Crosses and Pyramids

March 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

What I’m reading here is a cheapo Penguin Classics edition of a 14th-century travel narrative/guide to the Holy Land/catalog of marvels and tales written (supposedly) by an English knight. Mandeville was really, really popular in his time and up through the Renaissance: tons of manuscripts survive in most European languages, there were a lot of printed editions, and the work was heavily anthologized, plagiarized, criticized, etc.

A lot of it is intended to be practical advice on geography, sight-seeing, and travel etiquette. But Mandeville’s digressions are most interesting, with their typical medieval tendency to filter everything possible through the Biblical narrative, folklore, and symbolism. So I’ll be jotting down some of the stories I thought most interesting here. To wit:

Chapter 2: Did you know Christ’s cross was made of four different types of wood? Mandeville did! The foot was cedar, to keep it from rotting (in case it took a long time for Jesus to die; apparently the thinking was that this was a kind of Jewish bet-hedging, in case Jesus was a bit divine and took days and days to die). The upright was cypress, which smells good, to keep the b.o. down. The cross-piece was palm wood, as an ironic fulfillment of an Old Testament statement that a victor should be crowned with palm. The INRI sign above Christ’s head was made of olive, which symbolized peace, which the Jews thought they would have once Christ died. And of course the symbols embodied by the woods, the choice of which Mandeville assigns to (unnamed, unidentifiable) Jews, can be neatly reversed to symbolize Christ’s power, perfection, victory, and peaceful reign.

Later in this chapter Mandeville claims to own a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. If there was, indeed, an actual John Mandeville, this is a nice piece of self-promotion.

Ch. 7: Did you know the Pyramids were actually the barns which Joseph (the Old Testament Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man) had built to store grain in during the seven lean years he correctly prophesied? As Mandeville says, “it is not likely that they are tombs, since they are empty inside and have porches and gates in front of them. And tombs ought not, in reason, to be so high.”

Mandeville (to assume there was such an actual person, and not a fictional construct, a handy name for a compilation by many writers, or a mythical being) actually seems to be a fairly free thinker, as medieval Westerners go: he says he’s served in the army of the Sultan of Egypt, and carefully presents alternative views to his own (see above). While he argues that the Holy Land should be under Christian rule, he also thinks that Christians have been unsuccessful in maintaining their hegemony there because they are unworthy of it, both in smarts and in sanctity. He seems genuinely interested in other places and peoples, and in their perspectives, even though he can’t break out of seeing Christ, the Bible, the dominant worldview in everything.

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