Writing East: The "Travels" of Sir John Mandeville

Writing East: The "Travels" of Sir John Mandeville

Writing East: The "Travels" of Sir John Mandeville

Writing East: The "Travels" of Sir John Mandeville

Synopsis

Winner of the 2001 John Nicholas Brown Prize of the Medieval Academy of America

No work revealed more of the mysterious East to statesmen, explorers, readers, and writers of the late Middle Ages than the Book of John Mandeville. One of the most widely circulated documents of its day, it first appeared in French between 1356 and 1371 and was soon translated into nine other European languages. Ostensibly the account of one English knight's journeys through Africa and Asia, it is, rather, a compilation of travel writings first shaped by an unknown redactor.

Writing East is a study of how Mandeville's Travels came to appear in its various versions, explaining how it went through a series of transformations as it reached new audiences in order to serve as both a response to previous writings about the East and an important voice in the medieval conversation about the nature and limits of the world. Higgins offers a palimpsestic reading of this "multi-text" that demonstrates not only how the original French author overwrote his precursors but also how subsequent translators molded the material to serve their own ideological agendas.

Excerpt

Defined in the most general terms, the present book is a case study in two subjects: textmaking and worldmaking. By worldmaking, a term I borrow from Nelson Goodman, I mean here the discursive construction of a specific geographical, natural, human, and theological world out of already existing worlds that were likewise fashioned discursively and/or cartographically. By textmaking, I mean in particular the common medieval practice of making new works out of “olde bokes” by recomposing them, whether through turning already existing material from various sources into a single “original” compilation, as Vincent of Beauvais did in making his famous encyclopedia, or through “overwriting” a given precursor, as Chaucer did in writing Troilus and Criseyde over Boccaccio’s ii Filostrato. in both cases, then, the term “making” refers not to ex nihilo creation, but rather to remaking, which is to say that any remade text or world stands in a dynamic and dialogic relation to its sources and predecessors.

The world in question here is the East between Constantinople and the Earthly Paradise, as it was known and imagined by Latin Christian writers and cartographers between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, and specifically that East as represented in the particular text in question: Mandeville’s Travels, to use the modern editorial title, or The Book of John Mandeville, as I prefer to call it after its common medieval designation. Originally compiled in French sometime around 1360, this diverting, instructive, and moralizing tour of the medieval East quickly became one of the most popular and widely circulated writings of its time, being translated into nine other languages, including Latin, and often reworked in the process. As a result of its extensive circulation and variously free or faithful transmission, The Book is extant in some three hundred manuscripts that represent two major variants of the Mandeville-author’s original compilation and some half a dozen different forms, including two short verse redactions.

There are, as Brian Stock has written, “few genuinely privileged texts” for students of the Middle Ages “and many works which, for other than purely literary purposes, have important stories to tell.” As a paradoxically sui gener is representative of the fluid, omnivorous, long-lived, and consequential genre defined by the traveler’s book about Elsewhere and Otherness, The . . .

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