is even critical of, Roman Catholicism (see especially lines 234–79). Dramatic contrasts in subject matter, such as the description of St. John the Evangelist’s tomb at Ephesus (lines 288–98) followed by a story of a woman changed into a dragon who can return to human shape only with a knight’s kiss (lines 304–41), enliven the Book.

Sir John then gives various routes to Jerusalem and outlines the sights along their ways. He describes different routes to reach particular destinations but never gives his own itinerary because, especially in the first part, he claims to have undertaken many journeys and also because, as we have seen, the work is a compendium of the travels of others. After a large section about Egypt, which is missing in the version here edited, the works tells about the Holy Land itself. Important surrounding sites are recorded, such as Bethlehem (lines 534–83), but it is Jerusalem that is described in most detail, especially those places associated with major Jewish figures such as David and with the life and death of Christ (see lines 611–79, 686–91, 692–96, 818–27, 833–41, 857–60, 865–85). At times, the account reads very much like a guide for travelers: we are told of the spatial relationship of one building to another and specific points of their individual architecture. Sir John emphasizes that Jerusalem is now controlled by Muslims (lines 699–701, 730–34), and he records a long conversation that he had with their Sultan, who details the many moral failings of contemporary Christians that have caused God to deprive them of the Holy Land (lines 1295–1318).18

Although Jerusalem may be at the center of the world and the ultimate aim of religious pilgrims, it cannot hold such an insatiable traveler as Sir John. He is soon away to more remote and exotic climes and cultures. After passing through Armenia (lines 1406–48), he continues further east through the land of Job (lines 1461–73), the country of the Amazons (lines 1476–93), and Ethiopia (lines 1496–1505), some of whose people have only one foot, which, in addition to propelling them quickly, serves to shade their bodies from the sun. Sir John eventually reaches the lands around India with their various and exotic religions — some worship snakes (lines 1586–87) and others allow themselves to be crushed under the wheels of a chariot bearing their idol (lines 1655–59). After a discussion of the roundness of the world (lines 1687–1778) and mention of additional marvels, such as men and women with heads like dogs (lines 1854–68) or others with both male and female genitals (lines 1892–95), Sir John arrives in China and describes the almost unimaginable wealth, luxury, and pomp at the court of the Great Khan with a full account of the realm’s particular laws and customs (lines 1968–2017, 2100 ff.). As he continues on, Sir John encounters additional strange beings and practices, and, after a warning about the dangers that Jews will pose at the time of the Antichrist (lines 2366–82), he describes Prester John (an emperor and a priest), who though allied with the Khan is a Christian, but not a Catholic (lines 2392 ff.). Near the end of his Book, Sir John describes a kind of ideal society: that of the Brahmins and Synoplians, who even though they lack Christian revelation follow its essential precepts by natural law and whose faith, simple life, and love and charity toward one another make them beloved of God (lines 2573–2637). After observing gold-digging ants in Ceylon, passing by but not being able to visit the Earthly Paradise (lines 2681–2706), and describing the Tibetan practice by which a son honors his dead father by offering his body to birds and the flesh of his head to special friends (lines 2763–83), Sir John, having circumnavigated the earth, returns home to England to rest in his old age.

Why The Book Of John Mandeville Matters

Although The Book of John Mandeville was for centuries read as a guide to the Holy Land and especially to the more mysterious lands and peoples farther east, obviously the work has no such use today. Names of places it mentions are often confused or simply unrecoverable, especially when distorted by transmission: historical locales, such as Jerusalem, are mixed with mythological ones, such as Gog and Magog, just as genuine names from biblical or secular history appear with the legendary Prester John. As is still true with many books of travel, the Book often tells us less about the foreign locales it purports to visit than about the compiler himself and the culture that produced him. Instead of a guide to Jerusalem and regions beyond, it is most reliable as a guide to contemporary literary, social, and religious concerns in the late-medieval West. That the work was so widely popular suggests that its interests, fears, and dreams were shared by many in Europe.

One of the first and perhaps most surprising elements of The Book of John Mandeville, which clearly appealed to early readers and still makes the work interesting today, is its generic variety. As we have just seen, though it begins as if it were a simple travel guide, it quickly becomes something more. The Book is a capacious and inclusive work that contains a wide spectrum of different kinds of writing: objective and detailed architectural descriptions of the holy sites in Jerusalem to be sure, but also a personal testimony to the health benefits of a fountain of youth (lines 1594–1600); a long conversation with the Sultan about the failures of Christians (lines 1295–1318), but also mention of fish in Java that voluntarily offer themselves to be eaten (lines 1820–29). Within a few pages near the end of his book we are told, among other things, how Alexander the Great gave over his plans to conquer the Brahmins once he saw their simple and peaceful life (lines 2590– 2604), about a race of small men who need the scent of apples to live (lines 2638–42), how Prester John got his name (lines 2656–69), and the layout of the Earthly Paradise — though this last is admittedly secondhand (lines 2698–2736).

Failure to recognize the constant switching of genres in the Book threatens to sacrifice its richness to a more limited idea of coherence. Commentators searching for structural order, thematic consistency, or unity of tone in the Book are bound to be frustrated and, as a result, may label it disjointed and incoherent, missing its real accomplishment.19 Seymour notes that Mandeville had “no intense preoccupation with the form of the book,” and Higgins finds the most striking literary quality of the work to be “its discursive and generic variety.”20 What Higgins calls Mandeville’s “accumulative style” produces “a fascinating geographical grab-bag of objects, events, and persons”: the effect of this diverse and contrasting material is not, however, a hopeless jumble, but the creation of “a textual space within which fundamentally distinct views of the world could be articulated."21 The sense of “helter-skelter” in the Book as well as the “disjunctive” perspectives noted by Donald Howard, are not signs of its failure but rather indicate its open-ended, dialogic achievement.22 Although the variety of genres, voices, tones, and judgments has bothered some modern commentators, it seems to have been accepted with pleasure by most of the work’s early readers.23 With its mixture of genres and discourses, the Book deserves to take a place with the English poetic masterpieces that were soon to follow in the fourteenth century, especially The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, and it anticipates such later idiosyncratic English compilations as Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

One reason for the popularity of The Book of John Mandeville is that it presented new and formerly restricted material and ideas to a wide, general, and not necessarily highly educated audience. Higgins associates the author of the Book with those, such as Brunetto Latini, John Trevisa, and Christine de Pizan, “who sought to enlarge the domain of the vernacular by adapting into it the concerns of Latin learning.”24 More of a reader than a traveler, the original compiler drew on a range of erudite authorities, most of whom he appears to have known in translation, and thus succeeded in bringing this sophisticated and sometimes esoteric material to a large public.25

A travel book is the ideal vehicle for such an entertaining and commodious creation.26 As a traveler, Sir John presents himself as always on the go in search of new places. The result is a text that Stephen Greenblatt calls a “hymn to mobility.”27 Its numerous accounts of people, places, and things are not merely the record of any one man’s experiences, but rather “a summa of travel lore.”28 But just as movement provides a succession of different experiences, it also prevents the development of a single, unified story.The work contains whatever it is that Sir John happens to encounter. The only logical link between, for example, the statue of Justinian the Emperor in front of the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople (lines 98–108) and the crocodiles of India (lines 2555–58) is that Sir John saw them both. Sir John is a listener as well as an observer, and thus he also reports a great range of opinions he hears expressed by others, often without direct comment, such as Greek Orthodox attacks on the pope (lines 243–49) or the Tartar belief that the worst human sin is pissing in one’s own house (line 2201). Many unrelated and even clashing views are reported without their truth or validity being assessed. No voice is necessarily definitive in the Book, not even Sir John’s, for even he does not usually attempt to adjudicate among them.

The character created by first-person voice has often been considered to be one of the most distinctive elements of The Book of John Mandeville. Ralph Hanna refers to the “definable personality” of Sir John, and Josephine Bennett insists that he is “a personality who gives inner coherence and life to the book,” to such an extent that, if this narrator is fictional, its “author deserves to be ranked with the foremost creators of characters in literature.”29 But the more closely we examine him, the more elusive the figure of Sir John becomes, and the less stable and consistent he seems as a character. Often described by commentators as tolerant, genial, and sophisticated, the narrative “I” is also capable of harsh judgments about peoples he does not like, such as the Bedouin and Tartars. Moreover, his tolerance toward Saracens and pagans coexists with a fierce bigotry toward the Jews. For all his apparent chattiness, he is remarkably reticent about anything truly intimate: most of the personal information he supplies occurs in two short passages at the beginning and end of the work (lines 1–9 and 2832–37), and Howard notes that he “gives no circumstantial details of his day-to-day activities in travel.”30 Sir John says nothing about family, lovers, or individual friends, for example, and only rarely expresses any emotional reactions to what he sees. An important reason for many readers’ sense of the narrator’s personality comes from his periodic first-person statements about what he has observed and his desire to impress the reader with the truth of his information. But as we have already noted, these observations are not only biographically suspect (they are often taken directly from a source), but also may not even be authorial. It is ironic indeed that as scribes add first-person phrases and assertions of pedagogical authority to the text, their versions may come to be perceived as ever more “personal” to the narrator whose original characterization they alter.

Ultimately the observer is less important in The Book of John Mandeville than what is observed. The world of the book is overwhelmingly public and material. It consists of persons, places, and things that can be listed, described, even counted and measured: rivers, mountains, palaces, walls, churches, flora and fauna, strangely shaped humans, and foreign customs. The unique and exotic excite the narrator, yet what is reported is almost always the outer rather than the inner reality — what is apparent to the eye or heard by the ear rather than what is experienced within. The Book is full of physical, public details rather than those of private or personal life. This is perhaps most striking in the section on Jerusalem, which we might usefully compare with the account of another Holy Land traveler, Margery Kempe. In contrast to Kempe’s record of her pilgrimage, we hear nothing about Sir John’s spiritual reaction to the Holy Land (or about anyone else’s) but instead are given the number of miles from Jerusalem to the different cities that surround it, the exact measurements of the Temple of the Lord (lines 735–38), and the number of steps (forty-two) from the altar on Mount Calvary down to the place where St. Helena found the True Cross. Kempe’s account of Jerusalem offers insight into one late-medieval person’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death and her own devotional response to them, whereas Sir John’s provides information more relevant to constructing a scale model of the city.

In addition to its emphasis on the physical, the Book also sometimes reads like a work of cultural anthropology because of its interest in pagan practices such as cannibalism and in different styles of government, from the great imperial Khanate to the communal society of the Brahmins. But if so, it is an old-fashioned kind of anthropology in which Sir John indulges in the most sweeping generalizations, assuring us that the peoples of a particular place do this or that or believe this or that, as though each member of the group described were absolutely alike. We are told about many different societies but given almost no sense that there might be tensions and contradictions within any one.

The Book of John Mandeville does, however, contain a sense that things may change over time. It reports on what the traveler sees, but also on what could have been seen in the past. Sir John is alert to surviving physical traces, such as the still-visible footprint made by Jesus during His Ascension (lines 865–66, 1030–31), but also to the extended history of particular locales. Sites in the Holy Land are described as geographical palimpsests with events written on them over the centuries. Old and New Testament events are yoked together not because (like the sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Christ) they have an important allegorical relationship to one another or any other interpretive significance, but simply because they happen to have taken place on the same physical spot. The rock at the Temple of the Lord is the location of an amazing miscellany of events from the Old and New Testaments, including those involving the Ark with the Tablet of Moses, Jacob’s wrestling with an angel, Christ’s forgiving the woman taken in adultery, and a prayer by David for mercy. Other versions of the Book also locate pseudo-biblical events on this rock, including Mary’s learning her psalter and Christ’s circumcision. As Stephen Greenblatt puts it: “The Holy Land for Mandeville is the place of sacred metonymy: one biblical story or holy legend is propped tightly against another, and it seems as if the major events of Jesus’s life, along with the careers of the patriarchs and prophets, transpired in a confused rush within a space of some ten square meters.”31

Sir John presents himself as a Roman Catholic addressing a Roman Catholic audience (whose devotions he often says are those “we” practice), but the historical development described in the Book is anything but positive for Christianity in general or for the Roman Church in particular. The preface urges Christians to retake their heritage in the Holy Land, and Muslims are said to believe that this will eventually occur, but the present state of the faith is repeatedly shown to be one of decay and decline. As is appropriate in a work that pays so much attention to geography, this sad state is frequently represented by accounts of ground having been lost. Sir John constantly visits places that were formerly Christian but that are now pagan. It is not only Jerusalem that is in the hands of unbelievers but also other locales associated with the faith. The city of Tyre, once “a fair cité of Cristen men,” is reported as lost to the Saracens and largely destroyed by them (lines 379–81).

In addition to loss of territory, Western Christianity is also constantly blamed in the Book for its tepid religious devotion and current sinfulness. The account of the virtues of the non-orthodox Christian Prester John, for example, reveals “a nostalgia for the better days of Christendom.”32 Although there is no direct account of the West in the book, its degraded spiritual state, and especially the faults of its leaders, secular and religious, are a constant topic. The preface to the Book attacks Christian lords for weakening the hold of the faith on the Holy Land because of their pride, covetousness, and envy, and the Greeks have sharp things to say about the Roman pope. Christian clergy are excoriated by the Sultan of Jerusalem because of their neglect of God’s service (“For they sholde geve ensaumple to men to do well, and they gyve wickid ensaumple” [line 1301]), and the Sultan goes on to note the disastrous effect of such clerical laxity on the laity, who instead of attending church indulge in gluttony, deceive one another, and prostitute their children, sisters, and wives for money.

More surprising, perhaps, than this criticism of the current state of Christianity in the Book is the sympathetic view of most other religions. The one exception is the Jews, who are treated with “a paradoxically matter-of-fact hostility that borders on paranoia.”33 Muslims, in contrast, are generally treated with respect, and Sir John has many good things to say about their behavior. While the Book clearly regards Islam as a false religion, practiced by “misbelievers” who will one day lose their power over the Holy Land, Sir John also frequently praises the Muslims for their devotion. He expresses respect for the constancy of their faith, calling them “trywe, for they kepe truly the comaundementz of her Ackaron [Koran]” (1329–30).

Especially as it moves further east, the Book finds other religious practices to admire and suggests that there may be different ways of worshiping God. The Brahmins and their followers are given special praise: “Although hit be so that they have noght alle the articles of our feith, yit Y trowe that God love hem neverthelasse for her good purpoos, and that they take her the same degré as He dide of Jope [Job] that was a paynem, the which He helde hym for His triwe servaunt, and many other” (lines 2621–24). Soon after, Sir John interprets a vision of St. Peter to mean that “men sholde have no man in dispite for hire diverse lyvenge, for we wyteth noght wham God loveth most, and wham he hateth most” (lines 2636–37). Although the idea of righteous heathens earning salvation outside the Church by their own merits was not unknown in the Middle Ages (parallels can be found in advanced theological circles as well as in Alexander romances), it is striking to find it expressed so directly in such a widely accessible text. The Brahmins are shown to exist in an almost Edenic state of grace, going naked and following natural law: “And though they be noght Cristen, yit of lawe of kynde they beth full of good vertues” (lines 2574–75). We are told that they have achieved Christ’s two great commandments (to love God and to love one’s neighbor) without the help of either the Catholic Church or Christian revelation and that they are pleasing to God.

The Text

As has already been suggested, The Book of John Mandeville was a thoroughly unstable work, existing in many languages as well as in many versions within a single language and in many individual texts within a single version. Higgins has forcefully argued that “there is no necessarily ‘authoritative’ text” of the Book.34 Warning us against taking any one example of the “mandevillian multi-text” as definitive, he instead offers the work as “a model for reading medieval writing in its various forms of multiplicity.” 35 Whatever its actual origins, the work was quickly taken up by writers, translators, and copyists throughout Europe and transformed in ways great and small. The lack of a single creator of its many forms forces us to think about the work as “an unstable, open-ended, collective production.”36 The original compiler of the Book is believed to have written it in French, yet three distinct versions survive in that language: the Continental (over thirty manuscripts are extant), thought to be the closest to the compiler’s own copy, the Liège (seven manuscripts), which adds several additional passages about the Carolingian hero Ogier the Dane, and the Insular (over twenty manuscripts), thought to have been produced in England and the basis for all later translations into English.37 Four German/Dutch translations were also made. The two most popular were written in the late fourteenth century by Michel Velser (40 manuscripts are extant) and Otto von Diemeringen (45 manuscripts). The former adapts his primary source (Continental) by adding personal testimony to certain episodes to enhance their credibility; the latter adapts his (Liège) by postponing the central account of the Saracens as well as passages about other religions until the end.38 Five translations were made into Latin, the most popular, the Vulgate (41 manuscripts are extant), is much more religiously orthodox and anti-pagan than its source (Liège). Translations also survive in Czech, Danish, Irish, Italian, and Spanish, as well as one version, apparently Czech, that has only illustrations and no text.

The Middle English Book, which survives in approximately forty manuscripts, is no less diverse. Modern scholarly writing on the Book has often cited a single text (usually Egerton or Cotton because they have previously been the most accessible in modern editions) as if it fully represented the work as a whole. But the Book exists in five distinct Middle English versions — four in prose (Bodley, Cotton, Defective, and Egerton) and one in verse (Metrical) — not to mention shorter extracts and epitomes.39 Even though most English versions descend directly or indirectly from a single French textual tradition (Insular), they nevertheless differ, sometimes radically, from one another. For instance, Cotton and Egerton, each extant in a single manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Titus C.xvi, and British Library MS Egerton 1982), are generally full versions apparently based on some form of the Defective Version with additional material supplied from elsewhere.40 They are similar in organization and incident, but each is nevertheless unique. Cotton is divided into thirty-six chapters, but Egerton has none. Cotton contains passages not in Egerton, such as Lot sleeping with his daughters, just as Egerton has some not in Cotton, such as an interpolation about Thule and St. Thomas of Canterbury.41

Other English versions are more radically individual. The much shorter Bodley Version (Bodleian Library MS eMusaeo 116 and MS Rawlinson D.99) changes the sequence of events and concentrates on marvels.42 The 3,000-line Metrical Version is in verse; it reduces and rearranges the material found in other versions, adds a long section describing Rome, and changes the narrative voice from the first to the third person.43 A stanzaic fragment (Bodleian Library MS eMusaeo 160), prose epitome (British Library MS Additional 37049), and extracts found in Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 751, and Bodleian Library MS Digby 88, all in their own ways emphasize theological and devotional elements.44

The most popular English version of The Book of John Mandeville was the Defective Version, so called because of the omission of a large section early in the narrative known as the “Egypt Gap,” apparently the result of a missing quire in the French Insular copy-text (for a summary of the omitted text, see the explanatory note to line 457). The Defective survives in approximately thirty-five manuscripts (as opposed to one each for Cotton and Egerton) and was the basis for the first printed text of the Book in English by Richard Pynson (1496).45 Ralph Hanna has insisted that the Defective Version is the only one that “has any real claims to be the English Mandeville.”46 And yet this version has only rarely been cited in critical discussions of the Book and then, perhaps in part because of its unfortunate name, generally regarded as an inferior and uninteresting form of the work. Indeed, until very recently there was no critical edition of any form of Defective. That has been remedied in the new century by Kohanski’s edition of Pynson’s print (2001), Seymour’s critical edition for the Early English Text Society (2002), and the volume you have in your hand.

The original translation of the Defective Version from an Insular French manuscript has been tentatively dated by Seymour (he admits it is only a guess), to “after 1377, perhaps c. 1385.”47 The various manuscripts of the Defective Version share the general textual instability found in other versions of The Book of John Mandeville, and so no single Defective text can reasonably stand for the version as a whole.48 In his recent critical edition, Seymour defines five manuscript subgroups of Defective (subgroups 1–5), of which the manuscripts of groups 1 and 2 are generally considered the most complete and authoritative.49 The base text of Seymour’s edition, Queen’s College, Oxford MS 383, is a manuscript of subgroup 1, though the characteristic omissions of subgroup 1 are supplied (mainly) from a manuscript of subgroup 2, British Library MS Arundel 140.50 The Pynson Version (edited by Kohanski in 2001) derives from subgroup 2.

The manuscript that has been edited here, British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii, is described by Seymour as “associated with” his subgroup 2, though he notes that it was derived independently from the lost archetype of the Defective Version, “from a place in the scribal tradition immediately superior to the common ancestor of the five manuscripts of subgroup 2,” and that it contains one feature of subgroup 1, the lengthy passage on the roundness of the world (lines 1687–1778 in this edition).51 Thus Royal 17 C. xxxviii is a natural choice for the next available edition of a Defective text, combining the best traits of both subgroups 1 and 2 with its own highly individualistic treatment of the Book’s material.

Despite what may seem to modern readers a large number of errors and confusions (true to some extent for all medieval English versions of the Book), the Royal 17 C manuscript was evidently produced with some care. That care is attested by its physical features: ornamental capitals, division of the work into twenty-two numbered and headed chapters, brief marginal notes that repeat key words from the text and thus allow the reader quickly to find subjects of interest, and more than one hundred colored drawings of scenes from the text, mainly at the bottoms of folios, with a particular attention to buildings (see figure 1, p. 20). The material itself reflects this care as well. The manuscript includes a long listing of contents, apparently imported from a second copy-text, as well as a unique introductory paragraph.52 It is also a very thorough and inclusive text of the Book, offering the opportunity for the reader to witness virtually all of the critical “cruxes” of the Book, such as the roundness of the world passage (lines 1687–1778), the papal interpolation (lines 2838–48), the Egypt Gap (line 457), and the narrator’s ongoing effort to create a realistic character for himself. It showcases many of the qualities generally thought of as “textbook Mandeville,” like the clear and traceable use of sources interspersed with what may be first-hand experience; the sympathetic treatment of foreign cultural and religious practices interspersed with Catholic dogmatism and ethnocentrism (e.g., the Saracens secretly want to be Christians, some eastern customs are wicked and disgusting); and the narrator’s very human obsession with opulence, wealth, power, and sex.53

At the same time, however, Royal 17C is a somewhat compressed text of the Book. Seymour describes it as “robustly edited.”54 All Defective texts appear to be abridged from the original Insular Version to some degree, and this manuscript is uniquely so. In the passage wherein Seth is given the four grains that later produce the four woods of the Cross, for example, the Pynson edition explains:


And Seth went but the aungell wolde nat late hym come in at the dore. but sayde unto hym that he myght nat have of the oyle of mercy. but he toke to hym foure braunches of the same tree that hys fader etee the apple/ and bad hym as sone as his fader was dede that he shulde put these graynes under his tonge/ and grave hym/ and he dyd so. and of these foure braunches sprange a tre as the aungell sayde that shulde bere a frute thoroughe whyche frute adam shulde be saved.
       And whan Seth came ageyne he fonde hys fader nere dede/ and he dyd wyth the graynes as the aungell badde hym. of the whyche came foure trees. of whyche a crosse was made that bare goode frute. That is to say oure saveoure Iesu cryst. Thoroughe whome adam and all that came of hym were saved and delyvered from dethe Withouten ende/ but if it be their owne defaute. This holy crosse the iewes hydde . . .55
Royal 17C conveys the same information, but in rather more concise terms, omitting the repetition of Seth’s compliance with the angel’s mandate:
And Seth wente theder, but the angel wold nought lete hym in, but seyde to hym that he myght nought have the oyle of mercy. But tho he toke hym foure graynes of the same tre that Adam eet of the apple and bad hym als so sone as his fader were deed, he sholde put tho graynes under his tonge and grave hym so. And he dide so. And of these foure graynes spronge foure trees, as the angel seyd, which sholde bere a fruyt, thorgh which fruyt Adam sholde be saved. Of which trees was maad the Cros that bare God Jhesu Crist, that sweet fruyt thorgh which Adam and alle that come of hym were saved and deliverid fram eyndelys deth, but hit be here owen defaute. This Holy Cros hadde the Jewes i-hudde . . . (lines 140–49)
Similarly, at Mount Zion, the Pynson text tells us:
And there is the stone that the aungel bare to oure lady fro mounte Synay. and it is of that colour that the roche of saynt katheryn is of/ and there besyde is the gate where oure lady whan she was wyth chylde wente to Betheleem. Also at the entre of mount Syon is a chapell and in that chapell is that stone great and large wyth whiche the sepulcre Was covered whan cryst was layde therin. the whyche stone thre Iewes sawe turned upwarde whan they cam to the sepulcre and there they fonde an aungell that sayde to theym that cryste was rysen fro deth to lyfe. And there is a lytell pece of the pyller / to the whyche oure lorde was scourged.56
Royal 17C gives an abbreviated version:
And ther is the stone that the angel bare to Our Lady fro the Mount Synay, and hit is of that colour of that roch of Seynt Katerin.
       Also at the entré of the Mount Syon is a chapel, and at that chapel is that greet ston, and hit is large, which that covereth the sepulcre when Crist was leyd therynne. And ther is a litle pece of the pilour to which Our Lord was bounde when he was scorged. (lines 815–21)
Royal 17C also tends to use abbreviated catalogues of minor wonders. Where the Pynson text has a lengthy list of odd and dangerous women, consisting of women with stones in their eyes who kill men with a look, women with snakes in their bodies that sting men in the penis, and women who sorrow when their children are born but rejoice when they die,57 Royal 17C has only two, omitting the women who joy and sorrow at inappropriate times (lines 2530–45). Thus, as commonly, the essential motif is maintained — in this case that of “unnatural women in the East” — but the text elaborates upon it less. This occurs often in briefer catalogues within the text as well. In the case of Mancy, for example, the more usual catalogue of three minor wonders (wool-bearing hens, women who wear crowns as a sign of marital status, and birds trained to catch fish)58 is reduced to only two in the Royal MS: “In this contré beth white hennes, but they have no fetheris but woll, as sheep in our lond. And wymmen that beth y-wedded bereth crounes uppon her hede to be knowe fro other” (lines 1915–17). While very little is actually “left out” of the Royal 17C text, its tendency to use fewer examples, less repetition, and less rambling sentence structures gives it a somewhat sharper, more focused quality than many of its cousins.

Whatever the editor/scribe’s other motives for his various abridgements, one is to avoid corrupt phrases, just as he at times seeks to correct what he regards as mistakes in his exemplar.59 The classic example of this kind of micro-editing of the manuscript occurs at the Egypt Gap. The site of the gap in the Pynson text merges two passages separated in the more complete Cotton Version by nearly three chapters of information about Egypt and environs, and reads like this:
and the kyngdom of arab was to one of the thre kynges that made offerynge to oure lorde whan he was borne. and many other londes he holdethe in his hande/ and also he holdeth Calaphes that is a greate thynge to the Soudan/ that is to say amonge theym Roys Ile [GAP] and this vale is full colde. and than men goo up on the mount of saynte Katheryn/ and that is moche hygher than the mounte Moyses.60
The two passages in Cotton are, for obvious reasons, quite distinct. The first is about the Sultan of Babylon: “And many other lands he holdeth in his hand. And therewithal he holdith caliphs, that is a full great thing in their language and it is as much to say as king.”611 The second is about the burial place of St. Catherine: “And in that valley is a church of forty martyrs, and there sing the monks of the abbeys often time, and that valley is right cold. And after men go up the mountain of St. Catherine that is more high than the Mount of Moses.”62

The Royal 17C manuscript makes a smooth transition through the gap, recognizing that the two joined parts are innately separate: “. . . and that was oon of the thre kynges that bar offryng to Our Lord. And many other londes he holdeth on his hond. And the mount of Seynt Katerine is moch heyr than the Mount Moyses” (lines 456–58). Whereas most Defective texts leave the junction as Pynson does, somewhat raggedly patched together, Royal 17C, by the simple expedient of breaking the joined material into two discrete sentences, makes it no more jarring than many of the other sudden shifts of subject to be found in the Book.

The Royal 17C manuscript is thus of great interest, not merely as a genealogical curiosity among the English Defective texts but as a particularly readable, carefully edited, and highly inclusive manuscript of that version of The Book of John Mandeville. As the Book becomes available to modern readers in more of its forms, we will at last be in a position to appreciate more fully the beauty of its diversity, which arises so naturally from the manuscript tradition of the Middle Ages.

Language And Orthography

British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii consists of sixty-one folios written in two columns in a clear hand, and contains only the Book. It is bound in 3+1–78, 84, and is missing the first and fourth folios of the eighth quire; these missing portions have been supplied in our edition from Pynson’s first print.

Marginal glosses have been provided for words whose meanings, for whatever reason, may not be immediately clear. Two glossaries have also been provided at the end of the text: one of common words, the other of proper names. Proper names have been glossed in the text only where doing so seemed likely to create instant recognition.


Seymour dates Royal 17 C. xxxviii to “1400–25, early” and assigns its dialect to Hampshire or West Sussex.63 For a linguistic profile of the word formations of the Hampshire and Sussex dialects, see McIntosh, Samuels, and Benskin, Linguistic Atlas, 3.154–61 and 3.501– 508. For readers familiar with the language of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, the language of the Book should not present many significant differences.


Y is commonly used in Middle English where we might use i. Thus syghtes (“sights”), bynethe (“beneath”), heyghte (“height”), worthi (“worthy”), and payns (“pains”). The scribe regularly uses -i rather than -e in terminal inflections. Thus touchid (“touched”), callid (“called”), or contreis (“countries”).

Verb formation

Weak verbs generally follow the pattern illustrated here by the verb “helen”: “to heal.”
I hele
thou helest
he, she, (h)it heleth

I helde/heled
thou heldest/heledest
he, she, (h)it held(e)/heled(e)
we, ye, thei/hy helen

thei/hy heleth

we, ye, thei/hy held(en)/heled(en)

Strong verbs generally follow the pattern illustrated here by the verb “helpen”: “to help.”
I helpe
thou helpest
he, she, (h)it helpeth

I halp(e)
thou hulp(e)
he, she, (h)it halp(e)
we, ye, thei/hy helpen

we, ye, thei/hy hulp(en)

they/hy helpeth
Participle formation

The y-/i- prefix (interchangeable in this text) commonly forms the past participle; thus “y-chose” (chosen), “i-bore” (born), “y-ete” (eaten). These forms have been hyphenated in the text to help readers identify the root verb. The past participle is also formed by the -ed/-id suffix, as in “nayled” (nailed) and “makid” (made).

The present participle/gerund is formed as in Modern English (i.e., with the -ing ending), here often spelled -yng(e).


A basic outline of the nominative, objective, and possessive pronouns found in the text is as follows. Readers should keep in mind that the 3rd person genitive ending “-is” often appears, as in “Christis vicar” (Christ’s vicar).


hem/them, theym  

Editorial Conventions For This Edition

The chapter headings in the text are those in the Royal MS. There are many Roman numerals in the manuscript that are transcribed here as Arabic. Tironian notes (7) are transcribed as and, and abbreviation signs for plural endings are expanded as -es rather than -is. Other expansions are made silently. Initial double ffs are transcribed as f, and crossed final double ls are expanded only when required by the sense. We have followed the EETS practice of using a vertical line to indicate divisions of foliation.

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