An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

March 11, 2014

Ladan Niayesh, ed.: A Knight's Legacy

Ladan Niayesh, ed. A Knight’s Legacy: Mandeville and Mandevillian Lore in Early Modern England (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2011).

Reviewed by Andrew Bozio (

Since David Aers’s seminal essay, “A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the ‘History of the Subject,’” scholars of Renaissance literature have been encouraged to reconsider the influence of medieval literature and culture upon the early modern period.[1] One of the strengths of Ladan Niayesh’s edited collection, A Knight’s Legacy: Mandeville and Mandevillian Lore in Early Modern England, is that it enables this reconsideration of periodization with exceptional precision. Certainly, the volume’s most specific contribution comes in its ability to advance the field of Mandeville studies; prior to its publication, it was possible to say, as Mary Baine Campbell notes in her introduction, that “no collection of scholarly essays related to Mandeville’s Travels yet exists in English or French” (1). But the methodological strength of this volume lies in its use of Mandeville’s Travels as an instrument for exploring the refashioning of medieval thought within the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In three sections, the volume moves chronologically to trace the ways in which Mandeville’s Travels was disseminated, adapted, and reimagined in the years following its initial composition. The result is not only a more nuanced understanding of Mandeville’s place within premodern culture, but also keen insight into the way that Mandeville, and medieval culture more broadly, was reinvented over the course of the early modern period.

In the first section, Michael C. Seymour, Charles W. R. D. Moseley, and Kenneth Parker study the reception of various editions of Mandeville’s Travels across the late medieval and early modern periods. Collectively, these essays undermine a familiar narrative of epistemic rupture, where the Renaissance ushers in a period of skepticism and scientific inquiry that reveals the beliefs of the medieval period to be, at best, naïve. Namely, as Moseley argues, it is “simplistic” to assume that “as a result of ‘new discoveries’ the factual credibility of Mandeville’s description of the world evaporated towards the end of the sixteenth century – between, say, the two editions of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (1589, 1598-99)” (28). Suggesting, instead, a profound complexity within the reception of Mandeville’s Travels, these essays contain a wealth of information, and they represent a valuable resource for anyone interested in understanding the manner of Mandeville’s dissemination or in theorizing the political and ideological significance of his reception. 

Building upon this work, the essays of the second section foreground what Niayesh terms “Mandevillian ideologies,” or the styles of thought that Mandeville develops and, in turn, disseminates with the circulation of the Travels. Drawing upon Rosemary Tzanaki’s concept of religious geography, Leo Carruthers foregrounds the relationship between spiritual and physical spaces, using this intimacy to illuminate the peculiar topography of the Travels. In turn, Matthew Dimmock builds upon the relationship between religious belief and geographic space in his excellent essay on Mandeville’s treatment of Islam. Rather than appraise Mandeville’s putative tolerance of Islam, Dimmock notes that the Travels represented, in the words of Frank Grady, “the most popular secular book in circulation,” and thus, according to Dimmock, it became “undoubtedly a primary source for medieval Christian notions of Islam, the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad” (93). The essay is rich in nuance, showing the complexity of Mandeville’s consideration of Islam and of Muhammad. Scholars of medieval England may be particularly interested by Dimmock’s claim that the Travels argues for the conversion of the Muslims against their destruction in the Crusades and, in so doing, articulates an idea that would reemerge in certain strands of Lollard thought, Langland’s Piers Plowman, and The Book of Margery Kempe. With still greater focus, Line Cottegnies considers the status of Mandeville’s Travels in early modern England by contrasting the work with Sir Walter Ralegh’s The Discoverie of Guiana (1596). Although both texts are presented as travel narratives, as Cottegnies argues, they differ sharply in “their epistemologies of travel” (110). Namely, Mandeville relies upon the auctoritas of earlier explorers to ground his work, whereas Ralegh “uses a type of experimental observation” in his encounter with other cultures, anticipating Francis Bacon’s work in The Advancement of Learning (1605) (109). Thus, although several essays in the collection disrupt our sense of an epistemological break between the medieval and the early modern periods, Cottegnies’ essay reinforces the idea of a profound discontinuity, embodied most palpably in the styles of reasoning that Mandeville and Ralegh deploy. Arguably, this tension is one of the real strengths of the collection. Taken as a whole, the essays of this collection show how one might rethink the nature of periodization with intellectual rigor and new insight.

In tracing the contours of Mandevillian ideology, the essays of the second section lay a strong foundation for the concluding section of the book, which concerns the representation of Mandeville and Mandevillian lore upon the early modern stage. This section, entitled “Mandevillian stages,” is the culmination of the collection, in part because the essays suggest how reception and ideology fuse together within the dissemination and adaptation of Mandeville’s Travels. Richard Hillman reveals that Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2 (1587-88) were strongly influenced by the story of Judith and Holofernes. Also drawing upon the work of Rosemary Tzanaki, Ladan Niayesh argues in her fine essay that there were “five dominant types of receptions” of Mandeville’s Travels in the medieval period, when the work was treated “as a pilgrimage itinerary, a geographical treatise, a romance, a history or a work of theology” (161). Niayesh then localizes this plurality within the figure of Prester John, showing how the transformation of his character over the course of the late medieval and early modern periods reflects “not just the changing fortunes of Mandeville’s legacy but the errancies in the West’s complex relationship to ‘the East’ (taken in its broadest sense)” (166-167).

In another stellar contribution to the volume, Gordon McMullan traces the ways in which early modern drama appropriated Mandeville’s Travels in works such as Jonson’s New Inn (1629) and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1611) before offering a focused reading of John Fletcher’s The Island Princess (1621), a play that McMullan persuasively argues invokes and refashions Mandevillian imagery. By extending his discussion to include recent performances of The Island Princess, some painfully relevant in light of the 2002 Bali bombing, McMullan also offers a solemn reminder of the politics of history and temporality, a central concern of this collection. Finally, in her essay on Richard Brome’s The Antipodes (1636-38), Claire Jowitt considers the ambiguous place of Mandeville’s Travels within a play about fantastical travel. Using Brome’s play to consider both the status of Mandeville’s Travels within the seventeenth century and the “larger political and generic questions concerning the ways in which dramatic texts use travel writing in this period,” Jowitt reveals that Brome, like Mandeville, transforms new worlds into templates for understanding the old (197).

In short, the strength of this collection lies in its efforts to define Mandeville’s place within the politics of place and periodization in late medieval and early modern England. In “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault argues that the Renaissance differed fundamentally from the medieval period in its conception of the nature of location. If the medieval episteme was defined by “a hierarchic ensemble of places: sacred places and profane places; protected places and open, exposed places; urban and rural places,” the early modern period witnessed the invention of space as an a priori and immaterial dimension; “extension was substituted for localization,” in Foucault’s words, as part of a conceptual shift that Max Jammer, Edward Grant, and Edward Casey have described at considerable length.[2] A Knight’s Legacy adds nuance to this schematic history. By tracing the reception and reinvention of Mandeville’s Travels across the late medieval and early modern periods, this collection reveals the difficulty of speaking in broad terms about Mandeville as a singular figure, one whose work was uncritically absorbed in a particular era only to be soundly rejected in the next. Indeed, the essays invoke a dominant narrative of epistemological rupture only to undermine it, and, in doing so, they reveal new continuities and discontinuities between the medieval and early modern period. For these reasons, A Knight’s Legacy represents an exciting collection that would appeal to anyone seeking to understand the continual reinvention of Mandeville’s Travels and, more broadly, the appropriation and adaptation of medieval thought.

Andrew Bozio
Georgia Institute of Technology

[1] David Aers, “A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the ‘History of the Subject’,” in Culture and History, 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. David Aers (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 177-202.
[2] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” translated by Jay Miskowiec and published in Diacritics 16, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 22-27, esp. 22-23. See also Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics, third edition (New York: Dover Publications, 1993); Edward Grant, Much Ado About Nothing: Theories of Space and Vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).