Ptolemaeus, La Geografia di Clavdio Ptolemeo, 1548, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G87.P9.m4.1548 rare

John Mandeville

Sir John Mandeville, supposed author of the popular medieval book Mandeville's Travels was, in all likelihood, not a real person. No one knows who wrote the book, which appeared in Europe in the mid-14th century, but whoever he was, he certainly knew how to tell a story. In it, John Mandeville purports to be an English knight from the town of St. Albans, who goes on a pilgrimage in the year 1322 to the holy city of Jerusalem. The first part of Mandeville's Travels concerns his trip there, the holy shrines and relics he visited, and the practices of the Muslims he encounters.

Up to this point, the story is more or less believable, by modern standards. But in following chapters, Mandeville heads east from the Holy Land, where he encounters strange dog-headed men, people who walk on their hands and eat with their feet (proving, in Mandeville's eyes, that those on the opposite side of the earth from Europe will be complete opposites in every way) and a land where pygmies enslave giants to work for them. Other trips take him to the land of the Amazons, a society comprised completely of women, and the land of Melke, where the inhabitants fight constant wars because they are addicted to drinking human blood. Historians theorize that the mystery author of Mandeville's Travels pulled these stories from a variety of available Medieval sources; notably the published bestiaries, books that described all manner of mythical monsters that were supposed to exist.

Later, Mandeville meets two world leaders that fascinated medieval minds: the Great Khan of China and Prester John. The Khan was the true ruler of Mongol-conquered China, a mysterious land to Europeans that was filled with all manner of riches and luxury items. Prester John, however, was a figure just as mysterious as Sir John Mandeville himself. Supposedly the Christian ruler of a powerful Christian kingdom far to the east, Prester John was yet another Medieval fairy tale, not unlike the Amazons or blood-drinking men of Melke. But with the European Crusades in the Middle East going badly, and a powerful Muslim army poised to invade Greece and the Balkans, Europeans wanted to believe in an ally to the east; the myth of Prester John gave them hope.

Mandeville also describes a trip to the very brink of the world, to Paradise. To the Medieval mind, Paradise was at the very eastern edge of civilization, and not accessible to just anyone. Since the Christian event of the Fall (when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise by God), Paradise had been off limits to mankind. Mandeville himself even makes mention of this, saying he did not actually visit Paradise, as he was unworthy. Instead, he claims to have interviewed "wyse men" who knew all about the place.

What was the purpose of Mandeville's Travels? It was widely believed by Europeans for centuries; there were so few world travelers in the Middle Ages that no one was able to counter any of his tall tales. Others believed that the book was just supposed to be pure entertainment. Like modern novels, it was just a good story; no one was supposed to believe every word of it. This would make Mandeville's Travels a groundbreaking work, however. In the days before mass communications, books were relied upon to be truthful, as they were one of the few ways to rapidly spread ideas or beliefs.

Whatever the motives of Mandeville's Travels' author, the book made quite an impact on European readers for generations. When the first European printing presses were invented in the 1450s, Mandeville's Travels was one of the first books to be widely printed and ready by eager literate audiences 100 years after it first appeared. Christopher Columbus was known to have read it several times, and may have even provided the explorer with some motivation to attempt his western voyage to reach the Indies; Mandeville discusses the idea of circumnavigating the world in a story he claims to have heard in his youth, when a man sailed eastward around the world.

Mandeville's Travels is still every bit as interesting to modern readers as it was to Medieval ones. Although we now know that tales of dog-headed men and one-eyed giants are complete fiction, Mandeville's passages on life in the Holy Land (our modern Middle East) are creative and informative. Even if the author (whether his name was "John Mandeville" or not) pulled off one of history's great hoaxes on gullible medieval readers, he produced a work with lasting appeal and influence.