I'm trying a combined review, this time, because it became apparent to me in the course of the week that past and present reads were intertwining in a useful and illuminating (to me) way. Warning: obscenely long!
My starting-point was The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a hugely entertaining mid fourteenth-century travel narrative purportedly written by the titular English knight, about whom nothing is known besides that which is mentioned within the text. Debate over the level of fantasy in the account seems to be even more marked than that regarding Marco Polo; a number of scholars are sceptical that 'Mandeville' even existed, let alone that he travelled further than "the nearest library", as one critic put it. (Still, he's considerably livelier and more detailed, on the whole, than Polo).
Certainly, he's about a century too late for the heyday of European sojourning to the East. From its inception in the first decades of the thirteenth century, the Mongol empire had opened up new worlds to merchants, envoys, missionaries and many more; the empire's loose but unitary organisation allowed unprecedented ease of travel and communication across vast distances, and its thirst for the skills (administrative, fiscal, technological) of the sedentary world made it a welcoming employer for Chinese siege-engineers, Persian bureaucrats and Italian merchants alike. But the sheer size of the empire, coupled with fierce power struggles between the Chinggisids (Genghis Khan's four sons, and their offspring), soon proved too much of a strain. The empire fragmented irrevocably with the conflict surrounding the accession of Qubilai to the throne of the Great Khan in the 1260s. The smaller, independent polities left behind fought repeatedly between themselves and with their neighbours; some became acculturated to their new surroundings, like the Ilkhans of Persia, who converted to Islam at the turn of the fourteenth century. Overland travel went back to being perilous.
The point of all this, beyond giving me a chance to discourse on one of my favourite historical periods ;-), is that the setting appears to count against its plausibility. And that's long before we get to, say, the dog-headed folks whose society the author recounts, in some detail, while discussing the islands of south-east Asia.
Men and women of that isle have heads like dogs, and they are called Cynocephales. These people, despite their shape, are fully reasonable and intelligent. They worship an ox as their god. Each of them carries an ox made of gold or silver on his brow, as a token that they love their god well.
Of course, from the medieval perspective, the fact that much of the Travels reads like a surrealist on too much caffeine, or that even the most sober parts of Mandeville's narrative might not have been witnessed with his own eyes, is irrelevant. The huge number of surviving manuscripts of Mandeville's Travels - in an astonishing array of translations - attests to the work's immense popularity (~300 to Marco Polo's 70) in its own time and for centuries later. To judge him as we might a modern travel writer, and expect what we consider literal truth - anything else being invention, or lies - is to misunderstand him and his enthusiastic audience both. Symbolic and moral conceptualisations of the world could co-exist quite happily in the contemporary mind alongside the precise details of topography. Furthermore, the concept of authorship in his day was quite different; books were not distinct, inviolable compositions, but repositories of teaching to be borrowed from and built upon. Thus there is no discontinuity between Mandeville's description of travelling into the Land of Darkness (straight out of the Alexander Romance) and the (often quite accurate) observations of Mongol society that he borrows from earlier writers.
My knowledge of medieval European literature is largely deficient, but I can point to a similar trend within Islamic geographical and cosmographical writing. While most of Europe was roundly ignored by Muslim geographers and travel writers (Ibn Battutah seems to have gone everywhere but), the extreme West nevertheless held a strange glamour - even for writers like Ibn Habib, who lived in ninth-century Spain and must surely have noticed the marked absence of, say, copper cities that ate unwary travellers. The West, place of the setting sun, was the edge of the world, the gateway to the Ocean (which variously lay beneath, around or above the world, or all three at once) and a place of death. Arabic tales of Alexander - in contrast to their Latin counterparts - tend to focus on his exploits in the West, placing the land of darkness there, and often having him set up a statue or a city to warn travellers that they must venture no further. Legends were part of the landscape, no less than the mountains or the seas.
What makes all this particularly interesting to me, though, is Mandeville's genuine fascination with the (real and invented) peoples he describes - and his unexpectedly (to me) openminded verdicts upon their beliefs. Notice how he says the Cynocephales are "fully reasonable and intelligent", and how he goes on to comment that,
The king of that land is a great and mighty lord, rich, and very devout according to his creed. He has round his neck a cord of silk on which are three hundred precious stones, like our rosary of amber. And just as we say our Pater Noster and Ave Maria by telling our beads, just so the king says each day on his beads three hundred prayers to his god [...] The king is a very righteous man and just according to his law.
This is where Richard Fletcher's The Cross and the Crescent comes in, and where the fact that Mandeville was writing in the mid fourteenth century becomes - I think - most significant. Fletcher's book is a swift but characteristically surefooted journey through the relations between Christians and Muslims from the seventh until the sixteenth centuries, focusing on the attitudes of each towards the other. At 160 pages, it necessarily compresses its material, but Fletcher does a superb job of conveying both the essence and the diversity of the relationship; in large part, it's a tale of willed ignorance coexisting with mundane, everyday interaction and frequent military rivalry.
Neither side was interested in engaging with the other on any serious level. Christian writings begin by dismissing the Muslims as barbarians, and/or a temporary instrument of punishment sent by God; they progress to characterising Muslim beliefs as a deviant form of Christianity, twisted by Muhammad (usually called their war leader or false prophet) for his own ends. Muslim writings, meanwhile, where they deign to notice Christians at all (v rarely), are equally dismissive: Christian doctrine is an imperfectly-received earlier version of Muhammad's revelation, and thus superseded, and Christians themselves are backwards, ignorant, and don't bathe half as often as they ought to. Both sides, revealingly, tend to stick to racial/secular terminology - Muslims are called Arabs, Moors, or Saracens; Christians are called Franks, or ajami (non-Arabs, barbarians).
What makes Mandeville interesting, then, is that he forms part of what Fletcher identifies as a growing trend within late medieval Europe: an active interest in the world beyond Christendom, which, moreover, is prepared at last to admit religious pluralism into its worldview. The Cynocephales pray to "their god" and judge people by "their law" - not as mere shadows of Christianity, or as Christian heresy, but as something distinct from Christian Europe with validity on their own terms. It's hardly all love and peace all the time - and it's hardly the only trend of its day; crusading impulses remained strong - but it's a significant cultural and intellectual shift.