THE RIDDLE AND THE KNIGHT:
IN SEARCH OF SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE, THE WORLD’S GREATEST TRAVELER
By Giles Milton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23, 230 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY IAIN HIGGINS
More than 600 hundred years ago, around 1360, or about half a century after Marco Polo’s famous “Travels” was published, a book appeared whose claims out-Poloed Polo’s. Not only that, but this other book was at the time even more successful than Polo’s. Both books were originally composed in French, the international language of literature and nonspecialist learning in the 13th and 14th centuries, but where Polo’s was soon translated into half a dozen languages and has survived in 80 some manuscripts, the other account made its way into 10 languages in all, including Latin, Czech, Danish, and Irish, and has survived in about 300 manuscript copies.
Like Polo’s work, this other book has been known for centuries as its author’s “Travels,” yet like its predecessor it actually came to its earliest readers under a quite different title. Where Polo’s work was usually called either “Description of the World” or “The Marvels of the World,” the other account was typically known as “The Book of John Mandeville,” or sometimes as “The Book of Marvels of the World.”
Recalling these early titles may seem like pedantry, but it has important consequences. Above all, the medieval titles remind contemporary readers that neither Polo’s nor Mandeville’s account is a travel book in the modern (post-Renaissance) sense. Neither book, after all, retraces the traveler’s own path, nor does either tell the story of its author’s adventures abroad as do, for instance, works as different as Christopher Columbus’ “Log,” Sir Walter Raleigh’s account of his voyage to Guiana, “Gulliver’s Travels,” Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of he Beagle,” or anything by Bill Bryson. On the evidence of Polo’s, Mandeville’s and other related medieval books, we can say that their earliest readers mostly wanted “just the facts, sir,” and not a detailed recounting of personal experience.
All that Polo tells readers of his own remarkable travels can be found in the book’s brisk introductory overview, after which the account settles into an impersonal, geographically organized description of the eastern world. The description itself is an occasionally historical account of the customs and manners of the peoples Polo has encountered, the wonders he has seen, and, very rarely, experiences he has himself had. Mandeville’s book is quite similar.
The crucial differences are that the introductory travel narrative is compressed to a paragraph-long list of countries visited, the geography is extended to cover the entire East as the later medieval Christian world knew it (not just central and eastern Asia, but Constantinople, the Levant, Palestine, and north-eastern Africa), and the author makes more, and more dramatic, appearances on the stage of his own account.
There are several other consequential differences between Polo’s and Mandeville’s books, and they account for the fact that in the mid-19th century Polo’s stock rose aggressively indeed it has remained high ever since while Mandeville’s crashed as spectacularly as Enron’s. Like the modern energy giant, the medieval world traveler was accused of cooking the books in this case, of making his own “original” dish out of the materials unwittingly provided by other travelers and writers.
In addition, the author himself may be an invention, since there is no reliable evidence that a John Mandeville, knight, of St. Albans near London ever existed, nor that he left his homeland in 1322 and for some 34 years traveled the eastern world between Constantinople and Beijing Sir John did not make it as far as the Earthly Paradise, he says, because he was not “worthy,” unlike Alexander the Great, who according to medieval legend got as far as the outside walls.
Of the truth of the first charge what we but not necessarily the medievals would call plagiarism there is no doubt. The book’s author, whoever he was, took two narratives of eastern travel in the early-14th century of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by a German Dominican and of a missionary journey to India and China by a Bohemian Franciscan and spliced them together where the first left off and the second began.
Not only that, but he wrote the original authors out of their works completely, occasionally substituting himself for them (thus “borrowing” their deeds), and filling the resulting composite book with facts, lore, and entertaining tales both invented by himself and culled from the whole range of books contained in medieval libraries. Among this added material are claims that Sir John obtained one of the thorns from Jesus’ crown of thorns and that he served both the Sultan of Egypt and the Great Khan in their local wars (the fact that in the Khan’s case he is merely about a century out in his dates effectively undermines the claim.).
Much more striking (not to say consequential) is the book’s assertion that the earthly sphere is inhabited both above and below the equator and so can be circumnavigated in fact, already has, not once but twice, both times inadvertently (I refer the reader who wants to follow up this remarkable story to one of the readily available modern English versions).
Whatever else our knowledge of these facts about the book does, it makes the author’s relation to his work oddly irrelevant: There may have been a John Mandeville, knight, of St. Albans, and he may well have traveled, at least to the Holy Land, but his book is not a record of his travels. Rather, it is a remarkable, informative, pious yet skeptical, and often highly entertaining composite work summarizing pretty much all that was known about the East in the mid-14th century. It offered everything Polo’s book did and more no wonder it was so popular. In short, “The Book of John Mandeville” is, by the standards of its time, a mainly factual account, if also an account put into the mouth of someone whose identity modern scholars like to view as fictional.
This is perhaps a long preamble to a tale, as Chaucer’s Friar would say, yet it is a necessary one. Giles Milton’s “The Riddle and the Knight” (first published in England in 1996) claims to record a personal search for the truth of the “mystery” surrounding Sir John Mandeville (who was he anyway?), and even offers a few solutions.
Others have already done the scholarly legwork on which Mr. Milton draws heavily and his wanderings in the archives bring nothing important to light (some of his information and claims are confusing, even misleading to the nonspecialist, and there are almost no Mandeville specialists to correct him).
In fact, the reader who knows little or nothing about Sir John Mandeville and his book will know precious little more by the end of Mr. Milton’s, since the limited Mandeville material is very slowly parcelled out in alternating chapters as a background to Mr. Milton’s own travels in the Middle East. The material adds up to no coherent picture, in any case. For such information, the nonacademic reader would do better to look up Donald R. Howard’s fine, brief study, “Writers and Pilgrims.”
Still, despite this remarkable shortcoming (one might almost call it a giant red herring dragged across the course of the book), “The Riddle and the Knight” is a genially written, pleasant, sometimes even stimulating diversion for anyone interested in medieval Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This is not quite an “in the footsteps of” narrative, since clearly it cannot be. Instead, what the modern book mostly offers is precisely what the medieval one lacks: the personal narrative and the traveler’s own experiences.
Mr. Milton tells his reader about the people he met on his quest, the places he stayed, and how the medieval pilgrimage sites differ (or not) from their descriptions in medieval books like Mandeville’s. Almost everywhere he goes, for instance, the modern English author finds locals who speak English amazingly well and who turn out to be other Englishmen who have left their homeland to become Greek Orthodox monks, as at the famous monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai (in whose remarkable historical library Mr. Milton finds such works as John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” such strikingly unmonastic books apparently left behind by visiting Anglican vicars).
Mr. Milton also has his share of surprises and discomfort. In Darhab, Egypt, for instance, he is led to a laughably cheap hotel full of drunks and stoned hippies, and for his small outlay wakes up bedbug-bitten in a blood-spattered room to which he vows never to return. The reader interested in Mandeville, then, should look elsewhere, but for anyone interested in someone’s contemporary adventures among monks, tour guides, storekeepers, hippies, fellow travelers, and bedbugs on the medieval Christian pilgrimage trail, “The Riddle and the Knight” offers the agreeable pleasures of a vicarious journey.
Iain Higgins is associate professor of English at the University of Victoria, B.C. and author of “Writing East: The ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville.”