A knight’s (tall) tale: why medieval traveller Sir John Mandeville was more popular than Marco Polo

His book, known as The Travels, inspired Christopher Columbus and every peculiar detail from far-off lands was widely believed for centuries. But was the medieval knight turned explorer actually a fraudulent fantasist or rampant plagiarist? Writer Giles Milton goes looking for the real Sir John Mandeville...

Illustration of a man without a head, but with his face on his chest. This is one of many creatures Sir John Mandeville claimed to have met on his travels

The shore was a tangle of mangrove roots and the air was dense with humidity. Overhead, the tropical sun was burning with relentless intensity. After years of weary voyaging, the medieval English knight Sir John Mandeville had reached the utmost ends of the Earth. He was more than 5,000 miles from home.

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Or so he claimed. And it was not his only claim. He said he had been on the road for a full 34 years and had undertaken an eye-stretching expedition that covered most of the known world, and much of the unknown world as well.

Rome, Greece and the Byzantine capital of Constantinople – these had formed the early years of his great adventure. He had then pressed on towards Egypt, Ethiopia and the Holy Land.

Still hungry for thrills, he had set his stirrups east and journeyed towards Armenia, India, China and beyond, traversing sun-parched deserts and ice-capped mountains. He had even visited the equatorial Andaman Islands, lost in the sweltering Bay of Bengal.

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The account he wrote of his voyage, known simply as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, was widely believed for centuries. Geographers used it to redraw their maps, and monastic scribes translated it from language to language until it had spread throughout all the great monasteries of Europe. By the time this globe-trotting knight died in the 1360s, his book was available in every European language, including Dutch, Gaelic, Czech, Catalan and Walloon.

Indeed it was he, not Marco Polo, who was known as the ‘world’s greatest traveller’. The sheer number of surviving manuscripts is testament to Mandeville’s popularity: more than 300 handwritten copies of The Travels still exist in Europe’s libraries – four times the number of Marco’s book.

Sir John Mandeville: who was the elusive knight

Early readers were captivated by his outlandish tales of pygmies and cannibals, yet the enduring importance of The Travels is to be found in a single yet startling passage that set the book apart from all its contemporaries. Mandeville claimed his voyage proved it was possible to set sail around the world in one direction and return home by the other.

This was something others had said was impossible. His book altered men’s horizons, and it became the beacon that lit the way for the great expeditions of the Renaissance. Christopher Columbus planned his 1492 expedition after reading The Travels. Sir Walter Raleigh studied the book and declared that every word was true. Sir Martin Frobisher is said to have read a copy as he ploughed his pioneering route through the Northwest Passage.

Christopher Columbus planned his 1492 expedition after reading Sir John Mandeville, and Sir Walter Ralegh studied the book and declared that every word was true

But who was this elusive knight? And did he really undertake such a voyage? The passing of six long centuries presents a challenge to any historical detective, yet surviving documents provide a few clues about both the adventurer and his adventures.

Of the many John Mandevilles alive in the 1300s, one lived in the Essex village of Black Notley, where he owned substantial land and property. In 1321, just months before our intrepid adventurer claimed to have left England, this John Mandeville sold everything he owned and disappeared for the next 37 years. Not until 1358 did he reappear, as the witness to a grant of property.

Was this Mandeville the celebrated traveller? It’s possible, and there is a compelling reason for his departure. The Mandeville family’s overlord, Humphrey de Bohun, had rebelled against the king, Edward II, and challenged him to do battle. In the disastrous fight that followed, de Bohun’s army was vanquished.

As a liegeman of the de Bohuns, John Mandeville was in serious trouble: Edward II vowed to have his terrible revenge on the family and their vassals. If ever there was time to flee the country, it was in 1322.

Did John Mandeville make up his travels?

The first part of Mandeville’s purported journey – to the Holy Land – is not only plausible, but probable. There was a well-trodden pilgrim trail in the Middle Ages. Thousands of pious and not-so-pious pilgrims made the annual trudge to Rome, Constantinople and Jerusalem, as well as to other shrines such as Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

Many of Mandeville’s anecdotes tally with known facts. On arriving in Constantinople, for example, he notices that the famous statue of Emperor Justinian is missing its giant globe. This much was true: the Byzantine chronicler Nicephoros Gregoras records that the globe was badly damaged in the terrible storm of 1317 and that it took eight years to repair.

Nor is there any reason to doubt Mandeville’s claim to have visited the remote St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. The medieval graffiti scratched into the refectory ceiling is testimony to the huge numbers of pilgrims who flocked here from right across Europe.

But Mandeville’s purported expedition to the opulent East is rather more suspect. Long-distance travelling was certainly possible in the Middle Ages, and Marco Polo was by no means alone in travelling to the remotest corners of Asia. The Italian diplomat, John of Plano Carpini, visited Mongolia in 1246, while Friar Odoric of Pordenone – a contemporary of Mandeville – made it to China in the 1320s. But such voyages were the exception, not the norm.

Marco Polo was by no means alone in travelling to the remotest corners of Asia

One of Mandeville’s wildest claims came from the shores of Indo-China: here, he watched spellbound as a gigantic snail slithered through the tropical vegetation with four excited men riding atop its shell.

Soon afterwards, he chanced upon a group of men and women with heads like dogs. And there were other marvels, such as two-headed geese, men with gigantic testicles, and sheep that grew on trees. In Tibet, he wrote of savages eating their dead parents; in India, of elephants carrying giant castles on their backs.

His stories are so outlandish that many believe them to be the work of a fraudulent fantasist. Yet not all can be dismissed out of hand. What if that snail was actually a giant tortoise? And what if those dog-faced humans were actually baboons?

Even the castle-backed elephants might have an explanation. For many centuries, Indian rulers rode around in elaborately decorated howdahs – canopied platforms strapped to the backs of elephants.

The problem with Mandeville’s account is that too many of his stories bear an uncanny resemblance to those of his contemporaries, and especially those of Friar Odoric. Plagiarism was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, yet Mandeville seems to have cut-and-pasted with abandon, copying great chunks of Odoric’s work.

The problem with Mandeville’s account is that too many of his stories bear an uncanny resemblance to those of his contemporaries

But he was such a consummate raconteur that his narrative is far more believable than the genuine account. The friar was no wordsmith and his travelogue lacks charm and colour, whereas Sir John’s is humming with detail. He describes the smells, the colours of fabrics and the shimmer of candlelight on the gilded thread of the imperial garments. He even has the chutzpah to say that the friar asked to join him for a particularly dangerous part of the journey.

The fabled ‘Vegetable Lamb of Tartary’ was a plant said to grow sheep as its fruit.
The fabled ‘Vegetable Lamb of Tartary’ was a plant said to grow sheep as its fruit. (Photo by Alamy)

One of the finest scenes in The Travels is lifted directly from Odoric’s account of an imperial Chinese banquet. In Mandeville’s hands, the friar’s workaday prose is transformed into a scene of barbaric splendour – an opulent feasting hall filled with the laughter and clatter of imperial retainers. As Mandeville watches from the shadows, a powerful voice roars across the candlelit hall: “Let every man do obeisance and bow to the emperor.” In a flash, a thousand retainers bow deeply to the floor. It’s a moment of great theatre.

In recent years, textual analysis has proved beyond doubt that the second half of Mandeville’s work is a skilful compendium of other travellers’ material. He lifted anecdotes from a dozen genuine travelogues and overlaid them with his inimitable wit.

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Yet few have been able to explain why he might have done such a thing, unaware that there is a hidden meaning inside The Travels. It is a meaning that can only be discovered by journeying deep into the medieval mindset.

Mandeville lived in an age of bards and troubadours, when literary entertainment revolved around elaborate puns and riddles. But these riddles always contained a revelation – a kernel of truth – and The Travels is no exception.

The sting in the tale

The clue is to be found in the two-part structure of the book. In the first part, Mandeville plays the pious pilgrim, doing penance at the holy sites of Christendom. He invites his readers to travel with him and share in his religious fervour.

Fortified with his new-found piety, Mandeville embarks on the second leg of his voyage, plunging the reader into the wilder realms of India and Indo-China. It is there, in one of the then remotest corners of the globe, that he springs a surprise. Far from criticising the savages he encounters, he presents them as far more pious than any Christian he met on his pilgrimage.

He even approves of the cannibalistic priest he sees chopping a human corpse into bite-size morsels of flesh. And he adds a telling detail: “He has a cup made from the cranium of the head, and he drinks from it all his lifetime, in remembrance of his father.”

This last line would have pricked the ears of every medieval reader. Each Sunday at church, he would hear the priest repeat Christ’s injunction to “do this in remembrance of Me”. Mandeville doesn’t condemn the priest, as might be expected. Instead, he celebrates his cannibalism as an act of simple piety. He had good reason for doing so.

The medieval world view

Glance at any medieval map and it is immediately obvious that people viewed the world in a completely different way in the Middle Ages. Jerusalem is at the centre of the map, with the rest of the known world encircling it, and everything is watched over by Christ and the angels. There is good reason for the depiction of Christ: Sir John Mandeville and his contemporaries saw geography through the prism of the Bible and did not turn to maps for topographical accuracy.

The famous Hereford map (c1300) is one of the finest surviving examples. Jerusalem and the Garden of Eden are given prominence, while Britain is a mere speck in the corner. Of America, Australia and other landmasses yet to be discovered, there is no trace.

Early travellers to the East had little to guide them on their journeys, and it took many decades before their discoveries were incorporated into the latest topographical charts. It was not until the great Renaissance explorations of the late 1400s and early 1500s, which took Europeans to Africa, the East Indies and North America, that cartographers began drawing coastlines with accuracy.

For centuries, churchmen had been sceptical about the possibility of sailing beyond the ‘torrid zone’ that was believed to surround the Earth. They were even sceptical about the existence of the Antipodes. St Augustine himself had said that “as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the Earth… there is no reason for believing it”.

His objection was theological. The human race was one, and it lived under God’s benign rule. It was impossible to countenance a whole other race of men in existence, as yet unknown to God.

If God was everywhere, then it stood to reason that man could sail everywhere, just as long as he could overcome the practical difficulties

Mandeville was determined to prove such teachings wrong. He insisted that God was everywhere, whether it be Europe, Asia or amongst peoples living in lands as yet undiscovered. He had witnessed God’s presence when travelling amongst cannibalistic pagans. Their prayers were not Christian and they had no knowledge of the Catholic church, but they nevertheless believed in the existence of God.

If God was everywhere, then it stood to reason that man could sail everywhere, just as long as he could overcome the practical difficulties. There was no Godless torrid zone; no terrifying void that would consume their ships. The Antipodes could be visited and Earth could be circumnavigated.

“So I say truly,” he concludes, “that a man could go all round the world, above and below, and return to his own country, provided he had his health, good company and a ship. And all the way he would find men, lands, islands, cities and towns.”

It was a striking passage for Mandeville’s contemporaries – one with a powerful resonance. It’s worth mentioning again that Christopher Columbus read these words shortly before deciding to embark on his 1492 voyage across the Atlantic. He was convinced. Fraudster or not, Sir John Mandeville was to transform the world.

Traveller’s tales: six more medieval men who explored the unknown

Marco Polo

A Venetian merchant and explorer who left Venice in 1271 and arrived in the court of Kublai Khan with his father and uncle in 1275. They lived in the emperor’s lands for 17 years, during which Polo travelled widely. The trio began their return journey to Venice in 1292, arriving in 1295, in the midst of a war with Genoa. Marco was captured by the Genoese and imprisoned: he dictated his travels from his cell. He was later released and ended his life a wealthy merchant.

John of Plano Carpini

An Italian explorer, diplomat and archbishop, in 1246 he became one of the first Europeans to visit the Mongol court of the Great Khan. He also wrote the first major European account of northern and central Asia. On his return to Europe, he was made Primate of Serbia. He died in 1252.

Ibn Battuta

This Moroccan scholar travelled widely over a period of three decades, visiting North Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia and China. His book, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, is a vivid and unique portrayal of the medieval world. He died in his native land in 1369.

Odoric of Pordenone

An Italian Franciscan friar, Odoric was sent to the East in 1318 to visit Christian missions in Armenia and Persia. He then made for India, the springboard for greater adventures. He sailed for Java, Borneo and China, visiting the Great Khan in present-day Beijing. He returned to Italy in 1329, more than a decade after he left Padua.

John of Montecorvino

Another Italian Franciscan, he was a missionary and founder of the earliest Catholic missions in India and China, where he became Latin Patriarch of the Orient. He reached China in 1294, shortly after the death of Kublai Khan. He died in what is now Beijing in 1328.

William of Rubruck

The Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck left Constantinople for the East in 1253. He visited the Volga before heading to the court of the Great Khan in Karakorum. He returned home safely, and died c1293.

Giles Milton is a writer specialising in history. He is the author of The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville (John Murray, 2001)

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This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed