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The Book of John Mandeville, in Middle English, decorated manuscript on vellum [England, second half 15th century]
The Book of John Mandeville, in Middle English, decorated manuscript on vellum [England, second half 15th century]
The Book of John Mandeville, in Middle English, decorated manuscript on vellum [England, second half 15th century]
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The Book of John Mandeville, in Middle English, decorated manuscript on vellum [England, second half 15th century]

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The Book of John Mandeville, in Middle English, decorated manuscript on vellum [England, second half 15th century]

A contemporary bestseller and a thread in the fabric of both English literature and of travel literature: this is likely the last of the known copies to be available for purchase.

180 x 142mm. ii + 38 + ii leaves:1-48, 56 (lacking a gathering, likely of 8 leaves, after f.8), 33 lines in brown to black ink in an anglicana hand, written space 145 x 108mm. Two- and three-line initials, some with pen-work flourishing, paraphs and side-notes in red (vellum darkened, especially in gutters, many folios with some staining and spotting, especially in the gutters but not affecting legibility, all but one sewing-string broken). 19th-century half-morocco, patterned paper over pasteboard (extremities rubbed).

Provenance: (1) Leveriche Forster, his ownership inscription dated 1555 – the year in which he was appointed clerk to the Company of Mercers – on f.38v. (2) Various other 16th-century owners’ or readers’ signatures: John Almon of Puckeridge, Oxford on f.38, John Anthoine on ff.1, 8 and 13, John Offlye on ff.9, 11 and 12, Robert Abraham f.15v. (3) M.H. Bloxam, by whom given to Rugby School Library; inscription dated 12 May 1883. (4) Bookplate of Rugby School Library.

Content: The Book of John Mandeville, in Middle English, lacking all but the first 41 lines of chapter 5 and all but the final 13 lines of chapter 6; Lilium regnans, opening ‘Historia hermeti ab origine mundi…Signum mirabile signum crucis’, Prophecy of the Lily and the Lion and its key, in Latin f.37v; verse prophecy on the reign of William the Conqueror’s descendants lasting as many years as the length in feet of Battle Abbey, opening ‘Anglorum regimine bastard bello….et sic prophescia terminator’ (H. Walther, Initia carminum ac versum Medii posterioris Latinorum, 1969, no 1041) ff37v-38 .

This copy opens in the Prologue, in others this is preceded by a Preface where the author claims he is a knight from St Albans and the following text is an account of his journey to the Holy Land and beyond. The Book of John Mandeville, or the Travels of Sir John Mandeville as it was later known, is now believed to have originally been written in French in the middle of the 14th century. The immediacy of its style and the colourful and exotic information it offered led to a speedy, widespread and enduring popularity: within fifty years The Book was circulating on both sides of the Channel and was known in eight languages. Its appeal persisted – it was consulted by Columbus and Raleigh, and Dr Johnson praised it for its 'force of thought and beauty of expression': T. Kohanski & C.D. Benson, The Book of John Mandeville, 2007.

The Book was, in fact, a compilation made from multiple sources – around 30 have been identified – of which the principal are William of Bodensee's Liber de quibusdam ultramarinis partibus of 1336 and Oderic of Pordenone's Relatio of 1330: the first a narrative of the author's pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land, and the second an account of the wonders seen during the friar's decade-long mission to India and China. Both of these works were translated into French in 1351 by Jean le Long of Ypres, monk of St Bertin at Saint Omer, and these were the versions drawn upon for The Book: I.M. Higgins, Writing East: the 'Travels' of Sir John Mandeville, 1997. Higgins characterises The Book as a 'compelling account of matters pious and profane, historical and scientific, mundane and marvellous'.

The earliest version of Mandeville's Travels to circulate in England was written in Anglo-French. Its first translation into Middle English appears to have been made from a copy that was lacking the second gathering containing part of the description of Egypt. This Middle English version, often referred to as the 'Defective Version' because of this missing section, became the dominant form of the Travels in England: The Defective Version of Mandeville's Travels, ed. M.C. Seymour, The Early English Text Society, 2002. This 'Defective Version' has been deemed worthy of 'a place with the English poetic masterpieces that were soon to follow ... especially The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman' (Kohanski and Benson, 2007). It was the basis for the first printed text of The Book in English (published by Richard Pynson in 1496: ed. T. Kohanski, 2001), and of every other English edition until 1725.

The present manuscript belongs to this Middle English version. The journey starts from the ‘West side of the world as Engelond, Irlond, Scotlond, Norway’ and ends with the information that he, ‘Jon Manndevile knygt’ crossed the sea in 1332, compiled the book 24 years after his departure, travelled for 34 years and that on his homeward journey he visited the Pope in Rome, where the Holy Father and his counsel confirmed the authenticity of all he had written, by comparison with ‘a book on latyn …after whiche book the mapa mundy was ymad’. The lacking gathering from this manuscript means that Mandeville’s journey is interrupted before reaching Jerusalem, the account leaving off in Hebron and resuming in Samaria. The continued interest that this copy held for readers is shown by ownership or readers’ signatures and marginal annotations in hands of the 15th to 17th centuries.

Seymour lists 33 surviving manuscripts of the 'Defective Version', including the present manuscript, which he includes in his Subgroup 3, a subgroup which is not homogeneous. He points out that the present manuscript only partly reflects the characteristics of this subgroup and suggests that it derives from a copy earlier in the scribal tradition than other members of the group. Furthermore the text is unique in being conflated with subgroup 1 for its final four leaves. This manuscript provides an exceptional opportunity for new research into the transmission of the Middle English text.

For The Prophecy of the Lily and the Lion and its explanation see L.A. Coote, Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England, (2000), pp.96-8.

No copy of the Middle English version cited by Seymour remains in private hands.
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