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Ostensibly written by an English knight, the Travels purport to relate his experiences in the Holy Land, Egypt, India and China. Mandeville claims to have served in the Great Khan's army, and to have travelled in 'the lands beyond' - countries populated by dog-headed men, cannibals, Amazons and Pygmies. Although Marco Polo's slightly earlier narrative ultimately proved more factually accurate, Mandeville's was widely known, used by Columbus, Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Frobisher, and inspiring writers as diverse as Swift, Defoe and Coleridge. This intriguing blend of fact, exaggeration and absurdity offers both fascinating insight into and subtle criticism of fourteenth-century conceptions of the world.
Posted July 25, 2000
Sir John Mandeville was an Early-Renaissance writer of travel tales, similar in content and style to his near contemporary, Marco Polo. But history has judged the two quite differently: whereas Marco Polo has become a household word, synonymous with bold explorations, Mandeville has been largely forgotten. It was not always so. During his lifetime, and for a couple of centuries afterwards, Mandeville was the more famous. A copy of Mandeville - but not Polo - was in the possession of Leonardo da Vinci. More telling, about 300 manuscripts (hand-written copies) of Mandeville survive, compared to only about 70 of Polo. *** Polo was first. His celebrated book, originally titled, 'Descriptions of the World,' came out about 1300. Mandeville wrote his book about 1356, or shortly thereafter. Its original tile was 'The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight,' but is now generally known as 'Travels of Sir John Mandeville.' Whereas Polo used the services of a professional writer, Rusticello -- who based the book on Polo's notebooks -- Mandeville wrote his book himself. (Mandeville is the better written.) *** Both books -- but especially Mandeville -- contain a fascinating pastiche of facts (often distorted), opinions -- and utterly fantastic claims. Standards of what constitutes a historical/geographic work have greatly evolved. Reading these books today leaves one with a bewildering impression of a farrago of National Geographic and supermarket tabloids. *** So what accounts for Mandeville¿s reversal of fortune? As the Age of Exploration began to transform Europe, reliable geographic, historic, and economic data came to be more highly valued than fantastic tales. Since Polo was found to be more reliable his reputation increased. Mandeville, on the other hand, came to be seen as a 'teller of tall tales,' a kind of Baron Munchhausen. *** What about relevance today? Well, except in a narrow historical context, I would say that Mandeville is definitely the more interesting. If Mandeville lacks historic and geographic accuracy, he more than makes up by his insights into what fascinates mankind - both then and now. As noted, a considerable portion of Mandeville can be fairly equated to today's Elvis sightings, or the woman from Ohio who has the spaceman's baby. We are too immersed in our contemporary world to clearly see what is behind such phenomena; looking back at Mandeville our vision improves. An example: Mandeville tells of a society in which women often have snakes in their ...uh...private parts. In order to protect themselves their men hire the services of professional 'testers.' As absurd as all this sounds, could Mandeville actually be describing some venereal disease? What light might this shed on the history of venereal epidemics? *** Some of the regions Mandeville describes can easily be localized, if only roughly. Others require a good grasp of ancient history, particularly the ancient names of localities. Still others are probably unidentifiable. This Penguin book would be improved if a glossary of such names were provided. Also, additional maps and illustrations would be very beneficial -- unfortunately this would increase the cost. *** One last thought: could the various human monstrosities described by Mandeville (people with dog's heads, etc.) have modern counterparts in television's Star Trek?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.