Monday, October 09, 2006

Book Review: "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville"

I just finished a new edition of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, edited by E.C. Coleman (Nonsuch Publishing, 2006), so I thought I'd say a few words about it. The equivalent of a "bestseller" in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this semi-fanciful account of Mandeville's three-plus-decade romp across the Middle East, Africa and Asia not only makes for interesting reading, but also offers some very keen commentary on interaction between people of different faiths and ethnic groups.

The first portion of Mandeville's book is basically a road map to the Holy Land, with descriptions of the various routes that can be taken from Europe, how long each leg of the journey will take, etc. He continues by describing many of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem, Galilee and Bethelehem - descriptions which were very accurate even by today's standards. I visited the region three years ago and was struck by how vividly Mandeville was able to capture some of the holy sites (and how little they've changed in the last seven hundred years).

From Palestine, Mandeville's travels proceed through Egypt and Persia, east to India and the Malaysian islands, and up into what we'd now call China. While things get a little cloudier here in terms of accuracy, many of his descriptions contain at least a grain of truth (while others are just outright amusing). He writes about the people and their customs, manner of dress and dispositions, the means of government and their religion. He describes strange animals and plants which must have fascinated his European readers, and concludes from his astronomical observations that the world absolutely must be round.

Coleman's version of the text, which has been modernized slightly by necessity, is complemented nicely by woodcuts drawn from fourteenth and fifteenth-century editions of the work. This is a well-edited version of Mandeville's great work, and I quite recommend it to anyone who enjoys early travel literature or just a great trip around the medieval world.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

thanks for the info, Im reading this book for a medieval lit class. I love your blog