The Travels of Marco Polo

December 4, 2008

The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian (1299)
Marco Polo (Doubleday, 1948; trans. William Marsden)
344 p.  First reading.

I believe that relatively few books qualified as popular successes in the medieval era, partly, I suppose, because literacy was low, but also simply because of the great cost of producing books.  One such success, however, was Marco Polo’s account of his travels in the east.  He was, I am told, one of the first Europeans to travel extensively in Asia and report on what he saw.  His accounts were sensational.  Even today, events in China have a distance about them; they take place in a far-away land, where the distance is measured not so much in kilometres as in cultural differences.  One can imagine that the same feeling, but intensified, must have been felt by the hearers of Marco Polo’s tales.  It would have been like hearing stories from another world.

The account of his travels is broken into three books: the first covers his journeys through the Middle East and central Asia; the second, and longest, is dedicated to his extensive exploration of China, Japan, and Tibet; the third mops up what remains by discussing India, Saudi Arabia, Madagascar, Russia, and the far north, which Marco simply calls The Region of Darkness.

It was his employment that allowed Marco Polo to make these journeys.  His father and uncle had been merchants trading in the east, and they had come under the employ of the Grand Khan, named Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, who ruled a vast territory centered in modern China.  When he was old enough, Marco joined them in their work, and later committed himself to the service of the Grand Khan, which position he held for 17 years.  During that time, he was sent on many diplomatic missions both within the Khan’s territory and beyond.  He covered a lot of ground.

The book itself was written some years later, after he had returned to Venice (and was briefly confined to prison).  It contains a series of relatively brief accounts of the many cities and regions that he visited.  He consistently mentions the religion, political allegiance, and language of the peoples he encounters.  For the most part, they are Nestorian Christians, Saracens, or “idolators” — he doesn’t distinguish Buddhists from Hindus, for example.  Throughout the domain of the Grand Khan, he takes a keen interest in the fact that the economy functioned on paper money.  This is a good reminder that, in Europe, the value of a coin was the value of the metal from which it was struck.  The concept of an abstract currency, made not from precious metals but from common paper, is something that can only serve in a relatively advanced and stable economic system.

He also takes the time to point out the curious, and sometimes horrific, customs of the lands through which he passed.  No doubt it was these details that provoked much of the popular interest in his own day, and I think the same is true now.  We learn, for instance, of the province of Peyn, which I believe was in modern day Iran, where they observed this odd marriage custom: if a married man travelled more than 20 miles from home, his wife could take another husband, and the man, for his part, could marry again wherever he happened to be.  Then there were the diamond-hunters of India, who retrieved diamonds from deep ravines using a novel method: they pitched fresh carcasses down upon the rocks and waited for eagles to pick them up, whereupon they climbed to the eagle’s nest to retrieve them again.  At times the carcasses landed on diamonds, which would be found embedded in the animal’s flesh.

There were lurid tales as well, such as those of the Tartar army who survived the long treks across desolate landscapes by drinking the blood of their horses, or the custom in Karazan province (modern Vietnam) of murdering household guests of quality in order that the spirit would remain to bless the house.  We learn of a gruesome method of execution in which the condemned was wrapped snugly in a fresh buffalo hide which, as it dried, contracted and squeezed the victim to death.  Marco Polo also encountered cannibals of many descriptions: those who devoured only executed prisoners, and those who were less discriminating.  In Southern India, we learn how wives threw themselves into the flames at their husband’s cremation (which custom continued until the nineteenth century), and how criminals facing execution could attain glory by offering to kill themselves.  All of this is certainly shocking, and, for all I know, true.

The reliability of Marco Polo’s testimony is an important question.  He says that everything he reports was either seen personally by him, or reported to him by others, and assures us that he did not fabricate anything whole-cloth.  And, it must be said, most of his reporting is very sober and factual.  There are occasional lapses, such as this description of the rhinoceros of Indonesia:

In the country are many wild elephants and rhinoceroses, which latter are much inferior in size to the elephant, but their feet are similar.  Their hide resembles that of the buffalo.  In the middle of the forehead they have a single horn; but with this weapon they do not injure those whom they attack, employing only for this purpose their tongue, which is armed with long, sharp spines, and their knees or feet; their mode of assault being to trample upon the person, and then to lacerate him with the tongue.  Their head is like that of a wild boar, and they carry it low towards the ground.  They take delight in muddy pools, and are filthy in their habits.  They are not of that description of animals which suffer themselves to be taken by maidens, as our people suppose, but are quite of a contrary nature.

That is inaccurate, but charmingly surreal.  His most dramatic departure from reality was perhaps his story, gathered from the peoples of Madagascar, of a great winged beast that descended on the land from the south and was able to pluck up elephants with its enormous talons.  My knowledge of ornithology is spotty, but I am pretty sure such a bird never existed.

The edition of the book that I read contained no explanatory notes, which affected my reading experience.  I recognized almost no place names (the one exception was “Dely”, for Delhi, India).  There was one map in the book, but many of the places Marco Polo mentioned were not indicated on the map.  Consequently, I was reading mostly in the dark.  At first, this bothered me, and I wished the editors had provided me with the modern geographical referents.  But as I progressed I realized that my position was similar to that of Marco’s first readers: they too had no familiar picture into which to insert his narrative.  After that I read happily.

One Response to “The Travels of Marco Polo”

  1. […] Christians fleeing the Byzantine Empire took the faith well into Asia — which explains why Marco Polo kept running into them on his travels.  When the New World was discovered, missionaries brought […]

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