Wednesday, 24 February 2016

24 February, 1592 - Sir John Mandeville

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: R at syr John mandevell the 24 of febreary ... xijs vjd

In modern English: Received at Sir John Mandeville, 24th February ... 12 shillings and sixpence.
Today's play is the first we have encountered for which no text survives at all: it is a truly lost play and is known only from the title that appears in Henslowe's Diary.

We can guess about its content, though. Sir John Mandeville was the medieval author of the Travels, a fantastical account of his supposed journeys around the world. Mandeville describes such places as Egypt, the Holy Land, the Caucasus, the lands of the Tartars and of the Amazons, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and China. He attributes unlikely qualities to these places: for example, he claims that the Andaman Islands are inhabited by such classic medieval monsters as cyclopes, headless men with eyes in their shoulders, pygmies who can eat only though a straw, people whose ears hang down to their feet, monopods (people with one giant foot), and, my personal favourite, an island where people will die if they are unable to smell apples.

This is all extremely entertaining, but it's hard to imagine the Travels being adapted into a play, since there's no real story, just a series of descriptions. A scholarly consensus has thus emerged that the play was more likely an adaptation of a tale about Mandeville in William Warner's Albion's England (1589). In this tale, Sir John wins the love of the noblewoman Eleanor while jousting in the guise of a Green Knight, but, knowing that beneath the disguise he is socially inferior to her, he leaves to aid the Sultan of Egypt in fighting the Arabs. Back in England, Sir John's friend Stafford finds his green armour, and helps Eleanor realize that Sir John is the object of her love. They travel to Rome, where he now resides, and, despite a series of mishaps involving masks and rings, Eleanor is eventually able to reunite with Sir John and marriage ensues. If you would like to read William Warner's tale of Mandeville and Eleanor, you may do so via this facsimile of the 1602 edition.

Mandevillian monsters from
the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
I suppose a play based on Warner would certainly have fitted well with the repertory of Lord Strange's Men: the medieval setting, chivalry, Middle Eastern wars, and romance are all echoed in plays we have already seen. Still, I have to admit to some disappointment: Warner's tale is a very generic courtly romance narrative and doesn't fire the imagination. I would prefer to believe that Sir John Mandeville was an epic travel play featuring monopods, headless men and an entire army of apple-smellers. I think that would be the best play ever, although I do acknowledge that I am shallow.

Incidentally, it was sad to hear of the passing of Umberto Eco this week, and I would thus like to give a nod to his novel Baudolino, a very enjoyable riff on Sir John Mandeville and all he stood for.


Sir John Mandeville information

  • John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, trans. C.W.R.D. Moseley (Penguin, 1983)
  • David McInnis,"Sir John Mandeville", Lost Plays Database (2009) [accessed 9 February 2016]. 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 911.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 133-5

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!


  1. This is such a great blog - I love the idea and the level of detail is just right to suggest follow-up reading and give a developing sense of audiences and their expectations. I thought you might enjoy this poem which riffs off Mandeville's apple-smellers:

  2. Thanks! And the poem is wonderful because it sees something beautiful in the apple-smellers when all I could see was silliness.

  3. Thanks David, very kind of you. It's just such a weird, fragile image: as a basis for any kind of life, it's not a very stable source, right?