Paul Buck

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville


Liège has been one of my favourite cities since the mid-1970s. That it was the hometown of my wife was to be a future discovery. Amongst the rich strata of its cultural intrigues is the legend that surrounds Sir John Mandeville, as I wrote in my own unorthodox approach to the city.


“The city appears to have radiated some form of special atmosphere, for the traveller, Sir John Mandeville, who hailed from St Albans, having journeyed the world, decided to settle in Liège, finding it an Earthly Paradise where he wished to pass his final days. There he wrote his Voyage of Sir John Maundevile in French under the name Jehan de Bourgogne or Jean à la Barbe, though it has since come to pass that it was perhaps the hand of the writer Jean d’Outremeuse who compiled the book, for it was in fact a compilation of other texts, embellished by this Liège romancer’s own hand, making some of the tales highly fictitious and fabulist. His sources included William of Boldensele, Friar Odoric of Pordenone’s Itinerarius and De rebus incognitis, and the Speculum of Vincent de Beauvais. Jean d’Outremeuse claims Mandeville died in 1372 and was buried in the church of the Guillemins, though what that means exactly I have no idea at this point, as there seems to be no church of that name, only the main train station.
Mandeville’s Travels is a seminal book both in the history of geographical discovery, and later, once that angle became outdated, in the history of literature, offering as it does a world of imaginative and imaginary travel. Though it justifiably and spectacularly belongs in the second category, for years it was looked to by the great explorers as a guide, claiming as it did that Mandeville’s voyage proved for the first time that it was possible to sail around the world in one direction and return home from the other. This proof of the impossible triggered Columbus, who planned his 1492 expedition after reading the Travels, retaining his copy alongside Marco Polo’s Divisament dou Monde, eventually leading him to believe he had discovered islands off Mandeville’s Cathay. Frobisher too had the Travels with him as he lay off Baffin Bay. And Leonardo da Vinci had only one travel book: Mandeville’s.


The book was read by Cervantes, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Spencer, Defoe, Swift, Milton, Keats and many others. It is referred to by Coleridge, who applied his mouth to the side of the rocks ‘and sucked in droughts of water cold as ice, and clear as infant diamonds in their embryo dew,’ recalling Mandeville’s passage of the ice that turned to crystal, and on the crystal that grew the good diamonds, as well as the diamonds that grew when fed by dew. It is also acknowledged by Lewis Carroll. And, naturally, Borges refers to it.


Mandeville’s Travels was written in Norman French in the third quarter of the 14th century, purportedly in 1356, and described the travels of the author after his departure from England in 1322. French was the language of the time for writing books, as literate English laymen could read French more easily than Latin. Indeed this language helped its popularity because it was soon translated into every major language in Europe. It was a popular work, written as an entertainment rather than as a scholarly treatise. That it was translated into Latin early on signifies how well-received it was by early readers, opening up further linguistic boundaries. More than 300 manuscript copies have survived, 323 at the last account I caught, doubtlessly others are lost or undocumented in private collections. Once the printing press came into being, at least 35 editions were made available in this incunabular period, and it maintained a high profile until the middle of the last century when it was dismissed for being a dishonest account of travels that never occurred, followed by the question of authorship, divesting its author of his name and nationality. Indeed, until this point Dr Johnson had named Mandeville in the 18th century as ‘the father of English prose’. Once it was proven that the original manuscript was in French and the English translation shot full of absurd mistakes, Johnson’s claim was beached on the Camber Sands.


In the 1880s it was surmised that Sir John Mandeville was not the author, but rather a Liège physician called Jean de Bourgogne, or Jean à la Barbe as he was also known, and that Mandeville was a pseudonym. In the 1920s, another editor drew the conclusion that Jean d’Outremeuse, the romancer from Liège, was in fact the real author.


In the early days, Mandeville was regarded as a genuine traveller, if something of a liar, for his stories were entertaining and somewhat fabulous. Later it was discovered that the author had not travelled as indicated, but had created his accounts based on the writings of others. The most he had travelled, suggested one critic, was to the nearest library. Thus he was condemned as a ‘mere plagiarist’. But this is an unkindness, and a failure to understand the nature of writing, particularly the nature of fictional writing, for the book is a clever series of imaginary travels, a fabrication that is at the forefront of travel fiction. It comprises two sections, the first concerned with the Holy Lands and the Near East, while the longer second section describes a journey ‘throughout Turkey, Armenia the little and the great; through Tartary, Persia, Syria, Arabia, Egypt the high and the low; through Lybia, Chaldea, and a great part of Ethiopia; through Amazonia, Ind the less and the more, a great part; and throughout many other Isles, that be about Ind’, which includes Marco Polo’s Cathay.


The framework for his Travels was a journey through Palestine and Egypt written around 1336 by a German friar called William of Boldensele. The account in Eastern Palestine, from Bethlehem through Galilee to Damascus, makes extensive use of an Itinerarius written around 1330 and attributed to the Franciscan Friar, Odoric of Pordenone, with his travels in the Middle East and the Orient following directly the same Itinerarius credited to Odoric of Pordenone. His other material for extensive use was Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale and Speculum Naturale. The history of the Saracens comes from William of Tripoli’s Tractatus de Statu Saracenorum, and the history of the Tartars from Hayton of Armenia’s La Flor des Estoires de la Terre d’Orient, a work widely available in various versions: the original French, a Latin translation, and a retranslation from Latin to French by Jean le Lonc of Ypres. Mandeville used Jean du Plan de Carpini’s account in the version given by Vincent of Beauvais, whose excerpts were so large that they were abstracted once more from the Speculum and recirculated as a separate work. Around twenty episodes in the Travels can be traced to the Letter of Prester John. Accounts of the Holy Land and the Near East that have been borrowed include the Historia Hierosolomitanae Expeditionis by Albert of Aix, Jacques de Vitry’s Historia Orientalis, sive Hierosolymitanae, Burchard’s Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica Evangelica, Josephus’ Bellum Judaicorum, pseudo-Brocard’s Directorium, Durand’s Rationale, pseudo-Methodius, Eugesippus’ De distantiis locorum Terrae Sanctae, and others on Palestine, including Ernoul’s Itineraries and the Pelerinaiges et Pardouns de Acre. Also Brunetto Latini’s Livre dou Trésor and the Imago Mundi attributed to Honorius of Autun.


He shows knowledge of the Alexander romances, as well as those of Charlemagne and Arthur. He knew the Chevalier du Cigne and its sequel, Godefroi de Bouillon, as well as the Chanson de Jérusalem, the Chanson d’Antioche, and the Legends of the Cross. The list seems endless. He certainly was well-read. On top of this there is the possibility that he collected accounts via oral means, as well as first hand, for there is every possibility that he did travel at least as far as the Holy Lands, if not further. The story of Ypocras’ daughter on the isle of Lango is one example that appears to have no literary source, yet later, in 1483, Felix Fabri discovered the legend on his visit to the island. To dismiss this weave of various sources out of hand belies the fact that for many years the book was regarded as convincing in its accounts. The selection and rearranging of texts, combined with his imaginings and clear visualizations make this a major work of literature.


Here lies Master John de Montevilla knight alias ad Barbam, Master of Compredi, born in England, professor of medicine and most devout in prayer, and most liberal giver of his goods to the poor, who travelled over the whole world. He ended the last day of his life in a house in Liège, in the year of our Lord 1372, the seventeenth day of the month of November.


So read the epitaph located in the church of the Guillemins, which belonged to a religious order of hermits of St William, founded in 1152. The church was destroyed at the end of the 18th century. In 1866, with the publication of a passage from Ly Myreur des Histors, compiled by the Liège romancer, Jean d’Outremeuse, came the story:


In 1372 died at Liège on the twelfth (sic) of November a man who was greatly distinguished for his birth. He was content to be known by the name of John of Burgundy (Jean de Bourgogne), called With the Beard (à la Barbe). He, however, opened his heart on his death-bed to Jean d’Outremeuse, his gossip, who he appointed his executor. In truth, he entitled himself in the deed of his last will, Sir John Mandeville, knight, Earl of Montfort in England, and lords of the isle of Campdi and of the castle Pérouse. Having, however, had the misfortune of killing in his country an earl whom he does not name, he bound himself to travel through the three parts of the world. Came to Liège in 1343. Issued as he was from very high nobility, he loved to keep himself hidden. He was, moreover, a great naturalist, a profound philosopher and astrologer, especially adding a very singular knowledge of physics, rarely making mistakes when he told his opinion about a patient, whether he would recover or not. When dead at last, he was buried with the brethren Wilhelmites in the suburb of Avroy, as you have been able to see more fully above.




That Sir John Mandeville was buried in the Guillemins has never been challenged. Though neither ultimately has anyone proved one way or another if the author of the Travels was connected with Liège at all. (I write this statement, only to discover another book has just been published after a break of about forty years, another book that contends these very points, attempting to prove that our Knight not only came from St Albans but returned there afterwards, and is buried there.)


Of the four copies of the manuscript version known to exist in Liège, the 15th century copy of what is termed the Ogier-Liège version, disappeared from the University of Liège library, probably between 1860 and 1875. Two Latin versions, written in 15th century, are still there. And a final copy that was earlier in the library of the ex-Abbaye de St Jacques has disappeared, location unknown, meaning into a private collection.”


from Three Faces of Liège, 2009

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