The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, by John Mandeville

Chapter XXIII

Of the Great Chan of Cathay. Of the Royalty of His Palace, and How he Sits at Meat; and of the GREAT NUMBER OF OFFICERS That Serve Him

CATHAY is a great country and a fair, noble and rich, and full of merchants. Thither go merchants all years for to seek spices and all manner of merchandises, more commonly than in any other part. And ye shall understand, that merchants that come from Genoa or from Venice or from Romania or other parts of Lombardy, they go by sea and by land eleven months or twelve, or more some-time, ere they may come to the isle of Cathay that is the principal region of all parts beyond; and it is of the great Chan.

From Cathay go men toward the east by many journeys. And then men find a good city between these others, that men clepe Sugarmago. That city is one of the best stored of silk and other merchandises that is in the world.

After go men yet to another old city toward the east. And it is in the province of Cathay. And beside that city the men of Tartary have let make another city that is dept Caydon. And it hath twelve gates, and between the two gates there is always a great mile; so that the two cities, that is to say, the old and the new, have in circuit more than twenty mile.

In this city is the siege of the great Chan in a full great palace and the most passing fair in all the world, of the which the walls be in circuit more than two mile. And within the walls it is all full of other palaces. And in the garden of the great palace there is a great hill, upon the which there is another palace; and it is the most fair and the most rich that any man may devise. And all about the palace and the hill be many trees bearing many diverse fruits. And all about that hill be ditches great and deep, and beside them be great vivaries on that one part and on that other. And there is a full fair bridge to pass over the ditches. And in these vivaries be so many wild geese and ganders and wild ducks and swans and herons that it is without number. And all about these ditches and vivaries is the great garden full of wild beasts. So that when the great Chan will have any disport on that, to take any of the wild beasts or of the fowls, he will let chase them and take them at the windows without going out of his chamber.

This palace, where his siege is, is both great and passing fair. And within the palace, in the hall, there be twenty-four pillars of fine gold. And all the walls be covered within of red skins of beasts that men clepe panthers, that be fair beasts and well smelling; so that for the sweet odour of those skins no evil air may enter into the palace. Those skins be as red as blood, and they shine so bright against the sun, that unnethe no man may behold them. And many folk worship those beasts, when they meet them first at morning, for their great virtue and for the good smell that they have. And those skins they prize more than though they were plate of fine gold.

And in the midst of this palace is the mountour for the great Chan, that is all wrought of gold and of precious stones and great pearls. And at four corners of the mountour be four serpents of gold. And all about there is y-made large nets of silk and gold and great pearls hanging all about the mountour. And under the mountour be conduits of beverage that they drink in the emperor’s court. And beside the conduits be many vessels of gold, by the which they that be of household drink at the conduit.

And the hall of the palace is full nobly arrayed, and full marvellously attired on all parts in all things that men apparel with any hall. And first, at the chief of the hall is the emperor’s throne, full high, where he sitteth at the meat. And that is of fine precious stones, bordered all about with pured gold and precious stones, and great pearls. And the grees that he goeth up to the table be of precious stones mingled with gold.

And at the left side of the emperor’s siege is the siege of his first wife, one degree lower than the emperor; and it is of jasper, bordered with gold and precious stones. And the siege of his second wife is also another siege, more lower than his first wife; and it is also of jasper, bordered with gold, as that other is. And the siege of the third wife is also more low, by a degree, than the second wife. For he hath always three wives with him, where that ever he be.

And after his wives, on the same side, sit the ladies of his lineage yet lower, after that they be of estate. And all those that be married have a counterfeit made like a man’s foot upon their heads, a cubit long, all wrought with great pearls, fine and orient, and above made with peacocks’ feathers and of other shining feathers; and that stands upon their heads like a crest, in token that they be under man’s foot and under subjection of man. And they that be unmarried have none such.

And after at the right side of the emperor first sitteth his eldest son that shall reign after him. And he sitteth also one degree lower than the emperor, in such manner of sieges as do the empresses. And after him sit other great lords of his lineage, every of them a degree lower than the other, as they be of estate.

And the emperor hath his table alone by himself, that is of gold and of precious stones, or of crystal bordered with gold, and full of precious stones or of amethysts, or of lignum aloes that cometh out of paradise, or of ivory bound or bordered with gold. And every one of his wives hath also her table by herself. And his eldest son and the other lords also, and the ladies, and all that sit with the emperor have tables alone by themselves, full rich. And there ne is no table but that it is worth an huge treasure of goods.

And under the emperor’s table sit four clerks that write all that the emperor saith, be it good, be it evil; for all that he saith must be holden, for he may not change his word, ne revoke it.

And [at] great solemn feasts before the emperor’s table men bring great tables of gold, and thereon be peacocks of gold and many other manner of diverse fowls, all of gold and richly wrought and enamelled. And men make them dance and sing, clapping their wings together, and make great noise. And whether it be by craft or by necromancy I wot never; but it is a good sight to behold, and a fair; and it is great marvel how it may be. But I have the less marvel, because that they be the most subtle men in all sciences and in all crafts that be in the world: for of subtlety and of malice and of farcasting they pass all men under heaven. And therefore they say themselves, that they see with two eyes and the Christian men see but with one, because that they be more subtle than they. For all other nations, they say, be but blind in cunning and working in comparison to them. I did great business for to have learned that craft, but the master told me that he had made avow to his god to teach it to no creature, but only to his eldest son.

Also above the emperor’s table and the other tables, and above a great part in the hall, is a vine made of fine gold. And it spreadeth all about the hall. And it hath many clusters of grapes, some white, some green, some yellow and some red and some black, all of precious stones. The white be of crystal and of beryl and of iris; the yellow be of topazes; the red be of rubies and of grenaz and of alabrandines; the green be of emeralds, of perydoz and of chrysolites; and the black be of onyx and garantez. And they be all so properly made that it seemeth a very vine bearing kindly grapes.

And before the emperor’s table stand great lords and rich barons and other that serve the emperor at the meat. And no man is so hardy to speak a word, but if the emperor speak to him; but if it be minstrels that sing songs and tell jests or other disports, to solace with the emperor. And all the vessels that men be served with in the hall or in chambers be of precious stones, and specially at great tables either of jasper or of crystal or of amethysts or of fine gold. And the cups be of emeralds and of sapphires, or of topazes, of perydoz, and of many other precious stones. Vessels of silver is there none, for they tell no price thereof to make no vessels of: but they make thereof grecings and pillars and pavements to halls and chambers. And before the hall door stand many barons and knights clean armed to keep that no man enter, but if it be the will or the commandment of the emperor, or but if they be servants or minstrels of the household; and other none is not so hardy to neighen nigh the hall door.

And ye shall understand, that my fellows and I with our yeomen, we served this emperor, and were his soldiers fifteen months against the King of Mancy, that held against him. And the cause was for we had great lust to see his noblesse and the estate of his court and all his governance, to wit if it were such as we heard say that it was. And truly we found it more noble and more excellent, and richer and more marvellous, than ever we heard speak of, insomuch that we would never have lieved it had we not seen it. For I trow, that no man would believe the noblesse, the riches ne the multitude of folk that be in his court, but he had seen it; for it is not there as it is here. For the lords here have folk of certain number as they may suffice; but the great Chan hath every day folk at his costage and expense as without number. But the ordinance, ne the expenses in meat and drink, ne the honesty, ne the cleanness, is not so arrayed there as it is here; for all the commons there eat without cloth upon their knees, and they eat all manner of flesh and little of bread, and after meat they wipe their hands upon their skirts, and they eat not but once a day. But the estate of lords is full great, and rich and noble.

And albeit that some men will not trow me, but hold it for fable to tell them the noblesse of his person and of his estate and of his court and of the great multitude of folk that he holds, natheles I shall say you a part of him and of his folk, after that I have seen the manner and the ordinance full many a time. And whoso that will may lieve me if he will, and whoso will not, may leave also. For I wot well, if any man hath been in those countries beyond, though he have not been in the place where the great Chan dwelleth, he shall hear speak of him so much marvellous thing, that he shall not trow it lightly. And truly, no more did I myself, till I saw it. And those that have been in those countries and in the great Chan’s household know well that I say sooth. And therefore I will not spare for them, that know not ne believe not but that that they see, for to tell you a part of him and of his estate that he holdeth, when he goeth from country to country, and when he maketh solemn feasts.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:10