Originally published in Britain in 1996, this trek in the footsteps of a medieval Englishman created the template for Milton’s later studies of historic journeys (Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, 1999; Big Chief Elizabeth, 2000).
Milton has invented a unique form of travel-writing, investigating the world as it existed in the yearnings and imagination of long-ago Europeans. Here, he sets out in search of Sir John Mandeville, a native of St. Albans who claimed to have traveled through the Holy Land to China, and whose Travels became one of the best-known books of the 14th century. Despite his influence on explorers from Columbus to Drake, Mandeville was all but written off by the Victorians. His vivid descriptions of the monstrosities of the East didn’t jibe with 19th-century sensibilities, and the general conclusion was that the old man probably never left England at all. Milton attempts to rescue his protagonist from obscurity by visiting the places Mandeville claimed to have visited, hoping to find indications of veracity. He does this with considerable charm and some degree of success, gleaning tidbits about 14th-century Constantinople, Cyprus, Syria, and Jerusalem during his stays that seem to confirm Mandeville’s account. He does not, however, attempt to trace Mandeville’s alleged path into China and Indonesia; instead, he concludes, correctly but half-heartedly, that Mandeville never made it any farther East, and that the second half of Travels, with its accounts of giant snails and people with two heads, was part of a complicated allegory about the decline of Christendom that stands in purposeful contrast to the first. Milton does some impressive sleuthing along the way, tracking down all the Mandevilles in England to find his man, but his historical analysis can be questionable (e.g., his discussion of the Nestorians). The story never quite rises to the level of the author’s ingenuity and wit, as it would in Milton’s subsequent books.
A diverting if slightly underdone effort.