It’s quite probably the most famous travelogue ever written. It’s known by different names in over 150 different languages, none of them translating even remotely close to the same title, but it’s most commonly known to us today simply as The Travels of Marco Polo. It was originally written by Rustichello da Pisa as narrated to him by Marco Polo while the two were imprisoned in Genoa. The account herein describes Polo’s travels through Asia and parts of the Middle East between 1276 and 1291 and goes into considerable detail about his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan.
The original language of this book is Old French, which was the language of high romance even then, and the oldest surviving copy is laced with Italian. This is what a single page of the original looks like, which I pulled from Wiki:
Is that not gorgeous? I do so love Medieval manuscript. But as I can’t read Old French, I’m more than happy to devour a modern English translation. I can’t speak to the authenticity or accuracy of the translation, but I have to assume it’s a great deal more accurate than the numerous, error-laden translations made throughout the centuries. For those of you who might be interested in such things, the history of translation of this work would likely keep you busy for a while.
The book was first published around 1300, and right from the beginning it was one of those rare successes in the age before the printing press. It was also declared right from the beginning as “too fantastic” to be real. You’d think that would be understandable considering that most people in the Middle Ages were fairly limited in their experience, often living and dying within one or two miles of where they were born. That right there already denotes Polo as one of the truly exceptional — and exceptionally brave — people of his time. Obviously, the travel limitations of the average person at that time played right into the popularity of this work. No doubt those who could read it did so aloud to those who couldn’t. I’m sure it made for some great after hours conversation, wherein those claims of its authenticity would come up.
Thing is, the debate of Polo’s credibility rages on even today. In the truest of lame skeptical fashion, there are some who even question whether or not Polo went to China at all, claiming he might be repeating stories he’d heard from others. Ever get that feeling that people will simply dismiss any act of greatness in any field as not real? Shakespeare, the moon landing… the list of those incredible achievements of humanity that people dismiss to make themselves feel better just goes on. Others defend Polo’s account, claiming that detail after detail comes across as authentic.
I will say that for my own journey through this book, there are a handful of stories that jump out as complete bullshit, and those are likely through no fault of Polo’s. Those stories have him relating stories he heard in foreign lands, such as the account of what happened to the three magi during and after their pilgrimage to visit the infant Jesus. There are also accounts peppered throughout of the legendary Christian patriarch Prester John, who is said to be a descendant of those magi. It’s rather fascinating to hear such tales through Polo’s filter, and it’s certainly the kind of tale a Medieval Christian would be excited to hear. I’ve got no dog in that race, and I rather enjoyed them. But such tales aside, most of this book is quite matter-of-fact, closer to basic journalism than to tall tales. The thing to remember is that Polo’s part of the Medieval / Christian / Italian zeitgeist, and while travel has expanded his understanding of the world considerably, he is still very much a product of his time and culture. Each encounter is alien to him, and he has to figure it out as he goes along, which I’m sure some of his travelling companions aided in this. This, too, is what I find lends to the credibility of his accounts. His biases shine through, even when you can tell he’s being as unbiased as possible. If he encounters something magnificent, he says as much. If he thinks something or someone is vulgar or just backwards to everything he understands, he calls it. The result is delightfully Medieval and wholly insightful.
The manuscript is divided into four books. The first describes his encounters on the way to China, via the Middle East and Central Asia. The second and most famous book deals with the royal court of Kublai Khan at Shangdu (Xanadu) and Polo’s account of China. The third book involves writings I was completely unaware of, describing Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and the eastern coasts of China and Africa. Book four is a description of wars that would have been recent to Polo’s time dealing with the Mongols and neighboring regions. At all points, he tries to give a sense of the people as he sees them. This includes their religion, their manner and temperament, their occupations, food, drink, hospitality (or lack of it), their environment… everything you’d expect in a travelogue. You get tales of the great Mongol warriors and their tactics, cannibals, farmers, wine producers… the list goes on.
Of particular note for the historically-minded, this book played a huge part in the European discovery of America (you know, centuries after the Vikings got here). A copy of the book was found among the belongings of Christopher Columbus, heavily-annotated. I suppose that’s no surprise given the descriptions of lavish treasure in the Far East. Now that I have this understanding, it paints a better picture for me of why this guy would travel West to find the East. Although I think it’s safe to assume this isn’t where the world was proven to be round. The same year of his voyage — 1492 — also happens to be the year they produced the first globe. Just saying.
I did some digging on the story behind the story, because I’m prone to such things, and it seems that the accounts in Polo’s book are far more detailed than the travelogues of his contemporaries. There are omissions that some might immediately question, for example, the Great Wall is not mentioned. The structure was not complete at that time. While the initial wall was built in the 220s BCE, little of it remains. It’s been enhanced, rebuilt, and long since turned into the colossal wonder we have today, the majority of it dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Likewise, there are several details in the book that seem a bit odd at first blush, but they’ve been historically verified, such as the sheer number of Christian churches, mostly Nestorian, that he has noted. As it states in Polo’s account, there were already other European travellers in Khan’s court when he arrived, and Khan was most welcoming especially to Venetians. What’s curious to me is that many of the early travellers to Khan’s court never made it to China. That was a fairly big awakening for me as I’d always assumed one followed the other, but apparently not. I also didn’t account for shifting borders over time. Where China was and where China is are two different things. Another point in Polo’s favor.
It’s no secret I love the Middle Ages. It’s also no secret that I’m far from an expert, especially the further East you go on the map. I know just enough about the Khans to be conversational. But Marco Polo is one of those names among names that every medievalist just has to know something about. It never even occurred to me until recently that I could read a firsthand account of his travels. To finally do so, to put it all into perspective with the things I know to going on across Europe at that time… it’s satisfying for a geek like me. I wasn’t completely bowled over by the account — much of it is straightforward and pretty dry if you take it as face value — but I was nonetheless fascinated. This book is quite literally the stuff of legend, but so very down to earth and within reach at the same time. I never take for granted such opportunities to touch history.