Mandeville on Prester John
This text, attribuuted to "Sir John Mandeville" was written circa 1366, and presents a series of picturesque fables about the east. These stories fascinated Western Europeans, as did the more reliable [slightly!] stories of Marco Polo. One way of understanding Western interest in the rest of the world is to see the process by which interest became research, research became knowledge, and knowledge became power. By the time Europe was able to expand in the 16th century and later, it was far better equipped to understand, and if necessary undermine, other cultures than other cultures were to understand Europe.
Of the Royal Estate of Prester John. And of a rich man that
made a marvellous castle and cleped it Paradise and of his
This emperor, Prester John, holds full great land, and hath many
full noble cities and good towns in his realm and many great
diverse isles and large. For all the country of Ind is devised
in isles for the great floods that come from Paradise, that
depart all the land in many parts. And also in the sea he hath
full many isles. And the best city in the Isle of Pentexoire is
Nyse, that is a full royal city and a noble, and full rich.
This Prester John hath under him many kings and many isles and
many diverse folk of diverse conditions. And this land is full
good and rich, but not so rich as is the land of the great Chan.
For the merchants come not thither so commonly for to buy
merchandises, as they do in the land of the great Chan, for it is
too far to travel to. And on that other part, in the Isle of
Cathay, men find all manner thing that is need to man--cloths of
gold, of silk, of spicery and all manner avoirdupois. And
therefore, albeit that men have greater cheap in the Isle of
Prester John, natheles, men dread the long way and the great
perils m the sea in those parts.
For in many places of the sea be great rocks of stones of the
adamant, that of his proper nature draweth iron to him. And
therefore there pass no ships that have either bonds or nails of
iron within them. And if there do, anon the rocks of the
adamants draw them to them, that never they may go thence. I
myself have seen afar in that sea, as though it had been a great
isle full of trees and buscaylle, full of thorns and briars,
great plenty. And the shipmen told us, that all that was of
ships that were drawn thither by the adamants, for the iron that
was in them. And of the rotten-ness, and other thing that was
within the ships, grew such buscaylle, and thorns and briars and
green grass, and such manner of thing; and of the masts and the
sail-yards; it seemed a great wood or a grove. And such rocks be
in many places thereabout. And therefore dare not the merchants
pass there, but if they know well the passages, or else that they
have good lodes men.
And also they dread the long way. And therefore they go to
Cathay, for it is more nigh. And yet it is not so nigh, but that
men must be travelling by sea and land, eleven months or twelve,
from Genoa or from Venice, or he come to Cathay. And yet is the
land of Prester John more far by many dreadful journeys.
And the merchants pass by the kingdom of Persia, and go to a
city that is clept Hermes, for Hermes the philosopher founded it.
And after that they pass an arm of the sea, and then they go to
another city that is clept Golbache. And there they find
merchandises, and of popinjays, as great plenty as men find here
of geese. And if they will pass further, they may go sikerly
enough. In that country is but little wheat or barley, and
therefore they eat rice and honey and milk and cheese and fruit.
This Emperor Prester John taketh always to his wife the
daughter of the great Chan; and the great Chan also, in the same
wise, the daughter of Prester John. For these two be the
greatest lords under the firmament.
In the land of Prester John be many diverse things and many
precious stones, so great and so large, that men make of them
vessels, as platters, dishes, and cups. And many other marvels
be there, that it were too cumbrous and too long to put it in
scripture of books; but of the principal isles and of his estate
and of his law, I shall tell you some part.
This Emperor Prester John is Christian, and a great part of
his country also. But yet, they have not all the articles of our
faith as we have. They believe well in the Father, in the Son,
and in the Holy Ghost. And they be full devout and right true
one to another. And they set not by no barretts, ne by cautels,
nor of no deceits.
And he hath under him seventy-two provinces, and in every
province is a king. And these kings have kings under them, and
all be tributaries to Prester John. And he hath in his lordships
many great marvels.
For in his country is the sea that men clepe 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 and it is
never still ne in peace, in no manner season. And no man may
pass that sea by navy, ne by no manner of craft, and therefore
may no man know what land is beyond that sea. And albeit that it
have no water, yet men find therein and on the banks full good
fish of other manner of kind and shape, than men find in any
other sea and they be of right good taste and delicious to man's
And a three journeys long from that sea be great mountains,
out of the which goeth out a great flood that cometh out of
Paradise. And it is full of precious stones without any drop of
water, and it runneth through the desert on that one side, so
that it maketh the sea gravelly; and it beareth into that sea,
and there it endeth. And that flome runneth, also, three days in
the week and bringeth with him great stones and the rocks also
therewith, and that great plenty. And anon, as they be entered
into the Gravelly Sea, they be seen no more, but lost for
And in those three days that that river runneth, no man dare
enter into it; but in the other days men dare enter well enough.
Also beyond that flome, more upward to the deserts, is a great
plain all gravelly, between the mountains. And in that plain,
every day at the sun-rising, begin to grow small trees, and they
grow till mid-day, bearing fruit--but no man dare take of that
fruit, for it is a thing of faerie. And after mid-day, they
decrease and enter again into the earth, so that at the going
down of the sun they appear no more. And so they do, every day.
And that is a great marvel.
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. And there is also great plenty of wild hounds. And there
be many popinjays, that they clepe psittakes in their language.
And they speak of their proper nature, and salute men that go
through the deserts, and speak to them as apertly as though it
were a man.
And they that speak well have a large tongue, and have five
toes upon a foot. And there be also of another manner, that have
but three toes upon a foot, and they speak not, or but little,
for they can not but cry.
This Emperor Prester John when he goeth into battle against
any other lord, he hath no banners borne before him; but he hath
three crosses of gold, fine, great and high, full of precious
stones, and every of those crosses be set in a chariot, full
richly arrayed. And for to keep every cross, be ordained 10,000
men of arms and more than 100,000 men on foot, in manner as men
would keep a standard in our countries, when that we be in land
of war. And this number of folk is without the principal host
and without wings ordained for the battle. And when he hath no
war, but rideth with a privy meinie, then he hath borne before
him but one cross of tree, without painting and without gold or
silver or precious stones, in remembrance that Jesu Christ
suffered death upon a cross of tree. And he hath borne before
him also a platter of gold full of earth, in token that his
noblesse and his might and his flesh shall turn to earth. And he
hath borne before him also a vessel of silver, full of noble
jewels of gold full rich and of precious stones, in token of his
lordship and of his noblesse and of his might.
He dwelleth commonly in the city of Susa. And there is his
principal palace, that is so rich and so noble, that no man will
trow it by estimation, but he had seen it. And above the chief
tower of the palace be two round pommels of gold, and in everych
of them be two carbuncles great and large, that shine full bright
upon the night. And the principal gates of his palace be of
precious stone that men clepe sardonyx, and the border and the
bars be of ivory. And the windows of the halls and chambers be
of crystal. And the tables whereon men eat, some be of emeralds,
some of amethyst, and some of gold, full of precious stones; and
the pillars that bear up the tables be of the same precious
stones. And the degrees to go up to his throne, where he sitteth
at the meat, one is of onyx, another is of crystal, and another
of jasper green, another of amethyst, another of sardine, another
of cornelian, and the seventh, that he setteth on his feet, is of
chrysolite. And all these degrees be bordered with fine gold,
with the tother precious stones, set with great pearls orient.
And the sides of the siege of his throne be of emeralds, and
bordered with gold full nobly, and dubbed with other precious
stones and great pearls. And all the pillars in his chamber be
of fine gold with precious stones, and with many carbuncles, that
give great light upon the night to all people. And albeit that
the carbuncles give light right enough, natheles, at all times
burneth a vessel of crystal full of balm, for to give good smell
and odour to the emperor, and to void away all wicked airs and
corruptions. And the form of his bed is of fine sapphires,
bended with gold, for to make him sleep well and to refrain him
from lechery; for he will not lie with his wives, but four sithes
in the year, after the four seasons, and that is only for to
He hath also a full fair palace and a noble at the city of
Nyse, where that he dwelleth, when him best liketh; but the air
is not so attempre, as it is at the city of Susa.
And ye shall understand, that in all his country nor in the
countries there all about, men eat not but once in the day, as
they do in the court of the great Chan. And so they eat every
day in his court, more than 30,000 persons, without goers and
comers. But the 30,000 persons of his country, ne of the country
of the great Chan, ne spend not so much good as do 12,000 of our
This Emperor Prester John hath evermore seven kings with him
to serve him, and they depart their service by certain months.
And with these kings serve always seventy-two dukes and three
hundred and sixty earls. And all the days of the year, there eat
in his household and in his court, twelve archbishops and twenty
bishops. And the patriarch of Saint Thomas is there as is the
pope here. And the archbishops and the bishops and the abbots in
that country be all kings. And everych of these great lords know
well enough the attendance of their service. The one is master
of his household, another is his chamberlain, another serveth him
of a dish, another of the cup, another is steward, another is
marshal, another is prince of his arms, and thus is he full nobly
and royally served. And his land dureth in very breadth four
months' journeys, and in length out of measure, that is to say,
all the isles under earth that we suppose to be under us.
Beside the isle of Pentexoire, that is the land of Prester
John, is a great isle, long and broad, that men clepe Mistorak;
and it is in the lordship of Prester John. In that isle is great
plenty of goods.
There was dwelling, sometime, a rich man; and it is not long
since; and men clept him Gatholonabes. And he was full of
cautels and of subtle deceits. And he had a full fair castle and
a strong in a mountain, so strong and so noble, that no man could
devise a fairer ne stronger. And he had let mure all the
mountain about with a strong wall and a fair. And within those
walls he had the fairest garden that any man might behold. And
therein were trees bearing all manner of fruits, that any man
could devise. And therein were also all manner virtuous herbs of
good smell, and all other herbs also that bear fair flowers. And
he had also in that garden many fair wells; and beside those
wells he had let make fair halls and fair chambers, depainted all
with gold and azure; and there were in that place many diverse
things, and many diverse stories: and of beasts, and of birds
that sung full delectably and moved by craft, that it seemed that
they were quick. And he had also in his garden all manner of
fowls and of beasts that any man might think on, for to have play
or sport to behold them.
And he had also, in that place, the fairest damsels that might
be found, under the age of fifteen years, and the fairest young
striplings that men might get, of that same age. And all they
were clothed in cloths of gold, full richly. And he said that
those were angels.
And he had also let make three wells, fair and noble and all
environed with stone of jasper, of crystal, diapered with gold,
and set with precious stones and great orient pearls. And he had
made a conduit under earth, so that the three wells, at his list,
one should run milk another wine and another honey. And that
place he clept paradise.
And when that any good knight, that was hardy and noble, came
to see this royalty, he would lead him into his paradise, and
show him these wonderful things to his disport, and the
marvellous and delicious song of diverse birds, and the fair
damsels, and the fair wells of milk, of wine, and of honey,
plenteously running. And he would let make divers instruments of
music to sound in an high tower, so merrily, that it was joy for
to hear; and no man should see the craft thereof. And those, he
said, were angels of God, and that place was paradise, that God
had behight to his friends, saying, Dabo vobis terram fluentem
lacte et melle. And then would he make them to drink of certain
drink, whereof anon they should be drunk. And then would them
think greater delight than they had before. And then would he
say to them that if they would die for him and for his love, that
after their death they should come to his paradise; and they
should be of the age of those damosels, and they should play with
them, and yet be maidens. And after that yet should he put them
in a fairer paradise, where that they should see God of nature
visibly, in his majesty and in his bliss And then would he shew
them his intent, and say them; that if they would go slay such a
lord, or such a man that was his enemy or contrarious to his
list, that they should not dread to do it and for to be slain
therefore themselves. For after their death, he would put them
into another paradise, that was an hundred-fold fairer than any
of the tother; and there should they dwell with the most fairest
damosels that might be, and play with them ever-more.
And thus went many diverse lusty bachelors for to slay great
lords in diverse countries, that were his enemies, and made
themselves to be slain, in hope to have that paradise. And thus,
often-time, he was revenged of his enemies by his subtle deceits
and false cautels.
And when the worthy men of the country had perceived this
subtle falsehood of this Gatholonabes, they assembled them with
force, and assailed his castle, and slew him, and destroyed all
the fair places and all the nobilities of that paradise. The
place of the wells and of the walls and of many other things be
yet apertly seen, but the riches is voided clean. And it is not
long gone, since that place was destroyed.
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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996