50 Bizarre Passages from Medieval Europe’s Bestselling Travel Book
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
was a medieval bestseller. First published in the mid-14th century and translated into at least eight languages, the book was popular for more than four centuries and was closely read by explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Columbus. Part travel guide, part Christian polemic, part armchair anthropology, the text traces the purported travels of a knight who, for 30 years, explored Europe, the Holy Land, India, Ethiopia, and beyond.
And most of its contents were entirely fabricated.
Travels is ripe with bloated exaggerations (Mount Ararat is seven miles high) and careless assumptions (camels don’t eat much; therefore, they must live off nothing but air). But as Mandeville ventured farther from continental Europe—into the unknown land medieval folks called “The Antipodes”—his account becomes a little, um, weirder.
There are dragons and cyclops, centaurs, and men with the heads of dogs. There are giants and jumbo-snails and dwarves who live off the smell of apples. A skeptical Sir Walter Raleigh eventually called Mandeville the “greatest fabler of the world.” (Which is funny, because in his own travel book, Discovery of Guiana, Raleigh used Mandeville's idea of a race of headless people with faces on their chests.)
Wikimedia // Public Domain
But Raleigh was onto something. Mandeville was a master at lying, both about his travels and his very identity. As editors Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson write in a 2007 introduction to Travels, “The general scholarly consensus today is that ‘Sir John Mandeville, knight of St. Albans’ was probably not a knight, not named Mandeville, not English, and perhaps never traveled much at all.” Mandeville was likely just an anonymous writer who cribbed text from dozens of old travel books and mythologies. It took about 600 years for his venerated reputation to crumble into that of an imposter, plagiarist, and fabulist.
It’s hard to know exactly how gullible Mandeville's original readers were (medieval travel books were often suspected of wild exaggeration even then). All we know is that his book—full of what Mandeville called “diverse folks, and of diverse manners and laws, and of diverse shapes of men”—is one of the most whimsical travel books published in English. We read through it and whittled it down to some of the weirdest passages, listed below.
A sciapod. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain
1. A man with goat legs // Egypt:
This monster … had two horns trenchant on his forehead; and he had a body like a man unto the navel, and beneath he had the body like a goat.
2. One-legged people who use their oversized foot as a shade umbrella (a.k.a.: Sciapods) // Ethiopia: In that country be folk that have but one foot, and they go so blyve [quickly] that it is marvel. And the foot is so large, that it shadoweth all the body against the sun.
3. Dwarves who subsist on the aroma of apples // Island Pytan: The folk of that country … be as dwarfs, but not so little as be the Pigmies. These men live by the smell of wild apples. And when they go any far way, they bear the apples with them; for if they had lost the savour of the apples, they should die anon.
4. Mouthless dwarves who eat through straws and speak sign language // An island near Dondun: In another isle there be little folk, as dwarfs. And they be two so much as the pigmies. And they have no mouth; but instead of their mouth they have a little round hole, and when they shall eat or drink, they take through a pipe or a pen or such a thing, and suck it in, for they have no tongue; and therefore they speak not, but they make a manner of hissing as an adder doth, and they make signs one to another as monks do, by the which every of them understandeth other.
5. People with elephantine ears // Another island near Dondun: In another isle be folk that have great ears and long, that hang down to their knees.
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6. Stone-faced women with killer looks // An island near the “Vale Perilous”:
[There] be full cruel and full evil women of nature. And they have precious stones in their eye[s]. And they be of that kind, that if they behold any man with wrath, they slay him anon with the beholding, as doth the basilisk.
7. Gold-digging pygmies who hate birds // The land of Chan: That river goeth through the land of Pigmies, where that the folk be of little stature, that be but three span long ... These men be the best workers of gold, silver, cotton, silk and of all such things, of any other that be in the world. And they have oftentimes war with the birds of the country that they take and eat.
8. Cannibals who keep it in the family // Isle of Dondun: In that isle be folk of diverse kinds, so that the father eateth the son, the son the father, the husband the wife, and the wife the husband. ... they chop all the body in small pieces, and pray all his friends to come and eat of him that is dead.
9. Horned men who speak pig // A desert in Paradise: In that desert be many wild men, that be hideous to look on; for they be horned, and they speak nought, but they grunt, as pigs.
10. Men with leopard beards // Albany: And the men have thin beards and few hairs, but they be long; but unnethe [with difficulty] hath any man passing fifty hairs in his beard, and one hair sits here, another there, as the beard of a leopard or of a cat.
11. Gentlemen with generously droopy family jewels // Crues, India: But there is so great heat ... [that] men’s ballocks hang down to their knees for the great dissolution of the body. And men of that country, that know the manner, let bind them up, or else might they not live, and anoint them with ointments made therefore, to hold them up.
12. Hermaphrodites // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that be both man and woman ... And they have but one pap [nipple] on the one side, and on that other none … They get children, when they use the member of man; and they bear children, when they use the member of woman.
13. People with a pancake for a face // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that have the face all flat, all plain, without nose and without mouth. But they have two small holes, all round, instead of their eyes, and their mouth is plat [flat] also without lips.
14. People who desperately need a shave // Beaumare Isle: The folk be all skinned rough hair, as a rough beast, save only the face and the palm of the hand. These folk go as well under the water of the sea, as they do above the land all dry.
15. A land populated entirely by women // Amazonia: Beside the land of Chaldea is the land of Amazonia, that is the land of Feminye. And in that realm is all women and no man; not, as some men say, that men may not live there, but for because that the women will not suffer no men amongst them to be their sovereigns.
16. People who use their oversized upper lip as a blanket // Another Island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk of foul fashion and shape that have the lip above the mouth so great, that when they sleep in the sun they cover all the face with that lip.
17. Polydactyly people who travel on their knees // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that go always upon their knees full marvellously. And at every pace that they go, it seemeth that they would fall. And they have in every foot eight toes.
18. Feathered ape-men // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that go upon their hands and their feet as beasts. And they be all skinned and feathered, and they will leap as lightly into trees, and from tree to tree, as it were squirrels or apes.
19. People with dog heads (a.k.a: Cynocephalus) // Nacumera Isle: All the men and women of that isle have hounds’ heads … And they be full reasonable and of good understanding, save that they worship an ox for their God.
DIVERSE PLACES AND CUSTOMS
The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public Domain
20. A free-love proto-communist utopia // Lamary:
In that land is full great heat. And the custom there is such, that men and women go all naked. ... And they wed there no wives, for all the women there be common and they forsake no man. ... And also all the land is common; for all that a man holdeth one year, another man hath it another year; and every man taketh what part that him liketh. And also all the goods of the land be common, corns and all other things: for nothing there is kept in close, ne nothing there is under lock, and every man there taketh what he will without any contradiction, and as rich is one man there as is another.
21. Obsessive government transparency // Cathay: And under the emperor’s table sit four clerks that write all that the emperor saith, be it good, be it evil; for all that he saith must be holden, for he may not change his word, ne revoke it.
22. A nation that feasts on chubby children // Lamary: Thither go merchants and bring with them children to sell to them of the country, and they buy them. And if they be fat they eat them anon. And if they be lean they feed them till they be fat, and then they eat them. And they say, that it is the best flesh and the sweetest of all the world.
23. Fashionably oppressive hats for unfashionably oppressive marriages // Cathay: And all those that be married have a counterfeit made like a man’s foot upon their heads, a cubit long, all wrought with great pearls, fine and orient, and above made with peacocks’ feathers and of other shining feathers; and that stands upon their heads like a crest, in token that they be under man’s foot and under subjection of man.
24. A city obscured entirely by darkness // Kingdom of Abchaz: For a province of the country ... is all covered with darkness, without any brightness or light; so that no man may see ne hear, ne no man dare enter into him.
25. Making broth with dirty dishes // Cathay: And when they have eaten, they put their dishes unwashen into the pot or cauldron with remnant of the flesh and of the broth till they will eat again.
26. And animal repellent made of snails // Land of Lomb: They anoint their hands and their feet [with a juice] made of snails and of other things made therefore, of the which the serpents and the venomous beasts hate and dread the savour; and that maketh them flee.
27. Dubious healthcare // Caffolos: Men of that country when their friends be sick they hang them upon trees, and say that it is better that birds, that be angels of God, eat them, than the foul worms of the earth.
28. Even more dubious “friendships”// Caffolos: From that isle men go to another isle, where the folk be of full cursed kind. For they nourish great dogs and teach them to strangle their friends when they be sick.
29. Women who shave // Land of Lomb: And the women drink wine, and men not. And the women shave their beards, and the men not.
30. Courage-building lemons // Isle of Silha:
They anoint their arms and their thighs and legs with an ointment made of a thing that is clept [called] lemons, that is a manner of fruit like small pease; and then have they no dread of no cockodrills [crocodiles], ne of none other venomous vermin.
31. An ocean made entirely out of gravel // The land of Prester John: For in his country is the sea that men clepe [call] the Gravelly Sea, that is all gravel and sand, without any drop of water, and it ebbeth and floweth in great waves as other seas do.
32. Age-enhancing trees // A desert near the Isle of Beaumare: And men say that the folk that keep those trees, and eat of the fruit and of the balm that groweth there, live well four hundred year or five hundred year, by virtue of the fruit and of the balm
33. Oversized grapes // Caldilhe: And there be vines that bear so great grapes, that a strong man should have enough to do for to bear one cluster with all the grapes.
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34. Wooly trees // Bacharia:
In that land be trees that bear wool, as though it were of sheep, whereof men make clothes and all things that may be made of wool.
35. Fruits full of hot surprises // Arabia: And there beside grow trees that bear full fair apples, and fair of colour to behold; but whoso breaketh them or cutteth them in two, he shall find within them coals and cinders.
36. Like, a lot of surprises // Land of Cathay: And there groweth a manner of fruit ... And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel.
A dragon from a 15th century edition of the Travels. Image credit: British Library via Europeana // Public Domain
37. Sushi-loving cyclops // An island near Dondun:
In one of these isles be folk of great stature, as giants. And they be hideous for to look upon. And they have but one eye, and that is in the middle of the front. And they eat nothing but raw flesh and raw fish.
38. Man-eating giants // Vale Perilous: After this ... is a great isle, where the folk be great giants of twenty-eight foot long, or of thirty foot long. … And they eat more gladly man’s flesh than any other flesh.
39. Even taller man-eating giants // Beyond Vale Perilous: In an isle beyond that were giants of greater stature, some of forty-five foot, or of fifty foot long, and, as some men say, some of fifty cubits long. … And men have seen, many times, those giants take men in the sea out of their ships, and brought them to land, two in one hand and two in another, eating them going, all raw and all quick.
40. 60-foot-long crocodiles // Silha Island: In that land is full much waste, for it is full of serpents, of dragons and of cockodrills [crocodiles], that no man dare dwell there. These cockodrills be serpents, yellow and rayed above, and have four feet and short thighs, and great nails as claws or talons. And there be some that have five fathoms in length, and some of six and of eight and of ten. [A fathom is six feet.]
41. Two-headed geese // Silha Island: In that country and others thereabout there be wild geese that have two heads.
42. Chickens covered in wool // Mancy, India: In that country be white hens without feathers, but they bear white wool as sheep do here.
43. Centaurs // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that have horses’ feet. And they be strong and mighty, and swift runners; for they take wild beasts with running, and eat them.
44. Serpents that sniff out illegitimate children // Sicily: And in Sicily there is a manner of serpent, by the which men assay and prove, whether their children be bastards or no, or of lawful marriage: for if they be born in right marriage, the serpents go about them, and do them no harm, and if they be born in avoutry [adultery], the serpents bite them and envenom them.
45. Pungent panther skins that can blind a man // Inside a palace in the city of Caydon: And all the walls be covered within of red skins of beasts that men clepe [called] panthers, that be fair beasts and well smelling; … Those skins be as red as blood, and they shine so bright against the sun, that unnethe [hardly] no man may behold them.
46. Dragons // Beirut: From thence men come by a city that is called Beyrout, where Saint George slew the dragon; and it is a good town, and a fair castle therein…
47. A camel-chameleon hybrid // Arabia: And there be also in that country many camles; that is a little beast as a goat, that is wild, and he liveth by the air and eateth nought, ne drinketh nought, at no time. And he changeth his colour often-time, for men see him often sithes [many times], now in one colour and now in another colour; and he may change him into all manner colours that him list, save only into red and white.
48. Jumbo sheep // The Perilous Valley: And among those giants be sheep as great as oxen here, and they bear great wool and rough. Of the sheep I have seen many times.
49. Gigantic snails // Calonak: There be also in that country a kind of snails that be so great, that many persons may lodge them in their shells, as men would do in a little house.
50. Whatever this terrifying thing is // Arabia: There be also many other beasts, full wicked and cruel, that be not mickle [much] more than a bear, and they have the head like a boar, and they have six feet, and on every foot two large claws, trenchant; and the body is like a bear, and the tail as a lion.
You can read all of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville here.