The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas it is suggested that his small library included not only a copy of Polo’s travels to Asia but also the account of a lesser known traveller, Sir John Mandeville.

Sir John Mandeville tells us that he left his home from the north of France in 1322, made his way through Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Amazonia, India, Sri Lanka, the Islands of Indonesia, and like so many others made his way to China.  He returned in 1356 to retire and write his travel memoirs.

Mandeville, like others including Polo, provided us with many accounts of strange and exotic people and places, he seems to cover more oddities per literary real estate than any of our other travelling heroes.  He writes of one eyed giants, headless men, those with large lips that they can sleep under and others whose ears hang to their knees.  There are others who have feet like horses, some with one large foot that they use to cover themselves from the noon day sun and there are satyrs, half man and half goats.  He even managed to drink from the fountain of youth in China.

The problem with Sir John Mandeville however is that he was quite likely a complete fraud.  There is no supporting record that such a knight existed and the name is thought to have been made up by some bored priest or clergyman, literate but unable to venture far from home, it has been suggested that his furthest journey was to his local library.  Similar charges have been leveled against Polo and Ibn Battuta, but virtually everything that Mandeville passes on to us can be gleaned from other travellers and historians, Carpini, Rubrick, Polo and further back to Herodotus, Pliny and Ptolemy. There is little or nothing that is original in his writing.

Today we refer Mandeville’s tale of travel as a curiosity and give it little room in our lexicon of world travel accounts.  I wonder of the writer’s motives, homebound perhaps without financial means or physical mobility, he travelled the world as only he could through the writings of others and created his own adventure of the world he could not see firsthand.

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