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Appendix: Sources for The Book of John Mandeville

Both Warner and Bovenschen worked extensively to establish the sources to which The Book of John Mandeville owes much of its material. Bovenschen’s “Untersuchungen über Johann von Mandeville” and the notes to Warner’s Buke of John Mandeville continue to provide the most substantial underpinning for our understanding of the Book’s use of sources. Although much has been added to our knowledge by the continuing source-study of later scholars, remarkably few of Bovenschen’s and Warner’s original attributions have been superseded.

The Book draws in material from an impressive collection of medieval sources that are still known today. Provided here is an annotated listing of some of the most central sources for our text, along with a secondary listing of sources used less overtly, or less comprehensively, in the Book as a whole. Many of the Latin sources were almost certainly used by the author in French translations.

For detailed coverage of the attributions of individual passages, the reader is advised to consult the notes to Warner’s Roxburghe Club edition of the Egerton text (W), Seymour’s Defective Version and Bodley Version, and Deluz’s Livre de Jehan de Mandeville (pp. 428–91), which provides a highly detailed breakdown of the Book’s sources in tabular form. To all these scholars and their work we are indebted here.

Main Sources

Albert of Aix, Historia Hierosolimitanae Expeditionis

Albert of Aix (now sometimes referred to as Albert of Aachen, based on the belief that he may have been a canon of Aix-la-Chapelle, rather than Aix-en-Provence as previously assumed) is known chiefly as a chronicler of the First Crusade, which began in 1095. His history (c. 1125), though long out of date by the time of the Book’s authorship, supplies several of the Book’s pilgrimage routes, including the route through Hungary to Constantinople (lines 92–97) and the route to Jerusalem through Asia Minor.

Albert’s own work, like the Book that borrows from it, is based on reports both written and oral, rather than on firsthand experience.

The Alexander Romance

The Alexander Romance originated largely in the accounts of Pseudo-Callisthenes and includes, among much else, the history of Alexander’s conquests, accounts of Alexander’s childhood and of his death, and the famous Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, describing the wonders of the East. While no original version survives, the Alexander material made its way into Latin late in the third century, and was later incorporated into Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Majus as well as being translated into vernacular versions. Notable borrowings from this material in the Book include:

  • the marvels of Bactria, such as wool-bearing trees and gryphons (lines 2383–91)
  • the waxing and waning trees (lines 2428–31)
  • the accounts of Alexander’s dealings with the Brahmins (lines 2590–2620)
Hayton the Armenian, Flos Historiarum Terrae Orientis

Hayton (variously Haiton, Heyton) was a member of the royal family of Lesser Armenia, and he served the state in various political and military functions before retiring, late in life, to become a monk. His Flower of Histories of the East (c. 1300) is in four books: a geographical survey of the East (broadly conceived), a short Muslim military history, an account of the early history of the Mongols and their Khans, and a plan for uniting the Mongols and Christians against the Saracens to retake the Holy Land. Hayton notes that his information comes from three impeccable sources: the Mongols’ own histories, the firsthand accounts of his uncle, King Hayton of Lesser Armenia, who spent his reign in close contact with the Great Khanate, and his own experience in the Mongol world.

Hayton’s work was a source for the geography of Asia, as well as for history concerning the Egyptians and the Tartars. The Book’s sixteenth chapter, “Why He Is Y-cleped the Greyt Cane,” stems directly from Hayton, as do numerous small references to the politics of Asia Minor and the description of “Asye the Depe” at lines 2248–78.

Jacques De Vitry, Historia Orientalis Seu Hierosolymitana

Jacques de Vitry (c. 1160–1240) served as bishop of Acre in the early 1200s and traveled extensively in Palestine and Egypt. Offered the patriarchate of Jerusalem, he refused it in favor of other duties, but he did write the Historia (c. 1218), a firsthand account of the Holy Land as he experienced it. The Book of John Mandeville borrows many details about the Holy Land, Islam, and even natural history from Jacques, including:


  • the (erroneous) attribution of the founding of Damascus to Eliezer of Damascus (lines 1106–07)
  • the reference to the freezing river (lines 1126–27)
  • route information from Antioch to Jerusalem (lines 1178–85)
  • information on Mohammed and Khadija, and the sects of Islam (lines 1337–48)
  • the story of the lodestones (lines 1515–42)

Especially known for his opposition to heresy, Jacques was a keen student of sectarianism within the Church and notably provides much of the Book’s information about variant Christian sects (e.g., lines 1063–1100).

John of Plano Carpini, Historia Mongolorum

John of Plano Carpini was a Franciscan friar who acted as papal emissary to the Great Khan in the wake of the Council of Lyon in 1245. With two other emissaries, he carried a papal letter by way of Moscow and Kiev to the ordu of Batu Khan on the Volga River, arriving in 1246, then continued to the court of Kuyuk Khan in Karakorum, returning to Avignon in 1247 with the Khan’s reply. His book, appearing several decades before the more highly-publicized work of Marco Polo, was the first record of the Mongol world available to the European Christian audience. It served as a major source for the Book’s accounts of Mongol history, social structure, and culture, probably through the mediation of Vincent of Beauvais (see below). The Book’s account of the Tartars (lines 1193–1201) stems from John, apparently by way of Vincent, as does much of the last half of chapter 17, “Aray of the Court of the Gret Chane,” and the account of Tibetan funeral rites performed by a son for his dead father (lines 2763–78).

The Letter Of Prester John

One of many medieval “hoax-letters” — false correspondences from historical or legendary figures — The Letter of Prester John was supposedly sent to the Byzantine emperor Manuel c. 1165 by Prester John, emperor of India. Based on the popular myth that the Far East was home to an immensely powerful Christian kingdom and the hope that that kingdom could be pressed into service to assist in the suppression of the Saracens, the letter was apparently fabricated to offer hope to increasingly disheartened crusaders and their governments. The letter describes the glorious empire of Prester John in detail, and The Book of John Mandeville mines it for such passages as:

  • the story of the Fountain of Youth (lines 1594–1600)
  • the title “Archiprotapapon” for the prelate of Polumbum (line 1607)
  • the description of Prester John’s kingdom (lines 2398–14)
  • the Gravel Sea with its unusual fish (lines 2423–27)
  • part of the account of the Brahmins (lines 2573–2624)
Odoric of Pordenone, Itinerarius

Odoric, a Franciscan missionary, traveled to Beijing by a sea route beginning from Padua c. 1318 and returning in 1330. His travels took him through the Persian Gulf and to points all along the coasts of India, Indonesia, and China. In China he traveled extensively inland, and, after spending three years at the Khan’s Great Court in Beijing, returned by an overland route which probably included the first European visit to Lhasa, Tibet. Odoric’s account is the key source for much of the Book from chapter 13, “Dyverseteis of Peple and of Contreis,” onward, although by no means confined to that section. Specific borrowings from Odoric include:

  • the loathliness of Chaldean women (line 1473)
  • the stories of the great heat of India affecting men’s testicles (lines 1556–57) and the use of ships without nails (lines 1562–63)
  • the account of ox-worship in India (lines 1602–13)
  • the account of suttee, as practiced in India (lines 1622–23)
  • the descriptions of St. Thomas’ shrine (lines 1627–35) and the juggernaut-car (lines 1650–69)
  • the account of licentiousness in Lamory (lines 1671–79)
  • the story of the self-sacrificing fish (without its Christian interpretation) (lines 1820–27)
  • the account of the pygmies (lines 1943–49)
  • the description of the Great Khan’s hall (lines 1968–73)
  • the description of the paradise of the Assassins (lines 2473–91)
  • the journey through the Valley Perilous (lines 2492–2500)
  • the description of Tibet and its funerary rites (lines 2763–83)
  • the account of the long-nailed Mandarin (lines 2792–95)

Evidence suggests that the Book’s author made use of this text largely through John le Long’s 1351 French translation, rather than in the original Latin. It should also be noted that Odoric himself, though an actual traveler to the Far East, made extensive use of Marco Polo’s account of the East in writing his own, so much so that he inadvertently describes his voyage from India toward China backwards, having modeled it on Polo’s return trip from China to India.

Pseudo-Odoric, Liber De Terra Sancta

This book, attributed inconclusively to Odoric of Pordenone, is described by Yule as “consisting of short chapters, containing a detailed itinerary in Palestine with the distances, etc., and . . . of very little interest. It ends with a chapter on ‘Machomet’ of a short denunciatory kind” (Cathay, p. 18). While the book’s style bears little resemblance to Odoric’s, and no account survives of his having traveled through Palestine, the book nonetheless supplied the Mandeville-author with some of his Palestinian material. The story of the Magi (lines 556–57), as well as the Book’s descriptions of the Charnel of Innocents (lines 562–63), the tomb and chair of St. Jerome (lines 563–65), and the church of St. Nicholas (lines 565–69) derive from this source.

Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale and Speculum Historiale

Although information is scant, it seems likely that the Dominican Friar Vincent (c. 1190–1264) spent most of his adult life in scholarly pursuits at the monastery of Beauvais. His magnum opus, the Speculum Majus, is in four parts — the Naturale, Doctrinale, Morale, and Historiale — although the Morale is sometimes considered to be interpolated.

Referred to by Letts as “Mandeville’s great standby” (Sir John Mandeville, p. 29), Vincent’s encyclopedia underpins much of the Book. Indeed, so pervasive is the Book’s use of Vincent that it would be impossible to attribute every passage in which its presence might be felt. The Speculum cites hundreds of authors, among them Pliny, Jerome, and Isidore of Seville, as well as including long extracts from John of Plano Carpini and extensive bestiary information. Much of the Book’s lore on the subjects of natural history, geography, and the monstrous races probably stems from Vincent. Representative examples of the use of Vincent in the Book include:

  • the undisturbed dust on the slopes of Mts. Athos and Olympus (lines 221–23)
  • the story of the establishment of the female Amazon state after the death of Scolopitus (lines 1476–83)
  • information about the diamond and its properties (lines 1509–42)
  • unusual treatments of the dead and blood-drinking/bestial cultures (lines 1838–50)
  • the description of the stone traconyghte (lines 1851–53)
  • the fabulous races of the East (lines 1886–1900)
  • the stories of “poison women” (lines 2541–45) and women with the evil eye (lines 2530–32)
  • part of the account of the Brahmins (lines 2573 ff.)
  • the giant ants (lines 2681–95)
William of Boldensele, Itinerarius (De Quibusdam Ultramarinis Partibus)

William (Wilhelm) was a German knight who traveled through Palestine on pilgrimage in 1332–33, and wrote his itinerary of the journey in 1336. Much of The Book of John Mandeville’s first half, especially information about Constantinople and the Holy Land, stems from William’s account. Nicholson and Yule, in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, famously remarked that the Mandeville-author had “followed its thread, though digressing on every side, and too often eliminating the singular good sense of the German traveler” (p. 562). Representative examples of the Book’s use of William include:

  • the discourse on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (lines 616 ff.)
  • the descriptions of Nazareth and Mount Tabor (lines 1017–47)
Like Odoric’s text, Boldensele was translated from Latin into French by John le Long in 1351, and was most likely used by the Book’s author in its French form.

William of Rubruck, Itinerarius

William (Guillame de Rubruquis), a Franciscan friar, served as a missionary to the Tartars in the early 1250s. Leaving Palestine for Tartary in 1251, he visited the court of Mangu Khan (Kuyuk’s successor) and returned to Acre in 1255. Despite his extensive descriptions of the Mongols and their culture, his most definitive contribution to the Book is the story of the monk who climbs Mount Ararat and finds the ark perfectly preserved there (lines 1440–48). His work is frequently used in the second part of the Book as a secondary reference, adding dimension or detail to accounts drawn from Hayton, Odoric, and others.

William of Tripoli, De Statu Saracenorum

The Dominican Friar William, working in Acre in the early 1270s, claimed to have baptized over a thousand Muslims. The Muslims, he said, were easily brought to the true path because of the close similarity between Christianity and Islam. His appreciation of the sincerity of the Saracens’ faith, as well as his sense that it approximated Christianity in important ways and would therefore provide a perfect platform for conversion, informs The Book of John Mandeville throughout. More specific borrowings from William include:

  • the dominions of the Sultan of Babylon (lines 452–57)
  • information about the Koran and the prophet Mohammed (lines 571–81)<
  • ch. 12, “Truthe of Sarasyns,” with the exception of the Sultan’s monologue (lines 1228–1377)
Other Sources

The following sources have also contributed materially to The Book of John Mandeville. A close analysis of their individual contributions is available in Deluz, Livre de Jehan de Mandeville. Her chapter “La ‘Librairie’ de Mandeville” (pp. 39–72) is also quite useful in tracing the Book’s sources.

Bede, De Temporibus

An early eighth-century treatise on chronology, including a summation history of the world from Creation to the time of Bede.

Burchard of Mount Sion, Descriptio Terrae Sanctae

A pilgrimage guide to Palestine, c. 1283, with a strong geographical emphasis.

Defensor of Ligugé, Liber Scintillarum

A collection (c. seventh century) of selected extracts from the works of the Church fathers.

Eugesippus, Tractatus De Distanciis Locorum Terrae Sanctae A twelfth-century description of the Holy Land.

Flavius Josephus, Vita and De Bello Judaico

Josephus’ autobiography and his firsthand account of the Jewish uprising against the Romans in the first century AD.

Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia

Written for the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV in the early thirteenth century, the Otia is largely an encyclopedic collection of cosmological, geographical, historical, and folkloric information. It also includes commentary from Gervase on scientific, religious, and political matters.

Honorius Augustodunensis (Honorius Of Autun), Elucidarium

A twelfth-century summary of Christian theology in dialogic form. The Elucidarium was translated into French in the thirteenth century.

Imago Mundi

A twelfth-century philosophical text on cosmology, chronology, and astronomy attributed to Honorius.

Ibn Khallikan, Kitab Wafayat Ul Ayn

A late thirteenth-century collection popularly known as The Obituaries of Eminent Men or The Biographical Dictionary, including a biography of Hassan ibn Sabbah (Catholonabeus), the master of assassins described in the Book.

Idrisi (Abu Abdullah Mohammed Ibn Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi), Geography

A twelfth-century atlas and world geography, produced under the auspices of the Sicilian king Roger II Guiscard. Idrisi worked from sources, personal observation, and information supplied by fieldworkers, and is famous for both his critical approach to geography and the meticulous maps that accompany his work.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae

An early seventh-century summa of all available knowledge, both ancient and modern. The importance of the Etymologiae as a textbook and reference book throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance can hardly be overstated.

Iter Alexandri Ad Paradisum

A fourth-century account of a journey to Paradise by Alexander the Great, used as a source for parts of the medieval Alexander Romance.

Jacobus of Voragine, Legenda Aurea

A late thirteenth-century compilation of saints’ lives.

John of Sacrobosco, De Sphaera

An explanation, c. 1230, of spherical geometry on the Ptolemaic model.

John of Wurzbürg, Descriptio Terrae Sanctae

A pilgrimage guide, c. 1165, to the Holy Land.

Latini, Brunetto, Li Livres Dou Tresors

The first vernacular encyclopedia in Italian, from the mid-1200s.

Macrobius, In Somno Scipionis Commentarius

Macrobius’ fifth-century commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio also includes detailed material about the spherical nature of the earth and its division into northern and southern hemispheres by an equatorial ocean.

Martinus Polonus (Martinus Oppaviensis; Martin Von Trappau), Chronicon Pontificum Et Imperatorum

A thirteenth-century handbook of popes and emperors composed for Clement IV from sources both historical and legendary.

Orosius (Paulus), Historiarum Adversum Paganos

A fifth-century history spanning the period from the Creation to 417 AD. Written at the behest of Augustine of Hippo mainly as a refutation to growing anti-Christian sentiment, the History depicts world history as Christian history.

Peter Comestor, Historia Scholastica

A twelfth-century sacred history of the world, extremely popular in medieval Europe.

Ricoldo De Monte Croce, Liber Peregrinationis (Itinerarium)

A late thirteenth-century account of Ricoldo’s travels in the Holy Land and in the Near East, the Liber also serves as a guide for missionaries.

Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium

A third-century compendium of the marvelous and interesting, the Collectanea was one of the most frequently cited books in Europe well into the Middle Ages.

Sydrach, La Fontaine De Toutes Sciences

A dialogic encyclopedia of popular wisdom from the thirteenth century.

Theitmar, Peregrinatio

Theitmar, a German pilgrim traveling in the Holy Land in 1217, gives one of the first comprehensive European accounts of the state of the Holy Land after the Saracen takeover.

Theodoricus, Libellus De Locis Sanctis

A twelfth-century description of the sacred sites of the Holy Land.

William of Tyre, Historia Rerum In Partibus Transmarinus Gestarum

A twelfth-century work of Holy Land history, so successful that numerous continuators later published Holy Land accounts under William’s name. Both William and his continuators are used as sources for the Book.

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