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24 Jan

Depiction of Monsters in the Travels of John Mandeville: A Wish fulfilment for the European Reader- Benoy Kurian

Depiction of Monsters in the Travels of John Mandeville: A Wish fulfilment for the European Reader

Benoy Kurian Mylamparambil

(Assistant Professor in English, St. George’s College Aruvithura)

During the Middle Ages, Europe witnessed a surge of travelogues. Travelogues of any kind were received with high vigour by the public who were enthusiastic towards various travels. Even the fictional works published during those times had a pinch of travels or pilgrimage among them. Many of them were also associated with the renaissance spirit and its humanistic nature of which the Middle Ages are known for.

John Mandeville (1322-1372) is popularly known for The Travels of John Mandeville (1371), a travelogue on the expeditions apparently conducted by him. In spite of the doubts regarding authorship, it was available to the reading public of Europe during the Middle Ages and helped in forming an image of the places described in the readers. Though exaggerations and inventions were not new to the travellers, much of the resources found in them were considered reliable by the readers of the time.  We could even see portions of these works in the collections of Richard Hakluyt.

European travellers were largely influenced by Mandeville’s Travels. It was reprinted and used extensively at the age of Martin Behaim, Prince Henry the Navigator, Christopher Columbus, Martin Frobisher, Ortelius, Mercator,  Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Hakluyt (Moseley 125; Wright 3; Palencia-Roth 35). One of the purposes of Columbus’s journey to “India” was to find the monsters. However, he says in a letter of 1493 to Sánchez that he could not find “as many had expected, any monsters  . . . but rather men of great deference and kindness” among New World people (qtd. in Palencia-Roth 23).  Even many of the fictional voyages from Joseph Hall’s Mundus alter et idem(1605) to Defoe’s sequel to his own Robinson Crusoe in English capitalized information from  the Travels(Moseley 133).

A brief analysis of Mandeville’s works would reveal that many of the narrations were farfetched. He speaks of disfigured monsters: some without heads, some with great ears, some with one eye, some giants, some with horses’ feet, and in many other shapes.

Sometimes, the narrations go on to the extreme that they are unbelievably unrealistic. For instance, Mandeville says of an island in India:

And on another [isle] there are people who are man and woman [together] and have the nature of one and the other, and they have one breast on one side and on the other none at all. And they have members of generation of man and of woman and they use whichever they want, one time one and another time the other; and they beget children when they [do] male work, and when they [do] female work, they conceive and bear children. (qtd. in Higgins 144).

Mandeville lists more than twenty different kind of human monsters. Mary Campbell provides the pictures of two monsters worshipping an idol from a German edition of Mandeville’s Travels. The monsters have beast-heads. Campbell considers “the amplification of [Mandeville’s] inherited iconographic images” as one of his many techniques in depicting the monsters as real (157-58).

            A Latin version of  Mandeville’s Travels was included in the first edition of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1589). Greenblatt says that Hakluyt dropped the Travels from his second edition, probably due to the expansion of certain doubts  “from particular 'whoppers’—the gravelly sea, the dog-headed men, the Indians whose testicles hang down to the ground, and so forth—to  the content of the work as a whole”(31). Greenblatt goes to the extent in telling that the work might be a collection of experiences of different people. He says, “Mandeville's Travels, and the textual phenomenon we call Mandeville himself, is stitched together out of bits and pieces of human experience, most of them pieces that had passed like well-thumbed coins or rather like old banknotes through many hands” (Greenblatt 36). Campbell also finds the credibility of Mandeville as of a literary one, “a sort of intertextual verisimilitude” (126). Mezciems says: “Mandeville's Travels were not truthful or useful in the sense of being accurate reports of real personal experience, but the falsehood they present may seem justifiable in terms of conventions which again go back to an earlier period and which present a different concept of reality”(5). Rosemary Tzanaki considers that the text of Mandeville is pertaining to multiple genres such as “pilgrimage, geography, romance, historiography and theology” (20). For Higgins “some ethnographic depictions [of Mandeville] can be read as mirrors of and for the Latin Christian World” (145). Therefore, the fictional elements of Mandeville’s Travels are not merely a fabrication by the author, but resulted from the depiction of certain beliefs existed in those times. Therefore, William Minto along with Henry Morley called him the “father of English prose” (Minto 211).

The depiction of monsters in historical and fictional manuscripts has a long pedigree. Having its origin in classical antiquity, we could find many instances of their depiction in the Bible, scientific works and folklore. Its presence has its maximum representation in medieval religion, literature and art. The creatures were not merely used for any decorative objective. It had it symbolic importance too. In fact, it is the morality and humour of medieval thought which is expressed through the representation of dragons, satyrs, demons, unicorns, serpents etc.

Why did these representations occur? Why did the Orient get targeted in these depictions? What were the reasons for their larger reception? Did the West have any contribution to it? Were these only temporary phenomena? Is it right to limit such prejudiced beliefs to Europeans alone? These questions are to be addressed.

The fear/love of the unknown is not objectively limited to a group of people. We could find it among all individual at all times in varying degrees and in different manifestations. According to Lovercraft “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (1). Freud finds this fear of the unknown as part of the structure of our psyche: “the primitive fear of the dead is still so strong within us and always ready to come to the surface at any opportunity . . . . Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them” (“The ‘Uncanny’” 14). However, Freud associates this feeling with castration complex.  Even the fear of “being buried alive while appearing to be dead”, is not a terrifying thing, but a “lustful pleasure . . . of intra-uterine existence” (14-15). For Freud, “the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (1-2). “the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition . . .  [O]ur own fairy-tales are crammed with instantaneous wish-fulfilments which produce no uncanny effect whatever.”(15-16). The uncanny is not the representation of anything external: it is a reflection of what is internal. Freud, however, concludes that “fiction presents more opportunities for creating uncanny sensations than are possible in real life” (19).

In this fashion, Freud gives sufficient reasons for the fear of unknown in an individual. Why do we find similar fears across individuals who belong to different continent and different centuries?  Karl Jung gives adequate explanation to this by providing the idea of “collective unconscious”. He asserts: “[T]here exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited” (“The Concept of the Collective Unconscious” 43).  If the collective unconscious is inherited, it must be genetically same across people of different countries. Again, the status of the unconscious is exactly not same. Though Jung is against the growth of “collective unconscious” in an individual, he does not claim that it is always same among individuals across centuries and countries. He says: “In so far as no man is born totally new, but continually repeats the stage of development last reached by the species, he contains unconsciously, as an a priori datum, the entire psychic structure developed both upwards and downwards by his ancestors in the course of the ages. That is what gives the unconscious its characteristic "historical" aspect” (“Conscious, Unconscious” 279-80). Jung reiterates the idea again when he says, “The unconscious psyche is not only immensely old, [and] it is also capable of growing into and equally remote future. It moulds the human species and is just as much a part of it as the human body, which, though ephemeral in the individual, is collectively of immense age” ( “Conscious, Unconscious” 287).

Therefore, the unconscious is not a static entity. It also evolves with the body. The evolution is not something which happens automatically. It occurs under the influence of environmental factors outside the human being. As a result, while we share certain traits in the unconscious across all individuals, there are unique traits being shared by a group of individuals according to these evolutions.So, when we speak about the “fear of the unknown,” monsters, love for the fantasy etc., the phenomena has a universal presence, but in varying degrees. The manifestation of this, for example, is highly evident among children who have a special inclination towards fantasies. However, the Europeans limited the presence of monsters to Oriental countries to their advantage.

One possible reason for the depiction of monsters as real while representing the life of people in countries like India resulted from the misunderstanding of the travellers. Partha Mitter says: “The typical reactions of an early Western traveller were bound to reflect certain prejudices stemming from his Christian background as well as from a clash of tastes involving two very different traditions, which were further reinforced by a total ignorance of Hindu iconography”(2). Indian gods were represented as demons or monsters “with new attributes and characteristics from the literary tradition of classical monsters and Christian demonology”(10). It increased the credibility of their discussions.

There is a metaphorical presence in the birth of a monster. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen gives seven theses for a monster. As per her first thesis, the monster is “an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place” incorporating  “fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy”(4). Alixe Bovey speaks of the nature of origin and presence of monsters: Medieval art is teeming with monsters who made similar journeys from antique mythology, literature and art; others came from scripture, the writings of medieval authors, and the prolific imaginations of medieval artists. These monsters inhabit corners and column capitals, peer down from ceiling bosses in cathedrals, slither around small ivories and squat under the seats in choir stalls . . . . Commonplace animals are fused in impossible combinations; human bodies merge with animal forms in ways that are often both comic and grotesque. (5)Therefore, there is a combination of plurality of causes behind the emergence of the belief in monsters.

A reader could never have read these unbelievable depictions without a cautious mind. However, Travels was received by the readers with great interest. Certainly similar books like these might have influenced the abhorrence of the Europeans towards the natives.

Why did the Europeans believe these accounts? A possible answer is intrinsic in the narcissistic attitude of the West as these narrations often helped in contributing to their self pride. It worked as a wish fulfilment for them. On a deeper analysis we could find the ambivalent love, belief and fear of the “civilised” Europeans towards the primitive and the savage omnipresent in their history.  This is the reason why Hollywood produces a large number of  movies having a background of  fantasies, demanding a conscious “willing suspension of disbelief” from the audience.

The superiority complex of the Europeans made them consider the non Europeans as uncivilized. Hence we come across patronizing “Whiteman’s burden” attitude from the Europeans (Kipling 290). This made  the nature of the “other” as “monstrous and included [among them] such diverse and fantastic beings as: Anthropophagi (cannibals), Cynocephali (dog-headed peoples), giants, horned men, pygmies, and Sciopods (one-legged peoples)” (Wright 2).

Therefore, even while accusing the orient for their superstitions, the West believe, practise and propagate fictional monsters in their works. We could see them throughout of their literature. It is the archetypal craving for the monsters and the unknown which gets manifested and fulfilled in the works of art. Though claim to be civilised, we could find these representations as a true exhibition of their consciousness and its wish fulfilment. 

Works Cited

Boese, Alex. The Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions. Penguin: 2003. Google Book Search. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Bovey, Alixe. Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002. Print.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “ Monster Culture (Seven Theses) .” Monster Theory: Reading Culture.  Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 3-25. PDF File.

Campbell, Mary Baine. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic Travel Writing, 400-1600. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. PDF File.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny’.” 1919. Trans. Alix Strachey. 1-21. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. PDF File.

Higgins, Iain Macleod. Writing East” The ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P,  2010. Web. Google Book Search. 09 Aug. 2015.

Jung, Karl. “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious.” C. G. Jung: Collected Works. Vol. IX. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Ed. Sir Herbert Read. London: Routledge, n.d. 42-53. PDF File

---. “Conscious, Unconscious and Individuation.”  C. G. Jung: Collected Works. Vol. IX. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Ed. Sir Herbert Read. London: Routledge, n.d. 275-90. PDF File

Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” McClure’s Magazine 12.4(1899): 290-91. Web.  3 Mar. 2015.

Lovercraft, H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1927. Abergele: Wermond & Wermond, 2013. Print.

Mezciems, Jenny. “‘Tis not to divert the reader’: Moral and literary determinants in some early travel narratives.” Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism 5:1(1982): 1-19. Web. Taylor and Francis Online 09 Aug. 2015.

Minto, William. A Manual of English Prose Literature. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons,1872.Web. Google Book Search. 09 Aug. 2015.

Mitter, Partha. Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reaction to Indian Art. London: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.

Moseley, C W R D. “The Availability of Mandeville’s Travels in England, 1356-1750.” The Library 30.1(1975):125-133. Web. library.oxfordjournals. 06 Aug. 2015.

Palencia-Roth, Michael. “Enemies of God: Monsters and the Theology of Conquest.” Monsters, Tricksters, and Sacred Cows: Animal Tales and American Identities. Ed. Albert James Arnold. Virginia: UP of Virginia, 1996. 23-49. Web. Google Book Search. 07 Aug. 2015.

Wright, Joyce M. “True Peoples and Their Monsters: Speculations on the Other in the Age of Exploration.” Terrae Incognitae 37(2005):1-15. PDF File.

Tzanaki, Rosemary. Mandeville’s Medieval Audiences: A Study on the Reception of the Book of Sir John Mandeville(1371-1550). Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. Web. Google Book Search. 09 Aug. 2015.


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