Friday, 14 November 2008


Have you ever heard of Mandeville?

He's a semi- or entirely fictitious mediaeval English knight who did not go on a voyage across the world, though a mediaeval author wrote an evidentally fictional but professedly autobiographical narrative in which he does. It fits in the travel narrative conventions of its time, complete with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, savage races and lavish sultanates, distant empires, fabulous beasts, mysterious islands, dangerous wastes, and, eventually, Paradise itself. If you've read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you would recognize some of the locations Mandeville visits. Any narrative about people who've sailed to marvelous lands reach back to narratives like Mandeville's and Marco Polo's (a rough contemporary).

Anyway, here is a sampling of the incredible things 'witnessed' by Mandeville on his travels:

"And he [the king of the isle Calonak] hath also into a 14,000 elephants or more that he maketh for to be brought up amongst his villians by all his towns. For in case that he had any war against any other king about him, then [he] maketh certain men of arms for to go up into the castles of tree made for the war, that craftily be set upon the elephants' backs, for to fight against their enemies. and so do other kings there-about. For the manner of war is not there as it is here or in other countries, ne the ordinance of war neither. And men clepe the elephants Warkes."

"After that isle [of Tracoda] men go by the sea ocean, by many isles, unto an isle that is clept Nacumera, that is a great isle and good and fair. And it is in compass about, more than a thousand mile. And all the men and women of that isle have hounds' heads, and they be clept Cynocephales. And they be full reasonable and of good understanding, save that they worship an ox for their God. And also every one of them beareth an ox of gold or of silver in his forehead, in token that they love well their God. And they go all naked save a little clout, that they cover with their knees and members. They be great folk and well-fighting. And they have a great targe that covereth all the body, and a spear in their hand to fight with. And if they take any man in battle, anon they eat him."

"In that country and others thereabout [that is, the island of Silha, which is filled with dangerous beasts called "cockodrills"] there be wild geese that have two heads. And there be lions, all white and as great as oxen, and many other diverse beasts and fowls also that be not seen amongst us."

"In one of these isles be folk of great stature, as giants. And they be hideous for to look upon. and they have but one eye, and that is in the middle of the front. And they eat nothing but raw flesh and raw fish.
"And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyen be in their shoulders."
"And in another isle there be little folk, as dwarfs. And they be two so much as the pigmies. and they have no mouthl but instead of their mouth they have a little round hole, and when they shall eat or drink, they take through a pipe or a pen or such a thing, and suck it in, for they have no tongue; and therefore they speak not, but they make a manner of hissing as an adder doth, and they make signs one to another as monks do, by the which every of them understandeth other.
"And in another isle be folk that have great ears and long, that hang down to their knees.
"And in another isle be folk that have horses' feet. And they be strong and mighty, and swift runners; for they take wild beasts with running, and eat them.
"And in another isle be folk that so upon their hands and their feet as beasts. And they be all skinned and feathered, and they will leap as lightly into trees, and from tree to tree, as it were squirrels or apes.
"And in another isle be folk that be both man and woman, and they have kind of that one and of that other. And they have one pap on the one side, and on that other none. And they have members of generation of man and woman, and they use both when they list, once that one, and another time that other. And they get children, when they use the member of man; and they bear children, when they use the member of woman.
"And in another isle be folk that go always upon their knees full marvellously. And at every pace that they go, it seemeth that they would fall. And they have in every foot eight toes.
"Many other diverse folk of diverse natures be there in other isles about, of the which it were too long to tell, and therefore I pass over shortly."

"In that country be white hens without feathers, but they bear white wool as sheep do here."

"In that country be many hippotaynes that dwell sometime in the water and sometime on the land. And they be half man and half horse, as I have said before. And they eat men when they may take them."

I think these are all marvellous. Note how he describes some of them; most are without judgement, and some are actually complimented. This is highly surprising, I think, from a mediaeval Christian author.

I tried to find the woodcuts that accompany my version of the text but, alas, could not.

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