A Medieval English Description of Java
Java is the world’s most populous island. More people live there than in Russia or Japan and, if you count in terms of contiguous bits of land rather than arbitrary continents, Java is also the world’s third most populous landmass, after Afro-Eurasia and the Americas. Jakarta, the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere and (for now) the capital of Indonesia, is situated on the island’s north coast. Java is not an enormous island by any means — it’s smaller than Great Britain and only a little larger than England on its own — so all of these people are packed into a fairly small space. (See Figure 1 to remind yourself of Java’s size and location.)
Java hasn’t always been this populous, of course, and in the Middle Ages its population density was probably lower than that of Italy or Flanders (and certainly lower than that of either the Indo-Gangetic Plain or much of eastern China). Nevertheless, the island was known far afield for its wealth — and therefore, in something of a logical leap, also for its supposed size. Marco Polo thought it was the biggest island in the world, claiming that this was what Indian Ocean mariners said, and even into the sixteenth century Java was depicted on European maps with an enormous hinterland stretching far to the south. (The south coast of the island did not become familiar to Europeans until a little later on — Figure 2.)
Java was visited by all sorts of people over the years, including the Friulian Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone, the Venetian merchant Niccolò de’ Conti, and an entire Mongol invasion force (in 1292–3). The Berber traveller Ibn Baṭṭūṭa stopped by to insult the king of Java, and quite a few early accounts of the island survive in Chinese, some written by merchants like Wāng Dàyuān (汪大淵, active early fourteenth century) and others by translators on the great fifteenth-century ‘treasure fleets’ under the command of Zhèng Hé (鄭和). Java had its own written traditions too, of course, and a few hundred inscriptions in Old Javanese, Old Malay, and Old Sundanese from the island have made their way down to us today. There are also a few manuscripts as well, and quite a few pre-sixteenth-century texts preserved in much later post-sixteenth-century manuscripts.
It might surprise you to learn, however, that there is a description of the island of Java in Middle English. It is not an original account, and the writer of it did not travel to Java personally. The name of Java may have been distorted slightly by an earlier scribal error, and the description occurs in a text that contains a lot of fabrication and fantasy. It is nonetheless evidence of the hemispheric reach of knowledge about Java in the Middle Ages.
The English description of Java appears in the account of the fictitious travels of John Mandeville, a supposedly English knight supposedly from St Albans who supposedly travelled around Europe, Africa, and Asia in the fourteenth century (Figure 3). Mandeville was not real; the book that was written under that name is a mix of information drawn from earlier sources and complete falsehood and, while the true authorship is not entirely clear, the earliest versions were written in French (and not English). The account includes descriptions of islands and kingdoms that simply did not exist and which are not documented in any other sources in addition to accurate information gleaned from other earlier texts (incidentally not including the Marco Polo travels).
Of course, readers in Europe in the Middle Ages didn’t have a good way to distinguish truth from falsehood when it came to things like this, and the Mandeville text became enormously influential. It was translated into several languages in the late Middle Ages, being rendered into English by the beginning of the fifteenth century — probably in a couple of separate translations, going by the variety in what survives. (Several editions of the English text have been printed, including, to my knowledge, four separate editions of different versions of the text for the Early English Text Society. There are also a number of modern renditions of the Mandeville text; my preference is for Anthony Bale’s.)
Here I’d like to take a look at the description of Java in one manuscript of the English translation of Mandeville: London, British Library, Harley MS 3954, a manuscript dating to the first half of the fifteenth century, during the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, apparently copied in Norfolk. Most of the manuscript comprises works on Christian teaching and devotional poems in Middle English, but it also notably includes a copy of the great English dream narrative Piers Plowman as well as a version of the Mandeville text replete with interesting and evocative illustrations (Figure 3; cf. Figure 4).
Odoric of Pordenone
Now, so: a lot of the Mandeville text is simply fake. Pure invention. Most of the rest, however, comes from the entirely real account of the aforementioned Odoric of Pordenone, who travelled to China by way of India and Southeast Asia in the early fourteenth century, not all that long after Marco Polo. Odoric wrote his account in Latin in around 1330. The original text is difficult to reconstruct because the surviving manuscripts are all rather different from one another, but it was fairly popular and there are quite a few extant manuscripts in several languages, including French. (Annalia Marchisio’s 2016 edition is the best source for Odoric’s texts and its difficulties.) The description of Java in the Mandeville Travels, and thus in Harley MS 3954, is taken wholesale from Odoric; the extract below is in essence a Middle English translation of Odoric rather than ‘Mandeville’, whoever he may have been.
Odoric’s account of Java is interesting for several reasons. Odoric is (almost) alone among medieval European travellers in clearly distinguishing Java from other islands around it. Marco Polo called Java ‘Big Java’ and Sumatra ‘Smaller Java’. (Never mind that Sumatra is much bigger in area than Java.) Niccolò de’ Conti uses a Java-like name for two islands, one probably Java and the other unidentified — possibly Borneo. Odoric conveniently uses ‘Java’ (originally ⟨Iaua⟩) in reference to the island we now call Java.
Odoric says that the king of Java was powerful — mighty enough to have defeated the Mongol Khan and to have seven vassals under him (Figure 5). Famously, this king lived in an extraordinarily richly decorated palace covered in gold and silver and covered in figures of knights in armour.
Harley MS 3954
The Middle English text of Harley MS 3954 follows this description quite closely. However, the name of ‘Java’ here could easily be read as Jana rather than Jaua (from the Javanese/Malay Jawa). A copying error occurred early on in the history of Odoric’s text in which the ⟨u⟩ was read as ⟨n⟩ — a copying error that often came about in the names of unfamiliar places and things in medieval European texts. (It is incidentally responsible for the word ‘gravy’, which actually comes from the Old French word grain, meaning ‘spice’, and for the name of the Scottish island of Iona, which was originally Iuoua.) You can see the similarity between ⟨u⟩ and ⟨n⟩ in the manuscript (beginning of the second line in Figure 6, below).
The description, which emphasises the wealth and power of Java and its king, begins on folio 38v. It says:
‘And there is a great isle that is called Jana. And the king of that country has under him seven kings, for he is full mighty. In that isle grow all manner of spices more plenteous than elsewhere — ginger and all other spices. All things are there in plenty but wine.’
A space for an illustration interrupts the description here (Figure 6). The caption says ‘A ryche paleys’ — the ‘rich palace’ described in the next paragraph. This palace seems to have been too wonderful to be illustrated, and we’re left with this gap:
The description continues:
‘The king of this land has a lovely palace, and a rich [one]. For all the stairs [leading] into the hall and chambers are alternately one of gold and another of silver. And all the walls are covered with plates of gold and silver. And those plates are written [painted?] with stories of knights and great battles. And the pavement of the hall and chambers is of gold and silver. And no man would believe the wealth that is there but he that has seen it. And this king is so mighty that he has oftentimes overcome the Great Khan of Cathay [China], who is the mightiest emperor of all the world.’
(The spelling here has been normalised; you can find the complete transcription on my Patreon.)
The portrayal of Java here as an important place — an island that lacks nothing ruled over by a powerful king, a king capable of defeating the Great Khan in battle, who dwells in a shining palace — contains grains of truth. The Mongols had indeed tried to conquer Java a couple of decades before Odoric’s visit, and they had indeed been defeated (although more by subterfuge than force of arms). Java was undeniably wealthy and did indeed have great stores of rice and other food. Grape wine certainly wasn’t fermented there, but other alcoholic beverages certainly were; the Old Javanese kakawin Deśawarṇana, written in 1365, for example, includes references to several kinds of palm wine (90.3 — p.90 in Stuart Robson’s translation).
More interesting than any factual information in the account, though, is the fact that it exists at all. It is a remarkable thing that Java was known by name and reputation in England in the time of the Hundred Years’ War. This text was written well over a century before the first English expedition under Francis Drake reached Java in 1580, and by the time the manuscript was copied it was rather out-of-date. Its existence nonetheless highlights the extraordinary interconnectedness of the medieval world and Java’s place within it.
John Mandeville. 2012. Book of Marvels and Travels. Translated by Anthony Bale. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Odorico da Pordenone. Relatio de mirabilibus orientalium Tatarorum. Edizione critica a cura di Annalia Marchisio. 2016. Florence: Edizioni del Galluzzo.
Robson, S. O. 1995. Desawarnana. Leiden: KITLV Press.