Giles Milton (1996)

It’s surprising to read a book that goes into the detailed history of a book that I haven’t read, but not to worry…

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is a mediaeval travelogue unlike any other. It starts off well enough, as a guide-cum-memoir of a trip to the Holy Land in the mid 14th century. But then it continues, with the protagonist travelling to India, Java, China, and beyond, meeting and describing – in the same reasonable voice as previously – a range of people and creatures straight out of a mediaeval bestiary. The question has always been: what’s going on? Is the whole thing a fraud? An elaborate satire? A prank? That these questions exist for what was, at one time, the single most-read book in the English language is a huge challenge.

Milton doesn’t exactly nail the solution: that’s probably impossible after all this time. But he does do some heroic research both in the archive and in the real world. In the former, he traces many of the original sources from which Mandeville (if indeed this is the author: even his identity is disputed and mysterious) derived some of his stories, and shows how he elaborated them far beyond what any mere copyist would do. In the latter he find confirmation for elements in the Travels that have been perplexing, including (for example) verifying that Mandeville’s descriptions of certain statues in Constantinople, while now wrong, were correct for the dates he claimed to be there. Some of the most dramatic scenes occur in St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, difficult to reach even now, where Milton searches through Crusader graffiti looking for a Mandeville coat of arms, as well as viewing manuscripts that have remained untouched for over a thousand years.

Altogether this is literary history of the highest order. While it remains tantalisingly un-definitive, it adds extra layers to the reading of the Travels, which is at the top of my holiday reading list.

5/5. Finished Monday 12 August, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)