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Ladan Niayesh, ed., A Knight’s Legacy: Mandeville and Mandevillian Lore in Early Modern England
by Supriya Chaudhuri

Niayesh, Ladan, ed. A Knight’s Legacy: Mandeville and Mandevillian Lore in Early Modern England. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2011. xii + 216 pp. ISBN: 978-0719081750. $75 hardback.


There has been excellent recent work on Mandeville, though scholarship is still divided on fundamental questions regarding the text, its authorship, and its genre.  But as Mary Baine Campbell notes in her introduction, this appears to be the first collection of scholarly essays devoted to the Travels, to its late medieval and early modern Nachleben, and to associated matters of belief and representation.  A Knight’s Legacy is based on the selected proceedings of a conference held at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier in 2007 but also includes specially commissioned essays written for this volume.  Instead of simply bringing together diverse studies of Mandevillian material, it attempts to group the essays under three heads: treatments of editions and receptions, studies of “Mandevillian ideologies” and accounts of Mandevillian stages, or Mandeville in early modern theater.  Spenserians should be interested in it, for though the extent of Spenser’s direct acquaintance with Mandeville’s book is not easily established, there are textual as well as generic echoes, and it is surely significant that Josephine Waters Bennett went on from her early work on Spenser to examine the “rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville.” 

In some ways Mary Baine Campbell’s introduction is much the best review of the volume’s contents that we could want, though it lacks the sparkle of the chapter on Mandeville that constitutes the kernel of her brilliant study of medieval and early modern travel writing, The Witness and the Other World (1988).  As she points out, the scholars represented here vary greatly in their approaches to the text, so that in some respects the collection is itself indicative of the division of the Mandevillian legacy; it “mimics the transformation of the text from an object of tendentious redaction to a symbol of exotic faux-knowledge” (5).  The textual tradition is carefully set out by two of Mandeville’s most authoritative modern editors and translators, Michael C. Seymour and Charles W. R. D. Moseley, in successive early essays. Given the volume’s provenance (a conference in France), one misses the editor of the French Insular Version, Christiane Deluz—though her views on the historical “Mandeville” would have placed her very much at odds with her fellow-scholars.  Seymour and Moseley are not interested in the doubtful existence of this figure.  With patience and clarity, Seymour sets out the complicated textual tradition (in three languages, French, Latin, and English, all deriving from a lost exemplar), asserts definitely that the author was “a Benedictine writing in northern France, possibly, even probably, Jean le Long himself” (15), and summarizes the evidence about the manuscripts in English collections.  The texts are, as Iain Macleod Higgins called them, “isotopes” radiating different intentions and imperatives.  Moseley chooses to focus on Mandeville’s Nachleben in early modern England, stressing that there was never a simple rejection of the Travels on factual grounds as a result of new voyages of discovery in the sixteenth century.  He suggests that the truth is closer to Bruno Latour’s assertion that “we have never been modern,” and notes the Protean quality of the Mandeville text, the ease with which it inhabits various kinds of discourse: pilgrimage, travel, history, authority, and fiction (a point also made in Kenneth Parker’s essay on early modern travel narratives).  In fact one problem that the Mandeville text repeatedly returns us to is the difficulty of periodization itself, the impossibility of making a clear distinction between the “medieval” and the “modern.”

Yet the time of its composition can be fixed with some certainty, and it is located at a critical historical juncture, around the time of the signing of the treaty between England and France after the battle of Poitiers on 19 September 1356.  This is more than sixty years after the fall of Acre to the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291, marking the end of two hundred years of European crusading interventions in territories ruled by Muslims since the seventh century.  The intervening period saw the rise and decline of the Mongol missions, and a new anxiety over the failure of Europe to contain the threat of the Ottoman Turks.  Produced at a moment when pilgrimage, crusade, and mercantile mission were equally difficult, if not impossible, Mandeville’s Book could scarcely have been other than it is, a fiction drawing upon existing sources for information about lands lying east of Europe.  But it is, at the same time, a masterpiece of authorial irony and purposeful construction, rehabilitating the travel narrative within a sacred geography that draws the traveller, not just to the edges of the known world, but to the very rim of the Earthly Paradise.    

The section called “Mandevillian ideologies” offers three essays: by Leo Carruthers on the four rivers of Paradise, by Matthew Dimmock on Mandeville and Muhammad, and by Line Cottegnies on Ralegh’s Historie of the World and Discovery of Guiana.  Carruthers’s analysis of Mandeville’s “Paradys Terrestre,” a garden the sinful knight could not enter, but which is placed in the far east, offers a fascinating account of the intersection of actual and spiritual geographies.  Religious ideologies are at stake in Dimmock’s discussion of the sections on Muhammad, considerably altered and added to in the printed versions.  Both here and in Cottegnies’s account of Ralegh, fascinating though the essays are in themselves, we miss the larger context of European responses to the “problem” of Islam and the “idea” of a new world, on which so much recent scholarship has concentrated.  At the same time, both essays are brilliantly focused on their immediate subjects and on demonstrating the operation of ideology in them.  Dimmock shows how the account of Muhammad that “Mandeville” borrows from William of Tripoli is overlaid, in early modern versions, by biographical material from many other sources, attesting to an increasing obsession with Islam as both cognate and threatening to Christianity.  Cottegnies’s account of Ralegh as “a transitional figure who manifests a new relationship to authorities … the new Baconian man” is an interesting proposition, but as Mary Baine Campbell points out, it might have been placed within a larger history of reading.  More detailed consideration of such phenomena was clearly not possible within the limits of a collection such as this, and we must be grateful for the editorial care and scholarly purpose that has built up the semblance of a “Mandevillian” narrative through very different kinds of textual engagement.

The last and longest section in the book is about Mandevillian stages, tracing the transformation of the text from a source of knowledge (however questionable) about strange lands, to a source of fantastic information easily converted to marvels of the theater.  The new commercial theater takes over the “Mandevillian lore” of the preceding century and makes it the product of a fantastical imagination.  Of four excellent essays in this section—Richard Hillman on Tamburlaine, Ladan Niayesh on Prester John, Gordon McMullan on staging the Far East, and Claire Jowitt on Richard Brome’s The Antipodes—I found Niayesh and Jowitt particularly illuminating on specific ways in which the Mandeville text is absorbed and used.  Niayesh emphasizes that Prester John is not just the product of a peculiarly European need to project its own concerns into the East, but also a “labile” figure, changing with altered requirements over several centuries.  Similarly, Brome’s Antipodes, by relying on Mandeville, effectively projects the Old World into the New, so that there is nothing new in it. 

It is difficult to make a collection of this kind continuously interesting, to sustain a sense of coherence over disparate sections.  Niayesh and her contributors are to be congratulated on having achieved a high level of scholarly commitment to their individual concerns while building up the sense of a single overarching narrative.  That narrative inevitably has gaps and omissions, and it is, by the very nature of things, not a single story, but a textile woven out of interlocking strands.  “Mandeville” inhabits that historical text like a shadow produced in its play of threads and colors.  The last section of this volume is particularly scant in its references to actual Mandevillian material, yet in some ways it is most confident of the Book’s Protean capacity to reveal itself, beyond all its shapeshifting.  And in fact one supreme quality of The Book of Sir John Mandeville is its confidence, as though the author, even at the moment of composition, had foreseen an exceptionally long life for his creation.  In the first Act of Brome’s Antipodes, Peregrine says with disdain:Drake was a didapper to Mandeville. / Candish and Hawkins, Furbisher, all our voyagers / Went short of Mandeville (I.3.30-32).  In the parodic, even burlesque, context of utterance, the lines are comic, yet at the same time, they assert a commitment to an idea of travel that does duty for the actual experience of travel.  Mandeville’s function in the European imagination, for about three hundred years, was to represent travel—and “other worlds”—as idea and image before they could be naturalized as facts.  This collection is a timely reminder of the many implications of such a function.


Supriya Chaudhuri

Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.   



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Cite as:

Supriya Chaudhuri , "Ladan Niayesh, ed., A Knight’s Legacy: Mandeville and Mandevillian Lore in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 43.1.5 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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