One book in particular, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, appears to have had an exceptional hold on the fearless yet educated European elite that sought to map and colonize the farthest corners of the earth. Virtually every transatlantic European explorer I have studied at some point in their saga admitted to being inspired by the mythical travelogue featuring a 14th century English knight. And, as with other posts on this blog, the thin thread of a connection to Flanders – when firmly tugged – yields yet another example of a modest Fleming, working in near obscurity, who has made an outsized and significant contribution to the Discovery and Settlement of America.
Marco & Mandeville
It is undisputed that the [European] Age of Discovery began with the Portuguese in the 1400s. Under the tutelage of Henry the Navigator, small caravels sailed out of Lisbon and south around the West coast of Africa and west across the southern and northern mid-Atlantic. In the first decades of that age they discovered Atlantic islands (Azores, Canaries, Madeiras) and African kingdoms. But these were merely accidental and interim discoveries: the ultimate goal of all these adventurers was to reach the spices and wealth of the Indies in Asia.
Impassioned by their crusading Christian faith, hungry for the riches of the East, and guided by relentless advances in mathematics, geography and cartography, the Portuguese court attracted like-minded men from across Europe. Some were Italians – such as Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Giobanni Caboto (John Cabot). Others were Luso-Flemings – like Gaspar Corte-Reale and Ferdinand D’Ulmo (Hendrik Van Olmen) – or Germans – like Henricus Martellus and Martin Behaim. Regardless of origin all sought the same thing: wealth and glory.
What bonded these men was a common mindset.[i] While ethnically diverse they shared similar nautical sources.[ii] Besides cartographic references, all these men appear to have heavily relied upon two travelogues. The first, by Marco Polo, has a solid Flemish connection to Columbus: his copy was printed at either Leuven or Antwerp in 1485[iii]. The second is less well-known today: “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville”.[iv] Both books were written within seventy (or less) years of each other.[v] These two books then were, in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to a modern authority, “the two most famous European books on Asia.”
Who Was Sir John Mandeville?
The name Marco Polo needs little explanation to most educated readers, even today. He is remembered as the Italian traveler of the 13th century who claimed to have traveled to, lived in, and returned from China.[vi] Whether Marco Polo’s tale is accepted as fact or fiction, his name is a byword for early east-west intercourse and the promise of exploratory travel. For men at the time of Columbus, et.al., Mandeville was an equally compelling source. Yet few people today (outside of limited scholarly circles) are aware of the name Sir John Mandeville. Who was he?
Sir John Mandeville “was once the most famous writer in medieval Europe,”[vii] as one popular authority phrased it. “He [Mandeville] had set off from St. Albans [Abbey] on St. Michael’s Day [February 21st] in 1322 with the intention of making a pilgrimage to the churches and shrines of Jerusalem. But 34 years later he arrived back in England claiming to have visited not only the Holy Land, but India, China, Java and Sumatra as well. And what stories he had gathered in the years he had been away! Kings and priests studied The Travels to satisfy their thirst for knowledge of far-away lands. Geographers used his new-found information to redraw their maps. Monastic scribes translated his book from language to language until it had spread [in pre-printing press Europe] throughout the monasteries of Europe….The sheer number of surviving manuscripts is testament to Mandeville’s popularity: more than 300 handwritten copies of The Travels still exist in Europe’s great libraries – four times the number of Marco Polo’s book.”[viii]
Printed books of course did not take off until well into the 16th century. This meant that until printing presses became widespread (in the late 1400s/early 1500s) each book was painstakingly copied by hand – usually by scribes in monasteries. And while not the focus of this particular post, Flemish domination of the printing industry in the 15th thru 17th centuries is unquestioned.[ix] The important point here is that ‘casual’ reading as we know it today was a real luxury. Those with access to books read with a purpose and intensity – often memorizing the passages after frequent re-reads. Any book that could offer an escape from their seemingly mundance surroundings and at the same time seamlessly supply the key to riches was sure to be a hit.
Mandeville’s tale offered that and more. “Early readers were intrigued by Mandeville and captivated by his outrageous tales and humorous mishaps.”[x] Sir John Mandeville somehow meets men with one large foot (used for shading themselves during siestas!); headless humanoids whose faces are part of their chests; Amazons and their male counterparts; and even dog-faced humans, Cyclops, and sexually liberated natives. Mandeville somehow does this while satisfying religious obligations (a pilgrimage to Jerusalem) and charting a course to the riches of Cathay (China). In other words, Mandeville’s Travels offers enough to titillate even the most serene monk.
But this is not the reason medieval explorers were drawn to the book. Rather, their interest was more practical. Columbus, Vespucci and others were piqued by the 175 lines in the book where Mandeville explains why he believes it is possible to circumnavigate the world.[xi]
“The importance of The Travels lay[s] in a single yet startling passage which set the book apart from all other medieval travelogues. Mandeville claimed that his voyage proved for the first time that it was possible to set sail around the world in one direction and return home from the other.”[xii]
The author has Mandeville declare: “‘I have often thought of a story I have heard, when I was young, of a worthy man of our country who went once upon a time to see the world. He passed India and many isles beyond India, where there are more than five thousand isles, and travelled so far by land and sea, girdling the globe, that he found an isle where he heard his own language being spoken…He marveled greatly, for he did not understand how this could be. But I conjecture that he had travelled so far over land and sea, circumnavigating the earth, that he had come to his own borders; if he had gone a bit further, he would have come to his own district….”[xiii]
This simple yet forthright anecdote had a profound effect on Christopher Columbus.[xiv] Not only did it convince the future “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” of the validity of his hunches, but it was his trump card when in debate with his detractors. Giles Milton (the author I have heavily quoted here) asserts that it was Columbus’ copy of The Travels that convinced the Spanish court to pay for his voyage.[xv] Curiously, this was not a ploy or stunt: Columbus was a true believer. Far away from the critics at court, Columbus literally relied on The Travels as a guide for his transatlantic journeys.
Nor do we need to rely solely on Columbus himself for confirmation of this. The contemporary Spanish clergyman and historian Andres Bernaldez chronicled the voyage. In one telling excerpt, after going into painful detail on how the riches of the east can be reached by sailing west, the good father gave as his validation, “‘Anyone who wishes to know the truth of this may read it in Mandeville’s book.’”[xvi]
Of course neither Bernaldez nor Columbus were simply parroting the iffy claims of a medieval novelist. First and foremost this is because Mandeville’s claims were no secret. Anyone who could locate a copy could read those same 175 lines on circumnavigation. Columbus’ skill was in marshalling an overwhelming combination of written texts, modern navigational charts, sailors’ yarns, and ancient cartographic clues into a mosaic compelling to even cash-strapped sovereigns (such as Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain).
Still, once discovered, the fact that dog-headed humans were not immediately found did not lessen Mandeville’s appeal to explorers. Part of Mandeville’s residual impact was the fact that Columbus’s discoveries appeared to validate the ancient text – as Bernaldez appears to under-score. Other contemporaries – men unconnected to the Spanish court – also made this connection between Columbus’ discoveries and Mandeville’s claims. Columbus acknowledged this debt – and bolstered his claims – by repeated references to Mandeville. “The earliest Italian letter about Columbus to be preserved intact was written by a Barcelona merchant named Hannibal Zenaro os Januarius to his brother at Milan on April 9, 1493…[included] a slight exaggeration of Columbus’s hearsay report that Sir John Mandeville’s tailed men grew in the Province of Havana… Zenaro’s information was derived from Columbus’s Letter on the First Voyage.”[xvii]
Proof in Mandeville’s insights appear to be found literally in the sky. Perhaps the connection between Mandeville’s guidance on the use of stars, and what could be found on the other side of the Atlantic were the only frame of reference available to these late medieval explorers. For even on his Second Voyage [1493-1494] Columbus relied on Mandeville: “The Admiral wished to pass to the southward and leave these islands [off the Cuban coast, on May 14, 1494] to starboard, but, remembering that he had read that all that sea is full of islands and that Sir John Mandeville says that there are more than five thousand islands in the Indies, he decided to go forward.”[xviii]
Heavy reliance on a single tome was not a flaw unique to the environment that Iberian seafarers or men of the late 15th century were susceptible to. “It was not just Columbus who turned to The Travels. Many other Renaissance geographers and explorers read Mandeville for practical information about remote areas of the world. Sir Walter Raleigh admits in his book Discoverie of Guiana that although initially skeptical about Mandeville, his own journey forced him to conclude that The Travels was true in every respect: ‘[Mandeville’s] reports were holden for fables many yeeres, and yet since the East Indies were discovered, we find his relations true of such things as heretofore were held incredible.’”[xix]
Another contemporary, Sir Martin Frobischer, “also turned to Mandeville for advice when he set out on on his voyage to discover the North-West passage. Not only did his ship’s library contain a copy of Mercator’s world map…but it also contained a copy of The Travel.”[xx] Raleigh, Frobischer, and several generations of Englishmen (and women – Queen Elizabeth I among them) were driven to seek riches and fame on the other side of the Atlantic after reading Richard Hackluyt’s encyclopedia of England’s greatest explorers: The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation. Mandeville’s “Travels” was accorded pride of place and proof of English prominence in exploration.[xxi]
Clearly then, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville impacted different generations and many prominent European explorers. Yet, for all this, the authorship of the book at that time was unclear. No one knew of any “Sir John Mandeville”. Some thought he was an Englishman; others believed that textual analysis suggested a Frenchman or a Walloon in Liege or at least someone who had studied at the University of Paris. However, tools unavailable until today have enabled a group of modern scholars to credibly pin down authorship of the travelogue.
It sometimes takes a fresh pair of eyes on well-worn facts to uncover new insights. The late Professor John Larner was just such a man. A globally recognized expert of Marco Polo and Columbus, Professor Larner concluded that The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was “the work of Jan de Langhe, a Fleming who wrote in Latin under the name Johannes Longus and [wrote] in French as Jean le Long.”[xxii] Larner tells us that Jan de Langhe was born in Ieper (Ypres) early in the 1300s and by 1334 had become a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Saint-Bertin[xxiii] in St. Omer[xxiv] which was about 20 miles from Calais (and the English Channel). After studying law at the University of Paris, de Langhe returned to the abbey. He presumably was a competent administrator and a man who took his vows seriously for he was elected abbot in 1365. De Langhe was a prolific writer and avid collector of travelogues, right up to his death in 1383.[xxv] It was this collection of travelogues – almost unequalled in Europe at that time – that supplied de Langhe with the material for his Mandeville tale. Unfortunately little is known of the man himself besides these broad facts.
While few details of de Langhe’s life remain for us today, his contribution to the discovery of America is clear. The impact of this book, written by a Flemish monk who never traveled, “gave a whole generation of explorers – men like Columbus who really did discover the world – a justification, both theological and practical, for setting out into the unknown….Most important of all, [the book] provided a motive for financial backers to plough huge sums of money into highly risky ventures.”[xxvi]
Contrary to expectations, it may very well be that de Langhe’s objective in writing The Travels was different than Columbus and others assumed. Ironically, Mandeville’s core message had little to do with exploration and everything to do with Christian concepts of humanism. “His message of tolerance, central to the book’s meaning, was either misunderstood or ignored”[xxvii] by the Age of Discovery explorers.
Today, despite the fact that his travelogue of a fictitious character inspired many to seek a westward, trans-oceanic path to the East, no monument stands to him – east or west. Nor is he cited in textbooks – not even in his native Flanders. Jan de Langhe – or Jan d’Ypres as he is sometimes also known – left little in this world about himself. The abbey that Jan de Langhe presided over (St. Bertin ) is abandoned and in ruins.Today de Langhe is unrecognized in his home town of Ieper/Ypres. He is unknown in North America and only marginally less obscure in Flanders. That is wrong. It is time the world recognizes the contributions of one Flemish monk who, toiling alone in a quiet monastery in the Flemish countryside, inspired droves of Europeans to strike out across the seas and discover, for Christian Europe, a New World.
[i] Curiously, virtually all of these individuals knew each other personally. Behaim knew Columbus possibly in the Azores and certainly was one of those who rejected Columbus’ petition to King John of Portugal in 1484. Van Olmen knew Behaim and Martellus knew him and Columbus in Lisbon thru Bartholomew Columbus. Vespucci helped outfit Columbus and later stayed in his home. Diaz – who rounded the Cape of Good Hope – was the first to meet Columbus on his famous return from the New World. Columbus, Vespucci, and Cabot were all born in the year 1450 – as was Queen Isabella of Spain. Cabot and Colombus were both Genoese. Thus the lives of famous men (and women) seem to be inexplicably entwined.
[ii] Arthur Davies, “Behaim, Martellus and Columbus”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 143, No. 3 (Nov., 1977), pp. 451-459. Published by: Royal Geographical Society. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/634713 Accessed May 28, 2011. Davies believes that that source was Bartholomew Columbus, the discoverer’s brother.
[iii] Arthur Davies, “Behaim, Martellus and Columbus”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 143, No. 3 (Nov., 1977), pp. 451-459. Published by: Royal Geographical Society. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/634713 Accessed May 28, 2011. Davies claims it was printed at Leuven (“Louvain”) between 1485 and 1490 [p.453].
[iv] And not only Columbus. Behaim’s citations on his globe were in 1492. Ponce de Leon in searching for the fountain of youth in 1512 was referencing Mandeville. So to was the English explorer Martin Frobischer on Baffin Island in 1575, Hackluyt in 1589, and even William Shakespeare in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Othello” in the early seventeenth century. See John Larner, “Plucking Hairs from the Great Cham’s Beard: Marco Polo, Jan de Langhe, and Sir John Mandeville,” pp.133-155, in Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, ed., Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Amilcare Iannucci, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 146-147.
[v] John Larner, “Plucking Hairs from the Great Cham’s Beard: Marco Polo, Jan de Langhe, and Sir John Mandeville,” pp.133-155, in Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, ed., Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Amilcare Iannucci, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p.133.
[vi] As someone married to a Chinese woman, I personally have my doubts about Marco Polo’s actual life in China. He never mentions basic curiosities such as the use of chopsticks. Nor has there ever been found any Chinese official document naming Marco Polo as an official of the Great Khan (as he claimed). Readers interested in delving into this aspect might want to check Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, (London: Seckler & Warbug, 1995). For a counterargument, see http://rspas.anu.edu.au/eah/Marcopolo.html
[vii] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 3.
[viii] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 3.
[ix] Some may view my claim as hyperbole but I have sufficient material collected on this subject for a future post. Suffice it to say, that Flemings were at the forefront of the spread of printing not only in the Low Countries but in Spain, Italy and possibly even France. Stay tuned!
[x] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 3.
[xi] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), pp. 271-272.
[xii] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 3.
[xiii] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), pp. 273.
[xiv] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), pp. 275.
[xv] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), pp. 276.
[xvi] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), pp. 276.
[xvii] Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1942), pp. 376-377.
[xviii] Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1942), pp. 454.
[xix] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 277.
[xx] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 277.
[xxi] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), pp. 277-278.
[xxii] John Larner, “Plucking Hairs from the Great Cham’s Beard: Marco Polo, Jan de Langhe, and Sir John Mandeville,” pp.133-155, in Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, ed., Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Amilcare Iannucci, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p.133.
[xxiii] Abbey of Saint Bertin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbey_of_Saint_Bertin - The Dutch language version is much more thorough: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdij_van_Sint-Bertinus
[xxiv] Saint Omer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Omer. Until the late 19th century St. Omer (or Sint Omaar) was a Flemish language region. Among its other famous sons is Godfrey of St. Omer founder of Knights Templar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godfrey_of_Saint-Omer
[xxv] John Larner, “Plucking Hairs from the Great Cham’s Beard: Marco Polo, Jan de Langhe, and Sir John Mandeville,” pp.133-155, in Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, ed., Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Amilcare Iannucci, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p.137.
[xxvi] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 278.
[xxvii] Giles Milton, The Riddle and The Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p. 278.
Copyright 2011 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written consent.