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Deciphering Identity in The Book of John Mandeville's Alphabets.

THE EPONYMOUS FICTIONAL NARRATOR of The Book of John Mandeville (TBJM) tells the story of an English traveler who:
went on a tyme for to see [??]e werld. And he passed Inde and many iles
by3onde Inde where er ma [??]an [v.sup.m) miles, and he went so lang by
land and by see envirounand [??]e werld [??]at he fand ane ile whare he
herd men speke his awen langage. For he herd ane dryfe bestez sayand to
[??]am swilke words as he herd men say til oxen in his awen cuntree
gangand at be [??]lugh, of whilk he had grete maruaile for he wist no3t
how it might be. Bot I suppose he had so lang went on land and on see
envirounand be werld [??]at he was commen into his awen marches, and if
he had passed for[??]ermare he schuld hafe comment even to his awen
cuntree. (1)

Language is the unrecognized and passive marker of home for the traveler Sir John describes. The language the traveler encounters is decidedly marked as vernacular--the language of farmers on the plow--yet that vernacular is uncanny, recognizable yet so out of place that it becomes foreign. The traveler recognizes words, not landscape--and these words link place and vernacular, the words of the land. While Sir John suggests that language is a marker of one's "awen cuntree," the traveler himself misses the connection. The link is implied, but never fully realized as the traveler in the anecdote takes the long way home.

Language, particularly writing, similarly defines Sir John's own trip around the world. Alphabets, inscriptions, and holy books appear throughout TBJM, and Sir John becomes a veritable collector of languages, the alphabets of which he shares with his readership within his narrative. Geraldine Heng observes that the reader encounters the text's wonders--and the variations between cultures--in the confines of a manuscript: since these wonders and variations are written, they stay controlled, contained, and knowable. (2) This collective tendency provides a model for encountering other cultures in which the reader--like the traveling narrator--must create coherence from the disparate, disjointed elements of culture encountered in the text.

These disparate elements become the means for defining Sir John's own culture--that is, the English Christian--as the work uses writing to both unify and distinguish the foreign cultures through which Sir John travels. The idea of TBJM offering a critique of Christianity through the narrator's encounter with others is not new; (3) here, I build on this ongoing discussion to demonstrate the central role that language and linguistic difference plays in Sir John's ongoing negotiation between England and its Others. English identity in TBJM develops through contrast, not only through references to English things, but through the use of other languages as a means to create and control difference; TBJM's alphabets negotiate similarity and difference throughout the work. As the basic building elements of language, and so of linguistic exchange, TBJM's alphabets embody to the reader all the potential writings of the culture they represent. Yet while TBJM mobilizes language as a major vehicle of identity politics, it is an imperfect and problematic tool, and the work's use of language is informed by the realities of late medieval multilingualism. (4)

The alphabets are both points of connection and tension between the English and the cultures Sir John encounters: these symbols suggest shared civilization and to some extent a shared view of the world, even as their variance and strangeness marks each culture as distinct. As sites of encounter, TBJMs alphabets provide a lens to examine how Sir John describes and negotiates cultural difference. The Book is not interested in accurately recording alphabets so much as in an alphabet's signifying power: in their very form, these fictionalized letters both suggest common ground and visually mark cultural distinctiveness. Each alphabet negotiates cultural identity differently depending on English Christian positioning in relation to the culture in question, and thus the work as a whole resists any straightforward reading of either variance or sameness across The Book's alphabetic cultures. In examining their complex and contradictory associations, I hope to complicate the critical tendency to read either a cosmopolitan, generous tendency or an appropriative urge in The Book. Rather, Sir John is both, situationally, and sometimes both simultaneously, as England's sense of itself in the period is likewise in flux, contextual, and itself always a negotiation. The alphabets of Greek Orthodoxy, Egyptian/Saracen, and Hebrew map a trajectory of increasingly high-stakes religious difference. Insofar as TBJM reaches any definition of English identity, it does so by emphasizing, linguistically and otherwise, what English identity is not. (5) DECIPHERING MANDEVILLE'S ALPHABETS

Previous readings of TBJM's alphabets are relatively few, though the greatest critical attention has gone to Hebrew. The Book's cryptic letters are often read as markers of division, particularly division between East and West, as scholars have noted that they tend to belong to cultures more geographically proximate to Mandeville's England. (6) By far the most attention has gone to efforts at categorization, sources, and analogues. (7)

I focus here on the Egerton manuscript (British Library MS Egerton 1982) because of the complexities in its presentation of language and translation. The Egerton manuscript, which uniquely preserves this version of TBJM, dates from around 1400; it is a conflation of an Anglo-Norman version of The Book and a copy of the Middle English Defective version. (8) This manuscript preserves the same six alphabets as the Insular version, and it consistently translates Latin passages, a key change from earlier French versions. At the risk of speculating, this translation practice may suggest something about the imagined linguistic comfort of Egerton's intended audience; regardless of the reason, though, I argue that the result is a version of TBJM that places English "next in line" as translatio studii moves forward. In its alphabets, the Egerton manuscript typifies a range of manuscripts of TBJM. Not every manuscript contains alphabets, but among the many that do, Iain Higgins observes that most Continental and Insular French manuscripts retain six alphabets--Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Saracen, Persian, and Chaldean--though many French manuscripts omit Persian: these alphabets seem to have their origins in early alphabet collections from the eighth century, though they do not have direct sources. Some manuscripts have even more alphabets, including two Dutch manuscripts that contain fifteen. (9)

Among Middle English manuscripts, the Egerton contains the largest number of alphabets. Only the Bodley version, preserved in MS e Musaeo 116 and Rawlinson D.99, contains none. (10) The Defective family, the earliest (ca. 1385) and most attested tradition, includes Hebrew and Saracen alphabets, linking the alphabets particularly to religious difference." Like the Defective, the Egerton manuscript contains Hebrew and Saracen alphabets; however, it adds Greek, Egyptian, and a second Saracen alphabet, likely due to the use of two separate exemplars in its collation. (12) These four alphabets present both a name and the symbol for each letter, creating what I will call complete systems. While the Cotton manuscript (British Library Cotton Titus C.XVI) dates from approximately the same time and includes these same four complete systems, Egerton also includes two incomplete alphabets: the alphabet of "Caldee" (that is, Chaldea) is included only through the symbols for letters, while Persian appears only in its letter names. The Greek and Saracen alphabets appear at the end of chapters, while the other alphabets tend to mark subdivisions within chapters and often appear at transitional moments when the narrative shifts to a new location. As Matthew Boyd Goldie observes, this placement is consistent with the presentation of alphabets in other medieval works that describe them. (13) Across all these variants, of course, the alphabets are subject to the same shifts and changes in copying as the rest of the manuscript, and they are commonly carried over into early print editions of TBJM, where their reproduction both creates a technical challenge and allows a space for play.

While the Egerton manuscript is not illuminated, Jeffrey F. Hamburger's analysis of script as a form remains instructive in examining their appearance on the page. The alphabets appear in the same ink as the surrounding text. However, each alphabet's presentation is slightly distinctive. The Hebrew alphabet (fol. 45r, fig. 1) presents a special case both visually and functionally: the names and symbols are separated, with the names appearing at the bottorn of folio 44v and the symbols following at the top of 45r. Hebrew is the only alphabet in the Egerton that includes Latin letters above both the names and the symbols, allowing a viewer to match name, symbol, and Latin equivalent. (14) The Greek alphabet (fol. 10r, fig. 2) does not include Latin letters: rather, it appears in three uneven rows of symbols with letter names written below, with the last row being the longest. Egypt's letters (fol. 23r, fig. 3) are likewise in uneven rows, though they are spread out over four rows of symbols with names beneath; notably, nearly all of the symbols look like Latin letters. The Saracen alphabets (fol. 59v, fig. 4) do not include Latin letters, nor do they take the letter forms and their names out of the prose: rather, two sets of names and one set of figures continue the lines of the surrounding text with only two slash marks at the end of the figures to indicate that the text has again picked up. The manuscript's half systems are presented in similar ways: the Persian alphabet (fol. 63v) includes Latin letters above the Persian letter names, while the Chaldean names (fol. 64v) appear with no symbols whatsoever.

While Malcolm Letts and C. W. R. D. Moseley have rightly noted that texts including alphabets were not uncommon, (15) Higgins asserts "this is to make a founder into a follower," as there are no such alphabets in Mandeville's direct source texts. (16) Like Higgins, I am less interested in the accuracy of the languages these alphabets purport to represent--or even in their origins. (17) Indeed, linking these alphabets only to source texts or analogues overlooks the important point raised by Goldie, namely that "ancient and foreign letter forms were clearly visible in nearly all public venues in the Latin West on buildings, sculptures, and on altarpieces and other artworks"; thus, encountering unreadable letters might not be an unusual experience for TBJM's readers. (18) Rather than seeking sources, I am interested in the iconographic power of these letters and their impact on how TBJM links language and identity. In my own analysis, I draw on Thomas Hahn's notion of xenography, the writing of strangers. In his discussion of TBJM's alphabets, Hahn suggests that these letter forms "operate as the guarantor of a humanity that is common and universalized. At the same time, their place as embedded within a narrative endows them with a concrete ethnographic singularity, so that each separate people is unbreakably encrypted." (19) The alphabets simultaneously assert shared humanity and civilization even as they suggest the cultures they represent are in some way inscrutable. As Heng has observed, the alphabets are static, an anthropological artifact of the culture to which they belong, and the reader encounters them from a safe distance. The alphabets thus function something like an image in a textbook, framed by narrative, like other cultural artifacts Sir John describes. (20) This seemingly paradoxical power relies on the power of alphabets to blur boundaries between text and image. In his examination of illuminated manuscripts, particularly the integration of text and image, Hamburger observes that scripts bring together a range of modes: aural, visual, symbolic, and figurative (3). (21) Even as alphabets are perpetually multimodal, they are essential to literacy; Karen Coats outlines two functions of alphabets, constative and performative, in her discussion of children's alphabet books. (22) Working constatively, alphabets are the practical vehicle of literacy, conveying a particular concrete meaning. Letters function conceptually to create language and thus structure how one perceives the world. Michael Heyman defines the constative view as a letter's ability to convey an external meaning, to label abstractly something that already exists. (23) The constative function is a letter's ability to represent a concept--that is, alphabets are a signifier, serving as a label or symbol. Performatively, however, alphabets and individual letters operate as images and objects. Hamburger notes script's power to signify independent of its viewers' ability to read it: as he argues, "one does not necessarily have to be able to read a script in order to respond to it as a highly differentiated & expressive set of marks that provides one of the most immediate, recognizable physical traces of human presence, thought, and activity." (24) Alphabets thus have meaning outside of their functional use and independent of a viewer's ability to attach meaning to them; that is, even for viewers who do not speak the language, an alphabet depicts a system that organizes someone's experience of a language.

These two functions of alphabets always operate together for literate audiences. (25) Yet TJBM's alphabets resist any practical use. (26) They come to function synecdotally, as representations of their entire culture. Further, as sites of encounter, the alphabets create what Homi Bhabha has called a Third Space, a place of negotiation and translation from which cultural meaning emerges. (27) As Bhabha describes it, "The intervention of the Third Space of enunciation, which makes the structure of meaning and reference an ambivalent process, destroys this mirror of representation in which cultural knowledge is customarily revealed as an integrated, open, expanding code." (28) Even as these alphabets suggest that the cultures they symbolize are literate, they simultaneously capture a sense of difference between their cultures and Sir John's own.


Constantinople is held in an odd sort of tension in TBJM; the work attempts to align the city with England, through relics and writing and through shared history, particularly in opposition to France. Sir John presents Greek linguistic difference and difference in belief as simple "diuersite," present only to answer the reader's curiosity, yet the term suggests strangeness, variance, and perhaps even error. (29) Cultural difference here offers some critique of Latin practice even as it aligns English identity with Greek in subtle ways, but this critique stays veiled and indirect. In ending the discussion of the region with the fictionalized Greek alphabet, Sir John reinscribes Greek otherness and marks an end to TBJM's sympathies toward Greek Orthodoxy.

Sir John initially aligns England with Constantinople through the discovery and preservation of relics. As he explains, Helen, discoverer of the true cross, was "moder of Constantyne be emperour of Rome. And scho was doghter of Coel kyng of Ingeland" (8). By invoking an English-born Helen, Sir John aligns this crucial relic's discovery with England despite its physical location in Constantinople; further, he gives Constantine, a figure associated with papal authority in Rome, English roots. The move links England with Eastern Orthodoxy directly and with Roman papal authority, even as English faith predates the Donation of Constantine. These associations hold particular significance in the moment of the so-called "Babylonian Captivity," the era of the Avignon popes, during which TBJM was produced. (30) While the focus on Helen aligns England with Constantinople as a true origin point for Latin Christendom, it also has further implications for the unity of Latin Christendom. In Egerton's presentation of Greek and the Orthodox Church, the manuscript disassociates England from France at a time when French influence on the papacy was troubling to the English. In going right to the source, Sir John experiences an alternatively mediated access to holy Christian things--he even has a thorn that was given to him "for grete frenschepe" (8). Indeed, Sir John directly addresses relics held in France, particularly the head of the spear that wounded Christ: "[??]e heued [??]erof es at Parisch. [??]e emperour of Constantinople saise [??]at he has [??]e spere heued, and bat spere heued hafe I oft sene, bot it is gretter [??]an [??]at of Parisch" (9). Constantinople's connection to Christ is "greater" than the material remnants of the passion in Paris. The work's focus on relics is, of course, key to the devotional aspects of TBJM, as Suzanne Yeager has argued, but it is also key to the work's association between England and the East. (31) Here, Sir John finds that the places he travels are not only always already Christian, but already tied directly to England.

I suggest that this pairing of England with Greek Orthodoxy colors the letter exchange between Greek Christians and the pope. The written exchange highlights the differences between Greek and Latin Christian cultures. As Sir John describes it: (32)
[??]e pope Iohan [??]e xxii. sent letters to [??]aim schewand [??]am
how [??]at be cristen faith schuld be alle ane and bat all cristen men
schuld be obeyand to a pope whilke es Cristez vicare in erthe... And
bai sent to him many answers, and amanges other bai sent him ane and
said on [??]is wyse: Potenciam tuum summam circa tuos subiectos
firmiter credimus. Superbiam tuam summam tollerare non possumus.
Auariciam tuam summam saciare non intendimus. Dominus tecum sit quia
dominus nobiscum est. Vale. (11) (33)

The pope's letter to the Greeks is described rather than recorded, but their return letter is recorded both in Latin and in English translation. This letter comments on the pope's authority over his subjects even as it emphasizes the correctness of Greek practices. Greek resistance appears not only in the use of tuum and other informal you-forms to address the pope, but particularly in the last sentence, which hopes that God will be with Latin Christians, in the subjunctive, as opposed to God's present-tense support of the Greeks. (34) The pope in question, John XXII, was one of the Avignon popes; thus, Greek challenge here speaks imaginatively to English concerns about French influence on the papacy. Because the Egerton then translates this Greek letter, it repeats these critiques in English: "bis es to say: We trowe wele [??]i powere es grete apon [??]i subgets. We may no3t suffer [??]i grete pride. We er no3t in purpose to staunch [??]i grete covetise. Godd be wi[??] [??]e for Godd es wi[??] vs. Farewele. And o[??]er answere had he no3t of [??]aim" (11). The letter challenges the pope himself as a figure, rather than Latin Christian beliefs. This distinction is essential to its power as critique; it is the pride and covetousness associated with the pope himself that are the problem, rather than the pope's office. Likewise, the Greeks' refusal to place themselves among his "subgets" challenges the pope's reach for authority in his initial reported letter. At the same time, the form of this exchange mitigates its critique slightly, engaging in a careful balancing act. Though the letter's contents present opposition to the pope's authority, its status as a letter limits its force. While the pope's command stays ongoing, outside the text, the Greek response is a static art; fact, localized to one specific instance and represented as an object.

Lest these parallels suggest too much similarity, the Greek alphabet breaks this trend of aligning Greek and English history and practice. It appears at the end of a long list of differences in religious practice: Greeks claim that Latin Christians sin by shaving their beards, by not abstaining from meat before Ash Wednesday, and by not observing the dietary rules of the Old Law. (35) After listing these contrasts, Sir John abruptly provides the Greek alphabet. Sir John says that "if 3e wil wit of be abce of Grew and whatkyn letters [??]ai hafe, here 3e may see [??]am and [??]er names also" (12). Through the alphabet, Sir John seems to simply represent Greek culture. However, because the alphabet interrupts this list of differences and thus cuts off discussion about which practices are correct, the alphabet becomes the literal and metaphorical boundary between cultures.

Sir John himself recognizes that this alphabet (and those that will follow) distract from one of the work's stated goals of guiding pilgrims to the holy land; after the Greek alphabet, Sir John provides a lengthy justification for including them. As he writes,
if alle it be so [??]at bire thynges touche no3t to teching of [??]e
way to [??]e haly land, neuerbeles [??]ai touche [??]at [??]at I hafe
hight to schewe, [??]at es at say of [??]e customes and maners and
diuersitez of cuntreez. And for [??]e land of Grece es [??]e next
cuntree [??]at varies and es discordand in faith and lettres fra vs and
oure faith, [??]erfore I hafe sette it here [??]at 3e may wit [??]e
diuersetee [??]at es between oure trowth and [??]aires, for many men
has grete lyking and comforth to here speke of straunge thinges. (12)

This explanation marginalizes the letters--they are acknowledged as a digression, "thynges touche no3t to teching of [??]e way to [??]e haly land"--yet simultaneously marks them as essential to understanding the cultures they represent. Thus, the justification provided by Sir John emphasizes what Heng calls The Book's "instinct to collect" as well as the difference that the alphabets represent. (36) Yet Hahn notes in his discussion of xenography that in their illegibility, these alphabets resist this appropriating urge. As Miriamne Krummel has observed, Sir John is preoccupied with "diuersite"; the Book encapsulates this overwhelming Otherness to construct an English identity, though Sir John cannot truly homogenize the diversity he encounters, and indeed this "diuersite" exists in both the East and the West. (37) Language becomes another marvel, like the wonders Sir John encounters east of Jerusalem: another strange thing to give the reader "grete lyking and comforth." The alphabets are thus a tension point for identity: familiar enough to be comfortable, contained enough to be collected, yet still resisting appropriation. In balancing imagined accessibility with encrypted Otherness, the Greek alphabet serves as a moment of stepping back from too close an association.


While critique of Latin Christianity and the tendency to align England with its Others remains subtle in Constantinople, it becomes explicit during Sir John's encounters in Egypt. The most notable feature of language in Egypt is its diversity, particularly TBJM's, attention to multilingualism, with multiple languages represented alphabetically in the text. Further, these languages, Egyptian and Saracen, do not appear elsewhere in Egerton's descriptions of multilingual signage, unlike their counterparts, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Language diversity thus contributes to the image of the Saracen as civilized. It is the Saracens that present the most direct, forceful critique of Christian practice; it is also here that TBJM explicitly marks English as distinct by comparing Saracen letters to English ones. Taken together, these episodes mark English language and practice as yet another "diverse" culture among those Sir John encounters.

Egypt's multilingualism features throughout Sir John's description, and unidentified languages appear in inscriptions at key sites. As he travels through Egypt, Sir John identifies Josephs barns in the landscape: "[??]ir er [??]e bernes of Ioseph [??]at ware made for to kepe corne in for [??]e seuen barayne 3eres [??]at ware betakned by [??]e seuen deed qwhete eres whilk kyng Pharao sawe in swefnyng... and men may 3it see writen on [??]am wi[??]outen many scripturs of diuerse langagez" (29-30). (38) Sir John directly invokes "[??]e first buke of bible" (30) to cue the reader to the particular Joseph--and the particular barns--in question. This invocation of biblical text gives it tangible, concrete reality; the Bible directly describes the world Sir John encounters. This connection imposes Christian history onto the Saracen-controlled Egyptian landscape, what Iain Higgins calls TBJM's Christian topography (39) These descriptions mark the area as previously (and thus rightly) Christian, in spite of the Saracen and Hebrew presence and implied cultural diversity of the place. (40) Notably, these inscriptions in "diuerse langagez" are not reproduced, in contrast to the many inscriptions at key New Testament sites presented throughout the work. Their absence has a distancing effect; these inscriptions stay encrypted, impossible to decode and inaccessible, even as the plurality of languages suggests accessibility to a range of audiences. At the same time, the reference to the plurality of languages without identifying those languages is unusual, as Sir John quite frequently identifies the languages in which inscriptions appear. Sir John leaves these inscriptions mysterious even as he reads the "barns" themselves as a mark of Christian impact on the landscape.

In the face of these many languages, the Egyptian alphabet--the first to appear in this section of the text--implies a unified, coherent linguistic whole that contradicts the text's other assertions of diversity. The alphabet attempts to create cultural unity in the face of Egypt's religious multiplicity. Sir John writes, "In Egipte er diuerse langagez and diuerse letters and of o[??]er schappe [??]an er in o[??]er placez; and [??]erfore wille I here sette bathe [??]e letters and [??]aire soune and [??]aire names, [??]at 3e may knawe [??]e difference betwix [??]a letters and letters of o[??]er langagez" (30). Goldie argues that medieval writers about letter forms understood a link between the form and the sound; in particular, he examines the approaches taken by medieval grammarians such as Isidore of Seville and Peter Helias, who understood sound and writing to be closely related. As he suggests, for these thinkers, "writing reproduces the elements of speech in visual form" (278). (41) In Sir John's emphasis on sound, then, he likewise links letters and spoken language, reflecting the views of his day. Further, this link implies some level of linguistic universality, that letter symbols in and of themselves indicate pronunciation and are thus key to both written and spoken linguistic competency.

Though Sir John draws on these universalizing notions of language, he insists repeatedly on the "diversite" of letters and languages in Egypt. This fascination with difference carries over from Sir John's presentation of the Greek alphabet, but here it functions quite differently, suggesting variance and multiplicity that the alphabet itself flattens. Though the narrator acknowledges Egypt's multilingualism, he presents this alphabet as an encapsulating image, essentially erasing differences and objectifying the culture through the strange letter forms of the alphabet. Much like Sir John includes the Greek letters because many readers enjoy strange things, here strangeness is mobilized to create unity even in the face of acknowledged multilingualism. Moreover, this alphabet also suggests connections between Egyptian and English linguistic situations. The Egyptian alphabet is the only complete strictly secular system to appear in the Egerton manuscript; all of the others are linked to descriptions of particular religious differences of the Greek Orthodox and the Jewish faiths. As in the Greek case, this alphabet appears at a shift in the narrative, though not a chapter ending. However, while the Greek alphabet ends a list of religious differences, the Egyptian one follows the description of Joseph's barns. In replacing Egypt's "diuerse langages" with one alphabet, Sir John creates a cultural parallel with vernacular English and its relationship to Latin here; in England, like in Egypt, sacred and secular languages differ. While English and Latin obviously share an alphabet, for this performative Egyptian alphabet, I suggest that visual difference is key to indicating the linguistic differences. Moreover, this secular status makes Egyptian the closest thing to a "national language" in the Egerton manuscript.

As Sir John moves from the shadow of Joseph's barns to his exchange with the Sultan of Babylon, he describes the Saracen alphabet, which supplies even more direct comparison and contrast to English. Sir John presents the Saracens as a "proximate Other," emphasizing their morality and their similarity to English Christians. While this presentation is usually read as an indicator either of Sir John's cosmopolitanism or of his colonizing impulses, (42) I suggest that both tendencies are in play. Like the Greek language and alphabet, the Saracen alphabets reinscribe variance after the discussion of Saracen faith emphasizes similarities in belief and even explicitly critiques Christian practice. However, while the Greek alphabet closes discussion, the direct invocation of English letters alongside Saracen ones complicates questions of cultural difference.

The Quran plays a key role in Sir John's attempts to link the Saracens to Christians. TBJM's account of the Quran highlights its similarities to the Bible; rather than giving the Quran validity unto itself, Sir John's description further emphasizes the convertibility of Saracens. In particular, Sir John describes the Saracen beliefs about Christ: "be Sarzenes trowez the incarnacioun and gladly wille [??]ai speke of [??]e virgin Mary and saise [??]at scho was lerned by [??]e aungelle and [??]at [??]e aungelle Gabrielle said to hir [??]at scho was chosen of Godd before [??]e begynnyng of [??]e werld for to consayfe Ihesu Criste and for to bere him wham scho bare and scho mayden efter as scho was before" (73). In case this Saracen profession of Christian doctrine is insufficient, "[??]at buke saise [??]at Criste was sent fra Godd allemyghty intil erthe for to be ensaumple and mirroure til alle men" (73). These moments' emphases on Christ's incarnation and on Christ as model present the Saracen faith as Christocentric and thus already "half-Christian." (43) Through these shared points, Jesus becomes central to Saracen belief as he is to Christian belief. Overall, these points suggest the similarities between Christian practice and the contents of the Quran--they set out common ground, as it were, which should make the Saracens easier for Christians to convert. The Quran itself becomes a misreading of scripture, and the Saracens' own textuality is made into a tool to aid in conversion. (44) As Brian Stock has argued, literacy is about similarity of worldview as much as mutual intelligibility. (45) Thus, the passage emphasizes scriptural knowledge and shared literacy as a way of emphasizing shared civilization.

At the same time, this shared civilization exists in tension with Saracen misbelief, a problem that Sir John identifies with incorrect reading practice. He claims that the Saracens will be easy to convert, since they share many articles of faith, "[??]of it [??]e no3t parfytely... For [??]ai hafe amanges [??]am [??]e evaungelles and [??]e prophetes and alle [??]e bible written in Sarzene langage. Bot [??]ai understand no3t haly writte spiritually bot after [??]e letter as [??]e Iews does" (75). (46) Their lack of understanding, then, comes not from lack of access but from improper interpretation of holy text, an argument Sir John reinforces by directly invoking Paul as the source of this sentiment. By linking the Saracens' "imperfect" belief with their access to scripture in their own language, this passage assumes that some meaning inheres in the text's Latin language. Translation here seems to create too literal a version of scripture. The claim explains Saracen differences in belief in a way that simultaneously affirms both their civilized nature and Christian superiority while reinforcing the primacy of Latin as the language of scripture, a key concern in England at the moment of the Egerton manuscript's production. (47)

One of the most memorable moments in which TBJM pays attention to language is in Sir John's conversation with the sultan in Egypt and the exchange in French that follows. The shared lingua franca aligns the Saracens and the English, and the sultan ventriloquizes English concerns about themselves. (48) In a private meeting, the sultan critiques the pride, gluttony, and lechery of Christian men (76). When Sir John asks the Saracen how he knows this, the sultan explains that he has agents in the courts of Christian kings. Sir John marvels as the sultan
assigned foure of [??]am [??]at ware grete lords for to speke wi[??]
me, pe whilk rekned me alle [??]e maner of my cuntree and descryued me
[??]e maners of o[??]er cuntrees of cristendom als graythely and als
verraily as [??]ai had bene euer 3it dwelland in [??]am. And ba[??]e
[??]e sowdan and [??]ai spakk Fransch wonder wele, and [??]erof I
meruailed me gretely. (77)

The Saracen spies' ability to pass as English reflects the text's larger anxieties about identity as malleable, something one puts on, even as the Saracens' excellent French complicates the notion of language as a hard boundary between communities. French gives the spies access not only to England but to the "cuntrees of cristendom," providing a common tongue. Within this interaction, French is a third language, neither Sir John's vernacular nor the spies', and thus a point of connection. His "mervail" transforms their French fluency into a linguistic wonder, deflecting the very anxiety about passing that it raises.

The Saracen alphabets thus respond to these concerns both by showing another cultural similarity--multilingualism itself--and by reinscribing difference through the strangeness of its symbols. This presentation of the Saracen alphabet responds to this problematic multilingualism in two distinct ways: it suggests inconsistency in Saracen letters and creates a comparison to English letters. Sir John introduces the Saracen alphabet by saying: "sen I hafe talde 3ow sumwhat of [??]e Sarzenes lawe and of [??]aire maners and customes now wille I tell 3ow of [??]aire letters whilk [??]ai vse wi[??] [??]e names and [??]e maner of [??]aire figures... Here will I sett [??]aire letters on ano[??]er maner as I hafe seen [??]am made in sum o[??]er bukes" (79). Saracen multilingualism becomes most complex in this instance--and thus, I suggest, the most like English multilingualism. The dual alphabets suggest variance even within the Saracen vernacular. While the Greek and later Hebrew alphabets serve to "freeze" these cultures, presenting a unified and foreign picture of them, the presentation of Saracen alphabets suggests a more complicated linguistic picture. Saracen, like English, is replete with dialects and inconsistencies.

Further tension between sameness and difference arises when Sir John represents English letters, making English itself both familiar and strange. In discussing the Saracen alphabet, Sir John observes that "foure letters hafe [??]ai mare [??]an we hafe for diuersitee of [??]aire langage bycause [??]ai speke so in [??]aire throtes, as we hafe in oure speche in Ingland twa o[??]er letters ban [??]ai hafe in [??]aire abce, [??]at es to say [??] and 3 whilk er called [??]orn and 3ok" (71). The different number of letters indicates that Saracen and English alphabets do not quite line up, thus resisting one-to-one translation between the languages and suggesting a crucial (albeit intangible) difference driven by variance in speech. (49) "Thorn and yogh" are particularly marked as English: they implicitly distinguish English from French and Latin. Even as it visually distances English letters from Saracen ones, the moment presents English letters too as performative and strange. (50)


Unlike many of TBJM's other languages, Hebrew serves as an incontrovertible marker of identity--that is, only Jews speak Hebrew, and all Jews speak Hebrew. Suzanne Akbari notes that while one might expect to find Jews in Jerusalem, they are consistently placed outside, elsewhere in TBJM. Jewish alterity, she suggests, is "made up of cycles of enclosure and dispersal" that work to remove Jewish voices from the narrative. (51) There is no Jewish homeland in The Book: when the Jews are located, it is in the context of Jewish containment, and several references to Jews paying tribute to the rulers of lands in which they dwell appear in the work. (52) Similarly, the Jews do not have the opportunity to speak for themselves. Sir John never engages with a Jew during his travels, though he remarks on Jewish presence. Thus, their enclosure, linguistic and geographical, limits rather than engages with Jewish speech.

TBJM's presentation of Jews has presented a problem for critics who seek to offer a cosmopolitan reading of the work. Karma Lochrie has recently noted that TBJM's anti-Semitic remarks are notable for their anomalousness in the work. She identifies three major instances of anti-Semitic sentiment, namely Jewish involvement in the Crucifixion; a conspiracy to poison Christians; and the emergence of Jews from Gog and Magog at the time of anti-Christ. Yet Lochrie concludes that these moments must be read in terms of Mandeville's own "blind spot," moments at which Christianity is itself provincialized. (53)

I take exception to this view because, in limiting Sir John's anti-Semitism to these explicit references to Jews, Lochrie's argument overlooks the deployment of Hebrew throughout the work, particularly the marked ways in which invocations of Hebrew operate in crucially, dangerously different ways from the other languages TBJM presents. This difference is unquestionably informed by anti-Semitic sentiment that had demonstrable impact on medieval Jews. (54) Reading the text's deployment of Hebrew, rather than simply its explicit comments about Jews themselves, demonstrates that the text's anti-Semitism is not only more pervasive than Lochrie suggests, but indeed crucial to its English Christian identity negotiations.

This is not to say that anti-Semitism is a uniquely English sentiment, but rather that the particular relationship/view of Jews in medieval England has been thoughtfully delineated. As a range of scholarly discussions demonstrate, Jews in medieval England were "virtual," "spectral," imaginatively present even as they were legally expelled, invoked as an image of what English Christians were not. (55) Though Jews were no longer legally in fourteenth-century England, they remained imaginatively essential to defining what Englishness was not. (56) As Ruth Mellinkoff notes, Hebrew and pseudo-Hebrew letters were often used in late medieval art to identify Jews, though perhaps not always to deprecate them. (57) Hebrew is the language most frequently referred to in the Egerton manuscript besides Latin, and these invocations always function to reemphasize its superseded status. Hebrew is positioned as closed and cryptic; it signifies only to Jews, even as its presence is crucial to Jewish displacement. This strategic positioning, alongside Jewish absence at critical moments in the text, presents Jews as both inaccessible to outsiders and shut out of English Christendom. While some moments of the text position Hebrew in a binary with Latin, other moments present Jews as Christian enemies whose multilingual powers allow them to pass within Christian communities, a flexibility they share with the spies Sir John meets at the Saracen court. TBJM accomplishes its deliberate marginalization of Jews largely through its representations of Hebrew.

Hebrew often appears on signs in TBJM, though it is only represented visually in The Book through its alphabet. Yet references to Hebrew often occur at moments of translation that literalize Jewish supersession. In Bethlehem, Sir John mentions the tomb of Saint Jerome, the saint known for "translat[ing] [??]e bible into Latyne oute of Hebrew. And wipouten [??]e kirk es his chaier wharein he satt when he translated [??]e bible" (39). As the site of translation, and the vehicle which displaces Hebrew, Jeromes chair is the seat of authority. The use of Jeromes chair as a landmark, and its association with the scholarly act commonly mentioned in lives of Jerome, makes the chair a relic; (58) it is preserved as a testament to Jeromes act of translation much as other saints' bodies testify to their miracles. Jeromes translation is thus a type of transubstantiation, allowing Sir John and others properly to access the textual body of Christ. (It is noteworthy, perhaps, that this tomb is located "before [??]at place whare Criste was borne" (39).) Thus, this translation marks the transition of truth from Jewish readers of Hebrew to Christian readers of Latin, and Jerome's seat memorializes this translation of access.

Sir John's account of the Crucifixion further displaces Jews by strategically employing and erasing Hebrew from the retelling of events in the Gospel. Toward the beginning of the Egerton manuscript, Sir John retells the Passion story while he describes the city of Constantinople. He mentions the sign hanging over Christ's head during the Crucifixion; as he describes it, "[??]e table abouen his heued was a fote and a halfe long on [??]e whilk [??]e tytle was written in Hebrew, in Grew, and in Latyne" (6). (59) All four Gospels reference this sign, which identifies Jesus explicitly as king of the Jews. Only two of the Gospel narratives, Luke and John, detail the languages in which the sign is written: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. By following these two accounts, Sir John emphasizes that the Jews, the readers of Hebrew, had access to salvation--the sign which would help them understand the events of the Crucifixion is in their language, giving them access to Christian truth. This places the blame for Jewish supersession on the Jews themselves, presenting it as an active rejection of Christ, rather than a lack of access, and thus all the more damning. (60) Sir John's elision of Christ's Jewish identity, combined with his insistence on Jewish access to the Crucifixion, reaffirms the inevitability of Christian dominance and simultaneously vilifies the Jews. (61)

While the presence of Hebrew here condemns, its absence when Sir John reaches the site of the Crucifixion allows English readers to displace Hebrew ones. When Sir John reaches the mount of Calvary, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he describes more signage designed to help viewers read the events that occurred in this place. Just as the lack of text on the sign erases Christ's Jewish identity, these signs make Christian salvation inevitable and exclude Jews from the possibility of salvation by displacing Hebrew in favor of English. Sir John records these inscriptions:
[??]are whare oure lorde was done on [??]e crosse es writen in Grew
lettres sayand [??]us, Otheos basileon ysmon presemas ergate sothias
oys. And sum bukez saise [??]us, Otheos basileon ymon proseonas ergasa
sothias emesotis gis. [??]at es to say on Latyn [??]us, Hic deus rex
noster ante secula operatus est salutem in medio terre, [??]at es to
say, Here Godd our king before werldes has wro3t hele in myddes of
[??]e erthe. And also apon [??]e roche whare [??]e cross was ficched es
writen bus, Gros guist rasis thou pestes thoy thesmoysi, or [??]us,
Oyos iustiys basis thou pisteos thoy themosi. [??]at es to say in
Latyn, Quod vides est fundamentum tocius fidei mundi huius, [??]is es
to say, bat [??]ou seez es [??]e ground of alle [??]e fayth of bis
werld. (42)

This Greek writing invokes the signs that hang over the cross in the earlier account of the Crucifixion: yet here, the signs are in Greek, then Sir John translates them into Latin and English. These signs thus reinforce the translation of religious truth; Jewish history is so effectively erased at this site of Christian salvation that in place of Hebrew from the Gospels' trilingual signage, Sir John substitutes English translations of Greek and Latin signs--the languages of Christians. Through the Egerton's translations, the manuscript effectively creates a new trilingual system. (62) The power suggested by these three languages places English in a position of authority while erasing the earlier Hebrew signage. The insertion of English where Hebrew once was suggests a type of translatio studii in which Hebrew speakers are replaced by English readers.

Mandeville not only erases Jews from the Christian moment of salvation; rather, like many of his western counterparts, he moves them from the center, where they were historically understood to be, to the geographical and linguistic margins of the world. (63) This relocation defers their menace while presenting them as the future enemies of English Christians. Sir John describes an enclave of Jews, living enclosed in the hills where they were left by Alexander the Great:
amang [??]ase hilles er [??]e Iewes of [??]e ten kynredens enclosed
whilk men callez Gog and Magog, and [??]ai may come out at na syde. For
kyng Alysaundre chaced [??]am [??]ider for he wend to hafe enclosed
[??]am [??]are thurge wirking of man. And when he sawe [??]at he myght
no3t he praid to Godd [??]at he wald fulfille [??]at he had begon. And
if all he ware a haythen man Godd of his specialle grace herd his
praier and closed [??]e hilles samen, [??]e whilk er so grete and so
heghe [??]at na man may passe [??]am. (142)

Gog and Magog is itself a shifting place, variously home of Mongols, cannibals, Jews, and others in the later Middle Ages: in effect, anyone outside the church. (64) Indeed, as Scott Westrem observes, Augustine places Gog and Magog outside of any national or ethnic identity; rather, they live everywhere as a threat to the church. (65) While Lochrie and others read this as an exceptional moment, I would suggest that this relative positioning of the pagan Alexander and the Jews is generally consistent with TBJM's treatment of Jews; while Sir John praises other non-Christian groups for their adherence to their laws, the position of Jews as the excluded Other of English identity gives Alexander superior morality. (66) This enclave renders the Jews menacing to English Christians even though they have been expelled; it employs language and geography as boundaries while placing the Jews outside of historical time. Jews are dangerous through their presence as well as their absence: they are simultaneously displaced, moved to the end of time, and currently living alongside Christians. In TBJM, then, Jews are simultaneously outside and inside Christendom, and Sir John later emphasizes the threat posed by the Jews living outside of Gog/Magog who will lead their religious compatriots against Christendom at the end of time.

This imagined apocalyptic massacre is made possible by the unifying power of Hebrew and its ability to cut across geographic boundaries. Sir John writes:
men in [??]e cuntree [??]are nere saise [??]at in [??]e tyme of
antecriste [??]ir Iewes schalle come oute and do mykille harme to
cristen men. And [??]erfore alle the Jewes [??]at dwellez in diuerse
partys of [??]e werld lerez for to speke Hebrew for [??]ai trowe [??]at
[??]ir Iewes [??]at er enclosed amanges [??]e hilles schalle come oute
and schalle knawe [??]am by [??]aire speche [??]at [??]ai er Jews as
[??]ai er. And [??]an schalle [??]ai lede [??]am into cristendom for to
destruy cristen men. For [??]ir lews saise [??]ai knawe by [??]aire
prophecys [??]at [??]e lews [??]at er closed amanges [??]e hilles salle
comme oute and cristen man schalle be vnder bairn as [??]ai hafe bene
vnder cristen men. (143, emphasis mine)

The Hebrewness of the Jews in Gog/Magog keeps them comfortingly isolated, yet that linguistic isolation marks group identity and provides them power. Kathleen Biddick points out the Christian conviction that the Jews learn Hebrew wholly so they can be the agents of anti-Christ. As she argues, "the Travels mobilizes this rational instrumentality to code alphabets as territory with implicit reference to a master alphabet, namely Latin, and to fix Hebrew as an apocalyptic language of conspiracy." (67) This passage turns the learning of Hebrew, essential for access to Jewish sacred text, into a weapon against Christians; Hebrew itself operates as a shibboleth. Hebrew is presented as a language of power which allows for the destruction of Christians at the end of time and for an inversion in which Jews will supersede Christians. (68) As a result, Hebrew's very presence challenges the universality and authority of Latin, presenting an unbreakable code that, uniquely in TBJM, aligns a language with a belief system.

It is within this broader context of Hebrew supersession and Hebrew menace that the Hebrew alphabet appears. TBJM presents the Hebrew alphabet in its discussion of Saracen-controlled territory outside of Jerusalem, where Jews, Christians, and Saracens cohabit in relative peace. Thus, the alphabet is essential to creating a distinction between the Jews and Christians in the face of their similar status. Sir John explains that among the Samaritans outside of Jerusalem, "[??]are dwellez many lews payand tribute as Cristen men duse. And if 3e wille witt whatkyn lettres [??]e lews vsez, here 3e schalle fynd [??]am sette alle redy and [??]e names of be lettres also as [??]ai call [??]am" (59). The Hebrew alphabet, then, interrupts these similarities and reassures English Christians of fundamental differences between cohabiting Jews and Christians, differences that are essential to English conceptions of their own identity. Indeed, as Krummel observes, the Jews in TBJM are "a people who, cherishing their difference, belong elsewhere in an England that seeks to craft a homologous English national identity." (69) Christianity was fundamentally defined against Judaism, and if the two become similar, then Christian identity--built as difference from its Jewish origin--was endangered. Hebrews linguistic unity is key to its dangerous power, linked to future Christian destruction. (70) Hebrew constructs ethnic coherence and clear difference; only in the Jewish case does multilingualism prove dangerous, a tool to allow Jews to mobilize across other linguistic boundaries. While Saracen passing is made explicit in Sir John's exchange with the sultan's spies, it is a multilingualism that is a cause for marvel; in contrast, TBJM imagines the specter of Jewish passing as dangerous.


Certainly, the alphabets in TBJM reflect the authors interest in language and linguistic difference. This interest is not unique to TBJM, and pilgrim guides and other travel texts often engage with linguistic difference and exchange. (71) The emulation and repeated manuscript reproduction of these alphabets further emphasize that this interest in language is not an idiosyncrasy of one author or one copyist. TBJM is therefore both a historical continuation, drawing on older source material, and a clear break, the starting place for a new engagement with alphabets and language since, as many have noted, TBJM is not useful for travelers: despite wide-ranging variation, it is neither a phrasebook nor a translation resource. Its interest in language moves beyond pilgrimage guides and carries all the way to Thomas Mores Utopia, which presents an alphabet for the Utopians as part of its world-building endeavors. (72) In their addition, adjustment, removal, and change, these alphabets across variants of TBJM suggest the extent to which written language was both a foreign marvel and a sign of civilization. Thus, TBJM's focus on written language highlights tensions between curiosity and control, juxtaposing civilization and difference. The written word in TBJM simultaneously creates and destabilizes Englishness and the position of England/English in the late fourteenth century.

Ursinus College


(1) M. C. Seymour, ed, The Egerton Version of Mandeville's Travels (Oxford U. Press, 2010), 100; all citations from this edition. For clarity, I follow Iain Higgins in referring to the narrator of the text as Sir John. "Mandeville" here indicates the author figure. See Higgins, Writing East: The "Travels" of Sir John Mandeville (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 8.

(2) Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (Columbia U. Press, 2003), 248. In her discussion of The Book, Heng observes that "[t]he Travels' thick description of the world, and of history, replicates narrative itself as a collection, a vast holding of loosely gathered individual artifacts strung together with apparent contingency" (italics original).

(3) My thinking is influenced by recent work by Shirin Khanmohamadi and Kim Phillips, who emphasize how contact with the East shaped European identity categories. For Khanmohamadi, travelers' accounts invite Eastern voices into their writing and thus acknowledge the European subject as gazed upon; thus, these writings create a dialogic relationship between traveling Europeans and their Eastern destinations, one marked by openness to alternative views, but also discomfort with the unfamiliarity of such perspectives. While I focus here on cultures more geographically proximate to England, I see a similar backward flow to that which Khanmohamadi describes in her discussion of TBJM and the Far East. Mandeville demonstrates an awareness of these developing, partial subjectivities in the West, as well. If recent critical work suggests that the East was not perceived as a monolithic Other, then I offer that the West, too, was becoming increasingly aware of its own cultural/national differences. See Shirin Khanmohamadi, In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 1-10. Phillips urges a move toward "precolonial studies," since, as she asserts, late medieval travelers explored the Far East for information and for pleasure: see Kim M. Phillips Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510 (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 3.

(4) On England's multilingual position in the later Middle Ages, see for example Jonathan Hsy, Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Ohio State U. Press, 2013); Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ed., Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The Trench of England, c. 1100-1500 (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2009); and Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War (Oxford U. Press, 2009). On the interaction between Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and various vernaculars, see John Fyler, "Language Barriers," SP 112 (Summer 2015): 415-52.

(5) This is not to say that TBJM's narrator does not invoke an English identity for himself throughout the work. As Suzanne Conklin Akbari observes, the text consistently references "specifically English things," including English letters, barnacle geese, and English miles. Akbari writes that while these references are not proof that the writer is English, "They do demonstrate... the author's self-conscious determination to present himself as an Englishman, and his intention to address a community of Christian readers who also identify themselves as inhabitants of England." See Akbari, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (Cornell U. Press, 2009), 53, as well as Sebastian Sobecki, "Mandeville's Thought of the Limit: The Discourse of Similarity and Difference in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville," RES 53 (August 2002): 329-43. This narrative self-positioning is only more fascinating if the author himself is not English: the possibility suggests that English identity was coherent enough that it could be "put on" by outsiders, performed so compellingly that it has fooled both Sir John's contemporaries and later critics. See M. C. Seymour, Sir John Mandeville (Aldershot: Variorum, 1993), 23. As Iain Higgins observes, the work was compiled during a period of traffic and exchange between England and France; it could easily have been composed by an English or French writer in either country: see Higgins, ed., The Book of John Mandeville, With Related Texts (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011), xvi. Thus, it is impossible to definitively conclude Mandeville's national origins without further evidence.

(6) Maria Mercedes Rodriguez-Temperley, "Alfabetos, lenguas y grunidos (o sobre el lenguaje en Juan de Mandevilla)," in Studia in honoren German Orduna, ed. Leonardo Funes and Jose Luis Moure (Universidad de Alcala de Henares, 2001), 557-70; Kathleen Biddick, The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

(7) Elmar Seebold, "Mandevilles Alphabete und die mittelalterlichen Alphabetsammlungen," Beitrage zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 120 (1998): 435-49; Martin Przybilski, "Die Zeichen des Anderen: Die Fremdsprachenalphabete in den 'Voyages' des Jean de Mandeville am Beispiel der deutschen Ubersetzung Ottos von Diemeringen," Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 37 (2002): 295-320.

(8) M. C. Seymour, Egerton Version, xi. Seymour discusses the manuscript tradition of TBJM at more considerable length than I do here. See also Josephine Bennett, The Rediscovery of Sir John Mandeville (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1954), 6-9 and 411-14.

(9) Higgins, Book, 267.

(10) For an edition of the Bodley MS, see M. C. Seymour, The Bodley Version of Mandeville's Travels (Oxford U. Press, 1963), EETS 253; for the Cotton MS, see Hamelius, Mandeville's Travels: The Cotton Version (London: Paul, Trench, Triibner & Co., 1919, 1923), EETS o.s. 153.

(11) See Seymour, Egerton Version, xi. For an edition of the Defective version based on British Library MS Royal 17 C.xxxviii, see Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson, eds., The Book of John Mandeville (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007).

(12) Matthew Boyd Goldie, "Neurobiological Alphabets: Language Origins and the Problem of Universals," postmedieval 3.3 (2012): 285.

(13) Goldie, "Neurobiological Alphabets," 283.

(14) I would suggest that Hebrew's presentation is unique because of its distinct and menacing status in TBJM, which I will discuss in further detail later in this argument.

(15) See the introduction to C. W. R. D. Moseley's edition, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005), and Malcolm Letts, Mandeville's Travels: Texts and Translations (London: Hakluyt Society, 1953).

(16) Higgins, Book, 267.

(17) Higgins, Book, 266-69.

(18) Goldie, "Neurobiological Alphabets," 283.

(19) Thomas Hahn, "Xenography and the Ciphering of Medieval Indians," typescript. I am grateful to Hahn for sharing this as-yet unpublished material.

(20) Heng describes these artifacts as museum-like, a "curiosity cabinet," a comparison that emphasizes how the alphabets serve as static, framed presentations of culture (Empire of Magic, 248).

(21) Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Script as Image (Leuven: Peeters, 2014), 3.

(22) Karen Coats, "P is for Patriarchy: Re-Imagining the Alphabet," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25 (2000): 90-91.

(23) Michael Heyman, "The Performative Letter, From Medieval to Modern," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 30 (2005): 101.

(24) Hamburger, Script as Image, 1.

(25) For Heyman, the performative and constative functions are always combined in written language, particularly in medieval writing. See Heyman, "Performative Letter," 101. Heyman suggests that illuminated capitals in medieval manuscripts more generally serve both performative and constative functions. Thomas Hahn cites the chi rho as one particular example ("Xenography"). Consider the famous example from the Book of Kells: the chi rho is constative in that one can see the chi and the rho shapes and understand that they represent the concept of "Christ"; yet it is also performative because it is an autonomous image.

(26) Marcia Kupfer demonstrates that certain manuscripts of TBJM correct particular alphabets so that they could function constatively: in her reading of BNF MS nouv. acq. Fr. 4515, Kupfer describes fol. 96v, on which the scribe "wrote the rubric introducing the Hebrew 'lectres... plus vrayes.' The hand responsible for the characters of the alef-bet then finished out the line and the page with seven words from Psalm 1.1." While this correct alphabet and the written phrase that accompanies it do not include Latin letters that would allow nonspeakers to "translate" the alphabet, this writing demonstrates the alphabets in use, operating to make meaning rather than as signifiers without a signified. Marcia Kupfer, '"... lectres... plus vrayes': Hebrew Script and Jewish Witness in the Mandeville Manuscript of Charles V," Speculum 83 (2008): 65.

(27) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 52-56.

(28) Bhabha, Culture, 54.

(29) See MED, s.v. "diversite" (n.), def. 1(b), which uses this very passage to illustrate "diversite" as a simple point of difference, but also 2(c) and 4(c), which carry the idea of strangeness and indeed pervasiveness;

(30) See Higgins, Writing East, 254-60. Higgins describes TBJM's attempts to align itself with a pope in Rome throughout.

(31) Suzanne Yeager, Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative (Cambridge U. Press, 2008), 111-26.

(32) Higgins notes there is no known source for the Greek letter, though the summary of the pope's letter may come from Jacques de Vitry's Historia Orientalis (Book, 14n27).

(33) The letter is not translated in the French version. Likewise, Egerton adds the final vale, giving the letter further finality.

(34) Higgins, Book, 14n28. See also Sobecki, "Thought of the Limit," 332.

(35) These differences are presented as a type of laundry list: Sir John writes that "[??]ai say we synne dedly in [??]at we schaue oure berdes... [??]ai say also [??]at we synne dedly in etyng of bestez [??]at ware forbedd in [??]e alde lawe as swyne, hares and o[??]er bestez [??]at chewes no3t cudde. Also [??]ai say [??]at we synne in etyng of fiesch in [??]e three days before Ask Wedensday" (12). This list presents Greek identity in a model that defines English identity as well as Greek; see Khanmohamadi, Light, 116, on Sir John's "they say."

(36) Heng, Empire of Magic, 248.

(37) Miriamne Krummel, Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 69.

(38) In the biblical account, from Genesis, the patriarch Jacob's son, Joseph, is sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers (Gen. 37:36); when the Pharaoh has a dream that his wise men cannot interpret, Joseph correctly interprets it as foretelling a time of great famine in the land. Pharaoh then puts Joseph in charge of storing grain so the people will survive the famine (Gen. 40:1-57). It is worth noting that Joseph is himself a stranger in a strange land; Sir John is thus a descendant of sorts, a member of the chosen people moving among the Egyptians. Given the Christian topography of the travels, this connection seems deliberate.

(39) Higgins, Writing East, 47.

(40) This description of the pyramids as "Joseph's barns" is a key moment where Sir John diverges from sources. Higgins has identified a potential source in Gregory of Tours' sixth-century History of the Franks (1.10), but notes that William of Boldensele says they are tombs. See Higgins, Writing East, 32n85. Sir John even provides a justification for claiming these are not tombs--graves wouldn't be so tall.

(41) Goldie, "Neurobiological Alphabets," 278.

(42) Karma Lochrie, Nowhere in the Middle Ages (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), chap. 3, esp. 106-9; Heng, Empire of Magic.

(43) As Khanmohamadi observes, TBJM is nonetheless--or perhaps simultaneously--remarkable for its recitation of the major tenets of Islam (Light, 122-23).

(44) This view is likely linked to the notion of Muhammad as heresiarch. For a more extended discussion, see John V. Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia U. Press, 2002), 135-69.

(45) Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton U. Press, 1983), 7.

(46) Lest the Saracens be confused for Jews, Saracen scripture condemns Jews "for [??]ai wille no3t trowe [??]at Jhesus was sent fra Godd" (74). This claim aligns Christians and Saracens by their mutual hatred of Jews, simultaneously reinforcing Jewish marginalization and Saracen proximity.

(47) This notion echoes the late medieval concerns expressed by the Church about access to vernacular scripture: see Anne Hudson's discussion of the biblical translation debates at Oxford (1401) in Lollards and Their Books (London: Hambledon Press, 1985), 67-84, and Tolan, Saracens.

(48) See Yeager, Jerusalem, 126-28, and Akbari, Idols, 57.

(49) As Kupfer's discussion of BNF MS nouv. acq. Fr. 4515 makes clear, some manuscripts of TBJM undertake exactly this kind of one-to-one matching, placing Latin letters over the strange alphabetic symbols in the text. See Kupfer, "Hebrew Script," 65.

(50) This foreignness would be particularly notable in French language versions of TBJM, in which this episode exists: see Higgins, Book, 89.

(51) Akbari, Idols, 139.

(52) This is true of the Jews living outside of Jerusalem in Saracen-controlled territory as well as of the Jews trapped in the mountains by Alexander. The Jews of Gog and Magog essentially pay rent to the queen of the Amazons, who ensures that they do not escape "to paire awen cuntree" (142-43). The Jews have not only been entrapped and isolated, but they pay tribute for the privilege of continued enforced isolation.

(53) Lochrie, Nowhere in the Middle Ages, 125. For more context, see chap. 3, "Provincializing Medieval Europe."

(54) For only one discussion of this issue, see Robert Chazan, "The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," The Public Medievalist, 26 September 2017,

(55) Sylvia Tomasch, "Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew," in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin's, 2000), 243-60; Stephen Kruger, The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe (U. of Minnesota Press, 2006), xx-xxiii. Krummel complicates this understanding by exploring Jewish presence in Crafting Jewishness.

(56) For a more comprehensive discussion of the Jewish position in medieval England, see Krummel, Crafting Jewishness.

(57) Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages (U. of California Press, 1993), 98.

(58) Jerome's translation is mentioned, for example, in the Legenda Aurea; see Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton U. Press, 1993).

(59) In Matthew 27:35 and Mark 15:26, the languages in which the sign above Christ's head appears are not mentioned. In Luke 23:38, the sign appears in three languages, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. John 19:19-20 is most explicit about what this multilingual context means: "scripsit autem et titulum Pilatus et posuit super crucem erat autem scriptum Iesus Nazarenus rex Iudaeorum. Hunc ergo titulum multi legerunt Iudaeorum quia prope civitatem erat locus ubi crucifixus est Iesus et erat scriptum hebraice graece et latine" (And Pilate wrote a title also, and he put it upon the cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. This title therefore many of the Jews did read: because the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin).

(60) Sir John mentions "the title," which likely alludes to Jesus's identity as King of the Jews, one possible translation of the word "titulum" in John and Mark's Gospels. The Middle English Dictionary defines "title" as an inscription, especially the one above Christ's cross. Thus, Sir John may assume that the text's readers would be familiar enough with the inscription above the cross that he need not provide it. However, given the Egerton's consistent translation of Latin, I suggest this elision nonetheless removes Jesus's Jewish identity from the text.

(61) This is not, of course, the only such instance; early in the work, Sir John explicitly blames the Jews for the Crucifixion and claims that they have sought to hide Christ's cross under Mount Calvary (7). These claims are unquestionably important in the text's construction of the Jewish Other, and they are further emphasized in TBJM's deployment of Hebrew.

(62) Higgins identifies the source of the first sign as Psalm 74:12, likely through the mediation of Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica (Higgins, Book, 46nl36), but there does not seem to be a source for the second sign. Many critics, most recently Higgins, have observed that the Greek on these signs is hopelessly garbled. This may be the best evidence that The Book's author produced it himself.

(63) Akbari, Idols, 115, 153. See also Sylvia Tomasch's argument about the Judecca of Dante in "Judecca, Dante's Satan, and the Dis-placed Jew," in Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Tomasch and Sealy Gilles (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 262.

(64) See Katheen Biddick, "The ABC of Ptolemy: Mapping the World with the Alphabet," in Tomasch and Gilles, Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, 268-94; and Victor I. Scherb, "Assimilating Giants: The Appropriation of Gog and Magog in Medieval and Early Modern England," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32 (2002): 59-84.

(65) Scott D. Westrem, "Against Gog and Magog," in Tomasch and Gilles, Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, 67.

(66) On Alexander's presence in TBJM, see Krummel, Crafting Jewishness.

(67) Biddick, "ABC of Ptolemy," 281.

(68) See Westrem, "Gog and Magog," 69-70. This Latin/Hebrew binary also featured in contemporary art; Ruth Mellinkoff refers to an illustration in the thirteenth-century Amesbury Psalter that presents Christ's speech in Latin in visual opposition to Satan's speech in pseudo-Hebrew, thus reinforcing both Hebrew's authoritative status and its place as an anti-Latin. These artistic renderings operate visually much as letters, alphabets, and inscriptions in the Book function textually, and both images and texts informed English identity politics in the period. See Mellinkoff, Outcasts, 105.

(69) Krummel, Crafting Jewishness, 71.

(70) See Krummel, Crafting Jewishness, 78-87. Indeed, Kathleen Biddick argues, "the narrator casts Hebrew as a language of conspiracy, a technology of Antichrist" while the other alphabets in TBJM "guarantee 'Western' civilization" (Biddick, "ABC of Ptolemy," 279).

(71) As Christine Cooper-Rompato notes, pilgrim phrase lists have both an imaginative and a practical level, allowing communication even as they often perpetuate stereotypes and create expectations for what a traveler might expect to encounter. She tracks in Wynkyn de Worde and William Wey's early printed pilgrim phrase lists a trajectory of increasing foreignness, in which cultural and geographic difference are parallel. See Christine Cooper-Rompato, "Traveling Tongues: Foreign-Language Phrase Lists in Wynkyn de Worde and William Wey," Chaucer Review 46 (2011): 223-36. Anthony Bale has compellingly argued that later travel accounts used TBJM as a framework: see Bale, '"ut legi': Sir John Mandeville's Audience and Three Late Medieval English Travelers to Italy and Jerusalem," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 38 (2016): 201-37.

(72) One version of this alphabet, from 1518, is reproduced in the Utopia edition and translation by Dominic Baker-Smith (New York: Penguin, 2012). On this connection, see also Bennett, Rediscovery, 236, and more recently, Lochrie, Nowhere in the Middle Ages, 131.
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Author:McShane, Kara L.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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