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.