Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Mandeville's Travels and the Anglo-French Moment

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Mandeville's Travels and the Anglo-French Moment

Article excerpt

For over a quarter of a century Isabelle of France, Edward II's widow, played little or no part in public life. After her prominent role in the politics of the late 13205, and her notorious liaison with Roger Mortimer, summarily executed for treason in 1330, she lived in semi-retirement at Castle Rising in Norfolk and, latterly, at Hertford Casde. In the final year of her life, however, she came back into her own. The event that provided her with a last opportunity to play a major part on the historical stage was the arrival in England in May 1357 of the King of France and other French nobles captured at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. The queen's household accounts, largely overlooked by historians, record many distinguished visitors to Hertford Castle, two pilgrimages to Canterbury, banquets in London, and a participation in the Garter celebrations at Windsor.1 For this winter queen, Christmas 1357 was special. From November she was exchanging letters and gifts with King Jean, and several French noblemen visited her at Hertford. A few days before Christmas there arrived, from a more local source, a brace of deer for her kitchen. The man who brought the deer was named John Mandeville.2

For six hundred years readers have reflected on the autobiographical passages in Mandeville's Travels? The author presents himself as an English knight and pilgrim, born and raised in St Albans, who left his homeland in 1322 and returned from his adventures thirty-five years later, composing his account of his travels, according to different versions of the texts, in either 1356 or 1357. Over the years scholars have sought to identify the author with one of a number of John Mandevilles living in fourteenth-century England. In the 19305 Josephine Bennett undertook a thorough examination of the evidence, and many issues remain where she left them at the time of publication fifty years ago.4 This new reference from Queen Isabelle's accounts, hitherto unremarked, represents an intriguing addition to the corpus of material she assembled. It seems almost to represent a missing piece of her jigsaw.

The strong authorial statement in Mandeville's Travels continues to impress some scholars as a sign of authenticity.5 Yet the work provides little original information about the places allegedly visited, and it is clear that however well travelled the author may have been, he wrote his account from books not memory. For many scholars the 'I, John Mandeville ..." is merely part of the fiction. It is not the case, though, that all that the author says about himself and his work can be regarded as false. The claim to have written the work in the late 1350s is consistent with the dating of the main sources and the manuscript tradition. The Travels seemingly makes extensive use of French translations of Latin travel narratives anthologized by Jean le Long, a monk of Saint-Bertin at Saint-Omer in 13 51.6 Conversely, a date of composition later than 1360 is scarcely compatible with the richness and variety of the manuscript tradition evident by the 1370s.7 The earliest extant dated manuscript was made for Charles V of France in Paris in 1371.8 By this time there were three French versions of the Travels in existence, associated variously with the Île-de-France, England, and Liège. In the early 1380$ there were translations into Latin and English, and in the 13905 two independent translations into German. By the beginning of the fifteenth century the work was also available in Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Czech.9

The origin of this medieval best-seller remains uncertain. It was written in French, but there is real doubt as to the interrelation and priority of the three French versions. The author's self-identification, a number of textual references, and the survival of a large and important family of manuscripts in Anglo-French would tend to give the palm to England.10 On the other hand, some of the earliest and most prestigious texts - notably the royal manuscript of 1371 - were produced in Paris and written in the French of the Île-de-France. …

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