by J J Cohen
Behold Part III of my Mandeville series, the final installation. The essay is well on its way to solidification as a chapter of The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature, but will no doubt mutate into other things as well. Part one is here, part two here, part four here.
The Book of John Mandeville records how a traveler once journeyed the earth’s roundness, only to turn back at that point where his relentless forward motion had almost conveyed him to the place of his departure. This story, overheard by Mandeville in his youth, exerts a peculiar grip upon his imagination: the narrator describes the tale as one “Y have y-thought man tymes.” A “worthy man of oure countré” decides to leave England -- and not for pilgrimage, not for redemption, but for no other reason than “to se the worlde” (67). Having passed through India and the five thousand isles that lie beyond its shores, he arrives at an island where “he herde his owen speech” in the words of men driving cattle. The traveler takes the language to be a marvel rather than a marker of return. Mandeville, however, insists that the man had come so far in his journey that he had arrived “into his owen marches” –England’s borders, the edge of that known world abandoned so long ago. Finding no transportation forward, the traveler “turned agayn as he com, and so he hadde a gret travayl.” After having finally arrived home and (apparently) too restless to long remain, the man sails to Norway. Storm-driven to an island in the North Sea, he encounters an eerily familiar scene:
And when he was ther, hym thoughte that hit was the yle the which he hadde y-be on byfore, where he hurde speke his owen speche as the men drof beestys. And that myght ryght wel be. (67)A man circles the world to meet a place intimate and strange at once, to meet in a way his own past, his own self, but from an unanticipated perspective.
According to Mandeville, any traveler can potentially arrive home again by remaining ever in motion. But “the erthe is gret” and “ther beth so many wayes”: Mandeville never states that anyone has successfully circled the earth to arrive at his departure, to attain home via an endlessly curving route. Yet if the man who almost circled the world has any regrets about not completing the compass, he never voices them. The traveler who so inspired Mandeville as a young man is never witnessed returning to the England of his birth. He is glimpsed only upon the road or the sea, never since his initial departure within “oure countré.” What would happen if this traveler really had circumambulated the globe? Would he then have settled into sedentary life? Or must he turn back before he arrives because, having so filled his life with motion, the stillness of a homeland – the stasis of an English identity -- no longer proves able to satisfy? Mandeville, Defective: always open to the future, never to arrive comfortably at home.
Mandeville’s boyhood imagination is captured by a traveler who nearly circles the world but abandons the journey at the borders of home. He does not fully recognize the familiar, perhaps because he himself has become in his wandering strange. Maybe that is why the traveler’s story is so alluring to Mandeville: the man must never return, the voyage must never be completed, for the only way to keep a body in motion is to prevent its coming home. Mandeville, of course, does return: he writes his Book while resident in the England from which he had been long absent. Yet in the Defective version, that return is not wholly satisfying: no sooner is the book completed than Mandeville is in transit to Rome. He totes his volume to the Pope, who gives the narrative his papal seal of approval. As the narrative comes to a close, Mandeville is traveling again … this time (according to the Book’s narrative fiction) in his memory, his mind, his armchair. Rather like medieval readers of the Book, rather like us, his “partyners” (95).
I wonder, though, since I’m now including medieval readers among the bodies the book puts into motion: would his fellow pilgrims have recognized the limits of their companion’s tolerance? Would they have realized the brake that Mandeville’s Englishness places upon his restless trajectory? Would they have realized that Mandeville’s failure was perhaps, like the English Traveler who set out before him, to have almost circled the world, but to have returned before he could arrive home by a route that would have changed his perspective, that would have queered his orientation, that would have made him see what remains stubbornly in place when a voyager who wants to “se the world” carries with him and transports back the failings of his home?
Mandeville is sometimes confined by the compass of his own Englishness, by the limits of his own devotional circuit, as if these were (following Bale) lapidary narratives, marble tombs. Yet the Book is also geological, in the rocky triple meaning of that word: sedimentary (an accretion of histories and texts into new forms), igneous (hardened after long movement into settled contours), metamorphic (ever changing, open to the future, circling the world to meet and no longer recognize oneself). Each text of the Book can be seen as a crystallization, a hardening, a gem created from an ever-fluid narrative that does not ever cease to be a body in motion, ready for metamorphoses to come.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, if we look just off to the side of the vacant compass that Joseph of Arimathea drew, we will find ourselves confronted not only with the stone of an ancient tomb, but with a scattering of other rocks: the “rooch” of Calvary, its whiteness forever stained by the dripping of divine blood (38); four rocks near the pillar at which Jesus was scourged, continually dropping water in an endless act of terrestrial mourning; the “roche” under which the Jews hid the cross for Saint Helena to exhume. Such stones commemorate the past by standing in for it: the relics they hid were long ago removed, the death for which they shed their endless tears vanquished by a bodily return to life. Yet these lithic monuments might activate in a careful reader a wider chain of associations – for the Book offers a story told through stones.
Sir John Mandeville is widely known for his geographical obsessions, but these unfold beside, along with, and through passions best described as geological. To give some highlights: [in Tyre one can see the stone on which Jesus sat to preach (32).] Not far from Jerusalem is the Fosse Ynone (Ditch of Memnon), where an eternal supply of undulating gravel can change suddenly into glass (32). This oceanic expanse of rock may be a gulf of the Gravel Sea. The Sultan built his great city “upon a rooch,” and nearby are stones left for Saint Katherine by angels (33). Not far from Damascus a voyager can see the ground from which Adam was fashioned, and the rock-hewn cave inside which he dwelt with Eve once expelled from Paradise (35). The Dead Sea casts forth chunks of asphalt, big as horses (45). By its shores spreads the barren plain upon which a fasting Jesus was tempted to transform stones into bread. In the river Jordan, the Children of Israel left enormous stones “in the myddel of the water” when through a miracle they passed over its bed dryshod (46). On the rock outside of Nazareth where some Jews attempted to hurl Jesus to his death can still be viewed his footprints, burned into the stone when he vanished from his would-be assassins (49). The Saracen Paradise features homes wrought of precious stones (54). Diamonds have a gender, as well as a sexuality: male and female come together to create even more of the glistening rocks (62):
They groweth togodres, the maule and the femaule. And they beth noryshed with the dew of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres.Engendering “comunely” renders diamonds, with their lithic promiscuity, rather like the soon to be encountered Lamorians, who keep all women “in commune” (65). Mandeville avers that he knows from experience feeding your diamonds with May dew makes them increase in size. Diamonds of either sex can overcome poison, prevent strife, banish evil dreams. They can also heal lunatics … and Englishmen, we are told, are “lunar,” rendering them – like Mandeville -- incessant travelers (62).
Some of the world’s heaving seas obscure magnetic stones (“roch of the adamaund” 62) in their depths, pulling to oblivion any ship manufactured with metal nails. A sea without bottom has reeds that float its surface; in their roots are tangled “many precious stones of vertu” that protect their bearers from bodily harm (69). The beastly men of Tracota covet a stone called “traconyghte,” not because it possesses any innate virtue but simply because it comes in 40 attractive colors (70). Cyconcephali carry foot-long rubies around their necks as a sign of kingly office (70). The Great Khan prefers his accouterments of daily living to be fashioned from jewels. Rubies and garnets worked into grapevine designs seem his household favorite. Even the steps to his throne and the chair itself are hewn from gems and bordered in gold (73). The Khan also possesses a radiant carbuncle that serves effectively as a palace nightlight (77).
For no reason other than a seemingly innate animus, Alexander the Great attempts to enclose the Jews “of the kynde of Gog Magog” (82) in far-off hills. When human labor proves insufficient to the task, Alexander seeks God’s assistance, and is rewarded by divine imprisonment of these people: “God herd his prayer and enclosed the hilles togedre so that the Jewes dwelleth ther as they were y-loke in a castel.” The gates that confine the homicidal race are wrought of “great stones wel y-dight with sement.” A barrier that will not be overcome until the time of Antichrist, these rocks keep the Jews removed from the stream of time, just as their ancient Hebrew locks them in a perpetual premodern (83). Submarinal “roches of adamaundes” not far from the lands of Prester John, meanwhile, freeze matter in place. Like underwater magnets they bind to themselves ships with iron fittings. Mandeville tells us he once went to see the expanse, and in a rare moment of poetry he describes a forest fashioned of naval masts: “Y say as hit had y-be a gret ile of trees growing as stockes. And oure shipmen sayde that thilke trees were of shippes mastes that sayled on see, and so abode the shippes ther thorgh vertu of the adamaund” (84).
Prester John’s domain is home to the Gravel Sea, where rocks and sand “ebbeth and floweth with gret wawes as the see doth. And it resteth never” (84). This billowing sea of stone sports fish “of good savour and good to ete.” Prester John, like the Great Khan whose daughter he weds, prefers housewares, eating utensils, and furniture made of gleaming gems, for jewels and precious metals betoken “his nobley and his might” (85). The Vale Perilous is strewn with gems, gold and silver to lure covetous men to their deaths. In the middle of this terrible place is a rock on which is engraved the “visage and the heed of the devel boylich, right hydous and dredful to se” (86). His eyes stare, colors swirl, fire erupts from mouth and nostrils. An island exists in which women have “stones in her eyen”; when enraged they can slay men with their vision (87). On an island so distant that few stars shine and the moon is viewed only its last quarter dwell ants (“pismeres”) as large as hounds. They gather the abundant gold into great heaps. Local men use clever tricks to rob the insects of their hoards (91). East of the land of Prester John are only “great roches,” their stony lifelessness the mark of impassable wilderness. Paradise is hidden behind immobile rocks (92).
In his meditation on stone as a radiantly beautiful material and a durable spur to philosophy, John Sallis writes of stone’s “peculiar temporality”:
Stone is ancient, not only in the sense that it withstands the wear of time better than other natural things, but also in the sense that its antiquity is of the order of the always already. Stone comes from a past that has always been present, a past inassimilable to the order of time in which things come and go in the human world; and that nonbelonging of stone is precisely what qualifies to mark and hence memorialize such comings and goings, such births and deaths. As if stone were a sensible image of timelessness, the ideal material out on which to inscribe marks capable of visibly memorializing into an indefinite future one who is dead and gone.Such everlasting stones are certainly part of the landscape of the Book: they mark tombs and discoveries and great events. Stone is the perfect material to use to think about that which cannot be transported or transmuted. Thus in the wilderness outside Bethany Mandeville relates the biblical story of the temptation of Jesus by the “devel of Helle” (45). The fiend commands the fasting savior “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiat,” or “Say that these stones ben maked bred” (45). Only divine power can perform such transubstantiation. For a human to contemplate such volatility in lapidary substance would be extreme folly.
Yet the transmutation of rock through words is precisely what the Mandeville-author accomplishes. In the Book, stone is a strangely mobile, even itinerant material. Though rocks never do become bread, we watch as they billow into waves, as they offer us the miracle of fish from a gravel sea, as they exude rays of light and virtue. Rocks pull metals towards their embrace. They mate licentiously and engender baby gems. The stones that mark the Mandevillian landscape are of two kinds: those that affix history to place, and those that act like bodies in motion. The former anchor the narrative, the latter unmoor the Book, alluring and mobile rocks that are indistinguishable from flows of water or lava. Anchoring stone – the igneous accretions left behind by molten flow – include inert wealth, lonely ruins, rock-hewn gates that bar Paradise or seclude Jews, empty tombs. These are historical residua, depositories of ancient stories, unmoved markers of vanished time. Metamorphic or nomadic stones serve not as suture points but as spurs to constant motion: the endless pull of “adamaund,” the restless roil of the Gravelly Sea, living practice that unfolds within inhabited space (the Sultan reconfigures a church, diamonds mate and reproduce and are traded by the wayfarers they ward).
Undulating, magnetic, lovemaking stones: despite the lapidary effects of religious and national identities, within the Book of John Mandeville even the most static of bodies are spurred into motion.
What I have been calling for convenience the Book of John Mandeville is in reality not a singular thing but a diffuse and volatile concatenation. There is no “The Book of John Mandeville,” only a proliferation of Books of Mandeville, few of which have a historically identifiable author, redactor, or translator, all of which vary in major or minor ways from their apparent siblings, parents, cousins, queer friends, assorted hangers-on. Developing a vocabulary adequate to capturing the Books has proven a difficult critical task (as my foray into kinship metaphors just proved; other critics turn to chemistry or biology for their taxonomic metaphors). The text refuses to settle down into some well-delimited identity. Is it a reinvented itinerarium, a spur to pilgrimage, a Crusading substitute, an armchair travel guide, a romance, a heretical tract, a paean to orthodoxy, a proto-novel, an imaginative delectation of the exotic and the monstrous, a compilation, an encyclopedia? Yes. And because it is all these things at once it breaks generic boundaries and can’t be sorted neatly for library filing. No wonder Greenblatt called the Book a “hymn to mobility.” Though a bricolage of materials drawn from a dizzying array of texts (mainly French and Latin), the Book of John Mandeville seems almost sui generis: nothing quite like it exists.
Iain Macleod Higgins, the critic who has studied the dynamic and dispersed existence of the Mandeville manuscripts most closely, describes the Book as a “multi-text”:
The Book can be regarded not as a single, invariant work, but as a multinodal network, a kind of rhizome, whose French ‘radical’ gave rise to a discontinuous series of related offshoots in several languages, each of which can vary considerably from the others while being The Book itself to certain readers … Clearly, The Book is more than several books at once, both in its origins and generically; it is textually multiple as well (“Jerusalem in The Book of John Mandeville,” 32-33)Critical consensus holds that the Book was first composed in French (and likely continental French), though no original exists. No text inhabits the center of the compass away from which speed two continental and one Anglo-French versions, away from which scatter a plethora of English variants with Egypt gaps or in rhyme or in close sympathy with French forebears, away from which are propelled at farther and farther removes German, Latin, Irish, Italian, Danish and Spanish redactions. At the center of this Big Bang that sent Mandevilles careening through Latin Christendom is only … the Postulated Archetype, an ur-Book that we assume must have been in existence at some point. When the Postulated Archetype abandoned its sepulcher in Palestine to retreat to that heaven where perfect texts reside, it left no earthly trace of its having been here, only the lingering textual ripples that suggest its inherent volatility, and perhaps indicate that it never intended to be transfixed like a glossed and reverenced Bible.
The Book of John Mandeville is therefore more of an event than a object: it moves through the world, leaving behind various versions of itself that bear witness to the form it took in a certain place under some influential and typically indeterminable conditions. It would be mistake to look at any one of these precipitates as if it were the Book itself rather than a record of the Book’s passing, just as a lava flow cannot be reconstituted from one of the igneous rocks into which it hardened and then abandoned in its onward rush.
The Books of John Mandeville are best seen as a performance of their own narrative structure, as a textual flow that crosses linguistic and national boundaries in a directionless quest to remain in motion, to circle the world by pressing forward and yet never to return home. This flow might leave in its wake certain crystallizations (manuscript attestations that we read today, but cannot assemble into some singular entity). Like Mandeville’s diamonds these crystals will always copulate with others and form strange new progeny. The Books of Mandeville amount to a body ever in motion, because structurally defective, open, reaching forward not to assimilate but to embrace, to touch and to change. In their proliferation, dispersal, and constant mutation, the Books of John Mandeville display an irreducible surplus not diminishable into the small contours of historical context or local determination. That thing in the Books of Mandeville which renders them ever restless over time, that surplus that can take a body outside of itself and scatter it across a suddenly more capacious world: that exorbitance in Mandeville so tied to an ardor for the lithic, that thing is art, restless and nomadic art.
Unleashed by Books that wander the world to vanish into varying forms is an art in no more human, no more ours alone, than are marble tombs containing manna or missing bodies or monsters, diamonds that yearn for copulation and increase, the heave of Gravel seas, or any other beauty we share with stone.