The Travels of John Mandeville serves many kinds of audiences. In her survey of Mandeville’s reception in the Middle Ages, Rosemary Tzanaki writes of the Travels’s uses as devotional manual and theological treatise, as romance and collection of marvels, as encyclopedia of history and natural sciences (Tzanaki, Mandeville’s Medieval Audiences). Here I focus on a specific group of readers—those with devotional interests—as they are foregrounded both by the Travels’s text and by the contents of Harley 3954 (British Library Catalogue entry, Harley 3954, Detailed Record).
The Travels of John Mandeville begins with an account of Jerusalem, “the Land of Promise which men call the Holy Land, among all other lands … the most worthy land and mistress over all others, … blessed and hallowed and consecrated by the precious blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Mandeville, Prologue, p. 43). To medieval Christians, the Holy Land--Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, where Jesus’ life and ministry took place—constituted sacred space, a greatly desired destination for pilgrimage. In the Prologue, the Mandeville-narrator addresses two types of readers: those who “covet to hear that land spoken of, and divers countries thereabout, and have of that great pleasure and enjoyment” (Mandeville, Prologue, p. 44); and those who desire guidance to “the holy city of Jerusalem and the holy places that are thereabout” (Mandeville, Prologue, p. 45).
Reading about the geography and history of the Holy Land allowed the readers, if not to travel there themselves, then to imagine themselves in these sacred spaces and make more vivid to the narratives of Christian salvation history (Tzanaki 39-82). The first illumination above (Harley 3954, f. 13v) depicts the pilgrim, in an attitude of devotion, in the actual presence of Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem. The following page, f. 14r, invites the reader to be a spectator and participant in the Angel’s annunciation to the shepherds; the shepherds’ backs, foregrounded and turned to the reader, situate the reader within that congregation. The third item, f. 21v, interweaves the geography of the Holy Land with biblical quotations, setting these out in red to draw the reader’s attention.