Mandeville and Materiality in the Age of the Pandemic

As the world continues to reel from the pandemic, like many of us, I am missing the opportunities that we would normally enjoy to meet and discuss our scholarship face-to-face, not least at this month’s understandably postponed NCS Congress. Many people have been inspired to consider the current pandemic in relation to the ‘Black Death’ of the mid-fourteenth century, but instead of dwelling on the challenges that faced humanity then and now, I find solace instead by looking for escapism.

Sir John Mandeville, pictured self-isolating, c. 1459 (Detail from New York Public Library, Spencer Collection; image in the public domain).

We are not alone in having a desire to travel mentally when physical travel is not possible. The imitation of travel through a combination of scholarship and creativity is embodied by John Mandeville’s mid-fourteenth-century Book of Marvels and Travels, which takes on a new resonance in the current circumstances: it is the work of someone imagining impossible travel, while remaining safely at home.[1] As Chaucerians, we might feel that the reduction in our own physical travel returns us to something of the relative stasis experienced by many in the medieval world. Reading Mandeville allows us to “travel” to Jerusalem and beyond in an imagined post-plague medieval world, just as it did for Mandeville’s contemporary audience. The text itself is a traveller, having been adapted and translated across medieval Europe, and having moved across the centuries to us. It speaks to our current stasis by showing how we can continue to engage with the real and imagined world, even if we cannot leave our homes.

At the heart of Mandeville’s virtual exploration is a keen interest in materiality, displaying a deep concern about what should be depicted or commemorated in material iconography, using real and imagined cultures to address these practices. By engaging with the text, we become part of the wider debate about iconoclasm in the later fourteenth century, exemplified by the arguments against idolatry put forward by John Wyclif and his followers. Mandeville’s work shows us some of the ideas that were put forward in response in popular literature. These are arguments which may evoke our own concerns at a time when we are questioning what kinds of material iconography we want to be preserved in our landscape.

Throughout his narrative, Mandeville contrasts different faiths with western Christianity, often finding Christians to be lacking in virtue in comparison to their non-Christian counterparts. Attitudes to icons and idols form the heart of this discussion. The difference between the two is set out while Mandeville discusses the beliefs of the people of the island of Thane:

somme worschipe symylacris, somme ydols. But bitwene symylacris and ydols is a grete difference, for symylacris beþ ymagis made to what likenesse of a þing þat a man wole þat is not kyndelich, for somme ymage haþ þre hedis, on of a man, anoþer of an hors, and anoþer of an oxe oþer anoþer beest þat no man haþ seye. (p. 73, ll. 2-7) [2]

The “symylacris” described here are feigned objects, depicting things which do not exist in nature. These are distinct from “ydols”, which we may reasonably infer to be depictions of things which do exist in the physical world. Both “symylacris” and “ydols” are again distinct from relics, the physical remains of someone or something held to be divine or saintly.

That the people Mandeville describes here are willing to worship “symylacris” and “ydols” demonstrates how far removed they are from Christianity, but Mandeville reacts with curiosity as to the nature of their devotional practices, rather than with horror. Where he can identify underlying Christian traits, Mandeville seems forgiving of idolatry:

ȝe schal undirstonde þat þei þat worschipe symylacris, þei worschipe hem for some worþi men þat were somtyme as Hercules oþer siche ooþer, whiche dide many merveyles in here tymes. For þei say þei wote wel þei beþ not God of kynde þat made alle þing, but þei beþ riȝt wel wiþ God for merveiles þat þei dooþ and þerfor þei worschip hem. (p. 73, ll. 8-13)

Here, “symylacris” of classical figures such as Hercules become the focus of the devotion, meaning that they occupy the same position that might be taken by the saints or the Virgin Mary in Christian worship. Mandeville’s response suggests that this is comprehensible to him, and hence tolerable, because the devotional practice being enacted is correct, regardless of the subject of that devotion being pagan and legendary. The careful explanation of Mandeville’s reasoning protects him from accusations of heresy, as does the anonymity of the true author. Mandeville’s understanding of belief systems is supported by the inclusion of Hercules: a reminder that civilised societies long pre-date Christianity.

Mandeville also describes a number of purportedly genuine holy relics, which act in similar ways to the pagan idols in the text. On seeing the Crown of Thorns, Mandeville is gifted with a spine which he says “was ȝeue me for grete frendschip.” Mandeville’s pride in possessing this holiest of relics is founded on a belief in its authenticity, but it also functions as a souvenir of his travels, foreshadowing Susan Stewart’s argument that: “within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for the authentic object become critical. “[3]

Mandeville is concerned with this search for authenticity: he is proud to possess the thorn because he believes it to be authentic, but he is critical when describing relics he believes to be fakes. He explains that the Crown exists in two different cities (Paris and Constantinople) because each has half of the original. However, he is distrustful of contradictory claims as to the location of the spear-head of the Holy Lance:

þe sperschaft haþ þe emperour of Almayn, but þe heed is at Parys. And many tymes seiþ þe emperour of Constantynople þat he haþ þe sperheed; and Y have ofte yseie þat þat he haþ, but it is grettere þan þat of Parys. (p. 10, ll. 23-6)

Mandeville applies the same critical eye to the authenticity of these relics as he does to his discussions of idolatry. He was not alone in being wary of duplicated relics: this Lance is ostensibly the same relic that appears in the Grail romances, in which seeking the original is of the utmost importance.

The relics discussed here all existed: the spearhead in Paris was a gift for the French king Louis IX, later St Louis (r. 1226-70), while the shaft in Germany was the property of the Holy Roman Emperors. The Lance was regarded as symbolic of the Emperor’s right to rule, and as such became part of their regalia, representing their invincibility. Similarly, one of the two Crowns described belonged to Louis, who had the royal chapel of Paris, the Sainte-Chappelle, constructed to house it in 1248. Louis himself received the Crown as a gift in return for military assistance to the Latin Emperor Baldwin II (r. 1228-73). It was therefore translated to France to support continued Christian rule in the Middle East, indicating the value of the relic in both symbolic and monetary terms. The ownership of these relics was highly political: possession of a relic of Christ (even one of disputed authenticity) brought the possessor closer to Christ. Mandeville’s Book enables its audience to engage with these relics without any need to travel to see them.

The Book can be divided into two halves, with the first being a guide to pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the mid-fourteenth century, based on authentic pilgrim accounts, and the second a more fantastic account of imagined travels further east. The treatment of “symylacris” and “ydols” links the two halves thematically: while materials such as the Crown and the spear-head enable the reader to emulate authentic medieval Christian pilgrimages in their imaginations, these can then be set in contrast with, for example, the Thanekars’ image of Hercules. The non-Christian materials are imagined as being treated in the same way as the Christian relics by their devotees, as a focus for worship, a practice which Mandeville shows could emulate Christianity without being explicitly Christian.

Mandeville is careful to present different arguments within the idolatry debate, and he uses the conclusion of his work to outline the imagined defence of the Chinese iconolaters:

of symylacris and mawmetis þei seiþ þat alle men haveþ mawmetis and symylacris, for þei seiþ þat cristen men haveþ ymages of oure lady and oþere. But þei woot nouȝt þat we worschipe not þese ymages of stoon noþer of tree for hemself but þe seyntes for wham þei beþ ymade. (p. 135, ll. 6-10)

“Mawmetis” are false idols; for a medieval Christian audience, it would follow that their worshippers could not be Christians by default, both because of this falsity and because any image-worship was prohibited by the Second Commandment. However, Mandeville seeks to distinguish Christian use of effigies from pagan worship, putting forward the argument that images are valuable for the instruction of those who cannot read. This view followed the teaching of the medieval Christian Church as to the use of devotional images and relics, but overlooks the inherent difficulty of reconciling image-worship with Christian doctrine. The “armchair traveller” following Mandeville is being invited to take part in this debate, and to form their own conclusions, returning from their imagined travels better informed as to the arguments in a developing cultural crisis.

In Mandeville’s work, “ydols” seek to represent, or stand in for, that which is not present, or, with “symylacris,” does not exist. To the extent that they might be regarded as true, relics occupy their own distinct category here, because they hold direct links to the saintly or the divine, rather than seeking to emulate it. However, in all cases Mandeville is concerned with objects which mediate communication with their subjects, through veneration, adoration, contemplation, and commemoration. All of these functions seek to make the absent subject present through its emulation in a material form. This brings us to the heart of why Mandeville’s treatment of materiality links to our current predicament: Mandeville’s concern is to bring that which is absent to those who are unable to reach it. Like Mandeville, we might now “visit” locations we can no longer physically travel to, through our reading, our teaching, and our scholarship.

This blog is adapted from a paper I was due to give at this year’s postponed Medieval Insular Romance Conference in Durham. My thanks go to the organiser of that conference, Venetia Bridges, and to Anthony Bale and Thomas Goodmann, for their support with this work.

[1] I follow Anthony Bale in using this title, and I refer to the author as Mandeville for ease of reference. As per The Book of Marvels and Travels, trans. Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
[2] My quotations are taken from The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels, ed. M.C. Seymour, Early English Text Society OS 319 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), representing the most widely circulated version of the text in English.
[3] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 133.

Matt Clancy has recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, Univeristy of London, specialising in medieval material culture associated with the Arthurian traditions.