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  • The Journey to Jerusalem:Mandeville and Hilton
  • A. C. Spearing

The two works I want to put alongside each other may never have been directly compared before. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection are both prose texts from the second half of the fourteenth century that were widely read in England, but apart from that they may seem to have little in common. To modern readers, Mandeville's Travels is a strange kind of work. It has no fixed form; it survives in a great variety of versions in about three hundred manuscripts, in many European vernaculars and also in Latin. In England it seems to have begun circulating about 1360. Its author may have been, as he claims, a knight "that was born in Englond in the town of Seynt Albones, and passed the see in the yeer of oure lord Ihesu Crist m.ccc and xxii [1322]" (Prologue, p. 3)1, to embark on a series of journeys that took him through most of the known world; or he may have been, as M. C. Seymour and others believe, a Frenchman pretending to be that English knight—though who ever heard of a medieval Frenchman pretending to be English? But we do not know whether either of those identifications is really true, nor do we know whether "Mandeville" really undertook the journeys he describes. Earlier readers, including Christopher Columbus, believed that he did2, but modern scholarship indicates that, as Iain Higgins puts it, he "may never have traveled anywhere (except to a good library),"3 and that most if not all of the book was compiled from his reading, the chief sources being French versions of two Latin works by William of Boldensele and Odoric of Pordenone. Authorship here seems an irrelevant category: this is one of those medieval vernacular texts that illustrate the concept of mouvance, or continuous recreation in transmission.4 Whether its first writer was English or French by birth, there is much evidence that the original language of the Travels was French; but I am going to be mainly concerned with an English version, the one dating from about 1400 found in British Library MS Cotton Titus c.xvi, conveniently edited by M. C. Seymour, and described by Higgins as "quite a good proxy for the authorial version."5 The prose of the Travels in [End Page 1] this English version is strongly personal in manner but not distinctive in style. It has an almost journalistic quality, a neutral nondescriptness, an immersion in factuality if not in fact, that supports Mary Campbell's denial that the book should be called a romance and perhaps even her suggestion that "Mandeville" "was writing realistic prose fiction—for the first time since Petronius."6 Within this unstylized prose, conceived as a vehicle for fact and event, "I, John Mandeville" is no more than a shifting centre for the deixis of an unstable text. I will go on referring to "Mandeville" for convenience, but one might conceive of the name as written sous rature, because it does not relate to a knowable historical personage. But neither does it relate, in my view, to what Seymour calls a "fictional narrator" and Donald Howard a "persona" and Douglas Butturf a "traditional satiric persona" and Geraldine Heng a "narratorial persona" and Ralph Hanna a "narrative personality."7 Those terms are all received "solutions" to the supposed problem of the relation between the flesh-and-blood author and the ink-and-paper "I" of the text. But the name does not refer to anything outside itself, neither a real person nor a fictional persona; "I, John Mandeville" is merely an alibi for proximality. The text frequently creates the illusion that someone is speaking and is close to us, but that someone is a no-one, an effect of writing, not its source.8

Walter Hilton, on the other hand, though not a great deal is known about him, did have a real historical existence. Born about the same time as Chaucer, he was a lawyer who became first a hermit and then an Augustinian canon, and he died at the priory of Thurgarton in...


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