Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE FIRST ENGLISH GUIDE-BOOK
 AND now, lest you should say, "What, still more poetry!" I shall
give you next a chapter about a great story-teller who wrote in
prose. We use story-teller in two senses, and when we speak of
Sir John Mandeville we use it in both. He was a great story-
But before saying anything about his stories, I must first tell
you that after having been believed in as a real person for five
hundred years and more, Sir John has at last been found out. He
never lived at all, and the travels about which he tells us so
finely never took place.
"Sir John," too, used to be called the "Father of English Prose,"
but even that honor cannot be left to him, for his travels were
not written first in English, but in French, and were afterwards
translated into English.
But although we know Sir John Mandeville was not English, that he
never saw the places he describes, that indeed he never lived at
all, we will still call him by that name. For we must call him
something, and as no one really knows who wrote the book which is
known as The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, we may
as well call the author by the name he chose as by another.
Sir John, then, tells us that he was born in St. Albans, that he
was a knight, and that in 1322 he set out on his travels. He
traveled about for more than twenty years, but at last, although
in the course of them he had drunk
 of the well of everlasting
youth, he became so crippled with gout that he could travel no
longer. He settled down, therefore, at Liege in Belgium. There
he wrote his book, and there he died and was buried. At any
rate, many years afterwards his tomb was shown there. It was
also shown at St. Albans, where the people were very proud of it.
Sir John's great book was a guide-book. In those days, as we
know, it was a very common thing for people to go on pilgrimages.
And among the long pilgrimages the one to the Holy Land was the
most common. So Sir John wrote his book to help people on their
way, just as Mr. Baedeker and Mr. Murray do now.
It is perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most
delightful, guide-books ever written, although really it was
chiefly made up of bits out of books by other people.
Sir John tells of many different ways of getting to Palestine,
and relates wonderful stories about the places to be passed
through. He wrote in French. "I know that I ought to write in
Latin," he says, "but because more people understand French I
have written in French, so that every one may understand it."
Afterwards it was translated into Latin, later into English, and
still later into almost every European language, so much did
people like the stories.
When these stories appeared it was something quite new in
Literature, for until this time stories were always written in
poetry. It was only great and learned books, or books that were
meant to teach something, that were written in prose.
Here is one of Sir John Mandeville's tales.
After telling about the tomb of St. John at Ephesus, Sir John
goes on: "And then men pass through the isles of Cophos and
Lango, of the which isles Ipocras was lord. And some say that in
the isle of Lango is Ipocras's daughter
 in form of a Dragon. It
is a hundred foot long, so men say. But I have not seen it. And
they say the people of the isles call her the lady of the
country, and she lieth in an old castle and sheweth herself
thrice a year. And she doeth no man harm. And she is thus
changed from a lady to a Dragon through a goddess whom men call
"And men say that she shall dwell so until the time that a knight
come that is so hardy as to go to her and kiss her mouth. And
then shall she turn again to her own kind and be a woman. And
after that she shall not live long.
"And it is not long since a knight of the island of Rhodes that
was hardy and valiant said that he would kiss her. But when the
Dragon began to lift up her head, and he saw it was so hideous,
he fled away. Then the Dragon in her anger bare the knight to a
rock and cast him into the sea, and so he was lost.
"Also a young man that wist not of the Dragon went out of a ship
and went through the isle till he came to a castle. Then came he
into the cave and went on till he found a chamber. And there he
saw a lady combing her hair, and looking in a mirror. And she
had much treasure about her. He bowed to the lady, and the lady
saw the shadow of him in the mirror. Then she turned towards him
and asked him what he would. And he answered he would be her
"Then she asked him if he were a knight, and he said 'Nay.' She
said then he might not be her lover. But she bade him go again
to his fellows and make him knight, and come again on the morrow.
Then she would come out of the cave and he should kiss her on the
mouth. And she bade him have no dread, for she would do him no
harm. Although she seemed hideous to him she said it was done by
enchantment, for, she said, she was really such as he saw her
then. She said, too, that if he kissed her he should
 have all
the treasure, and be her lord, and lord of all these isles.
"Then he departed from her and went to his fellows in the ship,
and made him knight, and came again on the morrow for to kiss the
damsel. But when he saw her come out of the cave in the form of
a Dragon, he had so great dread that he fled to the ship. She
followed him, and when she saw that he turned not again she began
to cry as a thing that had much sorrow, and turned back again.
"Soon after the knight died, and since, hitherto, might no knight
see her but he died anon. But when a knight cometh that is so
hardy to kiss her, he shall not die, but he shall turn that
damsel into her right shape and shall be lord of the country
When Sir John reaches Palestine he has very much to say of the
wonders to be seen there. At Bethlehem he tells a story of how
roses first came into the world. Here it is:
"Bethlehem is but a little city, long and narrow, and well walled
and enclosed with a great ditch, and it was wont to be called
Ephrata, as Holy Writ sayeth, 'Lo, we heard it at Ephrata.' And
toward the end of the city toward the East, is a right fair
church and a gracious. And it hath many towers, pinnacles and
turrets full strongly made. And within that church are forty-
four great pillars of marble, and between the church the Field
Flowered as ye shall hear.
"The cause is, for as much as a fair maiden was blamed with
wrong, for the which cause she was deemed to die, and to be burnt
in that place, to the which she was led.
"And as the wood began to burn about her, she made her prayer to
our Lord as she was not guilty of that thing, that He would help
her that her innocence might be known to all men.
"And when she had this said she entered the fire. And
 anon the
fire went out, and those branches that were burning became red
roses, and those branches that were not kindled became white
roses. And those were the first roses and rose-trees that any
man saw. And so was the maiden saved through the grace of God,
and therefore is that field called the Field of God Flowered, for
it was full of roses."
Although Sir John begins his book as a guide to Palestine, he
tells of many other lands also, and of the wonder there. Of
Ethiopia, he tells us: "On the other side of Chaldea toward the
South is Ethiopia, a great land. In this land in the South are
the people right black. In that side is a well that in the day
the water is so cold that no man may drink thereof, and in the
night it is so hot that no man may suffer to put his hand in it.
In this land the rivers and all the waters are troublous, and
some deal salt, for the great heat. And men of that land are
easily made drunken and have little appetite for meat. They have
commonly great illness of body and live not long. In Ethiopia
are such men as have one foot, and they walk so fast that it is a
great marvel. And that is a large foot that the shadow thereof
covereth the body from sun and rain when they lie upon their
Sir John tells us, too, of a wonderful group of islands, "and in
one of these isles are men that have one eye, and that in the
midst of their forehead. And they eat not flesh or fish all raw.
"And in another isle dwell men that have no heads, and their eyes
are in their shoulders and their mouth is in their breast. . . .
"And in another isle are men that have flat faces without nose
and without eyes, but they have two small round holes instead of
eyes and they have a flat mouth without lips. . . .
"And in another isle are men that have the lips about
 their mouth
so great that when they sleep in the sun they cover all their
face with the lip."
But I must not tell all the "lying wonders of our English
knight." for you must read the book for yourselves. And when
you do you will find that it is written with such an easy air of
truth that you will half believe in Sir John's marvels. Every
now and again, too, he puts in a bit of real information which
helps to make his marvels seem true, so that sometimes we cannot
be sure what is truth and what is fable.
Sir John wandered far and long, but at last his journeyings
ended. "I have passed through many lands and isles and
countries," he says, "and now am come to rest against my will."
And so to find comfort in his "wretched rest" he wrote his book.
"But," he says, "there are many other divers countries, and many
other marvels beyond that I have not seen. Also in countries
where I have been there are many marvels that I speak not of, for
it were too long a tale." And also, he thought, it was as well
to leave something untold "so that other men that go thither may
find enough for to say that I have not told," which was very kind
Sir John tells us then how he took his book to the holy father
the Pope, and how he caused it to be read, and "the Pope hath
ratified and affirmed my book in all points. And I pray to all
those that read this book, that they will pray for me, and I
shall pray for them."
BOOKS TO READ
The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, edited by
A. W. Pollard