The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press (2019); Also, The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Grabhorn Press (1928)

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, the latest publication from Foolscap Press, is one of the most beautifully done private press works in years. The publication exudes an aura of just about everything a private press work should be in terms of intent, spirit, craftsmanship and artisanal excellence. Happily for private press collectors, a 1928 version of Mandeville’s travels, published by the Grabhorn Press, also reaches exalted status and remains, outside of their astounding 1930 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Grabhorn’s greatest accomplishment. Before taking a detailed look at both the Foolscap Press and Grabhorn Press Mandeville, a few words about the work itself.

A 1459 portrait of Sir John Mandeville
Public Domain, Via NYPL Digital Gallery, Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Full-page portrait of Sir John Mandeville.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1459. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-ec11-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville follows a journey that began in 1322 and continued on for more than thirty years through (mostly) the Middle East and India. It was first published in manuscript form in 1357. Most scholars believe that there was no actual Sir John Mandeville, and many theories exist on who actually wrote this work. The current “in” theory is that Jan de Langhe, a 14th century Benedictine monk at the abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer and “a prolific writer and avid collector of travelogues” is the author. Some scholars believe the writer, whoever it may have been, actually did travel — at least to the Holy Land. Regardless, as stated in the Infogalactic article on this work,

“…Whether Mandeville actually traveled or not, he would not necessarily be intentionally making the story up. All travel narratives from this time used the same sources, taken from each other or from the earlier traditions of the Greeks. This tradition was an integral part of such narratives to make them believable (or at least acceptable) to the readers.

In fact, it seems that much of what is written in Mandeville of his travels through India and China “has been appropriated from the narrative of Friar Odoric” (Odoric of Pordenone). Oderic’s narrative is an account of his actual journey, as a missionary (diplomatic and religious), to the East beginning in 1318. His narrative was very popular and was widely translated. Over 70 manuscripts of his narrative exists, the oldest from around 1350. In addition, “much of Mandeville’s matter, particularly in Asiatic geography and history, is taken from the Historiae Orientis of Hetoum.” This history (known as  La Flor des Estoires d’Orient) of Hetoum (also known as Hayton of Corycus, a monk from Armenia) was also quite influential in the Late Middle Ages in “shaping western European views of the Orient.

On the left, Odoric of Pordenone presenting his report to Pope John XXII (Public Domain – This image comes from Gallica Digital Library). On the right, Hayton remitting his report to Pope Clement V in 1307. Both from the 1412 manuscript from the Book of Wonders (Public Domain – This image comes from Gallica Digital Library)

In any case, Mandeville’s Travels is, as Foolscap mentions, “a strange journey and one that has kept his book alive and in print since it was first published in manuscript form in 1357.” The work has been extremely influential both as a travelogue (oddly enough to modern readers since it is so fantastical) and as literature. The Foolscap introduction tells us:

Mandeville’s book was read by Cervantes, by Rabelais, and Montaigne and was found within the personal library of Leonardo da Vinci. Its publication was also a facilitator of geographical advancement because Mandeville put forth that a man could sail around the earth, passing through Ptolemy’s Torrid Zone and return home safely. The book was carried aboard ship by Christopher Columbus, consulted by Sir Walter Raleigh and others on their voyages of discovery with some confidence that they too could circumnavigate the globe.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was first published in French and was soon translated into Latin and English, and ultimately to most languages. Speaking of translations, Samuel Johnson calls the unknown first translator of Mandeville into English “The Father of English prose” and his 1755 dictionary praises it “for the force of thought and beauty of expression.” There were already at least 35 editions prior to 1500. It has never been out of print.

The Travels of Jean de Mandeville, from the famous Book of Wonders. Facsimile of the magnificent manuscript from 1412, including illustrations by the Master of the Mazarine Hours, the Master of the Cité des dames and the Egerton Master. Facsimile available from Mueller und Schindler.

Foolscap Press Edition (2019)

With the importance of Mandeville in the history of literature and with its adventurous and interesting narrative, it was an inspired choice for Foolscap Press to publish. I asked proprietors Lawrence Van Velzer and Peggy Gotthold what initiated their interest in choosing to publish Mandeville:

What first initiated our interest in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is the fact that the book has staying power. We wanted to know why. Here was a book first published in manuscript form (in French) in the fourteenth-century that then continued to be copied into many European languages. And with the advent of printing, it was simply produced faster and made available to all who could read. It was scientific (you could apparently sail around the world), it was humorous (Mandeville decided not to go to a certain isle where the men were 50-feet long merely because they tended to eat people); it told us a lot about society and fourteenth-century thinking (some of the religious practices he encountered were very tolerant of other religions, unlike his own Christian brethren). But most of all it is a seamless narrative, a journey taking us with Sir John Mandeville into new lands as if we were in the company of an early Jules Verne. 

The Foolscap Press edition commences as Mandeville leaves the Holy Land and travels east to the lands beyond Egypt, which were mostly unknown to Western Europeans at that time. One can sense the appreciation that Mr. Van Velzer and Ms. Gotthold have for this work when, in the introduction to this edition, they say of this second part of Mandeville’s Travels:

Here his imaginative, inspired thinking begins to take shape and Mandeville’s Travels becomes a book that sets itself apart from any writing that had come before it. The idea that the globe is habitable everywhere is perhaps unique in its time; that the same nature that rules Western Europe also rules the whole world — making it possible to traverse the unknown with no more fear than traveling to a far-away, unfamiliar town in your own country…

I asked Mr. Van Velzer and Ms. Gotthold what the biggest challenges were in turning their interest on publishing Mandeville into reality:

The biggest challenge is probably the fact that we wanted this book to have the look and feel of a fourteenth-century manuscript book, or at least a very early printed book. This means, first of all, handmade paper (a several-year wait), secondly, illuminated pages with initial letters and hand-painted figures on nearly every page. Because it is a travel book we wanted maps, hand-painted maps on handmade paper. But we needed them to be original maps, maps that would make sense to a reader but maps where you would still find yourself lost in an unknown world. There are five of these maps. This, of course, all takes time and so the biggest challenge at this point is completing books in a reasonable amount of time.

When you flip through the pages of the Foolscap Press edition, it is clear these challenges were not only met but exceeded. The overall design of the work certainly is reflective of a medieval manuscript (compare the pictures of the Foolscap Press edition below, with the manuscript edition pictured earlier in this article); with hand-done illustrations, illumination and coloring gracing each page – all on handmade paper. The type choice of Silentium, designed by Jovica Veljović, works marvelously. I asked Mr. Van Velzer and Ms. Gotthold how they went about choosing paper and type to fit a work such as this:

The general sense of the length of the text, based on a couple of trial pages provides a lot of information. You will note that we have chosen to present only the second half of this well known work. The text is most fascinating in the second half, and it seemed most appropriate to use a hand-made sheet for the paper stock. Once we decided that, and ordered paper, both the format of the paper and the lovely feel of the paper moved us to further steps. Hand work on hand-made paper fits together easily. 

The type face was chosen for its readability and for its scribal flavor. We knew that we would be making polymer plates, so choosing a digital typeface was indicted. Jovica Veljović is a calligrapher, typographer and book designer and his Silentium, even though it was issued in 2000, and is therefore a thoroughly modern face has an appropriate character for Sir John Mandeville.

I further asked which earlier editions of Mandeville served as influences to their design approach, including asking about the 1928 Grabhorn Press edition that is presented later in this article:

We looked at many editions of Mandeville, one of the advantages of the work never really being out of print! In the British Library we were able to look at a manuscript copy from the 15th century. We read translations by C.W.R.D. Moseley, A.W. Pollard, Iain MacLeod Higgins, and Malcolm Letts. We also looked at many reproductions of lots of different illuminated manuscripts from 1200 to 1500.  

15th Century Manuscript copy of Mandeville, referenced by Foolscap Press, in the British Library (Sloan ms 2319)

With all that inspiration, we settled on a modern style that was flavored by French decoration from the 1300’s. The 1928 Grabhorn Press edition is a lovely version, with its Bibel Gotisch type by Rudolf Koch and those amazing Valenti Angelo initials and images. There is a certain amount of austerity to the Grabhorn edition. 

As we developed our edition, we felt that the text was exuberant, and one of the characteristics of medieval manuscripts with decoration is the borders which often are filled with gold leaf, and sometimes startling imagery hiding in the foliage.

Speaking of imagery, like the medieval manuscripts which inspired Mr. Van Velzer and Ms. Gotthold, the Foolscap Press edition is abundant with decorations, illustrations, illuminations and maps. I asked Ms. Gotthold about the effort and process to create the illustrations and maps:

Once we had decided on the typeface and picked the paper, (and while we were waiting for that said paper to be made), we could lay out the book and mock up the pages. With that document, it was a matter of reading carefully to see what subjects were covered on which page. Then we could make up a list of possibilities for the margin images. Once we had those possibilities to choose from, then sketches could be drawn. Then the process is living with the ideas for a bit to see if the sequence works, the color palette pleases and if it maintains some variety in the sequence, and if we liked the drawings. Some images just didn’t fly, as there is no way to convey the opulence of the Great Chan’s thrones and those of his wives in an inch of space. But a giant can stretch along a margin and look gigantic compared to three small ships. On another page, you may not be able to see Noah’s ship on top of Mt. Ararat, but it is there. And the ants that are first mentioned in Herodotus were very satisfying to make harvesting the actual gold leaves of the margins.

Then there are the serendipitous pieces of information that surface when you are working on a book like this. From a practical standpoint, the images in the margins have to be a little bit straightforward, meaning that applying different washes of color in combination would make the images too complicated to reproduce consistently in an edition of 90 copies. Kassia St. Clair in her book, The Secret Lives of Color just happens to mention, “Pure white sunlight was considered a gift from God; it was unthinkable that it could be broken down or, worse still, created by mixing colored lights together. During the Middle Ages mixing colors at all was a taboo, believed to be against the natural order; even during Newton’s lifetime, the idea that a mixture of colors could create white light was anathema.” It is delightful to be doing something for a purely practical reason, and discover that it happens to be just what the text would call for when it was first made.

It would have been wonderful to fully explore the significance of different pigments and their larger meaning, and to only apply certain colors that a medieval artist would have had available, but practicality does intervene. The paper is unsized, which means that some pigments could not be used. And in addition, medieval illuminators had no notion that some of their pigments were poisonous. 

The maps are interpretations of ideas that circulated during or before Mandeville’s time. The opening map is based on the T and O map of the world with its circle sea. This world view is firmly anchored in the Christian religion with the known world divided between Noah’s three sons. So the idea is a good place to start as one leaves the Holy Land and heads into the unknown. The climate map is from older information as is the Chinese map with its sophisticated and accurate depiction of China. In both cases, these maps are interpreted from actual maps, but not meant to use to actually transverse the continents. You could use the Silk Route map in a pinch as well as the map of the heavens (based on a 9th-Century manuscript of Aratea), but they are included to provide an overview of earlier ideas about man’s place in the world and the heavens. As modern people with GPS, we expect to go from one place to another without getting lost or considering our place in the universe or the patterns that geography provides.

Here are a few photographs of the decorations and illustrations as the process of making the book unfolded.

Initial Printing: On the press printing initial O in red.
Adding color: Hand painting color on printed page.
Painting process 1: Two colors painted on printed page.
Painting process 2: Three colors painted on printed page.
Painting process 3: Both sides of page painted on printed page.

I think you will be as astounded as I was when you see the end result of the tremendous labor that went into this handmade work. Ms. Gotthold said, in response to me asking what they liked most in doing this work, that “Overall, it is wonderful when the elements come together into a whole that is greater than the parts. It feels like all the minute decisions we have made over (now) several years are working in conjunction with each other.” They certainly are! As the introduction in the Foolscap Press edition states, “…to historians of literature this ‘fabrication’ of a travel book, this creation of imaginary travels, is a literary achievement of the highest order.” Similarly, this edition from Foolscap Press is a private press achievement of the highest order.

About the Foolscap Press Edition

  • Limited to 90 numbered copies signed by the printer and bookbinder.
  • The text used is based mainly on the Cotton MS C.xvi, a translation that was first edited in 1725 and continues to be a starting point for serious study of Sir John Mandeville.
  • All illustrations drawn and painted by Peggy Gotthold.
  • Presswork by Lawrence G. Van Velzer.
  • The type is Silentium, designed by Jovica Veljović. The initials are Cloister and Versatile.
  • Printed on handmade Chancery paper produced at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book under the direction of Timothy Barrett.
  • There are five double-spread maps printed on handmade linen paper, produced at Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal, and then hand colored.
  • The book is bound in handmade, Cave Paper and comes in a cloth-covered box.
  • All binding and the cloth-covered boxes were made at Foolscap Press.
  • The price is $1200, plus appropriate California sales tax. 

Pictures of the Foolscap Press Edition

Note: All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Book in Clamshell
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , End Pages
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Title Page
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Text from Introduction
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Opening Pages
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Macro of Initial Lettering on Opening Page
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Pages #1
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Map #1 – Based on Christian T and O map, with Jerusalem as the center of the world; the O is the shape of the map bordered by a circle sea and the T is the division of three great land masses (divided amongst Noah’s sons)
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Pages #2
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Map #2 – Segmenting the world based on different climates that divide the habitable and uninhabitable regions
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Pages #3
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Macro of Illustration from Sample Pages #3
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Pages #4
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Map #3 – Based on the grid and outline of the Yu ji tu stele (Maps of the tracks of Yu) of 1136
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Pages #5
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Page #6
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Macro of Illustration on Sample Page #6
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Map #4 – Showing the routes of trade and travel used from 600-1300, later termed the Silk Road
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Sample Page #7
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press , Map #5 – A view of the heavens, inspired by Cicero‘s translation of Aratea’s Phaenomena from the Harley MS647 in the British Library (9th century)
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press, Colophon

Grabhorn Press Edition (1928)

Edwin and Robert Grabhorn founded The Grabhorn Press in 1919. It quickly established itself as one of the great private presses in the world. Art under Wraps says of Grabhorn Press:

Over the following years, their unique eye for book design as well as their community spirit in pairing up contemporary illustrators with woodcut sculptors, book designers and type-makers served them well, they are currently regarded as one of the finest of the private presses produced by America, and an equal in excellence and style to any of the fine art English private presses. Over their years they succeeded in printing a large amount of materials, with volumes commissioned by no less than British and American politicians and museums.

While Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is undoubtably considered the pinnacle of Grabhorn’s extensive oeuvre, their 1928 edition of The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, designed in the incunabula tradition, comes in second. Such is largely due to, as pointed out by Mr. Van Velzer and Ms. Gotthold, it being “a lovely version, with its Bibel Gotisch type by Rudolf Koch and those amazing Valenti Angelo initials and images.“.

Angelo provided 34 decorative initials, hand-illuminated in vermilion, blue and gilt. Robert Grabhorn praised Angelo’s tremendous labor in getting this work done (34 decorative initials hand drawn and illuminated in an edition of 150 means 5100 drawings done by Angelo). Angelo also provided 31 woodcut illustrations based on those in early editions and manuscripts. Valenti’s creations for this edition would not have happened, however, if it were not for the type since it was the desire to find a subject appropriate to the type that led to deciding to publish Mandeville. In a 1967/1968 interview, Grabhorn mentioned that a nephew of the founder of the Klingspor Foundry, working for the Grabhorn’s at the time, brought to their attention Koch Bibel Gotisch. They liked it and wanted to find a subject to match the type. From this, the Grabhorn Mandeville was born.

The type was cast from punches cut by hand by Koch. Mandeville was its first use in America. The combination of Angelo’s beautifully done, constrained decorations and illustrations with this type and the overall page design works perfectly. As Grabhorn bibliographers Elinor Raas Heller and David Magee state, Mandeville “was an ideal subject for this type and for the simple medieval illustrations of Valenti Angelo that accompany it.”

The Grabhorn’s had intended to offer the work for direct sale, but the entire run was purchased by Bennett Cerf (as was done for Leaves of Grass) for issuance under the imprint of Random House. For those who may be interested, it can be difficult to find this edition in near fine or better condition. However, it does sometimes become available, lately seeming to run in the ~$2500 range.

About the Grabhorn Press Edition

  • The Grabhorn Press edition is printed from the same 1725 source as that used by Foolscap Press, Cotton MS C.xvi, which they collated with seven other manuscripts, (several dating from the author’s time) and with four old printed editions.
  • The type, designed by Rudolph Koch, cast from punches cut by hand by the designer; here used for the first time in America, through the curtesy of Gebruder Klingspor.
  • Illustrated with 31 woodblock prints and 34 decorative initials hand-illuminated in red, gold, and blue by Valenti Angelo.
  • The type set by Robert Grabhorn and John Gannon.
  • Presswork is by Edwin Grabhorn.
  • Bound by by William Wheeler with Travels Philippine mahogany boards backed with brown Niger morocco, raised bands, spine with titling in blind.
  • 14 1/2 x 9 5/8, 156 pp, 150 pages
  • The edition is limited to 150 copies.

Pictures of the Grabhorn Press Edition

Note: All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.

The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Grabhorn Press/Random House, Front Cover/Binding
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Grabhorn Press/Random House, Spine/Binding
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Grabhorn Press/Random House, Bling Titling
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Title Page (note Random House Imprint, not that of Grabhorn Press)
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Contents
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Sample Text #1 with Initial Lettering
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Close-Up Sample Text #1 with Initial Lettering
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Sample Illustration #1 with Initial Lettering and Text
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Sample Illustration #2 with Initial Lettering and Text
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Macro of Hand-Colored Initial Lettering and Hand-Illumination
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Sample Illustration #3 with Initial Lettering and Text
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Colophon
The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Macro of Colophon’s Initial Lettering Hand-Illumination

One thought on “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville Beyond the Holy Land, Foolscap Press (2019); Also, The Voiage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, Grabhorn Press (1928)

  1. This is a marvelous article about a truly marvelous new private press book. In particular, the information from Chris Adamson’s discussions and e-mail exchanges with Peggy Gotthold and Lawrence Van Velzer regarding how this book came into being, the original inspiration(s) for it, the many years of meticulous planning and numerous details not fully appreciated by even serious private press book collectors and the choices and design decisions made along the way are all quite fascinating.

    I found it amusing and somewhat surprising that it required several years of waiting to obtain the quantity of handmade papers from Papeterie St. Armand and the University of Iowa Center for the Book necessary for this book. The thought and care that went into planning the marginal illustrations, matching them to the actual text content on each page, is exhausting to think about, especially for a substantial book with over 100 pages. Finally, the research and eventual selection of the five original hand-drawn double spread maps appropriate to a manuscript with origins in the early 14th century is certainly no small feat, something I would have debated and procrastinated over for months on end.

    The very modern Silentium type from Jovica Veljović is a revelation and it succeeds marvelously in giving this book the look and feel of a medieval manuscript while simultaneously being extremely user-friendly and easily readable, more so than the Bibel Gotisch type of Rudolf Koch in the Grabhorn Press edition and certainly much more so than the American uncial and other uncial types used by the Allen Press and the Anvil Press to achieve this result (note: reading the Anvil Press American uncial type is headache-inducing).

    All in all, a truly unique one-of-a-kind private press book – one I believe will become increasingly difficult and increasingly expensive to find and obtain once the original 90 copies are sold. If you already own a copy of the Grabhorn Press ‘Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundevile’ this book automatically becomes a “must have”, imho.

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