A Journey Through Mandeville's Travels

A Journey Through Mandeville's Travels

2 July 2020
The Travels proved hugely popular following its original composition in the mid-fourteenth century, being translated into numerous European languages.

I have seen and traversed so many kingdoms and lands and provinces and islands ... where many kinds of people live, of different customs and shapes.

—Sir John Mandeville, The Book of Travels and Marvels, trans. Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 6-7.

In many ways, Sir John Mandeville’s Travels is a travel narrative par excellence. It has everything: journeys to far-away lands, cross-cultural encounters, monsters, marvels, miracles, and a smattering of personal anecdotal interjections from the narrator thrown in for good measure. I first encountered the Travels about a decade ago when writing an MA essay on travel literature, and have found myself coming back to it in various ways in recent years. Last academic year I taught a BA course on ‘Satire and Travel in Early Modern English Literature’ at the University of Geneva, where elements of texts such as More’s Utopia (1616), Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem (1605), Richard Brome’s The Antipodes (1640), and Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1668) demonstrated time and again the enduring cultural familiarity of both the Mandeville persona and the Travels. Likewise, early modern printed editions of Mandeville’s Travels provided a veritable cornucopia of material for a presentation on printed book illustrations that I delivered as part of a research workshop on early modern illustration processes last May. Now, I’m interested in exploring the very rich bibliographic afterlife that this narrative enjoyed in England from the first extant printed edition of 1496 until the early 1900s.

Purportedly written by an English knight called John Mandeville, the Travels relates the narrator’s journey across a vast geographical range, beginning with the Holy Land and progressing to India and China, among other places. Most scholars now agree that ‘Sir John Mandeville’ is a fictitious persona and that the writer of the Travels most likely never travelled to the far-flung places that he describes in detail, having relied instead on a wide range of literary sources to construct his account. The Travels has come to be well known for its descriptions of ‘monstrous’ races, such as the Blemmye, Sciopods, and Anthropophagi, but there is so much more to this travel account than sensational ‘monsters’. It’s a narrative that covers a lot of ground, both geographically and in terms of literary modes. As well as giving readers practical advice and information about travelling to the places that Mandeville visits, the narrator often uses his encounters with foreign peoples and places as a means of critiquing particular elements of European culture and religion, often prompting readers to consider a variety of moral lessons and didactic comparisons between their European, Christian selves and non-European, non-Christian Others.

The Travels proved hugely popular following its original composition in the mid-fourteenth century, being translated into numerous European languages. Approximately 300 extant manuscript copies demonstrate its popularity, and the advent of print brought with it a proliferation of printed editions across the continent. In England alone there are over thirty surviving editions of the Travels printed between 1496 and 1800 (and many more that are no longer extant). My series of blog contributions will invite readers to join me in exploring different elements of the Travels, from particular encounters with different cultures and religions in the narrative to the typographic features, illustrations, and editorial principles that underpinned particular editions printed in early modern England.

Image: (left) a depiction of Mandeville from a mid-fifteenth-century German manuscript copy of the Travels, New York Public Library MS 037; (right) title-page of the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of Thomas Snodham’s 1625 edition (STC 17253).