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

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

Hardcover - 230 pages
First Edition, October 2001
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-24997-0 / 0374249970

            In 1322, Sir John Mandeville, the most popular writer in England, who later influenced Shakespeare, Milton and Keats, announced that he was leaving immediately on a journey to find the holy city of Jerusalem. The famous knight didn't return to England until 1356. He reported that, during his 34 years of exploration, he had visited Jerusalem, then India, China and Tibet, and then Java and Sumatra. Was his claim accurate, or a fabricated boast?

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

            British historical writer Giles Milton set out recently to do the detective work to verify or falsify Mandeville's reports. "If archaeologists can unravel the lifestyle of Palaeolithic man from a couple of teeth and the odd jawbone, I felt sure I could learn something about Sir John from the sixty-one leaves of vellum and the handful of documents that have survived the centuries." [Page 123]

            Complicating the matter was that Mandeville had certainly fabricated some details. He had reported seeing mysterious lands in Asia where lambs grow on trees, an island where everyone has the body parts of both sexes, a wilderness where men have horns on their heads, and a rock which one can overturn to find the devil. [154-157] But a liar (or, if you prefer, one who invents tall tales for the purpose of entertainment) is not necessarily lying on every occasion. The question remained to be answered -- more than a century before the voyage of Columbus, where had Mandeville's travels taken him?

            One point of evidence in favor of Mandeville's claim is that he was one of the very few people to argue that it is possible to circumnavigate the globe [217], and he seemed to be dedicated to the task of proving it. Contrary to popular belief, people of that age didn't believe that the earth is flat. Educated people knew that Aristarchus in ancient Greece, two thousand years earlier, had proven mathematically that the earth is round, and had even calculated the world's diameter. However, in the 14th century, it was believed that the southern hemisphere had to be uninhabitable, it had to be all sea and no land. This was asserted because any solid material would fall off the bottom of the world. Another reason for that belief, derived from religious faith, was that Jesus, who was born to save all of mankind, had not sent any disciples to the southern hemisphere. Mandeville never shrank from the opportunity to criticize the Pope -- just short of the point at which he might get excommunicated. A personality profile of Mandeville would indicate that he would likely make a journey south of the equator, just to prove his point.

Table of Contents

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

       1   The Inscription	     3
       2   Constantinople	    11
       3   The Manuscript	    43
       4   Cyprus		    55
       5   A Second Sir John	    82
       6   Syria		    90
       7   A Medieval Chronicle    123
       8   Jerusalem		   131
       9   The King's Pardon       164
      10   The Sanai Desert	   169
      11   Onward to China	   196

      Epilogue			   214
      Acknowledgements		   221
      Bibioliography		   223
      Index			   227

            The author's detective work took him to St. Albans Abbey, where heroes were buried beneath the floor. He found Mandeville's tomb there, but the worn inscription was partly unreadable. [1-4] Fortunately, in a library archive, the author found an obscure document from 1631, a survey of all the tombs in Britain, which revealed the inscription. [128] Another old scrap of paper, which the author describes as "a daily record of local happenings in the 1390s" also proved to be useful. [129]

            A certain set of chronicles about Sir John's travels would be of limited usefulness, because they were not written by the knight himself. They were written by Thomas de Burton, the abbot of Meaux, who had to report to the Duke of Gloucester. [129] More clues would have to be sought in Sir John's own words.

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for
crimsonbird.com

            Giles Milton had a hunch that the extant writings of Mandeville contain hidden riddles. Mandeville had included mysterious hieroglyphics in some of his writings, which some scholars believe to be anti-Papal comments in a secret code. (Sir John had a reputation for liking to criticize the "extravagant" and "tawdry" Pope Clement VI, whose reign was not only immoral but also a drain on the taxpayers.) Since Sir John liked to use esoteric literary devices, perhaps his choices of words were also a form of code. If so, one might find references proving that the knight had indeed traveled to so many distant lands. Therefore, Giles Milton traveled throughout Asia, hoping to see something that would stand out as a landmark that had been mentioned in the form of a riddle in Mandeville's manuscript. [10, 126-127]

            Nothing more may be said without spoiling the reader's opportunity to be surprised.

            230 pages, including the 4-page 2-column index. 8 illustrations (woodcarvings).

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The Riddle and the Knight : In Search of Sir John Mandeville , the World's Greatest Traveler ,
by Giles Milton , ISBN 0-374-24997-0 / 0374249970
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