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  • Thinking Globally:Mandeville, Memory, and Mappaemundi*
  • John Wyatt Greenlee (bio) and Anna Fore Waymack (bio)

THE TRAVELS OF Sir John Mandeville, the fourteenth-century "first-person" account of a fictional English knight's adventurous journey to Jerusalem and across the world, is difficult to teach.1 Popular with medieval European audiences, the book troubles today's students with its confusing descriptions of global geography, its treatment of non-Christian, non-European peoples, and its constant conflation of fact and fable. But, as those who have taught it can attest, it can serve as a valuable tool for challenging students' preconceptions of an isolated European Middle Ages. It introduces them to an unreliable narrator and to tensions between the doctrines of the institutional Roman church and individual faith. The author's global perspective shows students a world of diverse religions, ethnicities, races, diets, customs, and sexualities. And the Travels does this while being relatively short and entertaining, pulling the reader through the map via its engaging narrative of landscaped vignettes. Moreover, the Travels was an astoundingly widely read text in Europe, coming down to us in more than three hundred extant manuscript copies and an even larger number of later printed editions.2 Iain Higgins, in the introduction to his edition, observes that the Travels was unparalleled in its spread: Marco Polo's book exists in only half the number of copies, Dante's appeal was largely regional, and the other works with comparable distribution [End Page 69] were saints' lives or tales of Alexander the Great.3 The text's wide cultural reach therefore offers a broad window into medieval European ideas about the world, and its varied textual tradition can acquaint students with the often novel concept of books as unstable artifacts.

For all this, however, the Travels also presents a number of obstacles to teachers and students. Its genre is elusive: is it a pilgrim's itinerary? a romance? an encyclopedia? Carol Symes introduced this very journal by asking these kinds of questions about Mandeville: what was it "supposed to be about?" How was it understood?4 The text's array of seemingly random (and frequently suspect) factoids, agglomerated from myriad earlier sources, leads many students to doubt its value—and the scenes grow increasingly surreal as the text progresses beyond Jerusalem. Furthermore, its curious geography can trouble those trained in modern map literacies. Many readers attempt to drop the territories represented by the author into a Google Maps framework, becoming frustrated when this proves impossible. Students are not alone in this: the effort to fix Mandeville's journeys into a standard cartographic framework has historically bedevilled many of the text's editors and commentators, as well. For example, Anthony Bale's translation (2012), a popular edition for classroom use, introduces the text with a set of maps which helpfully locate all of the "identifiable places" in the book—an approach that leaves much of Mandeville's world unaccounted for.5

In 2015, Greenlee responded to the geographical challenges of teaching the Travels by digitally mapping its locations on to the thirteenth-century Hereford Map, creating the online resource "The Mapping Mandeville Project" in order to disrupt the mindset with which his students approached this text.6 The website allows students to see these places located on a map that operates under the same cartographic and geographic principals as the text. Subsequently, Waymack borrowed the site for her own seminars. The evident connections between famous medieval mappaemundi (maps of the world) and the Travels convinced us that medieval literary mappings such as this one might constitute an actual genre of cartographic production.

In the meantime, Waymack had been experimenting with using medieval memory techniques, especially memory paths, in her day-to-day life: reminders, grocery lists, or pieces of information were mapped on to remembered sites [End Page 70] along real routes, in and around Ithaca, New York. Such techniques exploit the comparative ease of remembering images and spatial arrangements.7 Following one of these routes on her way to teach the Travels, she connected her practice with Mandeville's narrative technique. If the Travels gave its readers a geographic framework, then it also gave them a scaffolding...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2377-3553
Print ISSN
2377-3561
Pages
pp. 69-106
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-08
Open Access
No
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