262. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1356)

The supposed travels of an English knight across The Holy Land, Egypt, Asia, Amazonia, India, Cathay as far as the Gravelly Sea and the Garden of Eden. My copy was an abridged version with commentary by Norman Denny and Josephine Filmer-Sankey, published by Collins, 1973.

Thoughts : Initially published in Latin, then French and finally English in the mid 1300s, volumes of Mandeville’s travels were popular reading and believed for centuries before finally recognised as imaginings borrowed and elaborated from other writers including Marco Polo. We have descriptions of the Phoenix, the race of Amazon warrior women, dog-headed people (Cynoceptales), cyclopses (cyclopi??), griffins, men without heads, men with horses hoofs, men with a single giant foot which they use as a parasol to shade from the sun; as well as boiling seas, seas of dirt and gravel with waves but no water. Most of these amazing races and sights were lifted from other writers including Herodotus and the Greeks.

Most interesting was the Garden of Eden, a walled area unreachable through deserts, mountains and rocks, with an encircling wall and eternal fires burning in the doorways. From a fountain within the Garden issues four rivulets which become the four mighty rivers of the known world, the Ganges, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Despite discovering and drinking from the Well of Youth, Mandeville finished his days an old man suffering from arthritic gout, if indeed he existed in the first place.

Digressions/diversions: Much of the broad geography as described by Mandeville is based on the Mappa Mundi, a world map centred on Jerusalem drawn on calf hide in the early 1300s and still available to study under glass in Hereford Cathedral. I visited it in April this year – a great place to visit including a chained library.

Favourite quotes/scenes: The juice of crushed snails keeps venomous snakes away. Truly.

Personal rating:¬† In fairness to Marco I can give Mandeville no more than 4/10. If you have read Polo, I wouldn’t bother with Mandeville. If you have no desire to follow in Marco’s footsteps, Mandeville (especially the abridged version) is an amusing substitute of much of the same ground.

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