The Travels of John Mandeville (also known as The Book of John Mandeville in more recent editions) is the most popular travel narrative of the Middle Ages. Its narrator, Sir John Mandeville, tells readers about travelling from western Europe to Constantinople (chapters 1 and 2), and then to Jerusalem (chapters 9-14). Then the narrator turns farther east – into Armenia, Syria, and Egypt, and hence into China and India, to the lands of fabled emperor Prester John (chapters 16-35). The narrator even reports drawing near the Earthly Paradise, the lost home of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and now existing on earth yet inaccessible to human beings (chapter 34). The Travels of John Mandeville weaves together the biblical, historical, and encyclopedic traditions of the Middle Ages to create a complex vision of the world.
First written in French in the second half of the fourteenth century, The Travels of John Mandeville enjoyed enormous success. More than two hundred and seventy five manuscripts of The Travels of John Mandeville survive, in French, Latin, English, German, Dutch, Czech, Danish, Irish, Italian, and Spanish (Campbell 124-6). This exhibit focuses on one particular manuscript of The Travels of John Mandeville: British Library Ms. Harley 3954, created in England, in East Anglia, in the second quarter of the fifteenth century (British Library Catalogue entry, Harley 3954, Detailed Record). The Travels of John Mandeville that appears in this manuscript is in Middle English, and is lavishly illuminated. In addition to the Travels itself (ff. 1-69), the manuscript as a whole consists of religious or devotional texts: Infancy of Christ (ff. 70-74); Merits of the Mass (ff. 74-76); Virtues of Masses (ff. 76-78); Seven Virtues and Vices (ff. 78v-81); and Piers Plowman (ff. 92-123v) (British Library Catalogue entry, Harley 3954, ibid.). This suggests that the owners of the manuscript perceived the Travels in a devotional context.