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Jul 21, 2010

'Mandeville's Voyage Travels'

One of the earliest literary works of the period, however, was uninfluenced by social and moral problems, being rather a very complete expression of the naive medieval delight in romantic marvels. This is the highly entertaining Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville.' This clever book was actually written at Liege, in what is now Belgium, sometime before the year 1370, and in the French language; from which, attaining enormous popularity, it was several times translated into Latin and English, and later into various other languages.

Five centuries had to pass before scholars succeeded in demonstrating that the asserted author, 'Sir John Mandeville,' never existed, that the real author is undiscoverable, and that this pretended account of his journeying over all the known and imagined world is a compilation from a large number of previous works. Yet the book (the English version along with the others) really deserved its long-continued reputation. Its tales of the Ethiopian Prester John, of diamonds that by proper care can be made to grow, of trees whose fruit is an odd sort of lambs, and a hundred other equally remarkable phenomena, are narrated with skilful verisimilitude and still strongly hold the reader's interest, even if they no longer command belief.

With all his credulity, too, the author has some odd ends of genuine science, among others the conviction that the earth is not flat but round. In style the English versions reflect the almost universal medieval uncertainty of sentence structure; nevertheless they are straightforward and clear; and the book is notable as the first example in English after the Norman Conquest of prose used not for religious edification but for amusement (though with the purpose also of giving instruction). 'Mandeville,' however, is a very minor figure when compared with his great contemporaries, especially with the chief of them, Geoffrey Chaucer.

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