The University of Toronto has acquired an ancient manuscript widely considered one of “medieval Europe’s greatest bestsellers.”
Led by the efforts of Sébastien Sobeckia partial copy of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville which scholars thought was written in the mid-1300s is now part of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Librarythe collection.
“It’s one of the texts that inspired explorers to believe in circumnavigation,” says Sobecki, a professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who jointly nominated the Center for Medieval Studies.
To secure the ancient manuscript, Sobecki collaborated with the Fisher Library as well as the University Library.
“This is big news for the university – I’m thrilled,” Sobecki said. “It’s probably one of our most important medieval manuscripts and could be a gem in the Fisher collection.”
“It is very likely that this is the oldest surviving copy of what was one of the most popular and influential works of the Middle Ages,” explains Tim Perrylibrarian of medieval manuscripts and ancient books at the Fisher Library.
The manuscript was purchased from Bernard Quaritch Ltd, a London-based bookseller specializing in rare books and manuscripts. Previously, it belonged to the family of the Duke of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
Written in Insular French (or Anglo-French), the manuscript consists of 40 leaves – or 80 pages – and includes a substantial fragment of Mandeville’s work. Travel (chapters 11-12, 13-16 and 23-31). Each sheet measures approximately 27.5 by 18.5 centimeters.
The writing is done on specially prepared animal skin – probably sheep or calf skin – rather than paper.
The book purports to be Mandeville’s travel memoir, although it is more accurately described as fiction. He claims to have traveled through Turkey, Persia, Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, India and China in the 1320s or 1330s.
It is filled with stories of exotic beasts, treasures beyond imagination, as well as magical kingdoms with mythical characters such as dog-headed humans and other strange creatures – all hallmarks of science -fiction today – and the book is considered by some to be one of the first widespread tales in the genre.
And the Travel goes beyond just writing about destinations, tackling topics such as religion and politics. For example, while trekking through Egypt, Mandeville engages in a long conversation with the Sultan of Egypt.
“They exchange ideas about the Koran and the Bible,” says Sobecki. “And they discuss the differences in belief between Muslims and Christians. It’s really quite open-minded.
“But it’s not a religious text. This is a secular adventure text about (fictional) monsters from the East and what Asia is like. It is one of the greatest pieces of travel writing in the world and is remarkable for its tolerance and openness.
Part of this adventure includes visiting the enchanted kingdom of Prester John, a legendary Christian patriarch and king who ruled over a large Christian colony in India.
Mandeville describes the kingdom as having unparalleled wealth with an abundance of precious stones, including an entire river made of precious stones instead of water, which flows down enormous mountains and produces fish with a particularly sweet taste.
Where did the author obtain the material for this book? By combining several authentic travel stories from various sources and adding your own twist.
“There are many documents from Franciscan missions to the Mongols in the 13th century,” says Sobecki. “They brought back fantastic reports about the people of Central Asia. Some of them are accurate, others are tinged with fiction and science fiction.
So who exactly was Sir John Mandeville?
“That’s a good question. We don’t know,” says Sobecki, noting that it’s the subject of scientific debate. “John Mandeville was probably a fictitious name, one of the first pseudonyms.”
Whoever the author was, it is generally accepted that he did not travel much himself. However, he was a master at taking the stories of others and creating a new narrative.
“Someone said, quite correctly, that his longest trip was to the nearest library,” says Sobecki. “So he was probably the greatest armchair traveler in the world.”
Some researchers have suggested that Travel was written by Jan de Langhe, a Flemish monk posing as an Englishman. He was known to be a prolific writer and an avid collector of travel memoirs until his death in 1383.
What also makes this manuscript so important is that it is much more than just a prize: it is a valuable tool for research and teaching.
“It’s a book for readers, for real-world use,” Sobecki says. “We are trying to determine where this text fits in the family tree of Mandeville manuscripts. And for teaching purposes, this text would be extremely useful because Mandeville is a canonical English writer and is taught every year, not only in my course, but in several other courses at the University of Toronto. This manuscript also presents numerous teaching opportunities for undergraduates, masters, and doctoral students: comparing later Middle English translations with the original Anglo-French text. »
Furthermore, this text can shed light on many other facets of historical literature and publishing.
“Once we know where this manuscript is located, we may be able to locate the particular dialect the writing comes from,” Sobecki says. “We can also better understand how these early medieval Mandeville manuscripts Travel circulated in England.
Sobecki adds that he can’t wait to delve into Mandeville’s pages and see what secrets can be revealed.
“This text really inspired people,” he says. “This is the text that really made me fall in love with medieval travel writing. I’ve worked with thousands of manuscripts, but any time you’re in the presence of something that was handwritten 700 years ago, it’s just incredible.