In the land of Bactria there are trees which grow wool as you would find on the body of a sheep. Bactria is also filled with griffins, which have ‘the front of an eagle and the back of a lion’, while in Cairo people incubate hens’ eggs in a giant house filled with horse dung. These are some of the outlandish pieces of information to be found, alongside stories of gold-digging ants, cannibals and geese with two heads, in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which was the most widely circulated work of travel writing in medieval Europe.
The work purports to tell the story of one John Mandeville, a knight from St Albans in the south of England, who set off on a journey to the Holy Land and on to Asia and Africa in 1332. In fact, there was no John Mandeville, and the work was compiled by an anonymous author writing at some point in the middle of the 14th century. Some scholars have suggested that the author was a French cleric. It is impossible to know, but it seems that he had access to a wide array of source material, particularly to the accounts of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries.
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville survives in around 300 manuscripts and was translated into at least ten languages, and in many cases into dialects of those languages. There are copies in Middle English in both prose and verse. Several manuscripts of the Travels are illustrated, like this one. The dialect of this particular manuscript (which is in Middle English) suggests that it was written in East Anglia, possibly in Norfolk. The illustrator seems to have taken a particular interest in depicting mythical beasts, grisly sacrifices and cannibalism. The images from the manuscript digitised here show, in the order in which they appear, cannibals from the Isle of Java and the men of Milke Island, who fight for sport (f. 40r); the dog-headed people (the ‘Cynocephales’) of Nacumera Island (f. 41r); monstrous races in the kingdom of Dondun, including cyclops, cannibalistic giants and 'blemmyae' (f. 42r); and finally some griffins being observed by John Mandeville himself, who is depicted in the left-hand margin of the page (f. 54v).
The British Library holds multiple copies of the work, made in many different places across England and Europe. Many of these manuscripts were annotated by later readers. The manuscripts therefore testify to the work’s wide readership and influence on later audiences. The influence of the text can be seen in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and the Gawain poet (in his poem Cleanness). In the post-medieval period, the work was consulted by Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh.
In several plays Shakespeare exploits the idea of exaggerated travellers’ tales that blur the lines between fact and fiction. When Prospero conjures ‘several strange Shapes’ on his Mediterranean island, Antonio exclaims, ‘Travellers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em’ (The Tempest, 3.3.26–27). Gonzalo adds, ‘When we were boys, / Who would believe … that there were such men / Whose heads stood in their breasts?’, but now, he says, every traveller claims to bring home proof of such monstrosities (3.3.43–49).
Othello recounts how Desdemona would ‘devour’ his ‘traveller’s history … of the Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders’ (1.3.139–50).
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.