Giles Milton
The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, the World's Greatest Traveler

Many will find this to be a strange and/or unsatisfying book. I must admit to having felt that way at times while reading, but overall I think I "got it."

In the days before the Discovery Channel, before National Geographic, before airplanes, before transoceanic travel, and even before a southern hemisphere or American continent was thought to exist people had a tough time gaining information about the world beyond their village, city, or country. Without a remote control in hand or a travel agent on the other side of a phone or desk it wasn't so easy to explore the planet and its inhabitants. So the genre of medieval travel writers was born. They wrote of their travels, or pretended travels, to the delight of all classes of people. Among them, perhaps the most famous became Sir John Mandeville's Travels of the 14th Century.

Milton sets out to uncover the truth about Mandeville as many claim he never existed, never went to the places he talks about, or had some sort of hidden agenda in his popular and well read work. My theory is that when Milton finds out that there isn't much to find out about Mandeville that will startle or shock his readers (Milton doesn't even really prove that Mandeville ever existed IMO) he decides to take a different approach and do what Mandeville probably didn't do--visit the places (Mandeville claimed to visit) and write a real, detailed, interesting, and in many ways symbolic travelogue of his (Milton's) adventures. On this level he succeeds. Those that don't like the book probably don't get as absorbed in Milton's travels as they should. Instead they are looking for findings on Mandeville which just aren't as forthcoming.

One of the key things that Milton shows is that even though 600+ years have past between both his and Mandeville's travels, things haven't changed too much. Religions are still fighting over Jerusalem. People are still being persecuted and driven out of their lands for belonging to the wrong faith, and borders are still being fought over by the religious and power hungry. Milton's (frequently and subtly humorous) observations on the religious people he observes aren't quite Mark Twainish, but they are well done nonetheless.

Along the way Milton makes a good point (which he elucidates as also being Mandeville's riddle in the final chapter) that when you look at Muslims as a Christian or vice versa you are looking in the mirror as the other party is fundamentally no different even though each tries to vilify the other within their own group. (For more on this subject I highly recommend Post-Atheism by Matt Berry.) Only when we finally step out of our own shoes and take another's vantage point can we truly be challenged. Challenged to be tolerant, challenged to put aside the misconceptions that we've been taught of 'others', and challenged to move beyond our inherited world view. As Milton says it

The message of The Travels is a truly Christian one--one of tolerance and love--and what set it apart from all other travelogues of the Middle Ages is that Mandeville says this love should be extended not merely to fellow Christians but to Muslims and pagans as well. (p. 208)
Not having read Mandeville, I don't know if this is certainly true, or if a reader in 1350 gleaned such a message, but I certainly pulled a similar directive out of Milton's travels.

Finally, Milton clues us in during the Epilogue as to how influential Mandeville was at the time. According to Milton it was Mandeville's book that inspired Columbus to accidentally discover America.

What Sir John achieved in writing his Travels is far more important than the question of whether he himself went on his voyage. He 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... He inspired them with his tales of the legendary east and fired their enthusiasm for discovery. And most important of all, he provided a motive for financial backers to plough huge sums of money into highly risky adventures. [The King and Queen of Spain supposedly wouldn't fund Columbus's voyage until after reading Mandeville.] ...But in doing so, these early colonizers neglected the second point that Sir John was making. His message of tolerance, central to the book's meaning, was either misunderstood or ignored. Within years of discovering the new lands, settlers were colonizing them, and the pagan natives that Sir John describes with such affection where being indiscriminately slaughtered. (p. 219)
The riddle appears to be easier to solve by reading Milton than it was by reading Mandeville (whoever, if ever, he was).

from the publisher:

"Pioneer traveller or shameless charlatan, Sir John Mandeville had a huge influence both on the history of exploration and on all subsequent English literature. Here at last is a book which, while always readable and amusing, takes Sir John Mandeville as seriously as he deserves." --John Julius Norwich
Giles Milton's first book, The Riddle and the Knight, is the fascinating account of the legend of Sir John Mandeville, a long-forgotten knight who was once the most celebrated writer in medieval Europe. In 1322, Mandeville left England to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thirty-four years later he returned, claiming not only to have visited the Holy Land but also to have travelled to India, China, Tibet, Java, and Sumatra. His subsequent book detailing the events of his voyage -- The Travels -- became a beacon that lit the way for the great expeditions of the Renaissance, and his exploits and adventures provided inspiration for writers such as Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Swift.

Yet by the nineteenth century, Mandeville was all but ignored by scholars; his descriptions of fantastic monsters and strange peoples were discredited; and The Travels was dismissed as a work of fevered imagination. Intrigued by the man who was once regarded as the father of English literature, Giles Milton set off in the footsteps of Sir John Mandeville in order to test his amazing claims and to attempt to solve the riddle of the knight.

Available to American readers for the first time, The Riddle and the Knight is "a brilliant and original piece of detective work which reveals, after more than six centuries the astonishing truth about Sir John Mandeville" (The Mail on Sunday [London]) and restores him to his rightful place in the history of literature and exploration.

Giles Milton is the acclaimed author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History and, most recently, Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America. He lives in London.

The following is an excerpt from the book The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, the World's Greatest Traveller By Giles Milton.

The Inscription
I remember a very old man named Jordan telling me much of Sir John Mandeville when I was a little boy . . . He didn't talk so much about his life as about the place of his grave. Alas my memory holds but a shadow of these things. Commentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicus, John Leland, circa 1540
In the days when gods dwelt in temples, a soldier named Alban was converted to Christianity. For this crime he was hauled before Britain's Roman authorities and ordered to renounce his faith. He refused, was tortured and executed. His body was buried where it fell.

Years passed and the Romans left. The pagan altars were overturned, churches replaced temples, and imperial rule became little more than a distant memory. But the people of Verulamium didn't forget Alban. They canonized him, they raised a mighty building over his grave, and they renamed their town St. Albans in honour of their saint. And as the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages, St. Alban became famous throughout the kingdom.

For a long time Alban's bones lay alone in the abbey. But there were always a few like him who led remarkable lives. Some, perhaps, were feudal lords. Others were abbots and priests who performed great and noble deeds. Whatever their achievements, these few -- and they were very few -- were granted the privilege of being buried inside the abbey near the sacred relics of the saint. And as the priests chanted a Latin dirge, the good burghers of St. Albans laid their heroes to rest beneath the cold stone floor.

But with the passing of the years, even these most famous of men were forgotten, and people shuffled over their graves without realizing whose bones lay beneath the flagstones. Once in a while someone's curiosity would be aroused by these old tombs. Victorian genealogists would try to decipher the strange script on the stone or take rubbings from the ancient brasses. But soon that, too, became impossible; the limestone was worn as smooth as glass and the inscriptions faded completely. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . .

And so, on that cold September evening when I first visited St. Albans Abbey, I found myself unable to make out a single name on the polished stone. It was almost dark by the time I turned to leave, and I had long given up hope of finding the tomb I was looking for. But suddenly there was the loud clunk of a switch and the pillars lining the nave were lit by spotlights. There before me, high up on a thick stone pillar, a row of faint Gothic letters appeared on the chalk-white surface. Much of the inscription had faded or been lost, for centuries of damp, soot, and peeling paint had all but destroyed the words. But here and there a few fragments had survived:

exeu . . . trus . . . Mandeville . . . de . . . body tr . . . monument . . . died . . . a . . . for . . . by . . . a statute . . .

I just had time to scribble down these words before the lights were once again extinguished and the great haunches of St. Albans Abbey slunk back into the shadows.

Here, at last, was a record of Sir John Mandeville -- a long-forgotten knight who was once the most famous writer in medieval Europe. He wrote only one book -- an untitled volume known as The Travels -- but within its covers Mandeville described how he had travelled farther afield than any European in history -- farther even than Marco Polo half a century earlier.

He had set off from St. Albans on St. Michael's day in 1322 with the intention of making a pilgrimage to the churches and shrines of Jerusalem. But thirty-four 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 that he was away! Kings and priests studied The Travels to satisfy their thirst for knowledge of faraway lands. Geographers used his newfound information to redraw their maps. Monastic scribes translated his book from language to language until it had spread throughout the monasteries of Europe. By the time this mysterious knight died in the 1360s, his book was available in every European language, including Dutch, Gaelic, Czech, Catalan, and Walloon. The sheer number of surviving manuscripts is testament to Mandeville's popularity: more than three hundred handwritten copies of The Travels still exist in Europe's great libraries -- four times the number of Marco Polo's book.

Early readers were intrigued by Mandeville and captivated by his outrageous tales and humorous mishaps. Yet the importance of The Travels lay 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. In doing so, he achieved what others said was impossible: his book altered men's horizons and became the beacon that lit the way for the great expeditions of the Renaissance. Columbus planned his 1492 expedition after reading The Travels. Ralegh studied the book and pronounced that every word was true; while Sir Martin Frobisher was reading a copy as he ploughed his pioneering route through the North-West Passage.

Mandeville's influence on literature was also immense. Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and many others turned to The Travels for inspiration, and dozens of Sir John's more outlandish stories found their way into the great works of English literature. Until the Victorian era it was Mandeville, not Chaucer, who was known as "the father of English prose."

I discovered the book by accident during a weekend break in Paris. While searching through the shelves of Shakespeare and Co., the famous American bookshop on the banks of the Seine, I pulled down a copy of Flaubert's journal Letters from Egypt. As I did so, a second volume fell from the shelf -- a black-spined Penguin Classic entitled The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. It was a slim book, and the cover was illustrated with a portrait of Sir John taken from an illuminated manuscript. He had a ruddy face, blond ringlets, and a thick beard, and wore a pleated knee-length coat buttoned down to his waist. He looked a strange sort of chap: he held his right arm aloft and appeared to be hailing a ship that was already far out to sea. In the background, a castle stood with its doors open.

On this, our first meeting, Mandeville struck me as a retiring, rather serious individual. But as I flicked through his book, an altogether more engaging character began to emerge. Mandeville's passion was wine, and he describes the local plonk in almost every country he visits. On reaching Cyprus, he is struck less by the island's glorious cathedrals as by the robustness of the local reds, while his account of Islam begins with an explanation of why Muslims don't touch alcohol. Gone was the serious explorer: Sir John revealed himself as a bluff, avuncular figure who enjoyed nothing more than regaling his friends with fantastic stories of his travels. After two or three glasses, he'd be describing the maiden offered to him by the Sultan of Egypt. After four or five, he'd be battling through the pepper forests of Malabar as he searched for the elusive Well of Youth.

Even in his most sober moments, he can't resist repeating the local, if gruesome, gossip he has overheard on his travels. Passing a Greek island en route to Cyprus, he is told the tragic story of a knight unable to cope with the death of his lover:

On account of the great love he had for her he went one night to her grave and opened it and went in and lay with her and then went on his way. At the end of nine months a voice came to him one night and said, "Go to the grave of that woman and open it, and behold what you have begotten on her . . ." And he went and opened the grave, and there flew out a very horrible head, hideous to look at, which flew all round the city; and forthwith the city sank, and all the district round about.

The book was divided into two halves, with the first part beginning with a description of Constantinople. From this, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, he claimed to have travelled south to Cyprus, Syria, and Jerusalem, as well as visiting St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai desert. Here he recorded his unique insights into life in this monastic community before ending on a dejected note: "They drink no wine -- except on days of high festival."

It is not until the second half of his Travels -- as Mandeville journeys across India and China towards Java and Sumatra -- that his stories enter the realms of fantasy. The farther cast he travels, the more gruesome the creatures he meets, until he is socializing with women with dogs' heads, two-headed geese, giant snails, and men with enormous testicles which dangle beneath their knees. He writes with relish about cannibals who eat their babies and pagans who drink from their fathers' skulls. Yet for all these vivid descriptions, Mandeville continues to give a detailed account of the cities he visits and the people he meets. What was the old rogue up to? Could he really have travelled to the Far East, or was his entire book a fiction?