Author: Alexis Wiggins (Page 1 of 2)

The Book of John Mandeville Medieval Map

In the beginning, mapping the first place from John Mandeville’s narrative onto the Psalter World Map, was actually relatively easy. One of the reasons that I chose the Psalter map was because it included a small part of England which the author claims as his home country. The inclusion of England in the map is unusual so it was easy to find because most of the historical sources I used pointed specifically to this distinction. My second point, Constantinople, was harder to find because the labeling on the map is difficult for me to read. I was able to find “roma” and from there located “grecia.” Then, comparing the waterways on the medieval map that seemed to be the Mediterranean Sea and the Black sea to where they are on the world map we know today, I tried to accurately guess where Constantinople would be. Luckily, my third point, Jerusalem, was even easier to find than England, because it’s in the center of the map and clearly labeled, but Damascus was harder because there was no label that I could read that resembled it or anything near it. I knew it was near Jerusalem and on the other side of the body of water from Constantinople but I just had to guess from there. I knew that Africa was supposed to be towards the bottom right of the map, so I looked closer to that side for Babylon. I found a label that I think says Babylon in that area, so I placed it there. For Gaza I tried to employ the same strategy I used for Constantinople. I compared where the Red Sea was on the Psalter Map to where it was on today’s map, and using Jerusalem and Babylon as fixed points, tried to guess where Gaza would be.

However, once I got those first six points down, the rest of the places I mapped in my modern map were almost impossible to map in the second. East of Jerusalem on the Psalter Map seems to be made up of nothing but illegible labels and the way to Paradise. The only way that I was able to even try to guess where my last points were on the map was knowing that it was a flipped version of the map that I was used to, with east at the top, and drawn in a “T” shape, with all of Asian taking up the big side of the t. Again, I tried to compare it with the real map of the world, and guess where the four remaining points would go if the Psalter map were similarly constructed. Overall the mapping got incredibly difficult the farther east the points went. This shows how little the medieval people actually knew about what was East of Jerusalem. They had no idea how big the area of Asia or Russia was, or where anything was located. This reflects how John Mandeville’s narrative proceeds East as well, because he seems to not know where anything is actually located when he describes India and Asia.

Psalter World Map

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: 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.

The Book of John Mandeville: Jerusalem

In his narrative “The Book of John Mandeville” the author mentions Jerusalem many times before he actually talks about the city in a separate chapter, because Jerusalem is the destination of most of the routes in the first few chapters. The specific chapter about Jerusalem is, like many of the others, greatly religious based. Almost everything he mentions has a religious element to it. He talks about the location of the city, the terrain around it and the cities nearby. Many of these have religious names and he includes where the names came from. He describes various buildings in Jerusalem, and their religious importance. He goes off on a short tangent about the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, but then explains which places in Jerusalem are connected to the story.  Almost every attraction he talks about has religious significance. He discusses some of the history of Jerusalem, especially regarding the races of people who have controlled it (religious groups like Christians and Jews are included in his definition of races) and includes information about the mountains nearby as well as the dead sea. Many other religious stories and figures are mentioned in the chapter also.


While other chapters in “The Book of John Mandeville” have seemed to be more for entertainment purposes than actual practical use, this chapter actually appears more like a guidebook for the religious pilgrim visiting Jerusalem. The author discusses in detail many different religious buildings and attractions and in some cases even includes where they are located in the city. He describes how many miles away other prominent cities in the area are and includes some history of the city itself. Almost all the information he includes in this chapter is religiously connected, and the chapter seems like the perfect companion for a pilgrim visit Jerusalem. Many of the most important religious places a pilgrim would want to visit are included in the chapter, and the author gives information on the religious history and significance for each of these. He also includes helpful information about the surrounding terrain, about the mountains and the dead sea nearby. The inclusion of descriptions of where other cities are in miles and how many steps it takes to get from one religious attraction to the other also lends to the feeling that this chapter is like a guidebook.

The Book of John Mandeville: Constantinople

The author’s description of Constantinople continues the pattern mentioned in my previous post where he tends to write more as a form of entertainment than an actual travel narrative. The city of Constantinople is described in chapter two, “One Way to Jerusalem” because, according to the author, it is a major city europeans must pass through to travel to Jerusalem. The author spends most of the chapter supposedly on the subject of Constantinople, however I say supposedly because a lot of the time he is on a religious tangent that distantly relates to the city. Nevertheless he does provide concrete information. The author tells us that the emperor of Greece usually lives in Constantinople, and briefly describes the emperor’s palace. He gives some history of the Greek empire, mixing this history in with descriptions of local attractions. He also touches on some of the cultural importance and local superstitions of these places, and lists a few other relics and famous bodies buried at Constantinople. He explains what the city physically looks like as well as the geography around it in describing the mountains, listing the islands nearby and including local stories about certain geographical points.

However, the bulk of the chapter is spent on religious information. In the middle of describing the city, the author goes into a tangent about the story of Jesus on the cross. He describes the different forms of wood used to make the cross and why they were used, includes a short story about Adam, and ends with explaining what happened to Jesus on the night he was arrested. While the story distantly relates to Constantinople, it is a weak connection and modern readers would consider it a unrelated inclusion. However, it is apparent that religion is an important subject to the author because he spends another considerable part of the chapter explaining how the religion practiced by citizens of Constantinople, while technically considered Christianity, is different from the normal practices.

The vast amount of time the author spends on the subject of religion, be it the random religious stories or the detailed explanation of why Constantinople christianity is different, reveals the deep importance of religion, and christianity in particular, to the author and the culture he is writing for. Roughly four out of the eight pages spent on Constantinople are actually about religious aspects. On one hand, it is true that the information the author provides about the difference in the practice of Christianity would be helpful for travelers during that time because it would give them an idea of what to expect from a community of people that they identify with. However, the religious stories of Adam and Jesus on the cross really give no necessary information about travel to Constantinople, and these take up most of the religious portion.  The lack of legitimate helpful information in this chapter lends to the argument that this book was written more as an piece of entertainment than an actual guidebook or an travel record. The author structured his book to be a form of amusement for a culture in which Christianity and religion was a vital part of daily life.

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