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

By Giles Milton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1996 Giles Milton. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-374-24997-0



Chapter One


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 east 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?

    What kept me reading on that first afternoon in Paris was neither the pygmies of China nor the cannibals of Sumatra. I was drawn to the book's opening pages where Mandeville describes the Greek Orthodox population of Constantinople and the glittering splendour of their churches. Just two years earlier I had married my fiancée, Alexandra, in an Orthodox church in Paris, and although I had not converted—as Alexandra's parents had done many years before—I was as fascinated by this eastern church as Sir John. Our marriage linked me directly to his medieval world, for the liturgy celebrated on our wedding day had been written by St. John Chrysostom—one-time Patriarch of Constantinople—and would once have been heard by Mandeville in the city's great church of Haghia Sophia.

    The more I read of his book, the more I realized that he was a man with an extraordinary view of the world. He was born at a time when Europe was lurching from crisis to crisis: in France and Italy rival popes were engaged in an undignified tussle for power, while in the east the last of the fledgeling Christian states—established by the crusaders two centuries previously—had recently been crushed by the armies of Islam. Things were little better closer to home: King Edward II was more preoccupied with flatterers and sycophants than affairs of state.

    Few of Mandeville's contemporaries address this turmoil facing the west: those pilgrims who did travel in the Middle East and returned to write their itineraries advocate the wholesale massacre of the infidel, while his crusading predecessors had slaughtered the very Christians they were supposed to protect. When Muslim rulers of Syria begged the kings of England and France to protect them from the Mongol armies, the Bishop of Winchester remarked: "Let these dogs destroy one another and be utterly exterminated and then we shall see the universal Catholic Church founded on their ruins and there will be one fold and one shepherd."

    Sir John stands a world apart from such views; he was fascinated by Islam and the Eastern Church because both religions demanded a genuine piety that he felt had long ago been abandoned by the Catholic Church. And, like a botanist who goes in search of rare lichens, so Mandeville went looking for strange and unfamiliar customs. He collected the curious and the obscure, and each new species he found was examined and compared with the rest of his collection.

    It was not only his inquiring mind that set him apart from his contemporaries. While his compatriots found themselves aspiring to a new chivalric order—the Order of the Garter—Mandeville had little interest in such high-minded pursuits and readily admits that he didn't fight in a single battle during his time away, nor did he take part in any "honourable deeds of arms." Instead of waltzing into battle wearing a breastcoat emblazoned with the sign of the cross—as invariably happens in medieval fables—Mandeville portrays himself as an altogether more human character. Sometimes he is frightened, sometimes ill, yet he never once loses his sense of humour. When finally he arrives home in England, claiming to have travelled farther than anyone in history, there is not a hint of triumphalism in his writing. Instead, he describes himself as a broken man—worn out with old age and troubled with arthritic gout. But even this doesn't stop him ending his book with a witty aside. He is laying down his quill, he says, so that future generations will still have a few new places left to discover.


Six centuries after he wrote his Travels, Mandeville lies discredited and forgotten. Academics, keen to demolish his reputation, wrote learned treatises on why he could never have made such a voyage, and mocked the gullibility of his contemporaries. They claimed that the Holy Land was a dangerous place to visit in the 1330s, while travelling along the eastern road to China would have spelled almost certain death. Mandeville, they concluded, had copied most of his stories from the ancients, while those that weren't "borrowed" were simply invented—the products of an over-lively imagination.

    It wasn't only his book that was disputed: the more I delved into old manuscripts, the more I found that Sir John's life was just as mysterious as his Travels. There were rumours that he was an imposter; that he was a Frenchman living in disguise. One manuscript said he had never even existed, another accused him of murder; a few went so far as to claim he had dabbled in black magic and alchemy. The only point on which virtually everyone agreed was that Mandeville had invented the story of his birth in St. Albans.

    Yet the broken epitaph that I'd found on the pillar seemed to suggest that this knight really had lived in the town and perhaps even been buried inside the great Norman abbey. Could he also have been telling the truth about his voyage? Could he have indeed proved it possible to circumnavigate the globe? If so, his name needed to be written into the history books: after all, every schoolchild in the land has heard about the exploits of Drake and Ralegh, and there are few who cannot recite the old patter "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two." If Sir John was telling the truth, then all this would have to change, and they would have to learn instead that "Mandeville sailed the ocean blue in thirteen hundred and twenty-two."

    The Travels had me captivated from the very first page, and I was determined to test Mandeville's amazing claims by following as much of his route as possible. I knew this wouldn't be easy; there were many practical difficulties to overcome. To turn an old adage on its head, Sir John is always more interested in the destination than in the getting there, and he rarely describes how he travelled from A to B. From the moment he leaves England, his route is muddled and unclear; although he lists all the possible ways of reaching Constantinople—his first stop—he declines to mention which one he himself took. Nor, for that matter, does he record how long he stayed in the imperial capital: the only dates in the entire book are his departure from England in 1322 and his return in 1356.

    On leaving Constantinople, he almost certainly travelled by boat to Cyprus—pausing to visit the famous clifftop monasteries—before continuing by sea to Jerusalem and Egypt. From here, he seems to have backtracked to Syria before striking out eastwards across Anatolia towards Persia, India, and beyond. But attempting to plot Mandeville's itinerary on a map was as futile as it was impossible, and right from the outset I could see little point in ambling across the Middle East and Asia following a trail that Mandeville had only half-heartedly recorded. Instead, I headed straight to the towns and cities that caught his interest, hoping that he had scattered his book with enough clues to help me solve the mystery of his voyage.


The writers and poets of the Middle Ages loved the riddles of their Saxon forebears. They indulged in clever wordplay, wrote alliterative verses, sang roundels, and wallowed in folklore. A handful of critics suggested that Mandeville's book, too, concealed a hidden message; that the entire Travels had been composed as an extended riddle or allegory whose meaning had long ago been lost.

    Whatever the truth about this mysterious knight, I felt sure that I would only ever understand him by adjusting my own horizons and entering the world in which he himself had lived. So that when I finally arrived in Istanbul—the starting point of both our journeys—I turned my back on the modern city and went, instead, in search of Constantinople, the imperial capital of Byzantium. And as I travelled hand in hand with my medieval companion, the centuries that separated our lives began to close. Perspectives shrank, and the strange world he inhabited grew ever more distinct.

    After two years in search of Sir John, I had accumulated three large dossiers of evidence about him and discovered that his life was just as extraordinary as his book. Everything about Mandeville proved to be a riddle. But he had left a surprising number of clues.


Excerpted from The Riddle and the Knight by Giles Milton. Copyright © 1996 by Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.