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U of T acquires rare 14th century manuscript

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was a medieval “blockbuster” widely read across Europe.


A partial copy of the medieval travel memoir The Travels of Sir John Mandeville has been acquired by the University of Toronto and is now part of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s collection. The manuscript — written in Anglo-French, was likely penned in the mid-1330’s —making it the earliest surviving version of the text.

“It could be one of the most important, if not the most important European manuscript in the collections of the university,” said professor
Sebastian Sobecki who led the effort. The text is a medieval “blockbuster” and is an amalgamation of travelogues describing sometimes romanticized encounters with fantastical beasts and faraway places such as India and the Middle East. It is considered fiction and is likely written under one of the first pseudonyms.

An old book

While there are around 300 surviving manuscripts of Mandeville’s Travels, U of T researchers and students will be among the first to study this specific manuscript as it was previously held in the Duke of Manchester’s private collection.

An unusual aspect of the text – which is taught in literature, medieval studies and history courses – is its secularism. “This is the first time we have a non-specialist, not a theologian, really engaging with other faiths,” said Dr. Sobecki, making it “revolutionary in a way.”

Bringing students to the artefact could be one way of “opening up the Middle Ages” and capturing the imagination of U of T’s diverse student body as the author did with thousands across Europe nearly 700 years ago. “Because even our modern, current engagement with one another is still grounded in a lot of historical ideas.”

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