A Barnacle Goose by any Other Name: Language and Cultural Relativism in The Livre des merveilles du monde of Sir John Mandeville

Christine Bourgeois
University of Kansas

A decade ago, in September of 2009, Simon Gaunt published what would prove to be a transformative argument in defining the scope medieval French literary studies:the Franco-Italian text of Marco Polo’s Divisament du monde along with the Anglo-Norman text of John Mandeville’s Livre des merveilles du monde, he wrote, deserved to be considered as “French” texts. In the intervening years, an efflorescence of scholarship on Marco Polo and his literary collaboration with Rustichello da Pisa has indeed begun to unpack the complexity of medieval “frenchness” problematized by the vectors of cultural and linguistic hybridity in this Franco-Italian travel narrative and its subsequent translations. Curiously, though, John Mandeville or, more accurately, the narrator who calls himself by this name, has stayed largely on the sidelines of medieval French studies, as have his Anglo-Norman Livre and its continental French translations.

The continued marginality of a work which seems by many counts to have surpassed the Divisament in late medieval popularity is surprising for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the significance that the author ascribes to the notion of language itself. Consistently juxtaposing his description of foreign beliefs with the transcription of foreign alphabets, the narrator is fixated by the power of linguistic systems andmost particularly by the symbolic functions assigned to these systems through the religious and political rituals of their native speakers. In this paper, I propose to revisit the cultural and literary problems of originality versus variance highlighted by Gaunt’s analysis of the Livre, contextualizing them within the discourse of post-lapsarian geography as it has been developed most recently in Giorgio Agamben’s 2019 essay,Il Regno e il Giardino. By examining the ways in which the Mandeville character experiences foreign language, I will argue that the Livre des merveilles vexes an already fraught relationship in medieval thought between native tongue and cultural identity, thereby disrupting conventional understandings of human nature and its universality.