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The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

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For an introduction to and full-text version of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, see Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson's online edition from the Middle English Texts Series.


The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was one of the most popular of medieval secular texts. It survives in roughly three hundred manuscripts, and was translated into a wide range of European languages. Given the numerous emendations to and interpolations of the Travels, the work is perhaps best described as a "multi-text"—a term coined by Ian Macleod Higgins. But, as Kohanski and Benson make clear, while the textual instability of the Travels is one of its most salient features, there remain "central elements that are shared by most versions and provide a general sense of the original writer's ambitions and interests" (5). Among these "central elements" is the text's fixation on Jerusalem as the center of the world and rightful inheritance of Christendom as well as its related and consistent recalling of crusader history.

The first of such elements occurs at the outset of the work. The Travels begins in ways similar to other guides to the Holy Land, emphasizing its supreme importance to the Christian community

Sen yt es so þat þe land beʒond þe see, þat es to say þe land of repromissioun þat men calles þe haly land, amanges alle oþer lands es þe maste worthy land and souerayne of alle oþer and es blissed and sacred and halowed of þe preciouse blude of oure lorde Ihesu Criste... (Seymour 3.4-8)
The Holy Land's spiritual worth and its geographic centrality are emphasized throughout this portion of the Travels, with the narrator reminding his audience that Jerusalem is the world's center and is the rightful heritage of Christendom:
Þis es þe land þat es hight til vs in heritage, and in þat land he wald die [as] sesse þarin to leefe it to his childer, for þe whilk land ilke a gude cristen man þat may and has wharoff suld enforce hym for to conquere oure right heritage and chace oute þeroff þaim þat er mistrowand. For we er called cristen men of Criste oure fader, and if we be riʒt childer of Criste we awe for to chalange þe heritage þat oure fader left to vs and for to do it oute of straunge men handes. (Seymour 4.7-14)
According to this statement, the Holy Land belongs to Christendom, and the Muslims are usurpers. In order to be true Christians, the narrator argues, the men of the Christendom must war in defense of God's city.

The narrator continues, however, to explain that Christians' sins have made reclaiming the Holy Land impossible (Seymour 4.15-26). The intended Christian audience is thereby reminded of both their rightful claims to the Levant but also of their moral failings that stand in the way of that reclamation. These statements accord strikingly with criticisms of Christian moral failings and their effects on crusading ventures in the high and late middle ages and will be reiterated in Mandeville's colloquy with the Sultan.

Additionally, smaller references to crusading history abound in the first half of the work. In many versions, the Hospitallers are mentioned both as the inhabitants of Rhodes (Seymour 45.15), and as the founders of the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem (Seymour 45.3-4). Saladin, Richard I, and Godfrey De Bouillon are referenced as well (20.20-23; 24.28-29; 42.24-26). These references to crusades history punctuate the first half of the Travels, and directly contribute to the text's emphasis on Christianity's rightful claim to the Holy Land.

Another episode that emphasizes the significance of the Holy Land to Christianity is Mandeville's description of the Dry Tree located in the vicinity of Jerusalem:
And þai say þare þat it has bene fra þe begynnyng of þe werld, and þat it was alleway grene and bare lefes vnto þe tyme þat oure lord died on þe crosse and þan it dried. And so did, as sum men saise, alle þe treesse in þe werld or 'elles' þai failed in þaire hertes and become holle wiþin, of whilk þer er many ʒit standand in diuerse placez. Sum prophecies saise þat a grete lord of þe west syde of þe werld salle conquere þe haly land wiþ helpe of cristen men and he salle ger syng a messe vnder þat drie tree and þan salle it wax grene agayne and bere leefes and fruyt, and thurgh vertu of þat miracle many Sarzenes and Iews salle be turned to cristen faith. (Seymour 38.16-25.)
This prophecy points towards the eventual recovery of the Holy Land, one that hinges on the purification of Christian behavior and practice, one that has yet to take place. The dry tree, therefore, represents not only the Holy Land imprisoned by its captors but the moral failings of Christendom itself. The tree will bloom again when spiritually re-oriented Christians—having re-won God's favor—will take back the Levant. In the meantime, according to Mandeville, Jerusalem must remain in the hands of the least sinful and most devout of people, whether they be Christian or pagan:
Þis land of Ierusalem has bene in many diuerse naciouns handes, as Iews, Cananez, Assirienes, men of Perse, Medoynes, Massidoynes, Grekes, Romaynes, cristen men, Sarzenes, Barbarenes, Turkes, and many oþer naciouns. For Criste will noʒt þat it be lang in þe handes of traytours ne synners, be þai cristen or oþer. And now has mescreauncez halden þat land in þaire handes vii yere and mare, bot thurgh þe grace of Godd þai schalle noʒt hald it lang. (Seymour 41.24-30)

This matter of rightful inheritance and the need for a Christian reconquest of the Holy land is brought up once more as the narrator resides with the Sultan of Babylon (Cairo). As a mercenary in the Sultan's retinue—one who aids the Sultan in his wars against the Bedouins—he observes and describes the customs and beliefs of the Saracens (Seymour 19.33-20.5). He emphasizes the similarities between Christianity and Islam, noting the Saracens' beliefs in heaven and hell, the Virgin Mary, and the Incarnation. The narrator also places particular emphasis on the favorable portrayal of Christ in Islam, though the account clearly embellishes Christ's significance to Muslims:
Amanges alle prophetes þai say þat Criste es þe best, þe worthiest and next to Godd and þat he made þe ewangels [i.e. the Evangelists, or Gospel writers] in þe whilk es helefulle teching and sothefastnes and preching til þaim þat trowes in Godd, and þat he was mare þan prophete liffand wiþouten syn þat gafe sight to þe blynd and heled meselles and raised men fra deed to lyfe and went alle qwikk into heuen. (Seymour 73.34-74.1)
Despite the fact that their beliefs differ in several key ways from those of the Christians, Mandeville argues that the Saracens' nearness to the faith would allow for greater ease of conversion:
And for als mykille as þai ga þus nere oure faith in þir pointes and many oþer, me think þat mykille þe titter and þe lightlier þai schuld be conuerted tille oure law thurgh preching and teching of christen men. Þai say þai wate wele and findez by þaire prophecies þat Machometes lawe 'salle faile' as þe Iewez lawe es failed, and þat þe christen lawe schalle last to þe werldes end. (Seymour 74.28-33)

In the colloquy with the Sultan, Mandeville learns that the ruler knows a great deal about Christian people. He says that Christians do not abide by Christian Law and that they lost the Holy Land because of this falling away from their faith (76-77). Their sins, the Sultan says, are why God gave the Holy Land to the Saracens — the loss had nothing to do with strength of arms, but solely with God's will. The Sultan reassures Mandeville, however, that Christians will triumph eventually:
And we wate wele þat when ʒe serue ʒour Godd duely and wele and plesez him wiþ gude werkes na man schalle mow agaynestand ʒow. We knawe wele also by oure prophecyes þat christen men schalle recouer þis land agayne in tyme . . . commyng when ʒe serue ʒour Godd wele and deuotely. Bot als lang as ʒe liffe as ʒe do in wikkednes and in synne we hafe na drede of ʒow, for ʒour Godd wille noʒt helpe ʒow (Seymour 76.31-37).
Mandeville proceeds to lament the fallen state of his people, and his admonitions lend a compelling degree of legitimacy to Saracen culture and faith in the process:
And þan me thoʒt grete schame þat Sarzenes whilk hase nowþer riʒt beleue ne parfite lawe schuld þus reproue vs of oure inparfitenesse and kepez þaire vayne lawe better þan we do þe lawe of Ihesu Criste, and þai þat schuld be turned thurgh oure gude ensaumple to þe faith and þe lawe of Ihesu Criste, þai er drawen away thurgh oure wikked liffing. And þerfore it es na wonder if þai calle vs synfulle and wikked, for it es sothe. (Seymour 77.14-20)

The text, particularly in the colloquy, establishes the Saracens as the scourge of God, a move that does not seek to praise or acknowledge the Saracens virtues as much as it seeks to highlight the need for Christian reform. According to this passage Saracens do need to be converted (in no small part to ensure Christian occupation of the Holy Land), but they are, in the present, acting more virtuously than Christians, which gives Saracens no incentive to join a faith practiced less loyally by its followers. Additionally, the colloquy and the description of the Islamic faith emphasize both the need for spiritual recovery by Christians and also the clear superiority of Christianity over Islam. Though critics have often praised the Travels for its more seemingly cosmopolitan interaction between the Sultan and Mandeville, it is clear that the Travels constructs and controls the portrayal of the Saracen in order to back-handedly praise the greater spiritual potential and power of Christianity and Christendom's rightful claim to the Holy Land.

References to crusade and conversion lessen considerably after the Mandeville narrator travels west of the Holy Land. Nevertheless, the representation of the Mongols (referred to as Tartars in the Travels) and the description of the mythical Prester John, resonate with crusading desires and ambitions. The description of the Mongols corresponds with medieval assessments of that culture as one which might be converted to Christianity and as a culture in whom Christians might find an ally. As the historian Peter Jackson has observed, many medieval writers saw great potential in the Mongols as potential converts. In the Travels the Mongol khans and their subjects possess a certain understanding and receptiveness to the Christian God. The Khan shows a clear preference towards Christians, finding the Christian physicians more trustworthy, and also pays homage to the cross (131).

Similar to the treatment of the Saracens and Mongols, the configuration of Prester John and his people draws and relies upon the cultural currency of crusading. The idea of Prester John—a proto-Christian emperor who would come to the aid of Latin Christians in their efforts to retake the Holy Land—captivated European cultural imaginations from twelfth to seventeenth centuries. Rumors of his proto-Christian kingdom and his desires to aid Christians in their Levantine crusades encouraged participants in the Fifth Crusade, and the section devoted to him in the Travels places considerable emphasis on his nearness to the Christian faith and of the vastness of his near-Christian empire (Tyerman 641-42).

Combining aspects from both the Wonders of East and Pilgrimage itinerary traditions, Mandeville's Travels presents a vision of the world that champions the Christian ideal while observing the inevitable heterogeneity of the world born, at least in part, out of the moral failings of actual Christians. At once entertaining and didactic, the text presents audiences with a fanciful account of the venerable, marvelous, and the uncanny, one that is punctuated with reminders of the ideals to which Christendom—and its inhabitants—should aspire.

Akbari, Suzanne. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Higgins, Ian McCleod. Writing East: The "Travels" of Sir John Mandeville. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

Seymour, M. C. The Egerton Version of Mandeville's Travels. EETS o.s. 336. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Tyerman, Christopher. God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006.