The Dog-Headed Cannibals of John Mandeville’s Travels

Keywords: Cynocephali, Monstrous Races, Cannibalism, John Mandeville, Age of Discovery

Depictions of man-eating cynocephali appear in late-fifteenth-century German printed editions of John Mandeville’s Travels, embedded in the texts of a 1481 Basel edition and a copy in a 1499 Strasbourg edition. In the Basel edition, a cynocephalus is depicted on his hands and knees biting at the neck of a knight in an animalistic way as a predatory canid would. The knobbly spine of the cynocephalus evokes an almost reptilian effect, adding to the monstrosity and animality of the figure that guides the eye of the viewer to the canine head devouring the knight. The viewer knows these scenes are representative of cannibalism as indicated in the text that describes them as eating their enemies. While in the Strasbourg edition, a cynocephalus appears to be either lunging over his victim or attempting to pick him up to carry him away. The audience can only imagine that the large boar-like tusks will be used to bite into his victim.  Mandeville described the cynocephali as using shields and spears in battle, offering a semi-civilised image. However, the artists of these German prints extend upon their animalism by portraying them as devouring the necks of their prey with their teeth ‘like dog’s nature.’[i]

In addition to the portrayal of the man-eating cynocephali in the same editions of Mandeville’s Travels, they were depicted spearing the knight in battle. The semi-naked cynocephalus using a spear and small shield creates a primitive image in juxtaposition to a fully suited knight armed with a sword. The staff used as a symbol of the cynocephalus’s savagery was still able to penetrate the knights’ armour with his less sophisticated weaponry. The primitive nature of the cynocephalus’ weaponry is also found in club-wielding representations. These include the cynocephalus in Johannes de Cuba’s (1430-1503) encyclopedia, Hortus sanitatis (or in German Gart de Gesundheit (‘Garden of Health’)) who exhibits dominion over a male lion in an apparent role reversal. The lion is depicted as a small yet mature lion, as indicated by its mane, resembling a meek dog with his tail between his legs in an expression of fear.[ii] These representations of club and spear-wielding cynocephali again recall images of the club-wielding Wild Man. These motifs were used to symbolise their barbarity and ignorance of sophisticated chivalric weapons.[iii]

John Mandeville, Reysen und Wanderschafften durch das Gelobte Land, trans. Otto von Diemeringen, Basel: Bernhard Richel, c.1481,
Basel, Universitätsbibliothek

While the artist has portrayed the cynocephalus’ foe as a European knight, the text does not characterise his enemy. Therefore, the artist has created the dog-headed race, not only as a marvel of the East but as a threat to Europeans. The print had enabled the audience to see themselves as victims of this man-eating exotic monster in an active form of othering. Not only does the image recall the crusades of the Middle Ages in the tale of pilgrimage to the East, but it also evokes the idea of knightly duty to protect Christendom against the infidel.[iv] As the cynocephali in Mandeville’s Travels were located beyond the Holy Land in the East, it suggests the furthest away from Christendom the more bestial people became.

The iconography in these prints reveals a clear shift away from the tolerance of the monstrous race as a marvel to defining the cynocephali as an enemy combatant. While the Middle Ages was not the bastion of tolerance as evident in Mandeville’s negative attitude towards Jews, it was the early modern age that was known for its intolerance.[v] The Middle Ages was a period where Europeans were still defining the boundaries between Self and Other. At the time it was written, Mandevill’s Travels was used to understand the Self.[vi] It was the Renaissance that solidified identity that distinguished between Us versus Them thus creating conditions for pictorial representations that emphasised otherness.

Mandeville’s cynocephali in the late-fifteenth-century German printed editions were depicted more violently in comparison to cynocephali presented in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Although cynocephali illustrated in a c.1430 English edition of Mandeville’s Travels were depicted in combat, they are portrayed after chivalrous knights on bridled horseback echoing a more familiar scene to its medieval audience.[vii] Meanwhile, the cynocephali from Marco Polo’s tale illustrated in Livre des merveilles resembled a small group conducting trade outside a city of European appearance. They are also dressed in robed garments, shoes, and belted pouches, presenting a far more sophisticated scene than half-naked cynocephali dressed in no more than a loincloth.[viii] In contrast, late fifteenth-century representations of cynocephali in Mandeville’s Travels emphasised the races’ difference as they were portrayed in a way to accentuate their primitive foreignness.

Circle of Boucicaut Master, Livre des merveilles, c. 1400-1420, folio 106r, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, National Library of France

The Livre des merveilles also included another depiction of cynocephali based on the tales of Odoric de Pordenone that Mandeville’s figures were based upon.[ix] While illustrated in loincloths except for their king, there is marked civility to their representation as they are depicted against sophisticated, yet foreign architecture with its domed tower. The cynocephali wear hats topped with a silver ox and appear with bags of grain symbolising an agricultural society. Their king is robed wearing a large ruby, a golden crown topped with a golden ox, and a gold sceptre indicating a hierarchical political structure. While this representation possesses elements of foreign otherness, it also just as equally appears to show the similarity of the dog-headed race to a European society. Neither portrayals in the Livre des merveilles suggest that the cynocephali were a violent race let alone man-eating cannibals. As this example demonstrates, the Renaissance again points to a shift in how the cynocephali are portrayed.

These late medieval portrayals of cynocephali reflect the chivalric culture and romantic literature of this earlier age. The varied representation of cynocephali in part reflects its shifting audience. The cynocephali portrayed in lavishly decorative illuminated manuscripts would have been reserved for its elite French audience with refined cultural taste. For example, Livre des merveilles had been gifted to John, Duke of Berry (1340-1416), and is thus a reflection of courtly culture.[x] Manuscripts were also commissioned where patrons had input in style and its number of illustrations, thus further attributing to the range of representations across time and location.[xi]

The late fifteenth-century printed editions of Mandeville’s Travels in German, on the other hand, were mass produced for popular culture that reflected anxieties surrounding primitive and cannibalistic Others. Otto von Diemeringen (d. 1389), the translator of the Basel and Strasbourg editions, emphasised this point as he wrote in the introduction that the translation was ‘for the pleasure of all Germans who enjoy reading about foreign things.’[xii]  On the other hand, the French illuminated manuscript predates the Age of Discovery and therefore modelled the cynocephali on European dress and customs. As the printing press accompanied the Age of Discovery, knowledge of the world was more readily spread. Post-Reformation cynocephali, in contrast, appears to be modelled on perceived conceptions of primitive and violent foreigners.


[i] Mandeville, Reysen und Wanderschafften, c.1481, fol. 67r. Translation by Gerda Dinwiddie.

[ii] Katherine A. Houpt, Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists, Ames, Iowa: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 12.

[iii] John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 32-33.

[iv] W. H. Jackson, Chivalry in Twelfth-century Germany: The Works of Hartmann Von Aue, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994, p. 58.

[v] John Mandeville, The Book of John Mandeville with Related Texts, ed. trans. Iain Macleod Higgins, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011, p. 148.

[vi] Albrecht Classen, “The Self, the Other, and Everything in Between: Xenological Phenomenology of the Middle Ages,” in Albrecht Classen (ed.), Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages, New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. xv, xvi.

[vii] John Mandeville, Travels of Sir John Mandeville, East Anglia, c.1430, MS, Harley 3954, fol. 41r, British Library, London, https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=17463 accessed 26 September 2021.

[viii] This sophisticated depiction of cynocephali comes in even though Marco Polo described the cynocephali as ‘a most cruel generation,’ who ‘eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.’ Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, trans. ed. Colonel Henry Yule, London: John Murray, 1871, p. 251.

[ix] Odoric of Pordenone, Cathay and the Way Thither. Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China: Volume II: Odoric of Pordenone, ed. Henri Cordier, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 169-70.

[x] Andrea Grace Justus Kann, ‘Picturing the World: The Illustrated Manuscripts of The Book of John Mandeville,’ PhD, The University of Iowa, 2002, p. 20.

[xi] Kann, ‘Picturing the World: The Illustrated Manuscripts of The Book of John Mandeville,’ 2002, p. 33.

[xii] ‘aller tiltschen die geme frbmede sachen lesen wellent.’ Translation and transcription cited in David Wilmot Ruddy, ‘Scribes, Printers, and Vernacular Authority: A Study in the Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Reception of Mandeville’s Travels, PhD, The University of Michigan, 1995, p. 94

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