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A Knight’s Tale

Intrepid explorer, fraudulent fantastist or rampant plagiarist? Giles Milton goes looking for the real Sir John Mandeville, the medieval knight who inspired Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World
ILLUSTRATION: SUE GENT

The shore was a tangle of mangrove roots and the air was dense with humidity. Overhead, the tropical sun was burning with relentless intensity. After years of weary voyaging, the medieval English knight Sir John Mandeville had reached the utmost ends of the Earth. He was more than 5,000 miles from home.

Or so he claimed. And it was not his only claim. He said he had been on the road for a full 34 years and had undertaken an eye-stretching expedition that covered most of the known world, and much of the unknown world as well.

Rome, Greece and the Byzantine capital of Constantinople – these had formed the early years of his great adventure. He had then pressed on towards Egypt, Ethiopia and the Holy Land.

Still hungry for thrills, he had set his stirrups east and journeyed towards Armenia, India, China and beyond, traversing sun-parched deserts and icecapped mountains. He had even visited the equatorial Andaman Islands, lost in the sweltering Bay of Bengal.

The account he wrote of his voyage, known simply as e Travels of Sir John Mandeville, was widely believed for centuries. Geographers used it to redraw their maps, and monastic scribes translated it from language to language until it had spread throughout all the great monasteries of Europe. By the time this globe-trotting knight died in the 1360s, his book was available in every European language, including Dutch, Gaelic, Czech, Catalan and Walloon. Indeed it was he, not Marco Polo, who was known as the ‘world’s greatest traveller’.

BOHEMIAN BONHOMIE The road to Constantinople was well travelled; here, Mandeville waves off fellow pilgrims in what is now Germany
ALAMY X3, AKG IMAGES X1, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, REX/SHUTTERSTOCK X1
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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month’s issue… Who killed JFK? We know Lee Harvey Oswald pulled a trigger, but was he a lone gunman or part of a larger conspiracy? Plus: Elizabeth’s I love rival; the Irish Potato Famine; Picasso’s most prolific year; the medieval knight who’s travels made him more famous than Marco Polo; the Top 10 art controversies and the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.