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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.

Ryan’s test

The Book of John Mandeville: Babylon

Of Babylon, Mandeville present details on a wide variety of subjects, from physical and geographical aspects of the land, to political and cultural information, to his version of Babylon’s history. In a rare instance of inserting himself into the narrative, Mandeville claims he once lived there as a mercenary to the Sultan.

The Sultan of Babylon to whom he refers is said to be very powerful, ruling over five kingdoms. It is specified that this Babylon where the Sultan lives is not the same as Great Babylon, the ancient city referenced in the story of the Tower of Babel. To distinguish, Mandeville refers to the present incarnation as Babylon the Lesser. Great Babylon, by Mandeville’s account, used to be a great city on the banks of the Euphrates River, but after its decimation by a Persian king, it became an uninhabitable wasteland swimming with dragons and snakes. From Babylon the Lesser, this wasteland can only be reached by a 40-day journey through the desert.

Throughout the section in The Book of Marvels and Travels on the land of Babylon, several supposed routes to the city are described in detail. It is specified that the desert conditions surrounding Babylon make travel difficult, and one must ride a camel in place of a horse. Contrary to known modern geography, Mandeville positions Babylon “at the entrance of Egypt,” and also implies that one can go straight there from Aleppo. Though he does provide these hypothetical travel routes, Mandeville does not recount any particular journey undertaken.

Among the things Mandeville chooses to communicate about Babylon, his depiction of the Sultan stands out, and in particular the Sultan’s relationships with women. First, according to this account, the Sultan of Babylon always has three wives: one who is Christian and two who are Saracen (or Muslim). One of each must live in the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Ashkelon. In addition to having wives spread out over different territories, the Sultan has access wherever he goes to as many women as he wishes to use as lovers. In whatever new cities he visits, he has the most attractive virgins brought to him. They are said to be detained, but detained “respectfully and with dignity.” It is unclear what exactly respect for women means in the context, beyond one statement that the virgin of his choosing will be washed and dressed nicely before meeting him in his bedroom. It is also emphasized in the passage that everyone who encounters the Sultan, and foreigners in particular, are expected to demonstrate the utmost respect for him, going so far as to physically kneel before him upon meeting him.

Considering these separate details as they relate to each other, Mandeville’s portrait of this Sultan contains the idea that a man who has earned the respect that comes along with the Sultan’s political domain has also implicitly earned a dominion and authority over the bodies of women and girls wherever he goes. This is upheld further in the text when it is said that the Sultan treats these women with respect when he is holding them against their will to keep at his disposal as sexual partners.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Kara Khoja

En route to Cathay, Marco Polo relays the histories of different Great Khans as he reaches the cities that they impacted. Following a description of Mongu Khan, Polo introduces the city of Kara Khoja along the desert road.

While here, Polo’s observations center on the religious practices of the city’s people. Rather quickly he notes that the city is comprised of mostly idolaters, with some Nestorian Christians, and that “the Christians often intermarry with idolaters” (Polo, 89). In recording this, Polo draws attention to the unusualness of Christians marrying outside of their own religion. Being from Venice, close enough to the epicenter of the Catholic church, and from a city of mostly Christians, interfaith marriages would have been a foreign concept to Polo.

In most cases, when Polo records that a city is predominantly occupied by idolaters, that is the most information we get about their religion. Occasionally he’ll record burying practices or one particular practice of the group, that may not even be grounded in their religion. However, in Kara Khoja, we’re given the origin story of the idolaters’ religion. Polo explains that “they declare that the king who originally ruled over them was not born of human stock, but arose from a sort of tuber generated by the sap of trees, which we call esca; and from him all the others descended” (Polo, 89). A group of desert dwellers believing their origins come from the sap of a tree illustrates the importance of vegetation in the life of those with so few plants. Plants provide nourishment through sap and water. Any plants that survive in the desert must be sturdy, rare, and determined. Therefore if a people believe they come from something so rare, they recognize the harshness of their environment and the difficulties that come along with living there.  

Alongside their religious practices, the idolater’s education is made note of; “The idolaters are very well versed in their own laws and traditions and are keen students of the liberal arts” (Polo, 89). This description shows that Polo is surprised by their level of education. In Venice, a majority of the population would not have been able to read, and would have received a low level of education if any at all. Therefore a population of “keen students of the liberal arts” would have been impressive. 


The Book of the Wanderings of Felix Fabri: Spiteli

Spiteli is a small town in Italy and Fabri notes that the name means “Little Hospice” (18). Fabri doesn’t describe the physical features of the town or the inn in which he stayed, etc. Rather, Fabri focuses on when the lords asked him to give a Mass in order to celebrate the Mass of St. George. While he is recounting this anecdote, Fabri is critical of the lack of religious supplies. He is upset that there are no wafers or bread, he notes that he had “great difficulty” getting the chapel open, and due to the lack of bread he is forced to perform what is referred to as an “empty” Mass. He discusses the weather, which he finds disagreeable as well.

In Fabri’s account of his first journey, he wasn’t very focused on the details of the trip, but in this section, he notes down dates and modes of travel. He mentions that he’s riding on horseback and is accompanied by a retinue. His traveling group stops in Spiteli on the 22nd of April and they spend the night. They had left their previous stopping place after they ate dinner and didn’t arrive at the village of Spiteli until very late at night. His group usually spends the night at the local inn, accompanied by other pilgrims and, very often, knights on crusade. Fabri isn’t interested in writing down his physical surroundings too much. He often recounts stories about the people he meets or local lords, kings, dukes, etc. He’s also very interested in local religious practices and individual people.

One thing I found fascinating in this particular section was Fabri’s distinct disdain for the Italian common-people. He at one point mentions that they had expressions of “wonderment and surprise” after he gave the Mass, and said that it was because they “had never heard a sermon preached in their church in German except by me” (18). This quote isn’t necessarily insulting, but it is revealing in that it tells us what Fabri expects the villagers to know and not know. He jumps to the conclusion that the Italian villagers aren’t very well-traveled or worldly despite being unable to know this for sure. Later on in the passage, Fabri notes that some Italian villagers only spoke Italian and “were not accustomed to serve the nobility, nor had they the materials for serving them with proper respect” (18). He categorizes this situation as disagreeable and notes that the servants of the lords were unhappy with the villagers because of this as well. Despite this condescension towards the Italian villagers, Fabri never directly insults them and calls them “good, simple people” (18). This attitude, however, is condescending and portrays the Italian villagers as uneducated and not intelligent. Fabri also paints himself as kind and benevolent, while making sure to keep himself in a position of superiority. This dynamic is fascinating because Fabri obviously looks down on these people, but presents his condescension as complimentary and charitable.