World and Tradition
The Mandeville-narrator draws on a variety of interwoven traditions: biblical and historical; chronicle and traveller’s itinerary; and the complex Matter of the East, a tradition that includes medieval retellings of the Alexander the Great legends as well as an eclectic marvels tradition (Campbell 124-7, 148-50).
The first four traditions are represented throughout the text and the geography that it evokes: the biblical, through the images and descriptions of Bethlehem and the sites of the Holy Land; the historical, through the description of Constantinople and its statues and monuments (depicted, here, with the watching pilgrim); the travellers’ tales, through the palace of the Great Khan, described—among others—by Franciscan travellers to the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century (Campbell 124-127).
But most strikingly illuminated of all is the mirabilia tradition, a widely transmitted classical and medieval body of knowledge about marvellous kinds of human beings, said to reside in the world’s margins. In The Travels of John Mandeville, these include Amazons (a nation of “noble and wise” warrior women who, according to Mandeville, do not permit men to rule their kingdom or even live among them for longer than seven days); sciopods (people who have only one leg and foot, so large that it can shade them from the sun); cynocephales (dog-headed people); cyclops (one-eyed giants); cannibalistic giants; and blemmyae (people who have no heads, and whose eyes, noses, and mouths appear on their chests).
Thus geography is a canvas on which the Mandeville narrator draws a portrait of the world. In the world of the Travels, Jerusalem is at the centre; the Earthly Paradise endures in the uttermost East; events from classical and biblical history are layered onto geographical landmarks; and monstrous or marvelous creatures inhabit the world in their diversity.