By Galia Halpern
Paper given at Forum on Forms of Seeing Symposium, New York University (2011)
Introduction: There exists today in the British Library a manuscript (Additional Ms. 24189) comprised of twenty-eight full-page illustrations depicting scenes from from Sir John Mandeville’s infamous ‘first-hand’ account of the many diverse sights of the world. The illustrations are drawn from the first thirteen chapters of the book and they cover the grounds between Mandeville’s departure site of St. Albans and his arrival at Gaza. They include several highly detailed illustrations of the daily life and material culture of communities encountered en route to the Holy Land. One of these pictures, a scene depicting a hunt and outdoor banquet at Cyprus, includes a servant wearing an Indian feather head-dress. Earlier in the manuscript, one of Mandeville’s fellow travelers dawn’s a similar styled head-dress as the group heads out from England.
The artist’s choice to include this head-dress from a remote culture that does not directly figure into any of the illustrations of BL 24189 merits further investigation. First, it is deployed in scenes depicting groups that in a travel book we would typically define as familiar and exotic as the traveler and his object of observation and description. Second, it clothes men we would interpret as coming from the aristocratic and servant classes, and thus class distinctions at sites of encounter become blurred. The fluidity of identity which the movement of the head-dress between wearers indicates is one of the primary literary themes identified in several versions of the Book of Sir John Mandeville: the often critical and sometimes satiric reflection of the self in the global other. But this head-dress not only hints at vectors of movement within the narrative, it also reveals the lived transactions and exchange of goods between regions of the world in the late medieval era.