Category: John Mandeville (page 1 of 4)

The Book of John Mandeville: Babylon

Sir John Mandeville describes the city of Babylon in a section entitled “The Way from Gaza to Babylon”. He first informs his readers that in order to travel to Babylon, they must first gain permission from the Sultan, who lives there. Mandeville seems to hold the Sultan in high regard. However, the first description Sir John Mandeville gives of Babylon is not a description of the Sultan, but a description of a church of Our Lady (Mary). He claims that Mary “lived [there] for seven years when she fled from the land of Judea in fear of King Herod.” Mandeville then goes on to list several events of religious importance that also took place in the church; he claims it to be where Jospeh stayed when he was sold by his brothers, where Nebuchadnezzar put three entirely holy children into the furnace, and the resting place of St. Barbara the virgin. However, the list is only that; a list. Mandeville does not go into great depth describing either the church or the details of its stories. Despite Sir John Mandeville’s apparent devotion to Christianity and attempting to educate others about the faith, he spends very little time on religion in what is usually primarily portrayed as a holy city, or a place of religious importance. This is in stark contrast to his other Christian location descriptions, in which he spends the majority of the time talking about Christianity. He spends only one paragraph on the religious importance of tBabylon, strongly centered around the city’s church. He spends the following twelve paragraphs describing the Sultan. It seems as though Sir John Mandeville’s reverence for the Sultan, who he claims to have lived with as a mercenary, overruled his zeal for talking about Christianity.

Sir John Mandeville’s intense admiration for the Sultan is obvious. He begins by describing the great power of the Sultan and the extent of his reach in regards to the lands he controls. He spends the next two pages describing the history of the Sultans of Egypt, much more space than he allots for Christian history. He speaks some more about the size of the Sultan’s army, and then he goes into detail about the Sultan’s life and the traditions and customs associated with it. He starts with the Sultan’s love life, pointing out that one of his wives is always Christian, but that he takes as many lovers as he wishes. Mandeville even validates the Sultan’s practice of taking all the beautiful virgins in the towns and cities that he visits, saying that he “has them detained there respectfully and with dignity”. It seems unlikely that any way the Sultan could detain all the virgins in a town would be a dignified method, but Sir John Mandeville seems convinced of the Sultan’s righteousness and nobility, despite the fact that they clearly do not share the same faith or morals. Mandeville finishes with a short description of the proper etiquette and protocol required of foreigners who wish to meet with or visit the Sultan.

It seems exceedingly strange that Sir John Mandeville, a European and an incredibly strong Christian, would prioritize information about the Sultan of Babylon rather than the Christian parts of the city, which seem to be plentiful. In addition, Mandeville does not seems as concerned or judgmental about non Christian behaviors exhibited by the Sultan; for example, he presents polygamy and the worship of the Sultan as not only acceptable but reasonable practices. This total change is strange, but the descriptions of the Sultan and his life must have seemed impressive to the author, and including them was likely an attempt to impress his audience as well.

The Book of John Mandeville: The Land of Prester John

John Mandeville describes the land of India multiple times in his narrative “The Book of John Mandeville.” At first he calls it ‘The Land of India’ but later he refers to it as ‘The Land of Prester John.’ While his first chapter on India gets more and more savagely fantastical as it goes on, the later chapters about Prester John’s India is almost entirely divinely fantastical. There is only once when creatures of “savage” nature are described, and the rest of the time is devoted to how wonderful the land is. Mandeville begins by describing the wealth and scope of the lands and Prester John himself, who is said to have huge estates and a great deal of large cities and fine towns. He tells how the journey to get to the land is hazardous for ships, which is why not many people go to there.  Mandeville discusses the relationship between Prester John and the Great Khan (they marry the other’s daughter) and comments on how pious and religious Prester John is. The author then talks about the many wonders that are found on the island where the Emperor lives, like a sea of sand with lots of fish but no water in it and a flow of gems and stones from Paradise, like a river but also with no water. He briefly talks about a place with savage wild men with horns on their head, but then moves on to discuss the Emperor’s impressive parrots and army. He excessively describes the splendor of the palace of Prester John, and how the Emperor structures his court. Mandeville then goes into a list of each island nearby, describing various wonders on them and discussing how religious, pious and good the people there all are.

These chapters on India in the land of Prester John contrast significantly to the other chapter Mandeville wrote about India. They have similarities in that in both he lists many islands, and describes what is to be found on them, however the India of Prester John is portrayed as heavenly and good, while the other India is depicted as savage and wicked. In Prester John’s India, every place he discusses he describes as being a good island, with many wonders, no thieving, lots of fine gems and plenty of wealth. Even when these islands become more fantastical and have beasts or other types of people on them, he still portrays them as wonderful and good. The author’s bias is unmistakeable in this section. These lands are supposedly in the same general area as the other savage lands described in the first chapter on India. However, because he has connected the places in this chapter with the Christian figure Prester John, they are rendered and described as heavenly and wonderful by Mandeville. In my previous blog post about the first chapter on India, I commented on the author’s obvious racism when portraying the country. In these chapters his racism and christian exceptionalism has magnified. These two places, though in the same area and even in the same country, are described as practically polar opposites to each other, one as good and the other as evil, all because one is associated with Christianity and the other is not. However, the irony of this injustice is that neither of them are even real.

The Book of John Mandeville: Jerusalem

Much of The Book of Marvels and Travels is dedicated to discussing routes to Jerusalem, due to the city’s all-important status as the Holy Land and the place from which Christianity originated. As is typical of Medieval European thinking, Mandeville highlights through his narrative Jerusalem’s position as the center of the world, from which all else proceeds, both geographically and theologically. Because there is such a multitude of routes to Jerusalem presented within the narrative, and because Mandeville does not focus much on the practical or experiential aspects of travel itself, it would be a challenge to describe the physical journey to Jerusalem based solely on this text. However, if one was travelling from Western Europe as Mandeville claims to, then according to this text they would first arrive at the port of Jaffa after travelling through the Mediterranean. From there Jerusalem would be a day and a half’s travel over 27 miles of land.

Of the climate, Mandeville writes that it is dry with limited sources of water. Mountains and bodies of water are briefly described, most notably including the Dead Sea and the River Jordan. The former is one of few typical “wonders” in Mandeville’s Jerusalem, defying nature with bitter, still water in which no living thing can die. The latter functions primarily as a description of a holy site, with recollections of Jesus’ baptism and an Old Testament story concerning the river.

In describing the city of Jerusalem, the author of Mandeville provides some information on the landscape as well as historical and political background, but reports primarily in his writing on the holy sites that Pilgrims would go there to see. These include specific churches and temples and various relics kept in the city, as well as the physical locations associated with Biblical stories and places of general significance to the life of Christ. The most prominent examples of such holy sites in the text are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple of Our Lord. Mandeville does not go into depth in this section on the political conditions in Jerusalem, but does emphatically note that “the sinful ones” (40) — here meaning Muslims — have possessed the city for over half a century, but will not continue to do so for long if God does not will it. This provides a deeper look into the medieval European conception of the Holy Land as a lost possession in the hands of those not faithful to Christ.

It is significant that in Jerusalem the author of Marvels and Travels focuses on specific holy sites pertaining to pilgrimage, because this was a place where one could, in theory, go and literally walk in the steps of Jesus Christ. Mandeville describes the process of the Crucifixion, and points to places throughout the city where Christ reportedly suffered or stopped to rest. If the text as a whole is considered with regard for its entertainment purposes, then an experiential account of destinations in Jerusalem that were typical for pilgrims to visit can be interpreted as a travel guide of sorts. It provides an imagined version of the Holy Land to European audiences who had an interest in the spiritual significance of these sites. This tactic also serves to justify the theme throughout the text of Jerusalem as the center of the world, by driving home the tangible origins of Christianity linked to the city.

The Book of John Mandeville: The Kingdom of Manzi

Sir John Mandeville gives a very brief account of the Kingdom of Manzi; in fact, his summary of his supposed travels there lasts less than two pages. The Kingdom of Manzi, as he describes it, is “the best region of India”. Due to his wrongful notion that India is somehow a collection of islands, Mandeville claims that to reach this land one must voyage for several days cross the Indian Ocean. Once there, however, the Kingdom of Manzi is presented as being glorious and exotic.

Mandeville begins by describing the people of the Kingdom of Manzi. He first states that both Christians and Saracens live in the Kingdom due to its size, and later explains that its largest city houses “religious men, Christian friars, devout men”. This is strange, as Christianity in India in the Middle Ages was rare if present at all. He goes on to explain that there is no begging, because in all of the two thousand cities the kingdom holds, there is not a single poor person, which seems unlikely. He comments that the men have “wispy beards like a cat’s whiskers”, which is in keeping with his outlandish descriptions of the other strange people on the islands of India, and finishes by claiming that there are “fair-complexioned women in this region, and therefore some people call it Albania on account of its white people”. Because John Mandeville describes the Kingdom of Manzi as wonderful, pleasing and apparently perfect in every way, it can be assumed that his view of the people who live in the Kingdom of Manzi reflects what he values in people worldwide.

His first and main point is that it is a place populated by Christians, specifically devout and religious ones. This makes sense, as John Mandeville was a monk who would obviously value others under his religion. He goes into great detail describing the monastic abbey of the city of Cassay, the largest city in the Kingdom of Manzi (and apparently in “the whole world”). Mandeville apparently spends time with a monk of the abbey who is responsible for feeding the animals there, who are apparently the souls of dead men doing time in purgatory. He justifies using the leftover food in this way because the Kingdom of Manzi holds no poor people, which leads into the next claim.

Mandeville’s second claim is a little stranger; he claims that there are no poor people present in the entirety of the kingdom. Although traditionally, wealth and power are not supposed to be highly valued by Christians (especially monks, who live a humble and modest life), Mandeville clearly puts some stock in the idea of money. It is possible that his life of modesty in a monastery has caused him to look with greater fondness and even yearning to those who have more, which would explain why he references it so often throughout his narrative. It is also likely that he knows his audience will be impressed by wealth and power, and so he goes into great detail describing it, claiming that the people of Manzi have “plenty of food, and also great snakes, which they use in lavish feasts”, “fine towers”, “married women [who wear] crowns on their head”, et cetera. The strangest part of this is when Mandeville describes the animals; he claims that “the gentle and attractive animals [are] the souls of aristocrats and gentlemen, and those that are ugly [are] the souls of commoners”. This is a brutal perpetration of the elitism and classism that was common in the medieval period, but for a monk to make the claim is unusual and even contradictory to traditional Christian values.

Finally, Mandeville describes the people of the Kingdom of Manzi as being white. This is a clear sign that Mandeville bought into the idea of the “superior” white man and aversion to any people not like himself that was so common at the time. He needs the people of Manzi to be white so that it can be the greatest place on Earth in his eyes.

The Book of John Mandeville: India

The chapter on India in “St. John Mandeville: The Book of Marvels and Travels” was unlike any of the ones before. It was very much a hodge-podge of lots of different pieces of information thrown together. The author began the chapter introducing India ‘s different parts, then immediately dove into a lengthy discussion of the diamonds that could be found in the country. He talked about where they were, what kinds, what they mean, what they do, how to carry them, etc. After diamonds, he talks about the geography of the land of India, then spends almost the rest of the chapter listing the many islands. The author talks about what these islands look like and what the people who live there are like, especially in their religious ways and who the ruler is. In the middle of the list of islands he breaks to talk about stars and the location of countries on the earth. According to him, Jerusalem is in the center of the world with England and India on either side. He says that a traveler can circle the world and end up back in the country he started in, then jumps back into a discussion of the islands. His information gets more and more fantastical as the chapter progresses, going from stating the different ways the people of each island kill and eat each other to talking about islands on which men have one eye in the middle of their forehead, or dog’s heads, or no head at all.


In all of the crazy information presented about India and its islands, it is hard to find a common thread besides the fact that most of it just seems made up. However, looking at the elements that he spends the most time on reveals the author’s bias towards the normal, lower class people of India. Proportionally, he talks at length about the diamonds and the geography of the world and very little about each individual island and its inhabitants. Despite not spending much time on them, however, the author makes huge generalizations about the peoples who live on each island. Most of the information he includes about the non-fantastical people is how they eat and kill each other, and this information is in much smaller paragraphs. He repeatedly calls them evil, says they worship a “fake-god”, says they have “horrible customs” and calls them ‘unintelligent” etc. The author only has good words for the kings of each place, and the cities themselves, and, of course, the diamonds.


There could be twofold reasoning for the author’s harsh words about the common people of India. First, he could simply be incredibly racist and not care about the “normal” people enough to learn the real facts, or to include other information besides what he thinks is true. Or he could honestly have just made most of the entire chapter up. I think the truth is probably a little bit of both. As well, the escalation of fantasy at the end, especially the inclusion of the fantastical creatures like cyclopes and people with dog heads, lends to the probability that the entire thing is from his imagination.

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