The Book of John Mandeville: Constantinople

Sir John Mandeville describes a traveller’s journey from the countries of Western Europe to Constantinople by listing the locations passed through along the way. According to him, one can begin by going through Germany and then Hungary. From there, one travels along the River Danube, through Belgrade, and crosses the River Maritsa. Then one travels, presumably by land, through Pechenegs to Greece and through several cities thereafter until arriving at Constantinople. Mandeville does not include the practical aspects of this journey, and would be hard-pressed to do so considering his narrative is entirely fictional.

Once the narrative settles for a moment in Constantinople, Mandeville takes care to describe the city as beautiful, noting its important monuments, the religious relics located there, and some of the surrounding physical geography. Regarding the physical aspects of the city, he says it has strong walls and three corners. He describes it as a city surrounded by water, noting the strait running through it. He also notes that there are a number of islands nearby in addition to three large mountains — Olympus, Athos, and a third one that he does not name.

In the city, he describes the church dedicated to St. Sophie, praising its beauty. Here he focuses in particularly on the statue of the Emperor Justinian in front of the church, reporting that there used to be an apple in the statue’s hand, and its disappearance symbolizes the loss of a once expansive empire. The statue’s other hand is raised pointing west in a purported gesture of threat towards sinners. This detail seems also to be symbolic on Mandeville’s part of the conflict between the Orthodox Christianity of the East and the Roman Catholic Church dominating the West. This conflict is elaborated elsewhere in Mandeville’s section on Constantinople, when he states on page 12 that “All people in the land of Greece are Christian, but it’s a very different faith from ours.” After this sweeping statement of distinction, Mandeville proceeds to tell the story of a conflict between the Roman Pope and the Orthodox patriarch, then enumerate the theological and practical differences between these two branches of Christianity.

Mandeville also notes several religious relics located in Constantinople, including a nail from the Cross of Christ among other items associated with his Crucifixion, a piece of Christ’s crown of thorns, and the bodies of several saints. He uses his mentions of the nail and the crown as opportunities to go on long, meticulously-detailed tangents about aspects of Christ’s life and death. Mandeville is writing throughout his descriptions of Constantinople with the clear purpose of communicating certain theological perspectives.

This theological discussion emphasizes primarily the differences between Orthodox and Roman Catholicism. When he lists the specific ways they vary in their views and practices, it comes across as a reaffirmation of the perceived ‘correctness’ of the Western Christian tradition in contrast to the strangeness of the Greek tradition. However, in context with the rest of Mandeville’s narrative, the intention for this comparison seems to go beyond an expression of xenophobia. There is a factually incorrect but symbolically significant arrangement within the text, wherein Western Europe and the land of Prester John are placed equidistant from Jerusalem. It is debatable what this positioning means for Mandeville’s perception of his own homeland’s spirituality. Is Western Europe closer to or farther from what Mandeville thinks Christianity is supposed to be? Does its symbolic location on the globe represent a spiritual distance? Judging from his descriptions of the Christianity practiced in Constantinople, Mandeville seems simultaneously to be highlighting Western Europe’s purity of belief and their spiritual isolation, symbolized by their physical distance from a Holy Land not in the possession of Christians.

The Book of John Mandeville: India

Mandeville goes to great lengths in his writing on India to describe unusual sights and peoples there. He begins his section on India by describing an awe-striking physical feature of the land: diamond growth. It is explained that these precious stones can be found in icy rocks, sea rocks, and in mountainous areas, implying that the land of India as Mandeville perceives it varies in climate and topography. Also described in this passage are the mystical properties of the diamonds — bringing courage and good health to those who carry them. It is interesting that this passage on diamonds serves as an introduction of sorts to the land India, as it is representative of Mandeville’s focus throughout the following chapter on the marvelous and incredible things to be found there.

He mentions the Indus River as a geographical feature of India, taking particular note of the 30-foot long eels he claims reside in it. Elsewhere he mentions an Indian island infested with dragons and snakes and other dangerous wild beasts. These details contribute to a theme of exoticizing India within the text. Mandeville puts particular effort into describing the people he claims reside in India and its “islands,” highlighting physical appearances as well as cultural practices that stand in contrast to the familiar world of medieval Western Europe.

The peoples Mandeville lists are generally portrayed as peculiar or revolting through the traits he emphasizes. He describes more than one cannibalistic culture, and more than one culture in which wives are killed if their husbands die before them. He describes the people of an island he called Lamuri, who wear no clothing and do not practice marriage — however, even here women are a good to be “shared” among men. He notes people from an island he calls Sumatra, who brand their faces with hot irons. With the partial exception of cannibalism, Mandeville does not appear to be noting these things for the purpose of denouncing them from any moral position. Rather, he presents them as if the reader will naturally perceive them as absurd or amazing, and marvel at his portrait of a mystical Asian land.

Mandeville does describe some people as explicitly evil, including one group who train dogs to kill their enemies, and another group who drink human blood and refer to it as “god.” Conversely, he describes one group as highly moral and faithful. This appears in a particular section in the chapter on India in which he simply lists the peoples he purports to have encountered for their physical peculiarities. He describes a group of people who have dogs’ heads and wear nothing but loincloths, but are highly intelligent and do not cause harm to others. They are good fighters and devout in their religious faith. In this list of physically abnormal people, he also includes people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads who only consume raw meat, headless people with eyes and mouths on their chests, people with both male and female sex organs, faceless people, very small people, and people with lips big enough to hide their whole faces from the sun.

Through these details, Mandeville’s imagined version of India becomes a place remarked chiefly for its strangeness. As he never actually travelled there, this account offers nothing in terms of anthropological value. But it does reflect the conception of far-off Eastern/Asian lands in the educated Western European mind of the Middle Ages. This is especially significant considering Mandeville interpreted other sources to come up with his image of India, and was likely writing to appeal to an audience that he knew wanted to read about oddities from what they perceived as a mystical, exotic, and inconceivably far-off place.

The Book of John Mandeville: Constantinople

John Mandeville refers to Constantinople largely as a landmark in the routes to and from Jerusalem. He uses it almost like a gas station, often referencing things as being “ such-and-such many miles from Constantinople”, or referencing it as a place you must pass through in order to get somewhere else. For John Mandeville, Constantinople is not a destination worth visiting in and of itself, but rather a rest stop on the way to more worthy places. He is brief in his descriptions of the city, although what little physical description he does give is positive. This is in stark contrast to his descriptions of Jerusalem, which were incredibly specific and detail-oriented. Jerusalem had paragraphs dedicated to descriptions of things like counting numbers of steps and illustrating architecture and religious monuments for his readers. This is likely because The Book of John Mandeville expected a large majority Christian audience, and Jerusalem is a very important city in the Christian faith. For a monk who had never really travelled to either city ,Jerusalem was most definitely considered more important and worthwhile in his own mind. It is also entirely possible that the author of The Book of John Mandeville just did not have enough information about Constantinople to write about it in the same amount of detail. As a monk writing from his monastery, most of the information he received was likely material of religious importance, and so he may have been deliberately vague about Constantinople with the goal of hiding his lack of knowledge about the city. However, what little description he does include is full of praise. He describes Constantinople as being “a very beautiful and great city with strong walls and it is three-cornered”. He also praises the Emperor of Constantinople’s architecture, saying “the Emperor’s palace is really lovely and beautifully adorned”. He specifically praises the “pretty court for jousting”, the “tiered seats in which one can sit and watch and not impede other people’s views”, and the pillars, which are “made of marble”. While these are praise-worthy objects, it is strange that John Mandeville singled them out specifically, especially when he seems highly concentrated on only those things which have religious significance in other sections. While it is possible that John Mandeville just had an appreciation for the cleverness of the Emperor’s architecture, it also seems like the kind of thing a knight or other kind of warrior would take note of. It seems likely that the monk writing as John Mandeville received some of his information about Constantinople from a knight’s report.

Where John Mandeville does not go into detail of the physical descriptions of Constantinople, he spends a lot of time criticizing the Greeks, specifically the Greek Christians. He spends paragraphs explaining exactly how different their faith is from the Christianity of Western Europe. While he does not outright condemn the Greek Christians, it is clear he does not approve of their practices, even going so far as to say “that is an immense scandal” when describing some of their methods. He finishes that description with a sanctimonious “ God can correct it when He wills it”. He ends by acknowledging that his description of the Greeks may not be relevant to the journey, but he defends himself, saying “they are nevertheless relevant in so far as I have undertaken to show some of the customs and manners and differences of these countries”. He is clear on the point that Greek Christianity varies from and conflicts with the Christianity he wishes to teach, and goes on to say “I have written it hear so that you can see the differences between our faith and theirs…”. It seems like he feels the need to end his account this way almost to make sure he keeps his audience; he does not want anyone reading to mistake the Greek faith as his, or as the correct or proper one. John Mandeville is very clear that the only true faith is his version of Christianity, and while he does not personally work to combat any variants, he is certain they will be taken down in their own time.

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: The River of Jawshir

When he crosses the river of Jawshir, Ibn Fadlan talks a lot about the culture of the area, especially when they are in the company of the “King of the Saqaliba”. Fadlan accounted for every move the King made, from when he greeted them and “dismounted [from his horse] and fell down with his face to the ground to give thanks to God, the All High, the Almighty,” (25) to when they are all sitting down having dinner. Although they stayed in tents, it was interesting to see all the formal interactions they had during dinner and the exchanging of gifts. When Fadlan gives the king and his wife gifts from his home, I was curious about the money is scattered everywhere in response, and wondered if there was a deeper significance than simple gratitude. Fadlan also points out the way in which they have to eat. Noticing that the King eats first before serving everyone, he goes on to mention that this was their culture; “no one touches a dish unless the king has served him. As soon as he receives his share, a table is brought,” (27). However, these little traits Fadlan decided to point out however may differ from that of the common people, as opposed to someone who is of a higher status.

Later on, he also talks about all the “uncounted marvels” he saw in the area. With the northern lights, Fadlan talks about how he saw the horizon “turn a brilliant shade of red and in the upper air there was great noise and tumult,” (31). He describes it as men from two different sides clashing against each other; because they have never seen such a spectacle, Fadlan and his men began to pray. Another set of marvels he mentions is the howling of the dogs, and how “the people of that land consider the howling of dogs as a great blessing,” (33) as well as the many snakes about the place. He also talks about all the food they make (and how they make it) and the kinds of trees and things that they were surrounded by that he never saw before—as well as the kinds of social expectations that they have (punishments, taboos, family dynamic, etc.).

From the ways in which he focuses on certain details and customs of the people he met in this area, Fadlan seems to be most concerned with how different they are from his own people and customs. He notices how they eat, cook, and dress differently, as well as how their fraternal customs are a bit unorthodox to him. I believe he is noting all these differences in order to better understand the culture in this case. He does not seem to be judging them too much, apart from his usual outbursts of disgust or disbelief when he witnesses something he doesn’t like. However, overall Fadlan seems to just be taking in all the information he is given, and using it as a way to know the people better.

The Travels of Marco Polo: The city of Kinsai

After leaving Changan, the home of many Tartar palaces, Marco Polo travels through a wealthy and well-populated province filled with “idolators, using paper money, [who are] subject to the Great Khan” (The Travels of Marco Polo, 213). “Then he reaches the splendid city of Kinsai, whose name means ‘City of Heaven” (Marco Polo, 213). Despite being located in a province of idolaters, who might have a different concept of afterlife or heaven, Polo translates the city in a way that the western, Christian, reader would understand. Like in his translation of the city’s name, Polo uses this section to relate the beauty of a city thousands of miles away back to his home in Europe. However Rustichello complicates his accounts by creating doubt in whether or not the details are true.

In describing the layout of the city, Polo is incredibly invested in the waterways. He describes the large clear lake on one side of the city that is connected to the huge river through different channels and streams that carry off waste and provide transportation (Marco Polo, 214). “And through every part of the city it is possible to travel either by land or by these streams” (Marco Polo, 214). There are over 12,000 bridges connecting roads over channels, which are both big enough to transport goods to market in (Marco Polo, 214). Polo’s investment in describing the waterways makes sense given that he is from Venice, a city with a similar plan to it. His attention to the water could demonstrate admiration for the engineering and city planning that accompanies the extensive channel network and large number of tall bridges. The passage demonstrates the intelligence of the city’s builders, as well as creates a link back to the west. Venice is also a city made of channels and waterways with large amounts of markets – just as Kinsai boast ten main markets and countless smaller ones. Here the reader can see the importance of trade, mobility, and engineering to the educated Italian merchant.

Despite the familiarity presenting a potentially personal moment for Polo, the reader can not help but be skeptical of its authenticity. Instead of relying Polo’s personal experience in the city, Rustichello includes “the account of it sent in writing by the queen of the realm to Bayan, the conqueror of the province, when he was besieging it” (The Travels of Marco Polo, 213). This account was meant to be passed on to the Great Khan, in order to convince him not to ransack and destroy the entire city while conquering it (Marco Polo, 213). This account invites skepticism of its accuracy, given that it was written by a queen attempting to keep the heritage of her city intact. In order to reassure its accuracy, Rustichello includes his common aside to the reader:  “…and it is all true, as I, Marco Polo, later saw clearly with my own eyes” (Marco Polo, 213). The description reads as if it came from Polo’s own memory, and not the letters of a woman who has lived, probably, her entire life in the city. The combination of admittance that the account is not his own, followed by the reassurance that he was indeed there, and then the account reading as the rest of the story creates a confusing effect. It highlights Rustichello’s apathy towards accuracy and inclination towards romance and spectacle, demonstrating what the Medieval reader would have wanted from Polo’s story.  

« Older posts