Written by: Vincent Mai
Though written over 650 years ago, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville represents a novel approach in the development of historical thinking. While the author’s identity and the fantastic descriptions of his world travel call the author’s merit into question, it should not be read merely as a primitive attempt at world history. In reality, it is Mandeville’s mythic and magical explanations of fact, and not despite that they are responsible for the radically inclusive nature of his work. Though strange and perhaps aesthetically offensive to a modern reader, Mandeville situates himself concerning other peoples and cultures is a profound innovation that during medieval times in the evolution of historical writing was not found.
Beginning with a romanticized account of the Holy Land of Jerusalem, he describes a lost inheritance in The Case for Pilgrimage due to the vices of Christians who are “busier to disinherit their neighbors than lay claim to or conquer their rightful inheritance.” Here he begins with what, on the one hand, is a claim for a Western conquest of Jerusalem, but is also a condemnation of other imperial and colonial acts as unrighteous and the result overly prideful, greedy, and envious Westerners.
As an heir to medieval historiography, Mandeville takes an extremely radical position for his time. Through a narrative of religious temporality, Mandeville universalizes Christianity as the religion of the world. As was common before the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Mandeville’s universe contains an essential human essence given to all people by God. It may manifest itself naturally through individual and state behaviors.
Perhaps the most radical implication of this is that the people and civilizations that live in the East live much more upright and moral existence than the Christians in the West despite not having even heard the GospelGospel; this is evident in his descriptions of the Isle of Bragman, where there lives “good folk, honest, and of good faith and good living according to the nature of their faith. And even if they are not Christian, nevertheless by instinct or law, they live a commendable life.”
He goes on to describe how the natural virtues of these people abide by the Ten Commandments and give logical explanations to how God rewards them for their moral excellence by receiving “never thunder, or lightning, hail nor snow, nor any other storms or bad weather; there is no hunger, no pestilence, no war, nor any other common tribulations among them, as there are among us because of our sins” this contrasts heavily with what many people would imagine the Christian worldview of the medieval period to be.
These perceptions are a closer match to works such as Geoffrey de Villehardouin Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople. While these are accounts of what some explain as deeply religious acts, the secular temporality used reveals the differences in the level of universality compared to Mandeville. The generalization found in Mandeville bears a much closer resemblance to the early works of Herodotus and Diodorus.
In Herodotus and Diodorus’s earlier works, most of their historiography is dedicated to explaining and making sense of non-Westerners. The customs, religion, and even natural features/geography of the other is of great interest to these writers. This interest is missing in Geoffrey’s work, which reads much closer to a romance in a classical sense. While the Christian historiographical tradition has evolved in its universal dating system compared to ancient Greek myth, both of these works structure around Christian crusader-heroes as the main protagonists.
Interest in explaining and making sense of other people and cultures that they encounter during their travels are absent. Instead, these people merely become a means to a religiously-motivated fantasy of power and domination. Their recollection of history is entirely devoid of any description of the other and focuses solely on the names and romanticized life and death of Christian crusaders.
While some argue that the motivation for the crusades is the product of a radical reading of Christianity, I would say that this is not the case. Instead, it is that Geoffrey’s interpretation of the Crusades portrays God as playing an extremely passive role in temporality. The only significant evidence of God as the center is in the timeline, which references the life and death of Jesus (B.C. and A.D.). Even in the second chapter, Of
Those Who Took The Cross, is centered around the human heroes that devoted themselves to God, rather than God himself; this creates a God who takes on a supporting role to the fate of humanity rather than one who has complete control over the events that take place; this is a radically more secular temporality compared to Mandeville, where a distinctly religious rationale explains circumstances rather than extraordinary people.
The reader can see this type of thinking in his description of the Khan and the people of Cathay, who, according to Mandeville, are descendants of the sole survivors of God’s flood, the son Noah, Ham. He goes further to claim the Khan had formed his code of law, the Ysachan, through direct communication with a knight who God sent; this once again references a type of God-given human essence that may be traced back to the origin story of humanity and is in part both human nature, and the rule of law.
This idea that the human being is the product of a type of divine blueprint designed by God was the dominant Western understanding and had significant implications for both ontology and morality. Ontologically, it is substantial to distinguish what separates human beings from the rest of nature (i.e., the existence of the soul). Morally, it is that the more in-line an individual is with their God-given human life, the more moral the individual is.
The ethical and moral ramifications of this idea are vital in understanding both Mandeville’s historiography and the universe it inhabits. Both the type of people, cultures, other and fantastic beings he describes are essential to the construction of his world. It is not enough to generalize the presence of mythical creatures as merely the result of primitive historical inaccuracy. For Mandeville, all the animals, from the gold-digging ants to the dog-headed people, are genuine and integral to an understanding, and ultimately an appreciation of his universe.
For Mandeville, the world may be thought of as composed of many spatially distinct isles, united temporally by a divine Christian God. To understand and appreciate the diversity of life and livelihoods then is a logical celebration of God’s will. While a center of Mandeville’s world exists, it is not a Eurocentric one. Instead, the center determines the moral excellence of the people that inhabit it. For Mandeville, this happens to the peoples of Genghis Khan and Prester John.
He does, however, give special designation to Jerusalem as the Holy Land; this is because of his vision of the West one day reclaiming its inheritance and becoming a great civilization as people in the East. For Mandeville, the superior East culture, refinement, and ecology is a divine reward that the West lacks because it does not deserve it; the strange and fantastic wonders of the East tie to their ability to live according to God’s will. Just as the Isle of Bragman experiences no climate-related suffering because of their upright and moral lives, some believe all of the East’s fantastic beasts are a reward from God.
While the earlier medieval work of Geoffrey portrays a romantic universe based on a secular fantasy of domination, Mandeville’s world is a perfect universe based on Western religious ideas that include very positive portrayals of non-Europeans; this enables a universal critique of the medieval model of imperialism done in the name of God. Non-Christians were not only godless people to be conquered and taught the GospelGospel; instead, they were all children of the same God.
Also, they were not only better people but better Christians than Westerners. While unapologetically non-secular, Mandeville manages to write a comprehensive and universal human history that celebrates non-European people and cultures. As the heir to a historiographical tradition that seemed to have lost this ability, the reappearance of a comprehensive history in Mandeville situates the present through an unexpected critique of Western imperialism; this enables non-Europeans to sit under a universal and positive light that much of modern history today has unfortunately ignored and forgotten.
John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, (Penguin Group, USA, 1983)
Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, (PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK, Norm Wolcott, 2002)
J. Marincola, Herodotus: The Histories, (Penguin Books, London, 1996)
Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, Loeb Classical Library, 12 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press, 1933 thru 1967. Translation by C. H. Oldfather thru Volume 6; Vol. 7 by C. L. Sherman, Vol. 8 by C. Bradford Welles, Vols. 9 and 10 by Russel M. Geer, Vol. 11 by F. R. Walton.