John Frampton (essay date 1579)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Epistle Dedicatorie," in The Travels of Marco Polo, edited by N. M. Penzer, translated by John Frampton, The Argonaut Press, 1929, pp. 1-2.

[In the following dedication to his 1579 translation of The Travels of Marco Polo, Frampton states his reasons for committing the manuscript to print in English.]

To the right worshipfull Mr. Edward Dyar Esquire, Iohn Frampton wisheth prosperous health and felicitie.

Having lying by mee in my chamber (righte Worshipful) a translation of the great voiage & lõg trauels of Paulus Venetus the Venetian, manye Merchauntes, Pilots, and Marriners, and others of dyuers degrees, much bent to Discoueries, resorting to me vpon seuerall occasions, toke so great delight with the reading of my Booke, finding in the same such strange things, & such a world of varietie of matters, that I coulde neuer bee in quiet, for one or for an other, for the committing the same to printe in the Englishe tongue, perswading, that it mighte giue greate lighte to our Seamen, if euer this nation chaunced to find a passage out of the frozen Zone to the South Seas, and otherwise delight many home dwellers, furtherers of trauellers. But finding in my selfe small abilitie for the finishing of it, in suche perfection as the excellencie of the worke, and as this learned time did require, I stayed a long time, in hope some learned man woulde haue translated the worke, but finding none that would take it in hand, to satisfie so many requests, nowe at last I determined to sette it forth, as I coulde, referring the learned in tongues, delighted in eloquence, to the worke it selfe, written in Latine, Spanish, and Italian, and the reste that haue but the English tong, that seeke onelye for substaunce of matter to my playne translation, beseeching to take my trauell and good meaning in the beste parte. And bethinking my selfe of some speciall Gentleman, a louer of knowledge, to whome I mighte dedicate the same, I founde no man, that I know in that respect more worthy of the same, than your worshippe, nor yet any man, to whome so many Schollers, so many trauellers, and so manye men of valor, suppressed or hindred with pouertie, or distressed by lacke of friends in Courte, are so muche bounde as to you, and therefore to you I dedicate the same, not bicause you your seife wãt the knowledge of tongues, for I know you to haue the Latine, the Italian, the French, and the Spanishe: But bycause of youre worthinesse, and for that I haue since my firste acquaintaunce founde my selfe without any greate deserte on my parte, more bound vnto you than to anye man in England, and therefore for your desert & token of a thankefull minde, I dedicate the same to youre worship, moste humbly praying you to take it in good parte, and to bee patrone of the same: and so wishing you continuaunce of vertue, with muche encrease of the same, I take my leaue, wishing you with many for the cõmon wealths sake, place with aucthoritie, where you maye haue daylye exercise of the giftes that the Lorde hathe endowed you withall in plentifull sorte. From my lodging this .xxvj. daye of Ianuarie .1579.

Your worships to commaunde,

The Quarterly Review (review date 1819)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Marsden's Marco Polo," in The Quarterly Review, Vol. XXI, No. XLI, January-April, 1819, pp. 177-96.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic praises Marsden's edition of Polo's book, provides an overview of the author's life, and comments on the accuracy of the narrative.

(This entire section contains 8911 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In the following review, the anonymous critic praises Marsden's edition of Polo's book, provides an overview of the author's life, and comments on the accuracy of the narrative.]

'It might have been expected,' Mr. Marsden says, 'that in ages past, a less tardy progress would have been made in doing justice to the intrinsic merits of a work (whatever were its defects as a composition) that first conveyed to Europeans a distinct idea of the empire of China, and, by shewing its situation together with that of Japan (before entirely unknown) in respect to the great Eastern ocean, which was supposed to meet and form one body of water with the Atlantic, eventually led to the important discoveries of the Spaniards and Portugueze.' At length, however, we need not scruple to assert that ample justice has been done to the character and reputation of this early oriental traveller; and that the name of Marco Polo stands completely rescued from that unmerited reproach which, in an age of ignorance, was wantonly heaped upon it, and which five centuries have not been sufficient entirely to wipe away; at least, according to Mr. Marsden, who tells us there are still those 'who declare their want of faith, and make the character of Marco Polo the subject of their pleasantry.'—There may be such 'persons;' but we should be somewhat less tender of their cavils and scruples than Mr. Marsden, and manifest very little of that consideration which he has vouchsafed to shew them, by undertaking his 'translation and commentary,' as he tells us, 'with the view of removing from such candid and reflecting minds any doubts of the honest spirit in which the original was composed.'

For ourselves we can safely say that, on every occasion where we have found it necessary to refer to Marco Polo, either for the corroboration of some fact, or to trace back the progressive geography of Asiatic countries, we never found cause to call in question the fidelity and veracity of this early traveller; on whom, perhaps not quite appropriately, Malte-Brun has not hesitated to bestow the appellation of 'the creator of modern oriental geography—the Humboldt of the thirteenth century'—We say, not quite appropriately, because Carpin and Rubruquis preceded him into Tartary; and he has no claim either to science or philosophy, with both of which the modern traveller is so eminently gifted. He was however a man of observation, of sound judgment, and discretion; and, like the 'Father of History,' whom he most resembles, always careful to separate the knowledge acquired by his own experience from that which was communicated to him by others. Mr. Marsden, we think, has succeeded in removing every unfavourable impression; and we augur confidently that, from this time, the reputation of this noble Venetian will be considered as fully established, even by those on whom the translator has bestowed the unmerited compliment of composing so elaborate a work for their conviction.

It is not a little remarkable that, while Mr. Marsden was preparing his work in England, no less than three Italian publications on the life and travels of Marco Polo were in preparation in Italy—one by the Cavaliere Baldelli at Florence, another at Rome, and a third, the only one that has yet appeared, by the Abbate Placido Zurla, who had already published a short account of our traveller in a work brought out in numbers at Milan, under the name of Vite e Ritratti d'Illustri Italiani, in which was given a pretended portrait of Marco Polo, but which is proved by Mr. Marsden to be altogether fictitious.

Judging from the scanty additional materials interspersed in Zurla's work, we are not led to form any very high expectation of the other two which are to follow; few if any new lights, we fear, are likely to be produced from the hidden stores of Italy. The plan of Zurla is radically defective; he has not only analyzed but absolutely anatomized his author—cut and hacked him into fragments, and mixed them up with so many extraneous scraps of his own, that even if Marco Polo himself were to rise from the dead he could not possibly recognise his own work—in short, it is no longer the travels of Marco Polo, but a collection of dissertations on the geography, natural history, customs, &c. of Eastern Tartary and China, preceded by a biographical notice of the author and his family.

Mr. Marsden has adopted a very different, and, in our opinion, a much more judicious plan in the conduct of his work: by preserving the author's narrative entire, he has exhibited Marco Polo in his true shape and proportion, unchanged in all respects, except that of his English dress. We were indeed persuaded, before we opened the volume, that no one was so well qualified to do justice to the merits of the illustrious traveller, as the learned and accurate historian of Sumatra. His residence on that island, which is largely spoken of by Marco Polo under the name of Java Minor, first gave him, he says, occasion to examine the narrative relating to it; 'and it has since,' he adds, 'been my unceasing wish that the elucidation of its obscurities should engage the attention of some person competent to the task of preparing a new edition from the best existing materials, and of illustrating it with notes calculated to bring the matter of the text into comparison with the information contained in subsequent accounts of travels and other well authenticated writings.' This task, fortunately for the literary world, he has himself undertaken, and accomplished with that success which was to be expected from so able a writer. Gifted as he is with an extensive knowledge of the customs, character and languages of most of the nations of the east; acquainted, from long residence, with most of their productions; possessing a library well stored with oriental literature; and having ready access to the best collections that Great Britain affords;—with such advantages, superadded to a well regulated mind, and a sound and discriminating judgment, we had a right to anticipate a work of no ordinary merit, and we have not been disappointed. The Translation is as close as the idiom of the Italian and English languages would admit, without being obscure; and the 'Notes' will be found to contain a vast mass of information, partly derived from personal knowledge, and partly from the best authors who have written on the various subjects which are brought under view.

In the choice of a text for his translation, Mr. Marsden was led to give the preference to the Italian version of Ramusio, who, indeed, of all compilers, may be considered as the most accurate. In the English language we had few editions of the work, and none that could be read with satisfaction. The first, by John Frampton, was printed by Ralph Newberry in 1579. Of this very rare book, entitled 'The most noble and famous Travels of Marcus Paulus, no less pleasant than profitable, &c.' Mr. Marsden observes, 'the style is remarkably rude, and the orthography of foreign names incorrect; but with regard to the matter of the text, it is by no means defective.' A second English version may be found in the 'Pilgrimes' of Samuel Purchas, in which, as usual, this industrious collector has taken great liberties with the text, and committed great mistakes. Yet this version, as Mr. Marsden observes, has served as the basis of that given by Dr. Campbell, in his edition of the collection of voyages and travels, first published by Harris in 1704; for the use of which work, he tells us, the language was modernized and polished, without any reference to the Italian or the Latin for correction; so that all the faults, excepting those of style, were suffered to remain, whilst some mistakes imputable to the modernizer have been superadded: such, for instance, as that in which it is said of a certain causeway in China, that 'on both sides are great fences,' instead of 'great fennes' (fens), as it stands in Purchas; the word being 'palude' in the Italian. Under these circumstances it will be readily conceded to Mr. Marsden that 'a new translation of Marco Polo's travels was wanting to the literature of our own country.'

The 'Notes' however are the most important part of the volume; and the plan of placing them at the end of each section, from which they are respectively referred to by figures in a consecutive series, beginning with No. 1, and continued to No. 1495, is perhaps the most convenient for the reader that could have been adopted. Many are of considerable length, and each of them illustrates some point in the text. Of the 781 pages of which the volume consists, the notes occupy, we should suppose, not less than two-thirds.

With such a variety of matter before us, it would be idle to attempt any thing like an abstract, however abbreviated; and unfair to select any particular note as a specimen of the whole. We shall therefore confine ourselves, principally, to a brief sketch of the life and travels of this illustrious Venetian. A great part of the matter is furnished by the traveller himself; the rest is chiefly taken from Ramusio. We had hoped that the Abbate Zurla, his countryman, might have been able to supply some additional information from the several manuscript collections of ancient records which are known to exist in the libraries of Italy, but this is not the case; and we fear, as we have already observed, that all the materials of any importance which relate to the Polo family are already before the public. The only advantage which this writer seems to have over Mr. Marsden is that of having apparently seen the manuscript chronicle of Frà Jacopo de Aqui, belonging to the Ambrosian library in Milan, which contains some account of the life of Marco Polo, but of which Mr. Marsden had no other knowledge than what is conveyed in a note of Amoretti, in his account of the voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Cap. L. F. Maldonado, which note in fact contains all, or nearly all, that is mentioned by Zurla, personally relating to our traveller.

Andrea Polo de S. Felice, a patrician or nobleman of Venice, had three sons, Marco, Maffeo, and Nicolo, the last of whom was the father of our author. Being merchants of that wealthy and proud city, they embarked together on a trading voyage to Constantinople, where, as Mr. Marsden has shewn, they must have arrived in 1254 or 1255. Having disposed of their Italian merchandize, and learned that the western Tartars, after devastating many provinces of Asia and of Europe, had settled in the vicinity of the Wolga, built cities, and assumed the forms of a regular government, they made purchases of ornamental jewels, crossed the Euxine to a port in the Crimea, and, travelling from thence by land and water, reached at length the camp of Barkah, the brother or the son of Batu, grandson of the renowned Gengiskhan, whose places of residence were Sarai and Bolghar, well known to the geographers of the middle ages. This prince is highly praised by oriental writers for his urbanity and liberal disposition, and the traditional fame of his virtues is said still to exist in that quarter. The confidence which the Italians wisely shewed, by placing their valuable commodities in his hands, was repaid with princely munificence. They remained with him a whole year, when hostilities breaking out between their protector and his cousin Hulagu, the chief of another horde of Tartars, Barkah sustained a defeat, which compelled the European travellers to seek their safety in a circuitous route round the head of the Caspian, and through the deserts of Transoxiana, till they arrived at the great city of Bokhara.

It happened, during their residence here, that a Tartar nobleman, sent by Hulagu to his brother Kublai, made that city his halting-place. From motives of curiosity, he desired an interview with the Italians, with whose conversation he was so much pleased, that he invited them to the Emperor's court, with an assurance of their meeting a favourable reception, and an ample recompense for the trouble of their journey. The difficulties of their return homewards, on the one hand, and the spirit of enterprize, on the other, with the fair prospect of wealth, prompted a ready compliance; and recommending themselves to the Divine protection, they set out towards the farthest corners of the east; and after a journey of twelve months reached the imperial residence of Kublai. They were received most graciously by the Grand Khan, who was very inquisitive into the state of affairs in the western world, and so well satisfied with their answers, that he determined to send them back in safety to Italy, accompanied by one of his own officers, as his ambassador to the see of Rome, professedly with the view of prevailing on the Pope to supply him with preachers of the gospel, who might communicate religious instruction to the unenlightened people of his dominions; though Mr. Marsden supposes that political considerations might have been the predominant object. Their Tartar companion soon fell sick, and was left behind. But the imperial tablet was a safe passport; and at the expiration of three years they reached Giazza, or Ayas, in Lesser Armenia, and arrived at Acre in 1269.

Here they learned that Pope Clement IV. had died in the preceding year, and the legate on the spot advised them to take no further steps in the business of their embassy until the election of a new pope. They therefore made the best of their way to Venice, where Nicolo Polo found that his wife, whom he had left with child, was dead, after producing a son to whom she had given the name of Marco, out of respect for the memory of her husband's eldest brother, and who was now in his fifteenth or sixteenth year. 'Such,' says Mr. Marsden, 'were the circumstances under which the author of the "Travels" first makes his appearance.'

Two years having passed away without any election, in consequence of the factions that prevailed in the sacred college, the Venetian travellers resolved to return secretly to the legate in Palestine, and young Marco accompanied them. By his Eminence they were furnished with letters to the Tartar emperor; but just as they were on the eve of departure, advice was received at Acre of the choice of the cardinals having fallen upon the legate himself, M. Tebaldo di Piacenza, who assumed the name of Gregory X. Our travellers were now supplied with letters-papal in a more ample and dignified form, and dispatched with the Apostolic benediction, together with two friars of the order of Preachers, who were to be the bearers of the new pope's presents. On reaching Armenia, which they found in the hands of a foreign enemy, the two friars were so terrified by the apparent danger, that they declined proceeding farther, and resigning to the Polos the care of the presents from the Pope, returned to Acre.

Mr. Marsden traces without difficulty the route of our travellers into the country of Badakshan, where they remained twelve months, on account perhaps of Marco's illness, which, he tells us, was cured by removing his residence from the valley to the summit of an adjoining hill. They crossed the great ranges of mountains named in our maps Belut-tag and Muz-tag, and acquired a knowledge of Kashmir and other countries on the borders of India. They ascended the elevated and wild regions of Pamer and Belór, on their way to the city of Kashghar, belonging to the Grand Khan, and the usual resort of the caravans. From this place they proceeded to Khoten, and traversed the dreary desert of Lop or Kobi, in a tedious journey of thirty days, passed Tangut and Sifan, and came to Kancheu on the western extremity of the Chinese province of Shen-si. Remaining here for some time, to give notice, as usual, to the Grand Khan of their arrival, he commanded that they should be immediately forwarded to his presence, at his expense, and with the attentions usually shewn to foreign ambassadors.

Their reception was highly gratifying; the emperor commended their zeal, accepted the presents of the pope, and received with all due reverence a vessel of the holy oil from the sepulchre of our Lord, that had been brought from Jerusalem at his own desire, and which he concluded, from the value set upon it by Christians, possessed extraordinary properties. Observing young Marco, and learning that he was the son of Nicolo, he honoured him with his particular notice, took him under his protection, and gave him an appointment in his household. 'It is impossible,' Mr. Marsden observes, 'for those who have read the account of Lord Macartney's embassy not to be struck with the resemblance between this scene and that which passed at Gehol in 1793, when Sir George Staunton presented his son, the present Sir George Thomas Staunton, to the venerable Kien-Long.'

Young Marco soon became distinguished for his talents, and respected by the court. He adopted the manners of the country, and acquired a competent knowledge of the four languages most in use. He was employed by his sovereign in services of great importance in various parts of China, and even at the distance of six months' journey; he made notes of what he observed, for the information of the Grand Khan; and it is to these notes, undoubtedly, that we are indebted for the substance of that account of his travels which, after his return, he was induced to give to the world. Distinguished as he unquestionably was by marks of the royal favour, one instance of it only is recorded by him, and that incidentally and with great modesty. A newly appointed Fu-yuen, or governor, of Yang-chen-foo, in the province of Kiang-nan, being unable to proceed to his charge, our young Venetian was sent to act as his deputy, and held the office during the usual period of three years. That his father and uncle were also partakers of the monarch's regard is evident from his subsequent unwillingness to be deprived of their services: for when seventeen years had elapsed, and the natural desire of revisiting their native land began to operate upon their minds, all their endeavours to prevail on the emperor to consent to their return were ineffectual, and even drew from him some expressions of reproach. 'If the motive of their projected journey,' he concluded with saying, 'was the pursuit of gain, he was ready to gratify them to the utmost extent of their wishes; but with the subject of their request he could not comply.'

It was their good fortune, however, to be relieved from this state of impatience and disappointment in a manner wholly unexpected. An embassy arrived at the court of Kublai from a Mogul-Tartar prince named Arghun, (the grand-nephew of the emperor,) who ruled in Persia. Having lost his wife, he sent to the head of his family to solicit from him another wife of his own lineage. The request was readily granted, and a princess was selected from amongst the emperor's grandchildren, who had attained her seventeenth year. The ambassadors set out with the betrothed queen on their return to Persia; but finding their route obstructed by the disturbed state of the country, after some months they returned to the capital of China, Whilst they were in this embarrassed situation, Marco Polo arrived from a voyage which he had made to some of the East India islands; a communication took place between the Persians and the Venetians, and both parties being anxious to effect their return to their own country, it was arranged between them that the former should represent to the Grand Khan the expediency of availing themselves of the experience of the Christians in maritime affairs, to convey their precious charge by sea to the gulph of Persia. The emperor assented, and fourteen ships, each having four masts, were equipped and provisioned for two years. On their departure from his court, Kublai expressed his kind regard for the Polo family; and extorting from them a promise that, after having visited their friends, they would return to his service, he loaded them with presents of jewels and other valuable gifts. They took their route by Hainan, the coast of Cochinchina, Malacca, across the bay of Bengal, and by Ceylon, the celebrated peak on which is particularly noticed, as is also the pearl fishery. They sailed along the western coast of India, and finally, after eighteen months, reached Ormuz in the Persian gulph; having lost six hundred of the marines and two of the Persian noblemen on the passage. Whether this fleet ever found its way back is very doubtful; and its fate was probably less interesting at the court of Pekin, on account of the death of the venerable Emperor Kublai, which took place in the beginning of the year 1294.

On the arrival of the expedition in Persia, information was received by our travellers that the Mogul king Arghun had died some time before; that the country was governed by a regent who was suspected to have views on the sovereignty; and that Ghazan, the son of Arghun, was on the frontier with a large army, waiting for a favourable opportunity of asserting his right to the throne: to this prince they were directed to deliver their royal charge. Of her reception and subsequent fortunes,' says Mr. Marsden, 'we know nothing; but as Ghazan distinguished himself so much by his virtues as to make the world forget the defects of his person, (he was very diminutive,) we may presume that she was treated with the respect and kindness that belong to the character of a brave-man.'

Having thus accomplished the object of their mission, the Venetians repaired to the court of the regent, at Tauris, where they remained nine months reposing themselves from the fatigues of their long and perilous travels, and probably, as Mr. Marsden observes, realizing or investing more conveniently some part of that vast property which they had brought with them from China. Having procured the necessary passports, they proceeded on their journey homewards, passing Trebizond on the coast of the Euxine; 'from whence, by the way of Constantinople and of Negropont, or Eubœa, they finally, by the blessing of God, (as they piously acknowledged,) in the full possession of health and riches, arrived safely in their native city of Venice. This consummation of their memorable labours took place in 1295, (a date in which all the copies agree,) after an absence of twenty-four years.'

Up to this period (continues Mr. Marsden) our narrative of the adventures of the Polo family has been framed from the materials, however scanty, which Marco himself had directly or indirectly furnished. For what is to follow, we must principally rely upon the traditionary stories prevalent amongst his fellow citizens, and collected by his industrious editor Ramusio, who wrote nearly two centuries and a half after his time. Upon their first arrival, he says, they experienced the reception that attended Ulysses when he returned to Ithaca. They were not recognised even by their nearest relations; and especially as rumours of their death had been current and were confidently believed. By the length of time they had been absent, the fatigues they had undergone in journies of such extent, and the anxieties of mind they had suffered, their appearance was quite changed, and they seemed to have acquired something of the Tartar both in countenance and speech, their native language being mixed with foreign idioms and barbarous terms. In their garments also, which were mean and of coarse texture, there was nothing that resembled those of Italians. The situation of their family dwelling house, a handsome and lofty palace, was in the street of S. Giovanni Chrisostomo, and still existed in the days of Ramusio, when, for a reason that will hereafter appear, it went by the appellation of "la corte del Millioni."

Of this house possession had been taken by some persons of their kindred, and when our travellers demanded admittance, it was with much difficulty that they could obtain it by making the occupiers comprehend who they were, or persuading them that persons so changed and disfigured by their dress, could really be those members of the house of Polo who for so many years had been numbered with the dead. In order therefore to render themselves generally known to their connexions, and at the same time to impress the whole city of Venice with an adequate idea of their importance, they devised a singular expedient, the circumstances of which, Ramusio says, had been repeatedly told to him when a youth, by his friend M. Gasparo Malipiero, an elderly senator of unimpeachable veracity, whose house stood near that of the Polo family, and who had himself heard them from his father and his grandfather, as well as from other ancient persons of that neighbourhood.

With these objects in view, they caused a magnificent entertainment to be prepared, in their own house, to which their numerous relatives were invited. When the hour of assembling at table was arrived, the three travellers came forth from an inner apartment, clothed in long robes of crimson satin reaching to the floor; such as it was customary to wear upon occasions of ceremony on those days. When water had been carried round for washing hands and the guests desired to take their places, they stripped themselves of these vestments, and putting on similar dresses of crimson damask, the former were taken to pieces and divided amongst the attendants. Again when the first course of victuals had been removed, they put on robes of crimson velvet, and seated themselves at table, when the preceding dresses were in like manner distributed; and at the conclusion of the feast, those of velvet were disposed of in the same way, and the hosts then appeared in plain suits resembling such as were worn by the rest of the company. All were astonished at what they saw, and curious to know what was to follow this scene. As soon, however, as the cloth was removed and the domestics had been ordered to withdraw, Marco Polo, as being the youngest, rose from table, went into an adjoining room, and presently returned with the three coarse, threadbare garments in which they had first made their appearance at the house. With the assistance of knives they proceeded to rip the seams and to strip off the linings and patches with which these rags were doubled, and by this operation brought to view a large quantity of most costly jewels, such as rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, diamonds, and emeralds, which had been sewn into them, and with so much art and contrivance, as not to be at all liable to the suspicion of containing such treasures. At the time of their taking their departure from the court of the Grand Khan, all the riches that his bounty had bestowed upon them were by them converted into the most valuable precious stones, for the facility of conveyance; being well aware that in a journey of extraordinary length and difficulty, it would have been impossible to transport a sum of that magnitude, in gold. The display of wealth, so incalculable in its amount, which then lay exposed on the table before them, appeared something miraculous, and filled the minds of all who were spectators of it with such wonder, that for a time they remained motionless; but upon recovering from their ecstacy, they felt entirely convinced that these were in truth the honourable and valiant gentlemen of the house of Polo, of which at first they had entertained doubts, and they accordingly exhibited every mark of profound respect for their hosts.

Well vouched as this anecdote is, and, in our opinion at least, perfectly accordant with the spirit of the age, Mr. Marsden is incredulous of it, because (as he says) it betrays a mixture of vanity and folly quite inconsistent with the character of grave and prudent men, which in the preceding part of their lives they appear to have uniformly sustained; and he is therefore disposed to attribute the story to the fertile invention of their contemporaries, or to the succeeding generation, who seem to have regarded the travellers in no other light than as heroes of romance, and not unfrequently made them the subject of ridicule. Of this the reader must judge for himself;—but Ramusio proceeds to state, that no sooner was the report of what had taken place spread about the city of Venice, than numbers of all ranks, from the nobles down to the mechanics, hastened to the dwelling of the travellers, to testify their friendship and good will. Maffeo was honoured with a high office in the magistracy. To Marco, the young men resorted to enjoy the pleasure of his conversation; and as all he told them concerning the imperial revenues, the wealth and the population of China, was necessarily expressed in millions, he acquired amongst them the surname of Messer Marco Millioni. Ramusio adds that he has seen him mentioned by this name in the records of Venice, and that the house in which he lived (even down to the time he wrote) was commonly termed, 'la corte del Millioni.' Sansovino, however, in his 'Venetia Descritta,' attributes the popular appellation to the immense riches possessed by the Polo family at the period of their return. The Ambrosian manuscript of Jacopo de Aqui does the same; and Apostolo Zeno, on the authority of M. Barboro, corroborates the prevailing opinion.

Not many months after their arrival in Venice, according to Ramusio, but according to others two years after this event, intelligence was received that a Genoese fleet, commanded by Lampa Doria, had made its appearance off the island of Curzula, on the coast of Dalmatia; in consequence of which a Venetian fleet put to sea under the orders of Andrea Dandolo. Marco Polo, being considered as an experienced sea-officer, was appointed to the command of one of the gallies. The Venetians were defeated with great loss; Dandolo was taken prisoner, and Marco Polo, who belonged to the advanced division, in bravely pushing forward to the attack, was wounded and compelled to surrender. He was conveyed to a prison in Genoa, where he was visited by the principal inhabitants, who did all they could to soften the rigour of his captivity. His rare adventures were here, as well as in his own country, the subject of general curiosity. It may readily be supposed that the frequent necessity he was under of repeating the same story would become irksome, and, 'fortunately,' says Mr. Marsden, 'for the promotion of geographical science to which it gave the first impulse, he was at length induced to follow the advice of those who recommended his committing it to writing.' With this view, he procured from Venice the original notes which he had made in the course of his travels, and which had been left in the hands of his father. Assisted by these documents and by his verbal communications, the narrative is said to have been drawn up in the prison by a person named Rustighello, or Rusticello, a Genoese, according to Ramusio, who was in the daily habit of passing many hours with him in his place of confinement; or, as others suppose, a native of Pisa and his fellow prisoner.

A strong difference of opinion has existed among the editors of this extraordinary narrative, as to the language in which it was originally composed; but Mr. Marsden thinks that the preponderance of authority and argument is in favour of its having been a provincial, probably the Venetian, dialect of Italian; and the reasons which he brings forward in support of this opinion are certainly not lightly to be passed over. Ramusion, however, from whom almost all the particulars of the life of our traveller are collected, and who, from his general accuracy, is himself a host, asserts that it was first written in Latin, by Rusticello, in which language, even so late as his own time, the people of Genoa were accustomed to record their ordinary transactions. He adds, that a translation of it was afterwards made into the common Italian, or 'lingua volgare,' with transcripts of which all Italy was soon filled; and that from this it was re-translated into Latin, in the year 1320, by Francisco Pipino of Bologna, who, as he supposes, was unable to procure a copy of the original. But where, it may be asked, if all Italy was filled with copies, could be the difficulty of procuring one in Bologna? Ramusio accounts for Marco Polo not dictating his narrative in the vulgar tongue by observing that, in the course of twenty-four years absence, the Polos had forgotten their native speech, and presented 'un non so che di Tartaro nel volto e nel parlare, avendosi questi dimenticata la lingua Veneziana.' But the same argument would apply with equal force to the Latin language, the disuse of which for the same period (for they could not have had any occasion for it in China) was full as likely to estrange it from their memory, as their native language. The question indeed is not of paramount importance; but Mr. Marsden's arguments for an Italian original appear to us to overturn all the assertions in favour of a Latin prototype.

The imprisonment of Marco was the occasion of much affliction to his father and uncle, as it had been their wish that he should form a suitable matrimonial alliance, on their return to Venice. All attempts to procure his liberation by offers of money failed, and they had no means of conjecturing even the duration of his captivity. Under these circumstances, finding themselves cut off from the prospect of heirs to their vast wealth, it was agreed that Nicolo, although an old man, should take to himself a second wife.

Marco, however, after a captivity of four years, was released from prison; and found, on his return to Venice, that his father had added three sons to the family, whose names were Stefano, Maffio, and Giovanni. Being a man of good sense and discretion, he did not take umbrage at this change of circumstances, but resolved also on marriage. He had two daughters, Moretta and Fantima, 'which,' says Mr. Marsden, 'from their signification may be thought to have been rather familiar terms of endearment, than baptismal names.' On the death of his father, Marco erected a monument of hewn stone to his memory, which, Ramusio says, was still to be seen, in his days, under the portico in front of the church of St. Lorenzo, on the right hand side in entering; as to himself, his countrymen have been most unaccountably silent. His will is said to be dated in the year 1323, from which, without pretending to much accuracy, Mr. Marsden conjectures our celebrated traveller to have reached somewhere about the age of seventy years.

It would be extraordinary indeed if, considering all the circumstances under which the travels of Marco Polo were written, many faults, both of commission and omission, were not to be found in them. The greater part have been selected by Mr. Marsden for elucidation in his notes, and for vindicating the character of his author, in both of which he has been eminently successful. Of the former class of imputed faults, the most conspicuous are,—1. The relation of miracles pretended to have been performed on various occasions; on which it may be observed generally, that every body believed, in those days, in divine interference: our traveller, however, vouches for no miracles on his own knowledge, but only repeats what he had been told by the inhabitants of the places where the traditions were current. 2. An apparent belief in the efficacy of magical arts; but this was the common weakness of the times, and none were exempt from its influence. 3. The descriptions of animals out of the ordinary course of nature 4. The Statements of the extent and population of the cities in China; 5. of the dimensions of the palaces; 6. of the magnificence and number of bridges; 7. of the military forces; and 8. of the amount of the imperial revenues. When to these statements, given in millions, was added the extraordinary story of the black stones used for fuel, it is not to be wondered at that, for centuries after his death, he should be branded as a writer of romance.

The prominent faults of omission are accusations of modern times; and they are such as Mr. Marsden is disposed to consider as less excusable, if really imputable to himself, and not to the loss of a part of the work, or to the omissions of transcribers. We do not however conceive that any vindication of the author's character is at all necessary on this head, even if the probability was not apparent, that they may have been owing to both these causes. Where is the traveller who has been careful to note down every thing that fell under his observation? Manners and customs, and new and singular objects of nature and art, however strange for a time, become familiar from long residence, and unless noted down while the impression of their novelty was strong on the mind, may well be supposed to escape the subsequent attention of the narrator. We can scarcely suppose that Homer was unacquainted with the Pyramids of Egypt any more than with the city of Thebes and its hundred gates, yet no mention is made of the former, while he familiarly speaks of the latter. Herodotus describes the Pyramids from ocular inspection, but never once alludes to the great Sphinx.

If, however, we may rely on the chronicle of De Aqui, his contemporary, Marco Polo has himself fully accounted for any omissions that may appear in his narrative. So little credit, says this writer, did he obtain, that when he lay on his death-bed, he was gravely exhorted by one of his friends, as a matter of conscience, to retract what he had published, or at least to disavow those falsehoods with which the world believed his book to be filled. Marco indignantly rejected this advice, declaring at the same time, that, far from having used any exaggeration, he had not told one half of the extraordinary things of which he had been an eye-witness. Let it be recollected too that his book was dictated in a jail at Genoa from loose notes sent to him from Venice, and we shall not be surprized at a few omissions of objects or customs however remarkable. The most important of them belong to China, in which country the greater part of his time was passed. His enemies particularly notice,—his silence with respect to the Great Wall—to the cultivation and general use of tea—to the preposterous fashion of bandaging the feet of female children in order to render them small and useless through life—and to the employment of wheel carriages impelled by wind. We may at once discard the last of these, as we believe they are confined to a particular district of the province of Petchelee, and have rarely been seen by any stranger. The other three were certainly familiar to him: he must have seen and even crossed the Great Wall, though at a place perhaps where it is only a mound of earth; but the most perfect and finished part of it is not more than sixty miles from Pekin, and it is there so very similar in construction to that of the walls of the capital and of most of the cities of China, as to cease possessing that attraction which, at first sight, it undoubtedly boasts. Some authors have speculated on its being built subsequently to the time of Marco Polo; and a missionary of the name of Paolino da San Bartholomeo (in a work published at Rome) has boldly fixed on the fourteenth century as the date of its erection:—he might, with equal probability, have asserted that Julius Caesar invaded Britain in the fourteenth century.

The article of tea has supplied an almost universal beverage to the Chinese from time immemorial, and appears, by the early annals of the empire, to have then, as now, contributed to the revenue; it is mentioned by the two Mahommedans who visited China in the ninth century: the cramping of the ladies' feet too has been a custom from a time 'to which the memory man runneth not to the contrary.' These things must therefore have been well known to Marco Polo, though he has omitted them in his narrative.

But it has been the fate of this early traveller not only to be charged with faults of commission and omission, but to have other matters ascribed to him of which he makes no mention, and of which indeed he could have no knowledge. Thus nothing is more common than to find it repeated from book to book, that gunpowder and the mariner's compass were first brought from China by Marco Polo, though there can be very little doubt that both were known in Europe some time before his return. Indeed there is good evidence that the use of the magnetic needle was familiar here long before he set out on his travels; for Alonzo el Sabio, king of Castile, who, about the year 1260, promulgated the famous code of laws known by the title of 'Las siete Partidas,' has (in the preamble of ley 28, titulo 9, partida 2,) the following remarkable passage: 'E bien asi como los marineros se guian en 1a noche escura por el aguja, que les ès medianera entre la piedra è la estrella, è les muestra por do vayan, tambien en los malos tiempos, como en los buenos—otro si, los que han de anconsejar al Rey deben siempre guiar por la justicia.'—'And as mariners guide themselves in the dark night by the needle, which is the medium (medianera) between the magnet and the star, in like manner ought those who have to counsel the king always to guide themselves by justice.'

Now it is obvious that the monarch would not have availed himself of the happy comparison of the office of a faithful counsellor to the magnetic needle, if that instrument had not been generally in use, at the period when he wrote; but how long before that period it had been known, and applied to the purposes of navigation, it may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to ascertain. There were in those times no philosophical journals, no literary gazettes, no reviews to communicate such intelligence to the world; and we are indebted for the little information which has come down to us, to incidental notices by authors not writing expressly on the subject. Thus Guyot de Provins, who is supposed to have lived about the year 1180, evidently alludes to the magnetic needle in the following verses:—

Mais celle estoile ne se muet,
Un art font, que mentir ne puet,
Par la vertu de la mariniere,
Une pierre laide et bruniere,
Ou li fers volontiers se joint,
Ont si esgardent le droite point,
Puis qu'une aguille ont touchié,
Et en un festu l'ont couchié,
En l'eue le mettent, sans plus,
Et le festus la tiennent desus:
Puis se tourne la pointe toute,
Contre le estoile.

Jacobus Vitriacus, bishop of Ptolemais, who died at Rome in 1244, and who composed his Historia Orientalis between 1220 and 1230, after his return from the Holy land, says—'Valdè necessarius est acus navigantibus in mari.' He had himself made more than one voyage by sea. And Vicentio of Beauvais (Vicentius Bellovacius) observes, in his Speculum Doctrinale, 'Cum enim vias suas ad portum dirigere nesciunt, cacumen acus ad adamantem lapidem fricatum, per transversum in festuca parva infigunt, et vasi pleno aquae immittunt.' Bellovacius died in 1266; how long before his death the above was written we know not. In another passage he seems to hint that the Arabians were the inventors; but this is very improbable: had they possessed the compass when they traded so largely to China in the ninth and succeeding centuries, they would not (as they did) have crept along the shores of the bay of Bengal, of Cambodia, and Cochin-china; besides, the name they gave to it (el bossolo) leaves little doubt of the source from which it was derived. The route pursued by Marco Polo from the head of the Yellow Sea to the Persian Gulph affords a strong argument against any knowledge of the compass by the Chinese in the thirteenth century; to say nothing of his silence concerning this wonderful instrument, while he so minutely and accurately describes the four-masted vessels on which he and his retinue embarked.

Many other authorities might be quoted to shew that the magnetic needle was in common use among the mariners of Europe before the middle of the thirteenth century. It was indeed then a rude and simple instrument, being only an iron needle magnetized, and stuck into a bit of wood, floating in a vessel of water; in which inartificial and inconvenient form it seems to have remained till about the beginning of the fourteenth century, when Flavio Gioia, of Amalphi, made the great improvement of suspending the needle on a centre, and enclosing it in a box. The advantages of this were so great, that it was universally adopted, and the instrument in its old and simple form laid aside and forgotten: hence Gioia, in aftertimes, came to be considered as the inventor of the mariner's compass, of which he was only the improver. The Biographia Britannica mistakes the period of Gioia's death for that of his birth; he lived in the reign of Charles of Anjou, who died king of Naples in 1309. It was in compliment to this sovereign (for Amalphi is in the dominions of Naples) that Gioia distinguished the north point by a fleur-de-lis. This was one of the circumstances by which the French, in later days, endeavoured to prove that the mariner's compass was a French discovery: but to what discoveries will not our ingenious and ambitious neighbours lay claim, after their late attempts to appropriate that of the steamengine, and still more recently that of Mr. Seppings's most important improvement in the construction of ships of war!

That Marco Polo would have mentioned the mariner's compass, if it had been in use in China, we think highly probable; and his silence respecting gunpowder may be considered as at least a negative proof that this also was unknown to the Chinese in the time of Kublai-khan. Be this as it may, there is positive proof that the use of cannon was unknown, otherwise our travellers would not have been employed by the emperor to construct machines to batter the walls of Sa-Yan-Fu. There is nothing in the history of these people, nor in their 'Dictionary of Arts and Sciences,' that bears any allusion to their knowledge of cannon before the invasion of Gengis-Khan, when (in the year 1219) mention is made of ho-pao, or fire-tubes, the present name of cannon, which are said to kill men and to set fire to inflammable substances: they are said too to have been used by the Tartars, not by the Chinese, and were probably nothing more than the enormous rockets known in India at the period of the Mahommedan invasion. It is clear that Roger Bacon, who died in 1294, was acquainted with the composition, and even with some of the effects of gunpowder, for it is recorded in those of his works which have come down to us. It would, however, be difficult to connect his discovery with the application of it to the purpose of war, by a people apparently unacquainted with the labours of the English friar. The Moors, or Arabs, in Spain, appear to have used gunpowder and cannon as early as 1312. In the Cronica de Espana by Abu Abdalla, it is said that, 'el Rey de Granada, Abul-Walid, Ilev consigo al sitio de Baza una gruessa máquina, que, cargada con mixtos de azufre, y dandole fuego, despedia con estuendo globos contra el Alcazar de aquella ciudad.' And in 1331 when the king of Granada laid siege to Alicant, he battered its walls with iron bullets, discharged by fire from machines: this novel mode of warfare, adds the annalist, inspired great terror,—'y puso en aquel tiempo grande terror una nueva invencion de combate, que, entre las otras máquinas que el Rey de Granada tenia para combatir los muros, Ilevava pellotas de hierro que se lanzaban con fuego.'

It is stated in the Cronica de Don Alonzo el Onceno, cap. 273, that when Alonzo XI. king of Castile, besieged Algeziras in 1342-3, the Moorish garrison, in defending the place—'lanzaban muchos truenos contra la hueste en que lanzaban pellas de fierro muy grandes.' That the truenos (literally thunders) were a species of cannon, and fired with powder, is clear from the following passage in the same Chronicle,—'Los Moros que estaban en su hueste cerca de Gibraltar, des que oyeron el ruido de los trueños, e vieron las afumadas que facian en Algecira, cuidaron que los Cristianos combatian la ciudad.' Mariana mentions the circumstance of the inhabitants defending themselves by 'tiros con polvora que lanzaban piedras;' and adds that 'this was the first instance he had found of any mention of the use of such arms.'—vol. vi. The celebrated battle of Crecy was fought by Edward III. in 1346; and Hume, on the authority of Villani, says that the English had cannon, but not the French; it is, however, worthy of remark that, although Villani was a contemporary, yet he composed his history in Italy, and therefore could only speak from hearsay; whereas Froissart, also a contemporary, residing in France, and almost an eye-witness, makes no mention of cannon, although he describes the battle very particularly; and Thomas of Walsingham, who wrote more than three centuries before Hume, and who not only gives a very detailed account of the battle, but even specifies by name the arms and weapons used by the English—gladios, lanceas, secures, et sagittas— makes not the slightest mention of the bombarde, nor of the pallotole di ferro che saettavano. The French were beaten by the English as completely at Crecy as they were at Waterloo; and their national vanity might have spread the report of the English owing their victory to the advantage of cannon, with as little foundation in fact, as they ascribed their defeat at Waterloo to the entrenchments and fortifications of Mont St. Jean.

In vindicating our traveller from the charge of not mentioning what did not exist in China when he was there, we have been tempted to lay before the public some facts, which, though probably known to those who are much read in the early literature of Spain, may yet be new to such of our readers as are not familiar with what noble language, or have not access to the sources from which we have drawn our information. For this we look to their usual indulgence, though we feel at the same time that an apology is necessary for the digression to which it has led us.

To return to our traveller. With all the apparent improbabilities, defects, and inconsistencies of the narrative there is still enough in it to convince the most sceptical of its general accuracy; while the numerous descriptions and incidents afford, as Mr. Marsden justly observes, unobtrusive proofs of genuineness; among others may be enumerated, the state in which the bodies of persons destroyed by the hot wind of the desert are found—the manufacture of inebriating liquor from the infusion of dates—the tradition prevailing in Budakshan, of the descent of its princes from Alexander of Macedon—the gigantic figures of idols in a recumbent posture—the description of the bos grunniens, or yak of Tartary—the figures of dragons in Kataian or Chinese ornament—the periodical residence of the emperors in Tartary during the summer months—the commencement of the Kataian year in February—the ceremony of prostration before the emperor or his tablet by word of command—the ascent to the top of Adam's Peak, in Ceylon, being effected by the assistance of iron chains— the burning of coal, before-mentioned, and a great variety of other matters utterly unknown at the time, but which have since been found to be perfectly correct. These indeed are now familiar to most readers: but all the other subjects of which the author treats, and which are not so generally known, are elucidated and explained by the erudition and research of Mr. Marsden; who has added, by his edition of Marco Polo, another treasure to the stock of oriental literature worthy of his distinguished reputation as a linguist and a geographer, and highly meriting a place on the shelf of every library, public and private.

Thomas Wright (essay date 1854)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, edited by Thomas Wright, translated by William Marsden, George Bell & Sons, 1890, pp. ix-xx-viii.

[In Wright's 1854 introduction to his revision of William Marsden's translation of The Travels of Marco Polo, Wright offers an overview of Polo's travels and discusses the history of Polo's manuscript.]

So much has been written on the subject of the celebrated Venetian traveller of the middle ages, Marco Polo, and the authenticity and credibility of his relation have been so well established, that it is now quite unnecessary to enter into this part of the question; but the reader of the following translation will doubtless be desirous of learning something more about the author than is found in the narration of his adventures. We are informed by the Italian biographers, that the Polos were a patrician family of Venice, but of Dalmatian extraction. Andrea Polo da S. Felice had three sons, named Marco, Maffeo, and Nicolo, the two latter of whom were great merchants in a city where the profession of commerce was anything but incompatible with nobility. They were probably in partnership; and about 1254 or 1255, they proceeded on a voyage to Constantinople, between which city and Venice the commercial relations were at this time very intimate.

Under the stern rule of the Tartar monarchs, the interior of Asia, knit together in one vast empire, was far more accessible to strangers than it has been since that empire was broken up; and many European merchants and artisans proceeded thither to trade, or to find employment at the courts of the different princes of the race of Jengiz. The two brothers, Maffeo and Nicolo, learning at Constantinople that a market for certain costly articles was to be found among the Western Tartars, purchased a valuable stock of jewellery, and with it crossed the Euxine to a port in the Crimea; and travelling thence by land and water, reached at length the court or camp of Barkah, the brother or the son of Batu, grandson of Jengiz-khan, whose places of residence were Saraï and Bolghar, well known to the geographers of the middle ages. After turning their jewels to good account, they were preparing for their return, at the end of twelve months, when their plans were interrupted by hostilities between Barkah and Hulagu, his cousin, the chief of another horde or army of Tartars, who, in consequence of their approach from the eastern side of the Caspian, were then denominated Eastern Tartars, but were principally Moghuls, as the former were Turki, or natives of Turkistan. They are said to have crossed the Oxus, on their march from the headquarters of Mangu-kaan, in the year 1255. By the defeat of Barkah's army which ensued, and the advance of his opponents, the road to Constantinople was cut off from our travellers, and they were compelled to take a circuitous route, which led them round the head of the Caspian, across the Jaik and Jaxartes rivers, and through the deserts of Transoxiana, till they arrived at the great city of Bokhara.

During their stay there, it happened that a Tartar nobleman, sent by Hulagu to Kublaīi his brother, came thither, and in an interview with the two brothers, was so gratified with hearing them converse in his native language, and with the information he derived from them, that he invited them to accompany him to the emperor's court, where he assured them of a favourable reception, and an ample compensation for the labour of their journey. Recommending themselves, therefore, to the Divine protection, they prosecuted their journey towards what they considered to be the extremity of the East, and after travelling twelve months, reached the imperial residence. The manner in which they were received by the grand khan is told in the following narrative. He determined upon sending them back to Italy, accompanied by one of his own officers, as his ambassadors to the see of Rome,—professedly with the view of persuading his Holiness to supply him with a number of preachers of the Gospel, who should communicate religious instruction to the unenlightened people of his dominions, but more probably to encourage a hostile spirit amongst the princes of Christendom against the soldan of Egypt and the Saracens, the enemies of his family. They accordingly set out on their return; but in the early part of their journey, their Tartar companion fell sick, and was left behind. With the assistance, however, of the imperial tablet or passport with which they were provided, and which commanded respect and insured them accommodation in all the places through which they passed, they made their way homewards, and at the end of three years reached the port of Giazza, or Ayas, in Lesser Armenia. Here they embarked for Acre, then in the possession of the Christians, where they arrived in the month of April 1269; and on landing, received the first intelligence of the death of Pope Clement IV., which happened in November 1268; and it was recommended to them by the legate on the spot, to take no further steps in the business of their embassy until the election of a new Pope. This interval they thought would be most properly employed in a visit to their family, and for that purpose they engaged a passage in a ship bound to Negropont and Venice. Upon their arrival, Nicolo Polo found that his wife, whom he had left with child, was dead, after giving birth to a son, to whom she had given the name of Marco, in respect for the memory of her husband's eldest brother, and who was now advancing towards the age of manhood. In consequence of the long delay in the election of a Pope, our two Venetians became impatient; and, apprehensive of incurring the displeasure of their employer, after having resided two years in Italy, they returned to the legate in Palestine. On this occasion they were accompanied by young Marco, then in his seventeenth or eighteenth year. Taking letters from the legate to the Tartar emperor, they embarked for Ayas; but scarcely had they got under weigh, when advice was received at the former place of the choice of the cardinals having at length fallen upon the legate himself, M. Tebaldo di Vicenza, who assumed the name of Gregory X. He immediately recalled the two brothers, and gave them letters papal in a more ample and dignified form, and sent them, along with two friars of the order of Preachers, who were to be the bearers of his presents. These transactions took place about the end of the year 1271, at which period the northern parts of Syria were invaded by the soldan of Egypt; and such was the alarm caused by his approach to the borders of Armenia Minor, that the two friars were deterred from proceeding, and returned for safety to the coast. The Polo family, in the meantime, prosecuted their journey to the interior of Asia, in a north-easterly direction, undismayed by the prospect of dangers they might have to encounter. Of their particular course few indications are given, but it must evidently have been through the Greater Armenia, Persian Irak, Khorasan, and by the city of Balkh into the country of Badakhshan, amongst the sources of the Oxus, where they remained twelve months. This long detention might have been occasioned by the necessity of waiting for a large assemblage of travelling merchants, under an adequate escort, preparatory to crossing the great ranges of mountains called in maps the Belut-tag and Muz-tag; but it may also be accounted for by the circumstance of Marco's illness at this place. Their road now lay through the valley named Vokhan, from whence they ascended to the elevated and wild regions of Pamer and Belôr, on their way to the city of Kashghar, which belonged to the extensive dominions of the grand khan, and is known to have been a principal place of resort for caravans. They next proceeded to Khoten, a town of much celebrity, and afterwards through places little known to geographers, till they reached the desert of Lop or Kobi, which is circumstantially described. This being traversed in a tedious journey of thirty days, they entered the comprehensive district of Tangut, and passed through the country of those whom the Chinese call Si-fan or Tu-fan, as well as the strong place named Sha-cheu, or the town of the sands. From thence the direct road is to So-cheu, at the western extremity of the province of Shen-si. This place is within the boundary of what is now China proper, but was then, as well as the city of Kan-cheu, considered as belonging to Tangut. At Kan-cheu they experienced another long delay, which our author briefly says was occasioned by the state of their concerns. From Kan-cheu, it would seem that they took the road of Si-ning (just within the nominal line of the Great Wall, which on that side was built of sandy earth, and had mostly fallen to decay), leading through the heart of the province of Shen-si, and directly into that of Shan-si. In the capital city of this latter, named Tai-yuen-fu, it was that the grand khan, who in the early part of his reign is known to have made it his winter residence, received notice of their arrival in his dominions; and as their account says, that at the distance of forty days' journey from that place, he sent forward directions for preparing everything necessary for their accommodation, we may understand this to mean, that upon his coming to the western part of China, and hearing of the detention of his Italian messengers at Kan-cheu, he commanded that they should be immediately forwarded to his presence, at his expense, and with the attentions usually shown to foreign ambassadors.

The reception given to them by the emperor was as favourable as they were justified in expecting. After the customary prostrations and delivery of the letters, they were desired to relate all the circumstances that had taken place in the business of their mission, to which he condescendingly listened. He commended their zeal, and accepted with complacency the presents from the Pope, and with reverence a vessel of the holy oil from the sepulchre of our Lord, that had been brought from Jerusalem at his desire, and which he concluded, from the value set upon it by Christians, might possess extraordinary properties. Observing young Marco, he made inquiries respecting him; and being informed that he was the son of Nicolo, he took him under his protection, and gave him an appointment in his household. In this situation he adopted the manners of the country, and acquired a knowledge of the four languages most in use. He thus became a favourite with the grand khan, who employed him on services of importance in various parts of the empire, even to the distance of six months' journey. On these missions he availed himself of every opportunity of examining into the circumstances of the countries he visited and the customs of their inhabitants, and made notes of what he observed, for the information of the grand khan, whose curiosity on such subjects appears to have been insatiable; and to this habit of taking notes it is that we are indebted for the substance of that account of his travels which, after his return, he was induced to give to the world. On the occasion of the inability of a member of one of the great tribunals, who was nominated Fu-yuen, or governor, of the city of Yang-cheu-fu, in the province of Kiang-nan, to proceed to his charge, Marco Polo was appointed to act as his deputy, and held this high office during the usual period of three years. Marco's father and uncle were also partakers of the monarch's regards; and in one instance, immediately after their arrival at his court, they were eminently useful to him, in suggesting to his officers the employment of certain projectile machines, or catapultaæ, and superintending their construction, thereby contributing in an essential manner to the fall of the strong and important Chinese city of Siang-yang-fu, which had resisted the efforts of his besieging army for upwards of three years.

When about seventeen years had elapsed from the arrival of our travellers within the territories of the grand khan, the natural desire of revisiting their native land, notwithstanding the splendid advantages of their situation, began to work forcibly upon their minds, and the great age and precarious life of the grand khan determined them to effect their purpose with as little delay as possible. The grand khan refused absolutely to part with them, until an accidental circumstance gave them the opportunity of gratifying their desires. An embassy happened about that time to arrive at the court of Kublaï, from a Moghul-Tartar prince named Arghun, the grandson of Hulagu (and consequently the grand-nephew of the emperor), who ruled in Persia. Having lost his principal wife, who was a princess of the imperial stock, he sent this deputation to his sovereign and the head of his family, to solicit from him a wife of their own lineage. A princess was accordingly selected from amongst his grandchildren, and the ambassadors being satisfied as to her beauty and accomplishments, set out with her on a journey to Persia, with a numerous suite to do honour to the betrothed queen; but after several months' travelling, found themselves obstructed by the disturbed state of the country through which their route lay, and were obliged to return to the capital. In this dilemma, Marco Polo arrived from a voyage to some of the East Indian islands, and laid before his master the observations he had made respecting the safe navigation of those seas. The ambassadors, when they heard this, put themselves in communication with the Venetian family; and upon its being understood that they had all a common interest, each party being anxiously desirous of effecting their return to their own country, it was arranged between them that the Persians should urgently represent to the grand khan the expediency of their availing themselves of the experience of the Christians in maritime affairs, to convey their precious charge by sea to the gulf of Persia. His reluctant consent for their departure was thus obtained, and preparations were made on a grand scale for the expedition. When the period of their departure was at hand, the monarch addressed the Polo family in terms of kind regard, and required from them a promise that after having visited their own country and kindred, they would return to his service. He at the same time gave them authority to act as his ambassadors to the principal courts of Europe, furnished them with the passports necessary for their protection and accommodation in the countries acknowledging his sovereignty, and made them presents of many valuable jewels.

In the details that are given of the voyage, there is but little that personally regards our author. The first place at which they appear to have touched (if the expedition did not in fact proceed from thence in the first instance) was the port of Zaitun, in the province of Fo-kien, supposed to be either Tsuen-cheu, or the neighbouring port of Hia-muen, by us called Amoy. Passing by the island of Hai-nan, they kept along the coast of Anan, or Cochin-China, to the adjoining country of Tsiampa, which Marco Polo informs us he had previously visited in the year 1280. Mention is next made of the island of Java, although it is evident from the circumstances that they did not touch there, and also of two uninhabited islands near the coast of Kamboja. From the latter they steered for the island of Bintan, near the eastern entrance of the straits of Malacca. From this place they made a short run to the northeastern coast of Sumatra, in one of the ports of which they were detained five months, waiting for a favourable season to pursue their voyage across the bay of Bengal.

After passing some of the smaller islands, they visited Ceylon, and from thence they crossed the narrow strait, to the southern part of the coast of the peninsula, called by our author, in imitation of the Arabian and Persian writers, the country of Maabar, which must not be confounded with Malabar. In his subsequent route, it is difficult to determine which of the places mentioned in his narrative he visited, and which he describes from information gained from others.

At Ormuz, in the Persian gulf, the course of his description may be considered as brought to a close; and there is every reason to infer that the Chinese expedition, after a navigation of eighteen months in the Indian seas, terminated at that place.

Upon the arrival of the expedition in Persia, information was received by our travellers that the Moghul king Arghun, for whose consort the princess had been intended, had died some time before (1291); that the country was then governed by a regent or protector, who was supposed to have views to the sovereignty; and that the son of the late king, named Ghazan, who afterwards became much celebrated, was encamped, with a large army under his command, on the northeastern frontier of the kingdom, towards Khorasan, waiting, as it appeared, for a favourable opportunity of asserting his rights to the throne, for which his extremely diminutive figure was thought to have rendered him unfit. To this prince they were directed to deliver their royal charge; and, after having done this, they repaired to the court of Arghun, at Tauris, where for nine months they reposed themselves from the fatigue of their long travels. Having received from him the customary passports, which they found the more necessary, as the unpopularity of his government occasioned tumults in the country, and rendered strong escorts indispensable, they proceeded on their journey homewards, taking the road of Arjis on the lake of Van, Arzerrûm, and the castle of Baiburt, and reached the city of Trebizond on the coast of the Euxine; from whence, by the way of Constantinople, and of Negropont or Eubœa, they finally arrived in their native city of Venice in 1295, after an absence of twenty four years.

Up to this period our narrative of the adventures of the Polo family has been framed from the materials, however scanty, which Marco himself had directly or indirectly furnished. For what is to follow, we must principally rely upon the traditionary stories prevalent amongst his fellow-citizens, and collected by his industrious editor Ramusio, who wrote nearly two centuries and a half after his time. Upon their first arrival, he says, they were not recognised even by their nearest relations, the more so as rumours of their death had been current, and were confidently believed. By the length of time they had been absent, the fatigues they had undergone in journeys of such extent, and the anxieties of mind they had suffered, their appearance was quite changed, and they seemed to have acquired something of the Tartar both in countenance and speech, their native language being mixed with foreign idioms and barbarous terms. In their garments also, which were mean and of coarse texture, there was nothing that resembled those of Italians. The situation of their family dwelling-house, a handsome and lofty palace, was in the street of S. Giovanni Chrisostomo, and still existed in the days of Ramusio, when, for a reason that will hereafter appear, it went by the appellation of "la corte del Millioni." Of this house possession had been taken by some persons of their kindred, and when our travellers demanded admittance, it was with much difficulty that they could obtain it by making the occupiers comprehend who they were, or persuading them that persons so changed and disfigured by their dress, could really be those members of the house of Polo who for so many years had been numbered with the dead. In order, therefore, to render themselves generally known to their connexions, and at the same time to impress the whole city of Venice with an adequate idea of their importance, they devised a singular expedient, the circumstances of which, Ramusio says, had been repeatedly told to him when a youth by his friend M. Gasparo Malipiero, an elderly senator of unimpeachable varacity, whose house stood near that of the Polo family, and who had himself heard them from his father and his grandfather, as well as from other ancient persons of that neighbourhood.

With these objects in view, they caused a magnificent entertainment to be prepared in their own house, to which their numerous relatives were invited. When the hour for assembling at table was arrived, the three travellers came forth from an inner apartment, clothed in long robes of crimson satin reaching to the floor, such as it was customary to wear upon occasions of ceremony in those days. When water had been carried round for washing hands, and the guests desired to take their places, they stripped themselves of these vestments, and putting on similar dresses of crimson damask, the former were taken to pieces, and divided amongst the attendants. Again, when the first course of victuals had been removed, they put on robes of crimson velvet, and seated themselves at table, when the preceding dresses were in like manner distributed; and at the conclusion of the feast, those of velvet were disposed of in the same way, and the hosts then appeared in plain suits, resembling such as were worn by the rest of the company. All were astonished at what they saw, and curious to know what was to follow this scene. As soon, however, as the cloth was removed, and the domestics had been ordered to withdraw, Marco Polo, as being the youngest, rose from table, went into an adjoining room, and presently returned with the three coarse, threadbare garments in which they had first made their appearance at the house. With the assistance of knives, they proceeded to rip the seams, and to strip off the linings and patches with which these rags were doubled, and by this operation brought to view a large quantity of most costly jewels, such as rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, diamonds, and emeralds, which had been sewn into them, and with so much art and contrivance, as not to be at all liable to the suspicion of containing such treasures. At the time of their taking their departure from the court of the grand khan, all the riches that his bounty had bestowed upon them were by them converted into the most valuable precious stones, for the facility of conveyance. The display of wealth, so incalculable in its amount, which then lay exposed on the table before them, appeared something miraculous, and filled the minds of all who were spectators of it with such wonder, that for a time they remained motionless; but upon recovering from their ecstasy, they felt entirely convinced that these were in truth the honourable and valiant gentlemen of the house of Polo, of which at first they had entertained doubts, and they accordingly exhibited every mark of profound respect for their hosts.

Of the degree of credit due to this anecdote, vouched as it is, the reader will form his own judgment; but, be this as it may, Ramusio proceeds to acquaint us, that as soon as an account of the scene just described was spread about the city of Venice, great numbers of the inhabitants of all ranks, from the nobles down to the mechanics, hastened to their dwelling, in order to have an opportunity of embracing them, and of testifying their good-will. Maffeo, the elder brother, was honoured with an office of much importance in the magistracy. To Marco the young men resorted, to enjoy the pleasure of his conversation. Finding him polite and communicative, they paid him daily visits, making inquires respecting Cathay and the grand khan; and to all of them his answers were so courteous, that each considered himself as personally obliged. In consequence, however, of their persevering curiosity, which occasioned frequent repetitions of the amount of the imperial revenues, estimated at ten or fifteen millions of gold ducats, as well as of other computations regarding the wealth and population of the empire, which were necessarily expressed in millions also, he at length acquired amongst them the surname of Messer Marco Millioni, or, in the modern orthography, Milione. "By this appellation," Ramusio (who was himself high in office) adds, "I have seen him mentioned in the public records of this republic, and the house in which he lived has, from that time to the present, been commonly termed, 'la corte del Millioni.'" It must at the same time be remarked, that Sansovino, in his "Venetia Descritta," attributes the popular application of this surname to the immense riches possessed by the Polo family at the period of their return to their own country. In this sense the French apply the term "millionnaire" to a great capitalist.

Not many months after their arrival in Venice, intelligence was received that a Genoese fleet, commanded by Lampa Doria, had made its appearance off the island of Curzola, on the coast of Dalmatia; in consequence of which a Venetian fleet, consisting of a superior number of galleys, immediately put to sea under the orders of Andrea Dandolo. To the command of one of these, Marco Polo, as an experienced sea-officer, was appointed. The fleets soon came in sight of each other, and an engagement ensued, in which the latter were defeated with great loss. This event is said by some writers to have happened on the 8th of September, 1296. Amongst the prisoners taken by the Genoese, besides Dandolo himself, was our traveller, who belonged to the advanced division, and bravely pushing forward to attack the enemy, but not being properly supported, was compelled to surrender, after receiving a wound. From the scene of action he was conveyed to a prison in Genoa, where his personal qualities and his surprising history becoming soon known, he was visited by all the principal inhabitants, who did everything in their power to soften the rigours of his captivity; treating him with kindness as a friend, and liberally supplying him with everything necessary for his subsistence and accommodation. His rare adventures were, as in his own country, the subject of general curiosity, and the frequent necessity he was under of repeating the same story unavoidably became irksome to him. He was, in consequence, at length induced to follow the advice of those who recommended his committing it to writing. With this view he procured from Venice the original notes he had made in the course of his travels, and had left in the hands of his father. Assisted by these documents (of which he speaks on more than one occasion), and from his verbal communications, the narrative is said to have been drawn up, in the prison, by a person named Rustighello or Rustigielo, who, according to Ramusio, was a Genoese gentleman with whom he had formed an intimacy, but, according to the manuscripts, a native of Pisa, and his fellow-prisoner; and we finally learn from the French text, which is now known to be the original, that this Rustigielo was Rusticien de Pise, a well-known medieval writer, who made a compilation in French of the romances of the cycle of king Arthur. The Travels of Marco Polo are said to have been written, and the manuscript circulated, in 1298.

The imprisonment of Marco was the occasion of much affliction to his father and his uncle, and the more particularly as it had long been their intention that he should form a suitable matrimonial alliance upon their return to Venice. Their plans were now frustrated, and it became daily more uncertain what the duration of his captivity might prove, as all attempts to procure his liberation by the offer of money had failed, and it was even doubtful whether it might not terminate only with his life. Under these circumstances, finding themselves cut off from the prospect of having heirs to their vast wealth, they deliberated upon what was most proper to be done for the establishment of the family, and it was agreed that Nicolo, although an old man, but of a hale constitution, should take to himself a second wife.

It happened at length, after a lapse of four years, that Marco, in consequence of the interest taken in his favour amongst the leading people in Genoa, and indeed by the whole city, was released from his captivity. Upon returning home, he found that his father had by that time added three sons to the family, whose names were Stefano, Maffeo, and Giovanni. Being a man of good sense and discretion, he did not take umbrage at this change of circumstances, but resolved upon marrying also, and effected it as soon as he found a suitable match. By his marriage, however, he had not any male descendant, but only two daughters, one of whom is said to have been called Moretta, and the other Fantina, which from their signification, may be thought to have been rather familiar terms of endearment, than baptismal names. Upon the death of his father, as became an affectionate and pious son, he erected a monument to his memory, of hewn stone, which, Ramusio says, was still to be seen in his days under the portico in front of the church of St. Lorenzo, upon the right hand side as you enter, with an inscription denoting it to be the tomb of Nicolo Polo, who resided in the street before mentioned. Respecting the age to which our author himself attained, or the year in which his death took place, his countrymen have not given us any information, nor, as it would seem, was any endeavour made at an early period to ascertain the facts. Sansovino, the most elaborate historian of their city, observes only, that "under the passage to the church of St. Lorenzo, which stands on one of the islets named Gemelle, lies buried Marco Polo, surnamed Milione, who wrote the account of 'Travels in the New World,' and was the first, before Columbus, who discovered new countries;" on which expressions we may remark, that independently of the geographical ignorance displayed, there is room to conjecture (if Ramusio be correct) that he has confounded the tomb of the father with that of the son. In the chronicle of Jacopo de Aqui it is reported, that when upon his death-bed he was exhorted by his friends as matter of conscience, to retract what he had published, or at least to disavow those parts which the world regarded as fictitious, he scorned their advice, declaring at the same time, that so far from having exaggerated, he had not told one half of the extraordinary things of which he had been an eye-witness. His will is said to have been dated in the year 1323; in which case his life may be supposed (without pretending to accuracy, but also without the chance of material error) to have embraced the period between 1254 and 1324, or about seventy years.

With regard to the other members of the family, Marco, the eldest of the three brothers, appears to have died before the departure of Nicolo and Maffeo for Constantinople; and it was with the intention of doing honour to his memory, that the wife of the former, in the absence of her husband, gave to her son, our author, the name of his deceased uncle. Of the three children of Nicolo by the second marriage, one only, Maffeo, lived to have a family. This consisted of five sons, and one daughter named Maria; and, as all the sons died without leaving issue, she, upon the death of her last surviving brother, who likewise bore the name of Marco, inherited all the possessions of their father. With this event, which took place in 1417, the family became extinct in the male line, and the illustrious name of Polo was lost. The heiress married into the noble house of Trivisino, eminently distinguished in the fasti of the Venetian republic.

The book of the Travels of Marco Polo, containing so much that must be attractive to all classes of readers, became extremely popular during the three centuries which followed his death, and was reproduced in almost every European language which could boast of a literature; manuscripts are very numerous, independent of printed editions, and they differ very much from each other. From this latter circumstance, the choice of a text for translation is not a question of easy solution. Marsden, assuming that the book was originally written in Italian, translated from the text printed by Ramusio, who seems to have taken some liberties with his original. Since Marsden's time, several more critical editions of Marco Polo, in different languages, have appeared. In 1827, an Italian text, from an early manuscript, superior in authority to that of Ramusio, was published by Count Baldelli Boni. The manuscript appears to have been of the fourteenth century. Previous to this publication, in 1824, the Society of Geography of Paris, in the first volume of its Recueil de Voyages et de Mémoires, had printed from manuscripts of the fourteenth century two texts of Marco Polo, of a class which had not before been examined very critically, one being in Latin, and the other in French. Neither of these texts is very well edited, but they are of considerable importance, especially the latter, in relation to the literary history of the Travels of Marco Polo.

It has been, I think, most satisfactorily demonstrated by M. D'Avezac, that the original text of Marco Polo, which came from the traveller's own dictation, was written in the French language. I will give the reasons on which this judgment is established in the words of M. D'Avezac himself, as he has stated the question in a postscript to some remarks on the Relation of Plan du Carpin, in the Bulletin of the Society of Geography for August 1841. "The observations we have just made," says this able geographer,

having led us to recur to certain passages of Marco Polo, we have had occasion to remark again, in the Italian and Latin texts, some of those gross blunders arising from verbal equivocations, of which the only possible explanation is found in recognising them as the work of unskilful translators from a French text; an argument already invoked by Baldelli, and which must have struck any man who made a comparative examination of the different editions of this famous relation. After the chapter devoted to Tangut in general, and before that which contains the description of its capital, are three chapters treating successively of the provinces of Camul, Ginchintalas, and Juctang, in the latter of which we find this passage: 'Et 1a grant provence jeneraus où ceste provence (Juctang) est, et ceste deux (Camuel et Ginchintalas) que je vos ai contés en arrieres, est appellés Tangut.' In the version of Ramusio this is rightly translated: 'E la gran provincia generale nella qual se contiene questa provincia et altre due provincie subsequenti, si chiama Tanguth.' But Ramusio professes himself to give a corrected text, whereas the celebrated manuscript of La Crusca, published by Baldelli, and the manuscript of Pucci, of which he gives the various readings, have: 'Ella e grande provincia, ha nome Jeneraus,' etc.; thus proving that the Italian translator of 1309 took the French adjective ieneraus (generalis) for a proper name of a province, as he had on another occasion taken the adverb jadis for a proper name of a king! A mistake equally curious, and into which, as far as we know, all the translators, old or modern, of Marco Polo have fallen, occurs, and is repeated many times, in the recital of the war of Prester John against 'un rois qe fu appelés le roi d'or.' Marsden has justly observed that this denomination must have been the translation of the Chinese name of the dynasty of Kin, or Altoun of the Moguls, since these words mean or (gold) in French. But it is evident that if a French translator could write that the monarch Kin was 'appelé roi d'Or,' it would be absurd to translate in Italian, 'un re chiamato Dor,' or in Latin, 'unus rex qui fuit vocatus rex Dor.' Evidently the translators took the French appellation in the genitive, d'or, for a proper name. Moreover, to all the motives given before by Baldelli, by M. Paulin Paris, and by ourselves, to demonstrate that the original text of the relation of Marco Polo was written in French, we can add the authority of a formal testimony, which we have already communicated to the Society of Geography, and which we are astonished not to have found cited by our predecessors. But, which is still more surprising, this testimony was known to the learned Abbé Lebeuf, and cited by him in his 'Dissertations sur l'Histoire ecclésiastique et civile de Paris,' without his being aware of its importance, or apparently suspecting that it related to the illustrious Venetian; he says simply—'Un nommé Marc, qui avait été envoyé en Tartarie et aux Indes, fit en français un livre des Merveilles de ce pays là, que Jean d'Ypres, en sa chronique, dit qu'il possédait.' Now, this 'nommé Marc' was Marco Polo himself; and Jean d'Ypres said so, not in an obscure mention, lost in the midst of matters foreign to those which might awaken the attention of the reader to so remarkable a declaration: far from that, the chronicler expressly devotes a chapter to treat 'De Legatis Tartarorum ad Papam missis;' and there he says in full: 'Nuntii qui venerunt erant duo cives Venetiarum, nomine dominus Nicolaus Pauli et frater ejus dominus Maffeus Pauli,' etc. Then he relates their return from the East, and adds: 'Dominusque Nicolaus Pauli filium suum, viginti vel circiter annorum, juvenem aptum valde, nomine Marcum Pauli, secum adduxit ad Tartaros.' After this comes the history of their embassy, and this recital terminates with the following passage: 'Marcus Pauli cum imperatore retentus, ab eo miles effectus, sed et cum eo mansit spatio viginti-septem annorum; quem Chaam, propter suam habilitatem in suis negotiis, ad diversas Indiæ et Tartariæ partes et insulas misit, ubi illarum partium multa mirabilia vidit, de quibus postea librum in vulgari gallico composuit, quem librum mirabilium cum pluribus similibus penes nos habemus.' And the man who wrote this is the same Jean Lelong, of Ypres, abbot of St. Bertin at St. Omer, who translated from Latin into French the relations of Hayton of Armenia, of Ricold de Montecroce, of Oderic of Friulia, of William of Boldensel, and of John de Cor, archbishop of Solthânyeh; he was the man of his time the most profoundly acquainted with the various travels into the East, and whose testimony ought to carry the greatest authority in this matter.

With the new importance which is thus given to the French text of Marco Polo, I hope that my learned friend will not let us wait long for a new and perfect edition of it, one which will be worthy of himself, and of the language in which it forms so interesting a monument.

Since the appearance of the editions already mentioned, two others have appeared which are worthy of notice. An edition of the old German version, edited by August Bürck, in 1845, and an Italian edition by Vincenzo Lazari, in 1847. Singularly enough, neither of these editors appears to have been aware of the direct evidence of John d'Ypres to the fact of the original text having been written in French, although it had been so publicly stated by M. D'Avezae several years before.

Most of the editions I have mentioned contain long and learned dissertations on Marco Polo's travels. It was the original intention, in the present edition, merely to reprint the text of Marsden's translation, with a selection from the notes. Marsden's notes are rather lengthy, and a good part of them consists only of repetitions of statements and authorities in support of the credibility of Marco Polo's narration; and as this question in now more generally understood than it was in Marsden's time, these corroborations are no longer necessary. When, however, I came to compare this translation with the new editions of the text, I found that it was desirable to give it a general revision, comparing it with the texts published more recently. All the texts differ so much from one another, that it is not easy to form anything like a perfect text from them; but a comparison enables us to correct some of the dates, names, distances, &c , which were evidently wrong in the text that Marsden followed; to set right one or two mistakes into which he fell from his want of knowledge of the medieval literature of Western Europe; and to restore passages which had been lost from the texts he used. The supplementary chapters added at the end of the present volume are translated from the early French text. From the historical dates to which some of these refer, they may have been an addition to the original compilation of Marco Polo's Travels, and, from the peculiar phraseology in which they are written, they seem to have been translated into prose from a narration in verse. This phraseology is sometimes so diffuse, that I have found it necessary to compress it in the translation, especially in the descriptions of battles, which are almost copies of one another.…

Henry Rawlinson (review date 1872)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Yule's Edition of Marco Polo," in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. CXXXV, No. CCLXXV, January, 1872, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, Rawlinson praises Yule's translation of Polo's book, noting that he blends several earlier texts in his edition in order to best present "what the author said, or would have desired to say."]

The publication of Colonel Yule's Marco Polo is an epoch in geographical literature. Never before, perhaps, did a book of travels appear under such exceptionally favourable auspices; an editor of a fine taste and ripe experience, and possessed with a passion for curious medieval research, having found a publisher willing to gratify that passion without stint on the score of expenditure; and the result being the production of a work which, in so far as it combines beauty of typography and wealth of illustration with a rich variety of recondite learning, may be regarded as a phenomenon in these days of thrifty and remunerative book-making. Nor is it a slight praise thus to pronounce Colonel Yule's edition to be a great success; for never, perhaps, has there been a more difficult book of the class to expound than Marco Polo's travels, since his great prototype, Herodotus, recited his history at Athens. Every page is a puzzle; every chapter contains strange names which it is hard to recognise, strange stories which it is harder still either to believe or to explain. And, indeed, when we remember Marco Polo's personal character, and the peculiar circumstances under which his very extraordinary experiences were reduced to writing, our wonder must be, not that there is so much requiring illustration in this account of his Eastern travels, but rather that the narrative should be in any degree intelligible— and especially that a commentator should have been found with the knowledge, the ingenuity, and the perseverance requisite to place the book in a really attractive form before the reading public of the nineteenth century.

The attempt has often been made before to bring Marco Polo into notice. According to a list, indeed, compiled by Colonel Yule, and given in the appendix to his work, twenty-seven different editions of these travels have been published in various European languages during the last four centuries; and although the majority of such editions have been mere reproductions or translations of a faulty text without any serious effort at emendation or explanation, still in some instances—as in the Italian editions of Baldello-Boni, of Lazari, and of Adolfo Bartoli—sound and able criticism has been exerted, by which Colonel Yule has duly profited; and moreover, in two particular instances—the English edition of Marsden, published in 1818, and the French edition of Pauthier, published in 1865—illustration has been added of a comprehensive, if not a very scholarly, character. Marsden's edition of Marco Polo, an honest and unpretentious work, represents the knowledge, or rather the want of knowledge, of 'Sixty Years since.' Pauthier's edition, with very much more of pretension, is hardly an improvement on Marsden in regard to the historical or geographical illustration of Western and Central Asia; though it must be admitted that his Chinese learning stands him in good stead, and has enabled him to furnish many valuable extracts from original sources, relating to Eastern Asia, in support or explanation of Marco Polo's own notices. At any rate, we think the general impression will be, on comparing the baldness and inaccuracy of previous editors with the stores of solid, as well as curious, information poured forth by Colonel Yule with an unsparing hand, that the edition we are now considering was imperatively called for.

The story of Marco Polo's book is told with much liveliness and effect in Colonel Yule's introduction. This introduction, indeed, which extends to 160 pages, and is of a very miscellaneous character, forms, we think, in a literary point of view, the most important, as it certainly forms the most interesting, portion of Colonel Yule's two portly volumes. Besides ample dissertations on such general topics as the state of the East in the thirteenth century, the jealousies and wars of Genoa and Venice, a digression on the war-galleys of the Middle Ages, &c. &c., it comprises all that can be recovered of the personal history of the Polo family, of the individual travellers, of their appearance, their character, and their objects; their singular reception at Venice on their return from the East after twenty-four years' absence, which reads, as has been said, like a chapter from the Arabian Nights; their subsequent adventures; Marco's participation in the great defeat of the Venetians at Curzola; his captivity at Genoa, and dictation of his memoirs to a fellow-prisoner, Rustician of Pisa; and finally, it suggests how Rustician's notes, jotted down in the 'Lingua franca' in which they were probably communicated, were enlarged, and amended, and annotated, either by Marco himself, or possibly by his uncle Maffeo, who had been his companion throughout his travels; and how from these original notes the various texts were formed which are now extant in seventy-five different manuscript copies of a more or less authentic character.

It is clear that Marco Polo, with little or no preliminary education, must still have possessed considerable natural abilities, since on his arrival at the Mongol court he acquired without difficulty the current languages of the country together with four different modes of writing (probably Mongolian, Ouigour, Persian, and Thibetan), and further ingratiated himself with the Emperor, so as to be employed by him on confidential affairs of state in preference to the officers of his own household; but it is equally clear that he fully shared in the credulity and superstition of the age; and although Colonel Yule does not scruple to avow his 'entire confidence in the man's veracity,' no one can doubt but that Marco was disposed to exaggeration in his phraseology, and indulged in a very high colouring in all his descriptions. He seems, indeed, mainly to have risen into favour with the Emperor from his skill in bringing back sensational reports of the wonders which he saw when employed on deputation in strange countries—such reports contrasting agreeably with the dry matter-of-fact relations of the ordinary commissioners; and we may well understand that it was this proneness to extravagant talk, this habitual indulgence in 'travellers' tales,' which gave him the nickname of 'Master Millions' among his countrymen, and which in fact discredited his general authority. The process of dictation, it may also be suggested, is of itself unfavourable to a very rigid accuracy of description. In telling his stories vivâ voce to Rustician, as he paced the floor of his prison cell at Genoa, he may be forgiven if he occasionally warmed up his flagging memory by a few free touches of lively rodomontade. That he did not designedly invent or falsify is all, we presume, that Colonel Yule contends for; and for this qualified acquittal there is ample authority in the contemporary evidence that when Marco was asked by his friends 'on his death-bed to correct the book by removing everything that went beyond the facts, he replied, that he had not told one-half of what he had really seen.'

Colonel Yule has allowed himself the fullest latitude in his adoption of a text. He calls his text 'eclectic,' which means that he has selected from several types the readings and expressions of which he approves, and has omitted those of which he disapproves. The basis of his translation is the same text which was used by Mons. Pauthier, and which is supposed to represent the version made from Rustician's barbarous 'patois' into French of the period, during Marco Polo's life, and subject to his own curtailment, correction, and revision; but he has not slavishly followed this version, of which there are exemplars at Paris, at Berne, and at Oxford. He has admitted variant readings of names, and many 'expressions' of special 'interest and character' from Rustician's original notes, published by the Geographical Society of Paris in 1824; and also in some instances he has borrowed from other versions that were made from that text (apparently during Marco Polo's lifetime), first into Italian, and then into Latin—Pipino's Latin text, under date A.D. 1320, being the type of this class of MSS.; and finally, he has introduced between brackets, as indicative of their supplementary character, a very large number of additional paragraphs, some of the highest interest and importance, which bear internal marks of emanating either from Marco Polo or his uncle, but which are only known at present from their being included, without comment or explanation, in Ramusio's famous posthumous translation in Italian, which was published in A.D. 1559, nearly 240 years after Marco Polo's decease. It is hardly perhaps consistent with the strict canons of criticism thus to blend several texts into one, culling the best passages of each, and correcting false readings or tedious repetitions à discrétion; but the result is certainly to the advantage of the general reader; and if a thorough dependence can be placed on the knowledge and judgment of the editor, there will be also felt an assurance that the 'eclectic' text presents what the author said, or would have desired to say. This, at any rate, is what Colonel Yule has aimed at, and we are bound to say that we think on the whole he has been successful.

George P. Marsh (essay date 1875)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Book of Marco Polo," in The Nation, New York, Vol. XXI, No. 530, August 26, 1875, pp. 135-37, 152-53.

[In the essay that follows, Marsh discusses Yule's edition of Polo's book and comments on the traveler's "reputation for veracity" as well as his collaboration with his fellow prisoner Rustichello, here called Rusticiano.]

When Marsden published his learned edition of the Travels of Marco Polo in 1818, it was supposed that he had so nearly exhausted all the possible sources of illustration of his author that future editors would find little or no matter for new commentaries. And when in 1865 Pauthier gave to the world a substantially authentic text for the old traveller's narrative, under the title of Le Livre de Marco Polo, and astonished European scholars by an imposing display of Chinese and other recondite lore, accomplished critics expressed a similar opinion with respect to his labors. But in the first edition of an English translation which appeared in 1871, the learning and diligence of the distinguished Oriental geographer, Colonel Henry Yule, brought to the elucidation of Polo's meagre, fragmentary, and confused recital a great amount of interesting and valuable material, which, though not inaccessible to earlier editors, had remained undetected until his patient and comprehensive researches brought it to light. The four years which have elapsed since the original publication have enabled our editor to incorporate in a second issue a large stock of new explanatory and supplementary matter, both from existing sources, which even he had overlooked, and from the journals and private communications of very recent travellers in the wild theatre of Polo's wanderings.

But Colonel Yule's rectifications and augmentations of our knowledge of the terra incognita, no insignificant portion of which had remained untrodden by any European foot save the Polo's until the present day (we may almost say, hour), are by no means wholly borrowed from the reports of others. His long personal familiarity with the East had qualified him to comprehend and interpret much that had proved unintelligible to former students, and he has given proof of rare discrimination in reconciling and harmonizing many apparently conflicting statements in his text by judicious choice between different readings, by happy conjectural emendation of corrupt passages in the manuscripts, and by illustrations and supplementary contributions from his own ample stores of knowledge, as well as often from quite unexpected quarters. Colonel Yule modestly disclaims any extraordinary amount of linguistic attainment, but few professional scholars, even in these days of polyglot study, read as many tongues as he, and in his felicitous translations from quaint and obscure or equivocal originals (which may well earn for him the compliment of grand translateur, anciently bestowed upon Chaucer), in his verbal criticisms, and especially in his new and ingenious etymologies, he has exhibited a linguistic sagacity which would have placed him in the first rank of philologists if he had chosen to devote himself to language with as much zeal as he has done to geography. We will not anticipate the judgment of the learned by suggesting that Colonel Yule has given further evidence of his knowledge and command of the dialect of his author, in the concoction of the curious "manuscript in the old French tongue of the early fourteenth century," quoted in the preface to his second edition; but in any case, the reader who, supposing himself a proficient in that "old French tongue," denies the genuineness of the manuscript, will show no mean amount of attainment in that respect if he is able to adduce good linguistic grounds for questioning its authenticity.

While linguists are many, truly genial geographers have always been few, and the most adventurous and even learned travellers—such, for example, as Manning, whom Charles Lamb vainly endeavored to dissuade from a journey to "Independent Tartary"—often want the power or the inclination to turn their observations to any real scientific account. It is therefore fortunate for the cause of knowledge that Colonel Yule has chosen to exert his rare gifts in a comparatively unattractive and unambitious field of labor, and contented himself with arranging around Polo's slender and disjointed carpentry a mass of binding, covering, and decorative joiner-work, which has compacted it into a coherent and harmonious whole, instead of rearing an independent monument to his own literary reputation out of original materials. The compositors' rule, oftener preached than practised, is: "Follow copy, even if it go out at the window." The commentator must stick to his author with like fidelity, though he lead him to the antipodes. Hence, in a case like the present, the arrangement of his illustrative and supplementary matter can be neither alphabetical nor chronological, nor even strictly topographical, and, to borrow an illustration from an art in which Colonel Yule is an adept, his architecture, though not wanting in unity of design or in symmetry of detail, must be of the Arabo-Gothic rather than of the Grecian type. At the first view, therefore, the book in its present form has not the aspect of a philosophical whole, and in fact we are not yet able to co-ordinate scientifically the scanty geographical secrets of the impenetrable East, which thus far have been more or less dimly revealed to us. But what is possible in this respect has been most ably done by our editor, and it is by no means unmerited praise to say of this new redaction of the book of Messer Marco Polo, that it has certainly done much more to illustrate the wanderings of the Cathaian traveller than any—we are tempted to say than all—of the threescore editions which had preceded it. Indeed, as a repository of our existing knowledge of 'Cathay and the Way Thither,' it comes very near realizing the ideal prefigured by a former publication of Colonel Yule's under that quaint but attractive title.

He has, however, by no means confined himself to the illustration of Polo's itinerary, which could have no great interest except for geographical specialists. His enquiries embrace a vast range and variety of subject, natural, civil, and religious history, political economy, social institutions, manners and customs, commerce, curious questions in literature and art, directly or indirectly connected with the nature and life of the vast countries lying between Venice and the uttermost East, or bordering on the routes followed by the three Polos in their whole periegesis and their intermediate journeys. This wide scope of research has given opportunity for many learned disquistions and erudite excursuses, which Colonel Yule's spirited treatment and pleasant style have rendered attractive, and he has thus accomplished the difficult task of making even a commentary in a high degree both instructive and entertaining.

The introductory matter, text, and annotations fill two octavos of about 600 pages each, of which the narrative, though printed in large type, composes not much more than a quarter. Fifty closely-printed pages are occupied with a singularly complete and commodious verbal and real index, wisely arranged under a single alphabet; the form, type, paper, and mechanical execution of the book are unexceptionable, and the pictorial illustrations numerous and well designed and engraved. In short, the author and publisher have evidently spared neither pains nor cost to make these volumes as conspicuous for their material good taste, elegance, and convenience as for their literary merit.

The Book of Marco Polo has given rise to more questions difficult of solution than any work of the same nature which has ever appeared. For example, the personal veracity and general accuracy of the traveller, the possibility of tracing his routes and identifying his localities, the reason for certain strange omissions to notice remarkable objects, facts, and customs with which Polo, supposing his narrative to be true, must have been familiar, such as the great Chinese wall, the mariner's compass, gunpowder, the art of printing, the general use of tea, and the like, which we should suppose could not fail to strike very powerfully the attention of an intelligent European of the thirteenth century; then the critical doubts as to the form and language of the original text, and whether there may not have been a later and more complete recension than any of which manuscripts have yet been found—all these Colonel Yule has ably discussed, and to many of them given satisfactory answers, though there remain some of which no sufficient resolution has been suggested. One of the most important of these, next to the fundamental problem of Marco's sincerity and honest purpose of speaking the truth, comes under the last head—that, namely, of the possible existence of a fuller recital of the traveller's observations than that of which alone old copies are known to us. Ramusio's Italian text, published about the middle of the sixteenth century, contains a considerable number of weighty passages which do not occur elsewhere. Are these fabrications, or are they taken from a more complete narrative drawn up by Polo at a later period, and under more favorable circumstances than that taken down in French, from his oral recital, by Rusticiano or Rustichello di Pisa, his fellow-captive in prison at Genoa? Many critics have rejected these additions as spurious, less on the ground of improbability or internal evidence of unauthenticity, than because Polo himself is known to have recognized the text of Rusticiano (in which they are not found) as authoritative, as no manuscript copies are known from which Ramusio could have borrowed them. Colonel Yule, for reasons which it seems difficult to resist, believes that they are in great part "supplementary recollections" of the traveller noted down at a later period of his life by way of illustration or complement to some copy of Rusticiano's manuscript; and we may add what, perhaps, should have been said before, that our editor is firmly persuaded of Polo's strict veracity and honesty of purpose.

The neglect of Polo to mention noteworthy points which could not possibly have escaped the observation of one who travelled so emphatically with his eyes open as the Venetian, is not so easily dealt with, and, after all, we cannot do better than to ascribe the omissions, in a general way, to the peculiar circumstances under which Polo's narrative was communicated to his companion in captivity. It was written in a crowded prison, where, as Cervantes says, "todo triste ruido tiene su habitacion" (every doleful sound hath its abiding-place), and of course in the midst of innumerable interruptions and distractions. Many years had elapsed since the period of the earliest journeys, and Marco had neither journal nor notes to refresh his memory, or indeed, so far as we can see, any motive for deliberately recording observations which might, under the circumstances, prove revelations of important commercial secrets to the rivals and enemies of his country. These considerations account for many imperfections. But we, being unhappily of the guild of book-makers, think ourselves authorized to treat this as a question of our competence, and to theorize a little on the composition of Rusticiano's book. We shall therefore, pace Colonel Yule, enter into some perhaps heretical, and possibly even not altogether novel, speculations on the technical authorship of the work.

According to Rusticiano, the two, being together in prison, said to each other: "Go to, now, let us make a book," and thereupon Polo dictated, and Rusticiano as amanuensis wrote, this now world-famous story. This account of the origin of the work has generally been accepted as satisfactory, but let us consider the probabilities. There is no apparent reason why Marco, who, educated as a merchant, certainly was able to write, should have dictated his narrative to a scribe instead of penning it himself; the first person is rarely used in the recital, which has much more the air of a hearsay report than of a copy from formal dictation; it is too unmethodical and décousu to be accepted as a deliberate history of travel and observation. It is written in French, not the vernacular of either party, Marco being a Venetian, Rusticiano a Pisan; and, considering where and how Polo spent the years of his youth and early manhood, it is hardly probable that he even knew French. It is therefore a translation, not an original redaction, and as it is much more strongly marked by Italic words and idioms than Rusticiano's other works in French, the communications from which it was derived were probably made in Venetian, Marco's household speech, or in that of Rusticiano, Tuscan, which at that time, A.D. 1298, had already acquired recognition as the lingua comune of Italy. Now Rusticiano was a professional writer, or, to describe him more accurately, a writer by trade. He would have been the Anthony Munday of his time, a regular bookseller's hack, had he not lived before the halcyon days when, to the infinite advantage of literature and the unfailing solace and comfort of "unprotected" authors, the process of evolution, development, or natural selection had unfolded that latest form of literary organism—the modern bookseller. Rusticiano combined in himself the functions of author, editor, and publisher, "three single gentlemen rolled into one," and he found it convenient to live on the product of other men's brains rather than on the growths of his own. So he translated, revised, compiled, abridged, and supplemented for publication or republication such good matter as he "became possessed of by finding." The marvellous relations of Messer Marco might very naturally strike him as excellent raw material for a new book, especially as the prison library was probably not very rich in materia prima for literary elaboration. Hence, under correction, it seems to us very probable that Rusticiano, upon his own mere motion, and not as the scribe of Polo, jotted down what struck him most in the conversations with which they whiled away the dreary hours of their long confinement. He wrote the story in French, because French was his professional language, and was indeed employed as best suited for general circulation by many a better man than himself—as, for example, Brunetto Latini and Canale, the one a Tuscan, the other a Venetian. We may suppose, then, that in Rusticiano's text we have not what Marco would deliberately have dictated as a history of his adventures, but so much of his oral narratives, delivered rather in the form of yarns than in a consecutive recital, as the "gaping soul" of Rusticiano understood or misunderstood, remembered, and thought good to record; and we may fairly ascribe many of Polo's otherwise unaccountable reticences and discrepancies to a want of intelligence, judgment, and memory in his reporter. Nor is the fact that Polo subsequently recognized Rusticiano's patchwork as authentic, by giving away copies of it, in the least inconsistent with this theory. Polo, once at liberty, and returned to his merchandising and other cares at Venice, would naturally have other things to do, in restoring his affairs, deranged by his absence, and setting his house in order, than to write a book, and he would gladly avail himself of Rusticiano's labors to spare himself a toil, for which, as a busy man and "no scholard," he had neither leisure nor stomach. He virtually said to the curious world: "Take this; ye get no more of me"; and we must thankfully accept this summary, such as it is, not only as the one source to which we owe nearly all we know of Polo and his wanderings, but as a memorial, without which, as our editor suggests, even the name of the Venetian Ulysses might have utterly perished.

Polo's reputation for veracity was by no means high in his own time. Not only was he known as "Squire Million" to the street (or rather canal) boys of Venice, but he is complimented with that sobriquet in legal documents of the period. Copies of his recital, indeed, were multiplied; but, probably on account of the general distrust of his reports, he seems to have produced little general impression on the European mind of his own or even of succeeding centuries. Mandeville, whose descriptions sometimes so nearly coincide with Polo's as to have suggested the idea that his book is made up of plagiarisms from Marco and other voyagers, never mentions Polo. Even Dante does not appear to have had any knowledge of him; he is not referred to in the Dittamondo of Fazio degli Uberti, or, so far as we have observed, by the compilers of any of the encyclopaedic works of the fourteenth century, or by Froissart, fond as he was of fable and tales of adventure; and Col. Yule does not find Marco to have been freely used by any writer of that period except the author of the romance of Baudouin de Sébourg. On the other hand, Chancer, who, we believe, does not name Polo, was evidently acquainted with his travels, and, as Col. Yule pointed out, borrowed the name of his hero Cambuscan from that of Chinghiz Kaan, who figures so largely in Polo's history. But Chaucer was a fabulist, and would not have respected or quoted Polo the less if he had supposed all his reports to be quite fictitious. De Barros, so far as we have been able to discover, refers to Polo only once, and then barely to correct an error respecting Prester John into which the traveller had fallen, nor can we find any mention of him in Clavijo, in Pietro della Valle, or in Coryat. It is curious that while Milton's imagination was evidently fired by Messer Marco Millione's notices of the "barbaric pearl and gold" which "the gorgeous East with richest hand showers on her kings," and his poems are pervaded with the prestige of Oriental life, Shakspere nowhere gives any indication of a knowledge of Polo's travels, scarcely even of an acquaintance with the strange world that forms their theme. But Shakspere, long before Pope, was of opinion that the "proper study of mankind is man," and Polo's Paynims were as simply men and only men as the most home-bred of the dramatist's countrymen. With him the accidents, the outward circumstance, the integuments of humanity were nothing, and under his scalpel the moral and intellectual dissection of the Englishman showed an organization not differing from that of the Tartar. Shakspere, therefore, had nothing to learn from Polo, and the material splendor of the East had no attraction for his eyes. Besides, Shakspere was a contemporary of Raleigh, whose search for El Dorado, following the Spanish conquests in America, had turned the minds of Englishmen in another direction. The old half-superstitious reverence for the East was neutralized, and men were coming to believe that not the morning star, but Hesperus, indeed, "bringeth all good things."

Helen P. Margesson (essay date 1892)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Marco Polo's Explorations and Their Influence upon Columbus," in The New England Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 6, August 1892, pp. 803-15.

[In the following excerpt, Margesson briefly comments on the influence Polo's narrative had on Christopher Columbus.]

While Columbus never directly mentions Polo, his hopes and fancies and the deeds of his late years are wholly incomprehensible if he had no acquaintance with the writings of the great Venetian. In a Latin version of Marco Polo, printed at Antwerp about 1485, preserved in the Columbina at Seville, there are marginal notes in the handwriting of Columbus, and he may have become familiar with the work while living in Lisbon, through the cosmographer, Martin Behaim, a native of Nuremburg, where it was published extensively. The recent invention of printing had begun not only to diffuse literature more widely, but to reduce the price of manuscripts; and in a country actively engaged in exploration, as was Portugal at this time, Columbus had uncommon opportunities for the study of a book which certainly appears to have had an almost fatal ascendancy over his mind. It is known that he had indirect knowledge of the Eastern traveller through a correspondence with the learned physician and mathematician, Toscanelli. Columbus's first letter from the latter was a copy of one previously sent to a canon of Lisbon, who, by order of Alfonso V., had asked the Italian doctor if there were a possibility of a voyage to the west as well as to the south. This letter is little more than an extract from Marco Polo, but, according to Ferdinand Columbus, it was the means of giving Christopher courage to pursue his plans of discovery. Toscanelli wrote of the territory of the Khan and of its great cities, especially of Quinsay, and tells how, two hundred years before, ambassadors had come from Cublai to the Pope. This, of course, refers to the mission intrusted to the elder Polos, which Marco relates in his book. There was also a brilliant description of the wealth and power of the East. Accompanying the letter was a chart on which were the distances between Lisbon and Quinsay, and between the imaginary island of Antilla and Cipango. This first epistle was followed by a second, repeating the tale of kingdoms full of spices and jewels. "It made the Admiral still hotter for his discovery," says Ferdinand Columbus. It seems to be conceded that these two letters of Toscanelli, founded on the writings of Marco Polo, had the greatest possible influence on the mind of the Western explorer.…

C. Raymond Beazley (essay date 1906)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to Dawn of Modern Geography: A History of Exploration and Geographical Science, Vol. III, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1906, pp. 1-14.

[In the following excerpt, Beazley provides an overview of the surge in geographic exploration that occurred from the mid-thirteenth to the early years of the fifteenth century—providing context for Polo's explorations.]

Our conquest of the world we live in has a long history; in that history there are many important epochs, eras in which a vital advance was made, wherein the whole course of events was modified; but among such epochs there are few of greater importance, of deeper suggestiveness, and of more permanent effect than the century and a half [1260-1420] in which we gradually embark upon the oceanic stage of our development. For, in relation to man's knowledge of the earth and his exploration of the same, it is now that we reach the end of the overland philosophy of European expansion, it is now that we turn to another element to give us that final triumph which seems denied on terra firma. The Geographical history of the later mediaeval time is in many ways like its Constitutional, Literary, or Religious history—a record of brilliant achievement and still more brilliant hope, chequered by disillusion and disaster. Just as the noble ideals and promising experiments of political reformers, of Classical or Christian idealists, experience during these years the extremest alternations of confidence and despair; just as the 'perfect' Parliament of 1295 leads on to the New Monarchy; just as the struggles which cement the states of Modern Europe take in their later phases a peculiarly repulsive character, and the creative work of a Philip Augustus or a St. Louis has to be completed in such a gloomy and sordid struggle as that of the Hundred Years' War;—so in the annals of European expansion we find the work of earlier time is only perfected in suffering. The pioneers of Christendom cannot be roused to the effective exploration of ocean highways, of sea-routes to Cathay and the Indies, save by the ruin or ruinous decay of their influence upon the older land-routes of commerce; by the disappearance of the earlier, civilized, Islam; by the destruction of well-nigh all the Levantine outposts of Latin Christendom; by the paralysis of Byzantine power; by the break-up of the Mongol empire; by the conversion of the Western Tartars to Islam; and by the consequent revival, for an indefinite future, of the chief enemy of Catholic Civilization.

But before this final disenchantment has taken place, before the traders, missionaries, and statesmen of the 'Roman' World are confronted with the wreck of their most cherished castle of fancy, we have to notice an amazing series of efforts for the development of a genuine world-intercourse from Atlantic to Pacific, across the length or longitude of the Old World, mainly conducted by overland paths.

By the side of this we propose to consider the contemporary enterprises, spasmodic and transitory as they often are, in the way of maritime exploration. These enterprises, it is true, do not assume decisive importance in World-History till after the collapse of the wider overland commerce, when Prince Henry of Portugal imparts permanence, continuity, and comparative rapidity to the hitherto feeble cause of Atlantic discovery. But, at all events, they reveal, for the first time in the long life of mankind, some of the mysteries of the Sea of Darkness: they lift the veil from the Azores, the Canaries, and the Madeira group; they begin the search for an African coast water-way to the treasure-houses of Asia. The finding of that water-way is a decisive event in the European conquest of the outer world; the discovery of the Atlantic Islands contributes almost as much as the Portuguese advance along the Cape route towards the American revelation; here, as elsewhere, the earliest stages of a great movement are by no means the least suggestive, the least important, or the least deserving of study.

Once more, we hope to show how in scientific advance (as in oceanic exploration) the later Middle Ages frequently offer a noteworthy contrast to the decline and decay so often associated with their name; how in the midst of so much débris of a dying world we have here the first-fruits of a new and living one; and how the coming victories of our race, revealing the full extent and character of the world-surface, and surpassing in one hundred years the work of the preceding thousand, are prepared for by the invention of nautical instruments, and the execution of the first true maps.

The comparative importance of overland routes, of continental travel and traffic, has rarely been so great as in the earlier Middle Age, when the peoples of the future, the Christian races of Europe, were almost wholly deprived of the free use of the sea, by their own superstition, ignorance, and barbarism, by the growth of Islam, and by the heathen pirates, rovers, and conquerors of the North. In the Central Mediaeval time, Christendom, though full of expansive energy, relies mainly on land routes for its penetration of the outer world. While, even in the postcrusading period, the maritime side of European activity is far from having reached that preponderance which it attains with the discoveries of Bartholomew Diaz, of Christopher Columbus, of Vasco da Gama, and of Ferdinand Magellan—discoveries which bring with them the Modern World in geography and international history, just as the labours of Erasmus, of Luther, and of Loyola bring with them the Modern World in culture and religion. From the close of the fifteenth century to the age of railways, the overland intercourse of mankind is decisively subordinate to that oversea.

In the time now before us—the later thirteenth century, the fourteenth, the earliest fifteenth—we are, it is true, approaching modern conditions, but we have not yet reached them. We are still considering, for the most part, Continental developments of our civilization; we have not wholly left the age of caravan tracking, river navigation, and coast sailing; we are still far from the freedom and rapidity of movement which even the sixteenth century is able to realize. We are still in a time when the overland journey from the Crimea to Peking can be made with greater safety and in far less time than the sea voyage from the Persian Gulf to the Fokien ports and the mouth of the Yangtse Kiang. Yet even in the lifetime of Marco Polo, Genoese seamen venture into the Atlantic and push far along the West African coast in search of the Indies; the purely oceanic Azores are partially discovered—the Madeira group is sighted—the Canaries are repeatedly visited—by contemporaries of Petrarch and Boccaccio; the first use of the magnet by Italian seamen, the first accurate coast-charts of Italian pilots and captains, date at least from the closing decades of the thirteenth century and the opening decades of the fourteenth.

The Crusading Movement, the greatest collective enterprise of Latin Christendom, ends in military failure; but long before the fall of the Frankish States in the Levant, the non-military effects of the Crusades are proving themselves of higher value than the political conquests originally planned. And among these effects none is of higher value than the widening of our commerce and geographical outlook consequent upon the sacred wars. From the time of the Latin settlements in Syria, the expansion of Europe, the Christian discovery of terra incognita, are much more closely linked with the advance of trade than ever before; in the same way, the maintenance of the Crusading States in the East Mediterranean basin more and more devolves upon the maritime and commercial powers:—with the rise of the Mongol Dominion in Asia, the trade, the faith, and the mental outlook of our ancestors seem alike destined to a momentous extension.

Nor is it merely an appearance, a might-have-been. The history of the formal intercourse between the Mongol world and Western Christendom, initiated by Innocent IV and John de Plano Carpini, covers a period of more than 120 years (A.D. 1245-1368); and in this time, Tartar Eur-Asia—from the Black Sea and the Polish frontiers to the Pacific and the edge of the Siberian forest belt—is traversed in various directions by European preachers, traders, diplomatists, soldiers, and adventurers,—by men of Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, and Germany. Nor is it merely traversed. A very creditable and fairly exact knowledge of High Asia and of the Far East is obtained and embodied in written descriptions, in oral tradition, and in maps: the Books of Marco Polo and Friar Odoric (of 1298 and 1330); the Merchants' Handbook of Pegolotti (of c. 1340), and the Catalan Atlas (of 1375) are but the chief of many works in which a Roman Christian of the fourteenth century could find a reliable body of information and a fairly truthful delineation of great part of China and Indo-China, of India proper, of the Indian Archipelago, and of Upper Asia.

In this premature, but ever-memorable development of continental intercourse, the earliest figures are those of diplomatists, such as Carpini and Rubruquis; the greatest figures are those of merchants such as the Polos; in its later history we find European progress in Asia associated more and more intimately with trade-enterprise; it is evident throughout, to any one who looks below the surface, that commercial interests are the underlying and essential fact. But, on the surface, missionary activity often arrests our attention more sharply with its romantic daring, its brilliant triumphs won at so vast a distance from home, its pathetic and fascinating literary memorials. The experiment of winning Asia by Mongol alliance, of establishing regular communication,—ecclesiastical, mercantile, and diplomatic—between Western Europe and the Heathen Lands beyond the Islamic World was tried,—and failed; but none the less it illuminated a page too often soiled by baseness and smeared by dullness; and there are few brighter chapters in later Mediaeval history than those which tell of the journeys, schemes, successes, and failures of the Christian Pioneers in Asia. For Monte Corvino and Odoric in China; Jordanus in India; Pascal in Central Asia; the Polos alike in Turkestan, in Mongolia, in Cathay, in the Archipelago, in the Deccan, and in Persia; the Franciscans martyred near Bombay, near Lake Balkhash, or near Astrakhan; the merchants who follow out the commercial routes from Trebizond, the Don estuary, or the Gulf of Scanderoon, to the Pacific; the statesmen who weave a network of Roman bishoprics over the Orient, and dispatch so many Legations to the Court of the Grand Khan—all do something to redeem from reproach a time which, however often misconceived and depreciated, yields in essential import to no part of the Middle Ages.

In reality, while the fourteenth century draws on, the mediaeval stage of Human Development is beginning to pass away,—as the Papacy sinks into that Slough of Despond which we associate with the 'Babylonish Captivity' at Avignon, the Great Schism, and the fruitless efforts at reform by Oecumenical Councils; but as the mediaeval sun declines, it rests upon a splendid failure, and the beginnings of a more splendid triumph. The arms, the commerce, the religion of the Catholic nations, after an heroic struggle, are defeated in their frontal attacks upon the East; but in this struggle, Europeans acquire much of the knowledge essential to ultimate success; and, by the longer sea routes, they accomplish the outflanking and surmounting of every obstacle.

Italian, Catalan, Castillian, French, and Portuguese seamen share in varying degrees the credit of the first advances in this Oceanic field of action. And as in land travel, so in maritime; the Republics of Italy, both in theory and practice, are the leaders and teachers of the Christian states. Even as the Florentine Dante is the first great name in the new literatures of the West, so the Genoese Dorias and Vivaldi and Malocelli are the first to resume the old Phoenician and Norse enterprise in the Atlantic. And even as commercial ambitions are the most fruitful incentive to the land-exploration of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so the earliest European venture in search of a water-way to the Indies is inspired by the unfulfilled desire to 'bring back useful things for trade.' The same practical purpose which takes the Polos from Venice to the Court of Kublai Khan encourages Mediterranean seamen from the other side of Italy to challenge the timidity, inaction, and superstition of so many generations.

The first age of Atlantic exploration (from about 1270 to 1340) is purely Italian; the second (from the middle of the fourteenth century) is marked by the gradual co-operation of other Europeans, especially from the coasts of Spain and France. Mariners from Catalan harbours, and especially from the Balearics, like the Genoese of fifty years before, seek for mercantile gain beyond the furthest known; they set out in 1346 to find the alleged River of Gold on the African coast, beyond Cape Bojador; with the like object, the conquest of new markets, French adventurers attack the Canary Islands in 1402; it is doubtless with similar hopes that unknown explorers (almost certainly Italians) add the Madeira group and the Eastern members of the Azorean Archipelago to the map of the Terra Habitabilis before 1351. With the commencement of the third maritime period, that of continuous, state-aided enterprise, led by a royal prince (Henry of Viseu), and prosecuted as a vital national interest by an organized Christian nation (that of Portugal), we have passed out of the Mediaeval and entered the Modern time. The 'Dawn of Modern Geography,' in the strict sense of the words, ends with the first voyages of the Infant's captains.

Down to the close of the twelfth century the Scientific Geography of Christendom is at best a feeble thing, markedly inferior to that of Islam (itself the somewhat slavish disciple of Greek thought), frequently a prey to the most absurd misconception and the most childish fable, and rarely aiming at anything higher than the reproduction of purely traditional methods and results. But when the Northmen and the Crusades have once thoroughly aroused the vital energies of the leading Christian races, they begin to expand in mind as well as in empire, and by the time of Prince Henry, a Portuguese can say ' our discoveries were not made without foresight and knowledge. For our sailors went out well taught and furnished with instruments and the rules of astrology and geometry, things which all mariners must know.' There is no exaggeration here: for compass, astrolabe, timepiece, and chart are all in use among South European seamen before the close of the fourteenth century.

A venerable tradition ascribes to Amalfi the introduction of the magnet among Western seamen; but the first mention of the 'ugly black stone' in Europe can be traced to the English monk Alexander Neckam and the French satirist Guyot de Provins, who both mention it about the time of the Third Crusade, not as the secret of the learned, but as the guide of mariners. And in spite of the astonishment produced half a century later in the mind of Brunetto Latini by the polar properties of the mysterious object, we cannot doubt that what was known to Roger Bacon, to Jacques de Vitry, and to Raymond Lull, as well as to Scandinavian poets and Moslem merchants of the thirteenth century, was employed by many Christian seamen of the Mediterranean when the Genoese made their first voyages in the Atlantic.

Amalfi did not introduce the magnet into Christendom; but 'Flavio Gioja' or some other citizen of that once adventurous republic which filled so large a part of the void between two great ages of civilization, the Classical and the Crusading, may have brought the magnetic needle into more general use by fitting it in a primitive compass. That it had reached such general use by the opening of the fifteenth century, at least among the oceanfaring seamen of Portugal, is clear from Prince Henry's exhortations to certain laggards among his earliest explorers.

Good maps were as valuable for true progress as good instruments; and here the close of the thirteenth century witnessed a momentous revolution. At a time when most European cartography was still half mythical, when mapdesigns were often rather picture-books of zoological and theological legend than delineations of the world, strictly scientific coast-charting begins with the Mediterranean 'Portolani.' The earliest existing specimen is of about 1300; but the type which then appears (with the Carte Pisane) must have been for some time in process of elaboration; and it is probable that examples of such work, dealing with sectional areas of shore-line, at least inside the Straits of Gibraltar, may yet be discovered from the time of the last Crusades. These plans of practical mariners are a refreshing contrast, in their often almost modern accuracy, to the work of other schools, from the most ambitious classical compositions (in Ptolemy's Geography) down to the wildest productions of mediaeval fabulists. Careful survey-work of this kind was apparently unknown to the Helleno-Roman world, as much as to the native Moslem civilization. The ancient Peripli were sailing directions, not drawn but written, and the only Arabic Portolan yet found is a copy of an Italian one. It was probably in North-West Italy that this kind of work originated, though very early traces of Portolan draughtsmanship may be found in Catalan lands; and long after the Italian leadership in exploration and commerce had begun to pass away, Italian science still controlled cartography; thus, among the early Portolani, the vast majority (413 out of 498) were executed by the countrymen of Marco Polo. At the same time we must recognize that an important minority of the leading fourteenth-century Portolani, such as the 'Dulcert' of 1339 and the magnificent 'Atlas' of 1375, are of Catalan authorship.

The first true maps constitute an important chapter in the history of our civilization; they mark the essential transition, in world-delineation, from ancient to modern, from empirical to scientific, from theory to practice; but they are only just beginning to receive adequate recognition. For they 'never had for their object to provide a popular and fashionable amusement'; they were not drawn to illustrate the works of classical authors or famous prelates; still less did they embody the legends and dreams of chivalry or romance; they were seldom executed by learned men; and small enough, in return, was the acknowledgement which the learned made them when their work was incorporated, by the geographical compilers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in pompous atlases of far inferior merit.

The continental or Asiatic travel, the maritime or Atlantic exploration, and the scientific advance of the later Middle Ages are the chief subjects of the present volume: the first may be said to supply the matter, the attractions and rewards, of European expansion; the others provided the form in which success was reached, the art of navigation, a working knowledge of oceanic conditions.

And the one was as much needed as the other. Human enterprise did its work so well because of a reasonable hope; men crept round Africa in face of the Atlantic storms because of the golden East beyond. That East (as we have noticed) had first been adequately revealed to Europe by the merchants and missionaries, the diplomatists and adventurers, who had followed the Crusading armies to Syria, and had then crept onwards to Cathay and the Indies. Thus inspiring certainty had been imparted to what had long been a tradition, but had remained, for all practical purposes, outside Latin experience; thus to European cupidity had been opened the greatest of earth's material prizes; thus had the true terrestrial paradise been pointed out to Western ambition. It was worth some labour to reach the treasuries of the Orient, once those treasuries were clearly located and verified; however long and toilsome, a sea path, free from all perils but those of nature, became more and more attractive as land routes were more and more endangered and obstructed. And once mistress of the South Asian trade, Christendom, already wielding the fighting power of the West, might hope to crush its old enemy Islam between two overwhelming forces, hammer and anvil—might dream of the control of the entire world.

The Pilgrim-Travel of Greek and Roman Christendom during the later mediaeval centuries does not call for any special notice in this place; though full of quaint and curious incident, it has no longer, as in the 'Dark Ages' or pre-Crusading period, a typical and vital character. Even more than in the Crusading time it has ceased, except perhaps among the Russian people, to be representative of Christian expansive activity. But in the number and position of those who take part in it, and in the character of their memoirs, we may still find enough of value and interest to compel a rather detailed survey.

Commercial enterprise, on the other hand, has now ceased to be merely the theme of one section of our subject; it pervades the whole. Mercantile conceptions are everywhere; the philosophy of utility is beginning to rule; in the material ambitions of commerce we find the mainspring of the chief outward movements of the time.…

N. M. Penzer (essay date 1929)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo, edited by N. M. Penzer, translated by John Frampton, The Argonaut Press, 1929, pp. xi-lx.

[In the following excerpt, Penzer provides a detailed analysis of the history of the Polian manuscripts.]

The existence of an Elizabethan translation of the Travels of Marco Polo will probably come as a surprise to the majority of readers. This is not to be wondered at when we consider that only three copies of the work in question are known to exist, and that it has never been reprinted.

The very rarity of the book would be of itself sufficient excuse for reprinting it, but in the present case there are other considerations which make its appearance little less than a necessity.

In the first place, its value to students of Elizabethan literature is self-evident. Bearing this in mind, I have made no attempt to alter the spelling in any way, nor have I marred the charm of the narrative as known to contemporary readers by the insertion of unsightly notes. These are relegated to the end of the volume. The original head-and tail-pieces have also been preserved, together with sixteenth-century capitals.

In the second place, the translation, made by John Frampton from the Castilian of Santaella, originates in a MS belonging to the Venetian recension, one of the most important of all the Polian recensions. Its editing, therefore, should be of considerable interest.

Then again, the recently issued work of Prof. Benedetto, to which we shall return later, has so largely helped to unravel the tangled skein of Polian texts, that it is now necessary to reconsider afresh many of our long-accepted theories.

Finally, thanks to the recent surveys carried out in Central Asia and Mongolia, we are able to trace the itineraries with a much greater degree of accuracy than before, and although many queries still remain, some of the blanks have been filled in, and a few of the old mistakes rectified.

John Frampton

Apart from what Frampton tells us about himself in the Prefaces to one or two of his translations, we know nothing whatever about him. From these we learn that he was resident for many years in Spain, and that on his return to his native country about 1576, employed his leisure in translating several works from the Spanish. His knowledge of the language was very extensive as a comparison of the original with any of his translations will show. He must have worked hard during the first few years after his return to England, as between 1577 and 1581 six separate translations made their appearance.

His first work seems to have been an English rendering of Nicolas Monardes' Primera Y Segunda Y Tercera Partes de la Historia Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que siruen en Medicina, printed at London in 1577 by William Norton "in Poules Churche-yarde," under the title of Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde wherein is declared the rare and singular vertues of diverse and sundrie hearbes, trees, oyles, plantes and stones, with their aplications, as well for phisicke as chirurgerie,

It was dedicated to Sir Edward Dyer (d. 1607), the Elizabethan courtier and poet, as was also Marco Polo and another of his translations, on China, to be mentioned later. A welcome reprint of Joyfull Newes has recently (1925) appeared in the Tudor Translations Series, edited by Stephen Gaselee. In his Introduction, the editor draws attention to a most interesting point: that it is by no means unlikely that to John Frampton is due the first interest taken in tobacco in England, leading shortly to the actual importation of the first smoking implements and the plant itself by Ralph Lane and Francis Drake.

To Monardes' description of tobacco, Frampton has added an account given him by Jean Nicot himself relating how, when French ambassador at Lisbon in 1559-61, he became acquainted with the new discovery and sent seeds to his Queen, Catherine de' Medici. An abstract of the actual report sent to France follows, in which we read of "the smoke of this Hearbe, the whiche thei receave at the mouth through certain coffins [paper cases of conical shape], suche as the Grocers do use to put in their Spices."

Thus nine years before Ralegh received the "herba santa" from Drake, a full description of it had been published in London by Frampton. A second edition, with some additions, came out in 1580, and a third edition in 1596.

His next work appears to be unrecorded, except in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London. See Arber's Transcript, Vol. II., where we find that Henry Bynneman obtained a license on March 10th, 1578, for, A brief Declaracon of all the portes. creekes. baies. and havens conteyned in the west India. the originall whereof was Dedicated to the mightie Kinge Charles the V Kinge of Castile. I know of no copy in existence to-day. It was copied by Ames and Herbert, Typographical Antiquities, Vol. II.

In January 1579 Frampton finished writing the Dedication of his Marco Polo, so we may assume that it appeared in the early spring of that year. We shall return to a full discussion of this work later.…


Rodrigo Fernández de Santaella y Córdoba was born in 1444 at Carmona, twenty-six miles north-east of Seville. Nothing is known of his early life, and we first hear of him in 1467 when he was presented with a fellowship of theology at the College of San Clemente de los Españoles at Bologna by the Archbishop and Chapter of Toledo. The fellowships lasted for eight years, so we may assume that Santaella remained at Bologna until 1475. After taking his degree as Doctor of Theology and Arts, he preached before Sixtus IV at Rome in 1477, in the presence of Innocent VIII.

Meanwhile Isabella had been recognized as heiress to Castile, and in 1469 had married Ferdinand of Aragon. The "Catholic Kings" were proclaimed in 1474, and soon after Santaella returned to Spain and embarked on his career of ecclesiastical preferment.

In 1499 his magnum opus appeared, the Vocabulario Eclesiástico, dedicated to the Illustrious Catholic Queen.

It went through no less than thirty editions, which are duly recorded by D. Joaquin Hazañas y La Rua, whose work, Maese Rodrigo, 1444-1509, is practically my sole authority for these few remarks on Santaella.

His Sacerdotalis instructio circa missam followed later in the same year, and the Manual de Doctrina necesario al visitador y á los cléigos in 1502.

In 1503 his Castilian translation of Marco Polo was published. In his Preface Santaella tells us that he was prompted to undertake the work since he realized its importance and no one had come forward to do it. It had already been printed in German, Latin, Venetian and Portuguese, and Santaella wished to see it in his native tongue. He also tells us that his library contained the treatise of Nicolo de' Conti, another Venetian, whose travels largely confirmed the narrative of Polo, and because of this fact he determined to include a translation in his work, "porque como nuestro senor dixo por boca de dos ó tres se confirma mas 1a verdad."

As is related on a later page the Polo MS used by Santaella is now preserved in the Biblioteca del Seminario at Seville. Subsequent editions appeared in 1507, 1518, 1520 and 1527, the last three being posthumous.

It is unnecessary here to enumerate the subsequent publications of Santaella. They consisted chiefly of sermons and other ecclesiastic writings of a similar nature, and are fully catalogued by La Rua.

On Sept. 12th 1502 Hurtado de Mendoza, Cardinal of Seville, had died, and Santaella was made "Visitador" for the whole of the see. On June 3rd 1503 the Chapter divided the Archbishopric into four sections, that including the city of Seville and Triana falling to Santaella. The vacancy was filled by Don Juan de Zuniga, who made his entry into Seville on May 13th 1504, but he died on July 26th of the same year. The esteem in which Santaella was held is shown by the fact that at the death of Zúñiga, he was nominated "Provisor" during the interregnum, the next Archbishop, Fray Diego de Deza, not arriving at Seville till 1506.

For some years past Santaella had been deliberating on the founding of a university at Seville, and on June 13th 1503 the site was purchased for 4700 maravedl̀s. A Bull, pointing out the necessity for a local university for the benefit of scholars and poor clergy studying in Seville, was approved by Julius III. Santaella's idea seems to have been to create a College for ecclesiastical studies, as well as a general university. In 1508 he obtained another Bull by which the College was united with three other benefices in order that medicine might be taught, and the whole establishment placed on the same footing as the university of Salamanca.

Santaella died on Jan. 20th 1509, and was buried in the chapel of his college. In 1771 the Colegio Mayor, as it was called, was separated from the university, and by 1847 hardly one stone remained upon another.

Thus the illustrious Archdeacon of the Realm, Maese Rodrigo Santaella, was almost completely forgotten, when the Rector of the university conceived the idea of erecting a statue to its founder.

This statue, more than lifesize, was unveiled on Dec. 10th 1900, and stands in the great court of the university.

Having thus briefly given a short account both of Frampton and Santaella, we can pass on to a consideration of the extant texts of the Travels of Marco Polo.


Previous to 1928 it would have been practically impossible to have written anything new about the numerous Polian texts, unless it had been to have given more detailed accounts of the leading MSS already briefly described by Yule.

Early last year, however, the eagerly awaited work of Prof. L. F. Benedetto Marco Polo: Il Milione made its appearance in Florence, and for the first time the MSS were properly classified and arranged in the respective groups to which they belong.

But this is only a small portion of the work that Benedet-to has accomplished. He has not only increased the Yule-Cordier list of MSS from 78 to 138, but has discovered a copy of one that contains many of the passages used by Ramusio, the origin of which was not previously known. I shall return to this later.

All this forms the first part of Benedetto's work; the second half contains the text of the most famous MS of all, fr. 1116, correctly edited for the first time with textual notes and important passages from other MSS. In order to derive the full benefit afforded for the elucidation of the complicated mass of MSS, it is necessary to study both parts in conjunction.

As is only to be expected in research of this nature, it is impossible to find proofs for every statement, and in the reconstruction of lost originals there is plenty of scope for what amounts to little less than pure guess-work.

I have never been able to understand exactly why Yule discarded fr. 1116, which he owned to be the best text, in preference for those used by Pauthier which were much inferior. His excuse that the awkwardnesses and tautologies in fr. 1116 prevented its use hardly seems sufficient to debar a scholar from attempting to overcome those difficulties.

But Yule was no paleographist; he was a commentator, and a very great commentator; just as Cordier was a bibliographer. Benedetto, on the other hand, is both a philologist and a paleographist, and only such a scholar can give us the thread that will guide us safely through the labyrinthine intricacies of Polian manuscript tradition.

As a close study of the works of these scholars is a sine qua non for every student of Marco Polo, it is to be regretted that Benedetto has not used Yule's chapter enumeration for facilitating reference, in addition to his own.

Owing to the fact that Benedetto's work is limited to only six hundred copies, that it is in Italian, and that its high price places it quite outside the reach of students, I make no excuse for giving here some account of the different groups of MSS as now first classified and described by him, together with such further information or comments as my own reading has suggested.

We will consider the MSS under the following headings:

  1. The Geographic Text (fr. 1116).
  2. The Grégoire Version.
  3. The Tuscan Recension.
  4. The Venetian Recension.
  5. Ramusio's Version and the ante-F phase.

I. The Geographic Text (fr. 1116).

As is only natural, Benedetto first discusses the precious MS at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, fr. 1116 (formerly 7367). It was published in 1824 by the French Geographical Society, since when it has been known as the Geographie Text. Benedetto refers to it as F. Although that letter also includes all French MSS (twenty in number) in this group, fr. 1116 is its only complete representative. We know little of its history, except that it is supposed to have come from the old library of the French kings at Blois. It is round this MS that scholastic controversy has chiefly centred, and since the appearance of Yule's magnum opus we have been perfectly content to accept the view that in fr. 1116 we have a direct representation of what Marco Polo dictated to his fellow-prisoner in Genoa.

In the light of Benedetto's new evidence we find that we have to reconsider the whole question. In the end we shall see all our pet theories destroyed, with little hope of settling points concerning the early history of the book until various new lines of research have been exhausted to their utmost.

At first sight this may seem a hopeless position, but one thing is certain, and that is that we can never hope to clear up the history of any important work until we know what data we have to work on, and are satisfied that such data are arranged in their correct order, each separate item in its proper place. This, then, is the achievement of Benedetto. He has brought order into chaos. We are now in a position to ascertain what the MS tradition can teach us, and once we are on the right path there is no telling what headway may be made in the future.

Our discussion opens in the prison at Genoa, where Polo's fellow-prisoner, a Pisan, is called in to help in the writing of the narrative. The name of this man is shown definitively to be Rustichello, instead of such forms as Rustician or Rusticiano. It was natural to suppose that he had been chosen by the Genoese authorities because of his reputation as a writer of French Arthurian legends. Scholars have, therefore, been at pains to compare the style of fr. 1116 with that of his other works. They have considered (Yule especially) that the language of fr. 1116 is much more crude, inaccurate, and Italianized than that of Rustichello's other romances. This supported the theory of Polo's dictation, which, it was said, clearly betrayed itself in the halting style of the narrative.

Benedetto, however, after comparing numerous passages of fr. 1116 with portions of Rustichello's other works, has found practically identical phrases and idioms, some of which clearly betray the same hand. From this he argues that the same care and diligence that produced the romances also produced fr. 1116—in other words, that Rustichello did not copy down at Polo's dictation, but produced fr. 1116 (or rather a version of which that manuscript is a descendant) after a prolonged and detailed study of all the notes with which Polo supplied him. Polo was no trained writer, and, moreover, would not trust himself to present his story in a style acceptable to Western ears after his prolonged absence in the East. Here was a professional story-teller ready to hand! What more natural than to allow him to "write up" the work, after supplying him with all the necessary information! As Benedetto puts it:

Compito espresso di Rustichello dev' essere stato quello di stendere in una lingua letteraria accettabile quelle note che Marco, vissuto cosÌ a lungo in oriente, non si sentiva di formulare con esattezza in nessuna parlata occidentale. Abbiamo intravisto abbastanza com' egli, assolvendo un tal compito, sia rimasto fedele allo stile ed alla visuale dei romanzi d'avventura. Ma non possiamo dire nulla di più.

Thus the style of fr. 1116, with all its "story-teller" mannerisms, does not necessarily betray dictation, but rather the usual style of a professional romance writer, who saw in Marco Polo a King Arthur come to life! Moreover, as regards the Italian words, we find quite a large percentage of them in fr. 1463, a MS which we know was not dictated. I may note in passing that Ramusio, in the Introduction to his version (to be discussed later), neither states that Polo dictated his work, nor that a Pisan had anything to do with it. He says that Polo was "assisted by a Genoese gentleman" who "used to spend many hours daily in prison with him," and helped him to write the book. It has always been taken for granted that facts had become muddled, and it was Rustichello the Pisan to whom reference was made. Now Benedetto argues with considerable skill that fr. 1116 must represent only a later copy of the original Polo-Rustichello compilation. Might it not be possible that Ramusio, so correct and reliable in other points, is also correct here—and that one of the numerous Genoese, who without the slightest doubt did visit Polo, became very friendly with him, and helped in the editing of the work, in addition to Rustichello?

However this may be, the fact remains that we must no longer regard F as the one and only direct and immediate descendant of the original Genoese text. Nor must we imagine that all subsequent recensions can be traced back to F. As will be seen later, they originate in lost proto-types dependent on lost MSS which we must regard as brothers of F. The Cottonian Codex Otho D. 5 at the British Museum, fragmentary though it be, is of importance in proving that the Franco-Italian recension was diffused, as well as all those MSS dependent on purer French texts.

2. The Grégoire Version.

A detailed study of this version has led Benedetto to believe in the existence of a lost version, F1, very akin to F, but containing just those differences necessary to the production of an elaborated version (the lost FG) from which the Grégoire group is descended. In order to prove that FG is not a revision of F, as hitherto believed, it is necessary to determine the exact status of F1 and to reconstruct it as far as possible.

This can be done chiefly by comparing the existing types of FG with F. This will show that F does not possess all the points necessary to produce FG—some of the lacunae should be different, and certain passages should be much more detailed. Thus the FG group must come from a MS similar to F, but certainly not F itself. This lost MS is Benedetto's F1. F and F1 can, therefore, be regarded as brother MSS.

We now examine FG as a separate group. Yule only knew of five MSS while Benedetto has been able to add another ten. He divides FG into four sub-groups, A, B, C, and D. These again are subdivided into single MSS which are closely connected. Thus B has seven subgropus, of which B1 and B2 are closely related. So also B4 and B5. B3 differs slightly from these two latter, while B6 and B7 form a more collateral branch. By arranging the MSS in this way a genealogical table can gradually be built up.

I might note in passing that Pauthier's "A" type, which formed the basis of his, and Yule's, translation, consisted of A1; his "B" type of A2; and his "C" of B4. B3 and B4 (to which now must be added B5) are espcially interesting, as they bear the curious certificate of one Thibault de Cepoy, on which Pauthier placed such great importance. It appears that Thibault was a captain in the service of Philip the Fair. After beginning as valet and squire, he rose to the rank of Grand-Master of the Cross-bow men. He then entered the service of Charles de Valois, Philip's brother, who sent him to Constantinople to substantiate his claim to the throne on the grounds that his wife, Catherine de Courtenay, was the daughter of Philip de Courtenay, titular Emperor of Constantinople. Thibault left Paris on September 9th 1306, and proceeded to Venice, where he concluded a treaty of alliance in December, 1306. During his stay there he met Marco Polo, who in August, 1307, presented him with a copy of his book, inscribed as "the first copy of his said Book after he had made the same." After Thibault's death, his son Jean made a copy of the book, which he gave to Charles de Valois. He also made other copies for those of his friends who asked for them.

The three MSS mentioned above thus describe in the Note attached to them Polo's gift to Thibault, and how copies of it came to be distributed in France.

The great importance that Pauthier attached to these MSS on account of the Note has long since been proved quite unjustifiable. Although Yule realized this, he still made Pauthier's MSS the basis of his own translation.

Benedetto has entirely discredited the Note and will not even allow Thibault to give his name to the group at all. He points out that it is impossible to believe that no copy of Polo's work should have been made until 1307. Certainly it is, but where is the evidence to prove it was made in 1307? Perhaps it had been written in 1299, and Polo had kept a copy by him for any important presentation such as this. Or, on the other hand, there may be something in Langlois' suggestion when he says: "Mais, avant 1307, Ser Marco avait dû faire à bien des gens semblable politesse, peut-être avec des protestations analogues qu'il la faisait pour la première fois.…"

Benedetto credits Grégoire with being the founder of this group because his name appears on two of the MSS (A1 and A3), while the date of the work is given as 1308 on the grounds that "this present year 1308" appears on another of the MSS (D). I cannot feel convinced, however, that Benedetto has proved his point in preference to accepting the original Thibault copy as the earliest extant MS of the group.

As I have already mentioned, FG is subdivided into four main groups. Among these, A2 is the beautiful MS fr. 2810 at the Bib. Nat. containing 266 miniatures, of which 84 belong to the travels of Marco Polo, occupying the first 96 folios of the MS.

3. The Tuscan Recension.

At the commencement of the fourteenth century a Franco-Italian version of the original Genoese prototype was translated into Tuscan. It must have been very similar both to F and F1, and can therefore be called F2.

We possess five copies, Benedetto has called TA1 5. Of these TA1 is the famous MS II. iv. 88 of the Bib.Naz. at Florence, better known as the Codex della Crusca.

The other copies are at the Bib. Naz. Florence (TA2, 5); the Bib. Nat. Paris (TA3); and the Bib. Laurenziana (TA4).

The Tuscan group contains two other versions which must be mentioned. The first is a Latin one (Bib. Nat. lat. 3195) in which the Tuscan translation is corrupted by Pipino's version (to be mentioned later).

It was this text which formed the basis of H. Murray's English translation in 1844. It was published in 1824 by the French Geographical Society in the same volume as fr. 1116.

The second is a free résumé of TA found in the Zibaldone attributed to Antonio Pucci (d. 1388), the Florentine poet.

Owing to the differences found in the sub-groups of TA, it is necessary to utilize them all in attempting to restore the prototype of TA. Although TA1 is the oldest codex, it is incomplete (as also TA2) and less close to F than the others.

When we have restored TA as best we can with the help of all the sub-groups, we find that we have a complete text save for the omission of certain historic-military chapters and some minor details. It is of assistance in revising certain corruptions in F, as some of the lacunae in fr. 1116 could not have existed in F2 from which TA is descended.

4. The Venetian Recension.

This group is of the utmost importance, and contains over eighty MSS. In order to fully appreciate the extensive ramifications of its sub-and sub-sub-groups, it is necessary to study the genealogical table given by Benedetto.

It is, moreover, of particular interest to us, as it contains the Spanish version of Santaella, the English translation of which is reprinted in the present volume. A glance at the table referred to above shows that the primitive Venetian codex is represented by five MSS (VA1-5). Although VA3 and VA4 are the only complete ones, VA1 is by far the most important, as it consists of the Casanatense fragment (Bib. Cas. 3999), which is a direct descendant from the prototype which served as the source of Fra Pipino's famous version. The great fame that this version achieved from its first appearance, and the eulogistic manner in which Pipino referred to his sources, led to the popular opinion that the Venetian version was nothing less than Polo's original! Consequently, the Pipino texts are more widely distributed than any others. To the previously known twenty-six MSS Benedetto has added another twenty-four. These fifty must be supplemented by seven more in the vulgar tongue, besides a very large number of printed versions. Nearly all the important European libraries possess one or more Pipino MSS. There are several copies in the British Museum, while others will be found at Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, and Dublin.

Of particular interest is the MS which once belonged to Baron Walckenaer. Benedetto describes it correctly as being in a volume containing other matter, including a version of the Mirabilia of Jordan de Sévérac. He regrets that its present locality is unknown, and conjectures that it has probably found its way to America. Both Yule and Cordier had previously made similar statements as regards the MS itself, yet only last year my friend, the Rev. A. C. Moule, "discovered" it properly catalogued and indexed at the British Museum!

When scholars and bibliographers can pass over such fully recorded MSS, we can the more easily imagine that many unknown Polian treasures may still lie in European libraries wrongly catalogued, or not catalogued at all.

The fame of Pipino's version is well attested to by the numerous translations of it which exist—in French, Irish, Bohemian, Portuguese, and German. The French translation exists in two MSS, one at the British Museum (Egerton, 2176), and the other in the Royal Library at Stockholm. The Irish version is that in the famous "Book of Lismore," discovered in such a romantic manner in 1814. The Bohemian version forms part of Cod. III, E. 42, in the Prague Museum, and dates from the middle of the fifteenth century. Benedetto considers, however, that the MS is copied from a still older Pipino text. The Portuguese translation was printed at Lisbon in 1502 (reprinted 1922).

The first printed Latin text appeared about 1485, while a second edition (1532) was included in the famous collection of travels known as the Novus orbis regionum ac insularum veteribus incognitarum. It was edited by Simon Grynaeus, but actually compiled by Jean Huttichius. The text is corrupt, and has been considered by many to be a retranslation from the Portuguese of 1502.

There were several editions of the Novus orbis—1535, 1537, and 1555, as well as translations—German (1534), French (1556), Castilian (1601), and Dutch (1664). Apart from this, Andreas Müller reprinted the Latin in 1671 on which was based the French translation in Bergeron's Voyages faits principalement en Asie (1735).

The text of Ramusio (to be more fully discussed shortly) can be regarded as based on a version of Grynaeus, so that it is fundamentally a Pipinian text.

Apart from Pipino's version (P) and also that of an anonymous Latin writer (LB), a group of six Tuscan translations of the Venetian (TB1-6) must be added. This Tuscan group in its turn gave rise to a German translation (Ted.) and another Latin one (LA).

We now turn to a group based on a MS similar to that which gave rise to the Tuscan group. It consists of two distinct sub-groups, the first of which comprises: (a) a fifteenth century Venetian MS at Lucca (Bib. Governativa, No. 1296), and (b) a Spanish version from a Venetian codex, translated into English by John Frampton in 1579.

The second is also of importance as it consists of a mass of MSS and printed texts based on the early Venetian edition of 1496.

The Lucca MS is a paper codex of seventy-five pages, containing a brief epitome of Odoric besides the text of Polo. On the verso of the last page we are informed that it was completed on March 12th 1465 by one Daniele da Verona. The Spanish (Castilian) version of Santaella was taken from a MS of 78 folios, without pagination, which once belonged to the Biblioteca del Colegio Mayor de Santa Maria de Jesus at Seville. After the separation of the College and University in 1771 it entirely disappeared, and was given up as lost. Years later it was discovered with a number of papers in the garret of an old building belonging to the College, and is now preserved in the Biblioteca del Seminario of Seville. The manuscript is described by La Rua as a quarto volume, written in two inks, in contemporary binding, somewhat deteriorated by the action of the weather. It contains 135 chapters (as in the present translation), and was completed on Aug. 20th 1493. All Santaella's editions are of extreme rarity, and it is hard to say for certain how many there were, or even to be sure of the date of the first edition.

As far as I can ascertain, the first edition was that described by Salvá {Catálogo de la Biblioteca de Salvá, Vol. II. No. 3278), and published at Seville on May 28th 1503. There is a fine copy at the British Museum (C. 32. m. 4.) which has been fully described by Yule (Vol. II. p. 566). An edition of 1502 is mentioned in some detail by Don Fernando Colon, but as he gives the same printers and exactly the same date for the completion of the work (May 28th) as in the 1503 edition, it would seem that an error has been made.

The work was reprinted at Toledo in 1507, and, after the author's death, at Seville in 1518 and 1520, and again at Logroño in 1529. This latter edition is also at the British Museum (G. 6788), and for all we know may be the actual copy used by Frampton. The excessive rarity of the work fully justifies such a possibility.

Turning, now, to the second sub-group, we find a large number of Venetian MSS and printed texts all based on the edition printed by Sessa in 1496. This edition was derived from a MS which, like the Lucca, began with an epitome of Odoric. Owing, however, to a large lacuna after the first folio, it has not only been sadly reduced, but the first chapters of Marco Polo itself have also suffered heavily.

Apart from these mutilations, and the fact that in places the text is abbreviated and somewhat corrupt, the early Venetian printed edition is identical with both the Lucca text and that of Santaella.

Without going further into the relationships of the various branches of the Venetian recension, we will pass on to Ramusio and the earlier connected MSS.

5. Ramusio's Version and ante-F phase.

In 1550 the first volume of a collection of travels appeared under the editorship of one Gian Battista Ramusio, an illustrious member of a noble Italian family of Rimini. In 1556, another volume (Vol. III) was issued, while Vol. II, containing Ramusio's account of Polo's travels, did not appear until 1559—two years after the editor's death.

Other editions of the Navigationi et Viaggi, as the collection was called, soon followed, and the "Ramusian Recension" of Marco Polo took a unique place of honour in Polian tradition.

Ramusio was a good scholar, and enjoyed a great reputation for learning and critical research. His chief pursuit was geography, and he is believed to have opened a school for its study in his own house at Venice. In fact, everything we know about him compels us to treat his work with the utmost consideration and credence, as he fully justifies his title of "the Italian Hakluyt." Bearing this in mind, we can more readily appreciate the disappointment with which Yule had to record the absence of those MSS from which Ramusio had obtained certain parts of his information. Turning to the volu itself, we find that in a letter to his friend Jerome Fracastoro, Ramusio speaks of his sources, clearly indicating Pipino's text as well as another di maravigliosa antichità. Although Ramusio's text was at first ignored, its great importance has been gradually established, until, with Benedetto's discovery of Z, it is a sine qua non in helping to trace the earlier stages of the history of the book. At the same time, he admits that it is a composite text—sbocco a tradizioni già sicuramente corrotte—and therefore cannot be used as a basic text, especially when compared with F. Benedetto would analyse the Ramusio text as containing: (a) Pipino as the original and principal base; (b) three other MSS, V, L, and VB; (c) the newly discovered MS, Z, which corresponds to the Ghisi codex mentioned by Ramusio himself.

The history of the Milan copy of Z, so far as it is known, is very interesting. It is taken from an old lost Latin Codex Zeladiano, copied in 1795 by the Abate Toaldo to complete his collection of Polian documents. The original of this copy must be identified with the MS cartaceo in-80, del sec. xv., mentioned by Baldello-Boni, who says it was left by the will of Cardinal Zelada to the Biblioteca Capitolare of Toledo. A close inspection of Z shows it to be a Latin version of a Franco-Italian codex, distinctly better than F. But, as we shall see later, Z, as represented in the Milan MS, is by no means complete.

The first three-quarters of Z seem like an epitome of a much fuller text, but after Chap. 147 F is faithfully followed, while the additional passages point to a pre-F codex, which must have been considerably more detailed than F. Benedetto suggests that the copyist of Z began with the idea of a limited selection of passages, but gradually became so interested in his work that he eventually found himself unable to sacrifice a single word.

A point of prime importance with regard to Z is that it clearly betrays Polo's mode of thought, showing that, as far as it goes, it is a literal translation of an early text now lost. This is also supported by the fact that the names of peoples and places appear in Z in less corrupted forms than in F or subsequent texts—e.g., Mogdasio, Silingi, etc.

The various indications of Z's anteriority to F suggest a subsequent suppression of certain passages by a copyist or by the cumulative work of several copyists. A large percentage of these passages occur in Ramusio, while some are found in Z. In those cases where Z only resembles an epitome, we must conclude that Ramusio had access to a text closer to the archetype of Z than Z itself. We can call this text Z1. We can, therefore, agree that if Z, as represented by the Milan text (Y. 160 P.S.), can account for unique passages only in the latter part of Ramusio, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he had a complete Z text before him (Z1), and took all the unidentified chapters in the first half of his book from it. The discovery of the archetype of both Z and Z1 would doubtless help to settle the question.

We now come to V, L, and VB. They can be looked upon as coming somewhere between F and Z. They are of value because they occasionally contain passages neither in F nor in Z.

V is a curious Venetian recension (Staatsbib. Berlin, Hamilton 424a) which has undeniable echoes both of a Franco-Italian and a Latin text. It contains about thirty unique passages, and was undoubtedly used by Ramusio. L is an interesting Latin compendium represented in the four following codices: Ferrara, Bib. Pubb. 336NB 5; Venice, Mus. Corr. 2408; Wolfenbüttel, Bib. Com. Weiss. 41; and Antwerp, Mus. Plantin-Mor. 60. They are practically identical, and represent the best compendium of Marco Polo extant. Its Franco-Italian origin is proved by the survival of certain expressions which, not being understood, have been retained unaltered. It was probably used by Ramusio, though this cannot be said for certain.

Taken together, V and L must be regarded as closely related to, but distinctly a sub-group of Z1 and Z.

VB is a Venetian version (Dona della Rose 224 Civ. Mus. Corr.) differing from any of the Venetian recensions we have already discussed. Two copies exist: one in Rome (Bib. Vat. Barb. Lat. 5361) and the other in London (Brit. Mus. Slo. 251). VB shows signs of a Franco-Italian origin, and in two cases contains details ignored by F, but preserved by Z. On the whole, however, this is the worst of all Polian texts, and it is a pity that Ramusio used it at all.

To sum up, we must not blind ourselves to the undoubted defects of Ramusio. Here is a man who has selected a distinctly ragged garment (P), with the intent to make it look new by the addition of various patches (Z, V, L, VB). Some of the patches are of very good material, but others are frayed and badly put on, and, moreover, not always in the best places. They do not harmonize well with the cloth to which they are sewn. In some cases they have been trimmed a little, but then again we find in other cases that our repairer has added extra pieces of his own.

Thus altogether, while the finished article contains much material, it does not approximate in any way to a complete and original garment.

In spite, however, of all this, Ramusio remains an essential source in the reconstruction of the richer text by which F was preceded. It has continually been assumed that from time to time additions were made to the original work of Polo. The researches of Benedetto clearly show that, on the contrary, as time went on, impoverishments have occurred.

Z gives occasional bits of folklore and details of intimate social customs; so also does the Imago Mundi of Jacopo d'Acqui (D. 526 Bib. Ambros.) called / by Benedetto. It may be that the church censored some of this material, for in the Z passages we have caught a glimpse of Marco Polo as the careful anthropologist, and how can we determine what curious and esoteric information was originally supplied to Rustichello? We do not find it hard to believe that there may well be some genuineness in the passage of Jacopo d'Acqui when he says in Polo's defence: "And because there are many great and strange things in that book, which are reckoned past all credence, he was asked by his friends on his deathbed to correct the book by removing everything that was not actual fact. To which he replied that he had not told one-half of what he really had seen."

The gradual decadence of the original text as proved in the cases of FG, TA, and VA must also have occurred in the stage anterior to F. The discovery of Z, the study of V and L, the analysis of Ramusio, and the reference of certain elements to the lost Ghisi codex all seem to point to the fact that F was preceded by more conservative and more exact copies. Z, V, and L not only help to bridge the distance from F back to the original Genoese archetype, but also prove the richness of the latter and its gradual impoverishment. They show as well, that each of the three phases (Z, V and L, F) is dependent on the same original Franco-Italian text. Thus, apart from restoring the lost passages of F, they also bear witness to its unique importance and authenticity.

Having thus briefly surveyed the five main groups into which, thanks to Benedetto's labours, we can now divide the Polian texts, it will be as well to summarize the conclusions:

  1. Fr. 1116 of the Bibliothèque Nationale is the best Polo MS that has come down to us.
  2. It does not represent a direct copy of the Genoese original, but is a later version, which, together with its three brother manuscripts, F1,2,3, is described from a common Franco-Italian MS of earlier date, now lost.
  3. From F1,2,3 were derived respectively the lost proto-types of the Grégoire, Tuscan, and Venetian recensions (FG, TA, VA).
  4. Of these VA is the largest and most important, Santaella's Castilian version being made from a MS in one of its sub-groups.
  5. There was an ante-F phase, as yet only represented by Z, L, V and VB.
  6. Ramusio based his version on Pipino, with additional help from all the MSS of the ante-F phase, as mentioned above. He also used one or more other MSS, at present undiscovered.
  7. The most complete account of Polo's travels, therefore, consists of fr. 1116 as a base, supplemented by Ramusio, together with a few unique passages from other MSS.

E. Denison Ross (lecture date 1934)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Marco Polo and His Book," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XX, 1934, pp. 181-201.

[In the following excerpt from a lecture delivered before the British Academy, Ross gives a brief account of Polo's journey and his narrative, and introduces several new theories regarding Polo's manuscript.]

The outstanding geographical event of the thirteenth century was the discovery of the overland route to the Far East. The silk of China had long been known to the West, but the route by which it travelled was unknown, for European merchants had not ventured beyond certain Asiatic ports, whither the silk, like other Oriental wares, was conveyed by caravan.

It was an Italian, Plano Carpini, who first penetrated to the court of the Great Khan of the Mongols in 1245, and it was another Italian, Marco Polo, who at the end of the same century gave to the world the first full account of China in a Western language and 'created Asia for the European mind'. People were now to learn that a distant land which they imagined full of desert solitudes and strange monsters actually had a highly developed civilization of its own. In the fourteenth century further news of the Far East was brought or sent to Europe by other Italians, notably by Odoric of Pordenone, Marignolli, and John of Monte Corvino.

It was the sudden invasion of Central Europe by the armed hordes sent out by Chinghiz Khan at the beginning of the thirteenth century that gave the Western world its first introduction to the people of the Far East, and had it not been for this invasion Europe would no doubt have long continued to remain ignorant of China.

By 1240 the Mongol armies had reached Hungary and Upper Silesia, and no combination of European princes was able to withstand their advance. The whole of Europe was seized with the Mongol terror, and Matthew Paris, writing at St. Albans under the year 1238, tells us that for fear of the Mongols the fishermen of Gotland and Friesland did not dare to cross the North Sea to load their boats at Yarmouth, and that consequently herrings were so cheap and abundant in England that forty or fifty were sold for a piece of silver even in places far inland.

In 1241, after defeating the troops of Poland, Moravia, and Silesia under Duke Henry II of Silesia near Liegnitz, the Mongols withdrew even more unexpectedly than they had arrived, purposely destroying everything in their path to show that they were retiring of their own free will. [In a footnote, the author adds: "Some writers have suggested that this Mongolian army under Subutai withdrew because news had been received of the death of the Great Khan Ögedei, and that this event rendered necessary his presence at Karakorum. However, the battle of Liegnitz took place on 9 April 1241, and the death of Ögedei did not occur till 11 December. Subutai after the battle of Liegnitz joined Batu in Hungary, and both generals returned to Mongolia in the following year."] Fear was now replaced by curiosity, and men began to wonder whether the Mongols might not be a possible ally against the Saracens, i.e. the Mamluks of Egypt, who alone of the powers of Islam had withstood the Mongol invader. The strange legend of Prester John, an all-powerful monarch possessed of fabulous wealth, both king and Christian priest, had been current in Europe for nearly a hundred years; his kingdom had never been located, and it was thought that he possibly reigned in the distant land of the Mongols.

It was such hopes and beliefs, no doubt, that led Pope Innocent IV to send Plano Carpini, an Italian Franciscan, to visit the Great Khan in Mongolia. He set out in 1245, and in 1247 he returned with discouraging letters from Küyük Khan, whose investiture he had witnessed. Plano Carpini was then nearly sixty years of age and very stout. Insufficiently clothed and badly nourished, he had to make the three months' journey from the Volga to Central Mongolia at the rapid pace of the Mongolian ponies.

This mission was followed by another, that of William of Rubruck, a native of French Flanders, also a Franciscan, who carried letters from St. Louis of France to Mängü Khan. [In a footnote the author adds: "He was in Palestine with St. Louis, King of France, in 1251, and it was this king who sent him on his journey, which took place between 1253 and 1255. His book ranks in interest very close to that of Marco Polo."]

Another Italian, John of Monte Corvino, at the age of fifty penetrated into southern China just as the Polos were returning to Venice, with the object of preaching the Gospel to the Chinese, including the Nestorians, whom he regarded as little better than pagans. The Pope, at length realizing the fine work he was doing, made him Archbishop of Pekin with patriarchal authority; churches were established in various other cities; and Roman Catholicism was spread under the immediate patronage of the Great Khan. Many accounts of the work of Archbishop John have been preserved in letters written from Cathay. He died in 1328.

Another Italian, Friar Odoric of Pordenone, whose travels have been reprinted many times, set out for Pekin in 1316, returned to Europe at the beginning of 1330, and died in 1331. His book is comparatively small in compass, but is full of interesting details, and it is remarkable that he mentions many customs among the Chinese which are not referred to by Marco Polo, such as the binding of women's feet, allowing the finger-nails to grow long, and fishing with cormorants.

Marco Polo's journey to the Mongol court was due almost to an accident. His father and uncle, who were Venetian merchants, had already in 1260 found their way to the court of Kubilai Khan only because the disturbed state of the Near East made it impossible for them to follow their usual route home from the Crimea. Kubilai received them well, and entreated them to go back to Italy and to return to him bringing a hundred Christian priests—for the Mongols were always willing to give Christianity a hearing. After many delays they set out on their second journey in 1271 accompanied by the youthful Marco Polo, but by only two priests, whose courage failed them when they had travelled but a short distance.

The Polos started from Acre in November 1271, and it is possible that while there they may have met Edward I of England and Rustichello, who were both in Acre at that time. I shall refer later to Rustichello. The Polos proceeded to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, with a view to going to China by sea, but they abandoned this plan for various reasons, and continued their journey across Persia in a north-easterly direction. Their route from Acre to Hormuz lay through Kaisariya, Sivas, Erzinjan, Erzerum, north of Lake Van, Tabriz, Sava, Kashan, Yezd, and Kerman.

I mention these details because Yule and others held the view that the Polos passed through Mosul and Baghdad [The Book of Ser Marco Polo, edited by Sir Henry Yule, and revised by Henri Cordier, 3 vols., third edition, London, 1926]. Mr. Penzer has, I think, given good reasons for doubting this, and I myself find it hard to believe that Marco could have given such meagre accounts of these two cities had he himself seen them [The Most Noble and Famous Travels of Marco Polo, edited by N. M. Penzer, 1929]. Mosul especially must have called forth his admiration, for this city, which lies along the right bank of the Tigris, is one of the most lovely in the East. The waters of this river are here of Mediterranean blue, and the view of the city from the bridge is a sight never to be forgotten. No traveller, of course, in those days could have guessed that the mounds which lie on the opposite bank cover the once great city of Nineveh. Baghdad at the end of the thirteenth century was probably not looking its best, and the Tigris, which flows through it, is here the colour of mud. The city itself had in 1258 been almost destroyed, but not entirely, by Hulagu, who wished to retain it for himself and had even restored some of the Abbasid buildings.

From Hormuz the Polos proceeded by way of Sava, Kashan, Yezd, Kerman, Tabas, Tun, Kain, Herat, Balkh, across the Pamirs to Kashghar, thence via Yarkand, Khotan, Lop Nor and Tun-huang (Shachau) to Kaipingfu, the summer residence of the Great Khan.

The elder Polos no doubt returned to China because they had promised to do so, though their failure to secure the hundred priests might reasonably have exempted them from their promise. They could scarcely have foreseen that on their return the Great Khan would wish to keep them in his kingdom indefinitely. They actually remained in China seventeen years. We do not know whether during this time the two elder Polos had any fixed occupation, but it is certain that Marco was in the service of Kubilai and that he at any rate entertained very little hope of ever returning to Europe.

The accident which eventually enabled them to leave China was the request on the part of Arghun, the Mongol Il-Khan of Persia, for a Chinese bride. The Tartar envoys who had come on this mission refused to return overland on account of the disturbed state of Central Asia, and, having decided to return by sea, they begged Kubilai to allow the three Polos, as belonging to a maritime race, to accompany them. Their return journey by sea lay through the Straits of Singapore and Malacca; skirting the Nicobars they touched southern Ceylon, Cape Comorin, the western coast of India, Mekran, and finally Hormuz. The voyage took over two years, and over six hundred of the company perished on the way, but fortunately not their precious charge. When they finally arrived in Persia in 1294 they learned that Arghun had died three years previously, and so they married the Chinese princess to his son Ghazan. Instead of returning to China, as they had no doubt assured Kubilai they would, the Polos now found their way back to Italy via Trebizond and the Black Sea.

It was in the year 1295 that the Polos returned to Venice. We next hear of Marco in 1298 as a prisoner in Genoa, from which it may be presumed that he took part in the Battle of Curzola, which was fought on 7 September of that year, and that he was among the prisoners who arrived in Genoa on 16 October.

According to Ramusio [Navigation et Viaggi, 1559] it was mainly in order to save himself the trouble of continually repeating his adventures to his fellow prisoners and the local gentry of Genoa that Marco Polo first thought of making a book. It seems certain that the original version which he drew up in Genoa was considerably longer and fuller in detail than any single version that has hitherto been discovered.

Now, with regard to the compilation of Marco's Book, it is quite obvious that no man could possess a memory sufficiently strong to enable him to recall so many strange names and facts extending over a period of twenty-four years. It is perfectly clear from many passages in his Book that he was in the habit of keeping notes: he tells us, for example, that he was sent on various missions by Kubilai Khan and that on his return he furnished reports which delighted the Emperor, and it is more than likely that he preserved copies of these reports. We cannot, of course, say whether he also kept notes on matters which would be of interest to European readers, who in those days knew nothing at all about China. In the first proemio of Ramusio's edition, to which I shall refer again later, we read that had Marco Polo imagined that he would ever be permitted to leave China he would have kept a far more elaborate journal; and seeing that it was a mere accident that eventually gave the Polos an opportunity of leaving the country, in the circumstances one wonders why he kept one at all. But we can well imagine Marco passing some of the long voyage to Persia in writing a journal.

The contents of the Book may be divided into four more or less distinct categories.

First of all there is the account of the first journey made by Marco's father and uncle to Kubilai's summer residence in Mongolia and their return to Venice. This narrative he of course received from his father and uncle. Not all of their narrative was included in this part of Marco's Book, for he probably derived from the same source his account of Russia and of those parts of Central Asia which were visited by the Polos on their first journey but not on the second.

Secondly, we have a geographical description of as much as Marco knew of the world lying between the Black Sea, the China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Thanks to the researches of scholars we have to-day a fairly clear notion of the routes Mareo actually followed, and of the places he described from hearsay but could not himself have visited. There can, I think, be little doubt that none of the Polos ever set foot in Mosul, Baghdad, Aden, or Abyssinia. It must be remembered that Marco's object was to describe the wonders of the then unknown world, and not to lay claim to have been everywhere himself. The title of the earliest French version of his Book is Le Divisament dou Monde. It has been well observed by Benedetto that 'Marco Polo wished to give to Europe a comprehensive picture of the Asiatic world; to make the occidentals realize that beyond the steppes and the mountainous regions a wonderful and intense life was palpitating, where they had hitherto imagined only solitude and monsters.… This book is a synthesis, an inventory of the wealth of the Orient.'

Thirdly, we find scattered throughout the work Marco Polo's personal adventures and his relations with the Mongol Emperor.

Fourthly, there are the historical narratives connected with the rise and growth of the Mongol Empire. These details must obviously have been based on notes taken on the spot by Marco either from books or from his learned Chinese friends.

Let us now return to the prison in Genoa, where Marco is said to have drawn up his Book with the help of others. It naturally suggests itself that the citizens of Venice must have been quite as anxious as those of Genoa to hear everything that Marco had to say, but no mention is made of his attempting to do for the Venetians what he did for the Genoese. Marco arrived in Genoa with the rest of the prisoners on 16 October 1298, and yet we are expected to believe that in the short interval between that date and his release from prison in July 1299 he had composed the whole of his Book. Unfortunately we do not know how soon after his return to Venice Marco Polo put to sea, or what he was doing between his return to Venice in 1295 and his setting out in a galley to fight the Genoese. I suggest that during those three years he spent much time in telling his adventures and in reviewing and adding to his notes. By 1298 he possibly had already the plan of a book in his mind.

Now according to the opening chapter of the oldest French version (the Geographic Text) he employed a writer of Arthurian romances named Rustichello of Pisa, his fellow prisoner, to remodel (retraire) his narrative, and according to Ramusio, for this purpose he sent to Venice for the notes and memoranda which he had brought with him from the East. If it is permissible to suppose that Marco Polo, before setting out to fight the Genoese, had made a more or less complete draft of his Book in his own Venetian dialect, the notes he is said to have received from Venice may have included not only the materials he had brought from China but this draft of his narrative, which Rusticello presumably proceeded to translate into his own peculiar French, without making changes in its structure.

In talking to those of his fellow prisoners who were not Venetians or to the local Genoese who visited him in prison Marco may have found difficulty in making himself understood, and Yule suggested that Marco the Venetian and Rusticello the Pisan communicated with each other in a kind of pidgin French, just as two Chinese from different provinces talk in pidgin English. Rusticello's written French is poor stuff, but it is certainly more like French than the jargon in which Marco Polo recounted his adventures. At that period Latin was the literary language par excellence, and the only vulgar dialect which had attained any literary dignity in Europe was French. An Italian volgare was on the point of being established by Dante, but Brunetto Latini, his master, spoke of French as la parleure la plus delitable, and wrote his Tesoro in that language.

Marco Polo had spent twenty-four years in the East, for the most part in China. Ramusio believed that on his return to Venice Marco had lost the habit of his own vernacular, and had become as much a foreigner in speech as he and his father and uncle had become in appearance and dress. Had he been a solitary wanderer during all those years it is conceivable that he should have forgotten his mother tongue, but it seems unlikely that these three strangers in a strange land should have conversed with each other in any language but their own Venetian. Had Marco Polo written his Book without external help he would no doubt have written in the Venetian dialect.

It has not, I think, ever been suggested that there may have come out of the prison in Genoa more than one original of Marco Polo's Book. Why should not others have done what Rusticello did? If he changed Marco Polo's notes into Franco-Italian some other fellow prisoner might have reproduced them in Latin or some Italian volgare.

Let us then picture Marco Polo with his Venetian rough draft before him, surrounded by fellow prisoners and visitors, who, anxious to take down as much as they understood of his story, each wrote in the language that suited him best. Such a situation would surely account for the similarities and discrepancies of the various versions. There are, however, strong arguments against such a theory, the most notable of which is the outstanding authority of the Geographic Text. Moreover, the discrepancies in the text of various early manuscripts are easily accounted for by the carelessness of scribes.

The same thing happened in the case of the Report of Odoric of Pordenone, and Yule suggested 'that the practice in multiplying copies of such works was not to attempt verbal transcription, but merely to read over a clause, and then write down its gist in such language as came uppermost. Yet why (he adds) should a practice have applied to these narratives different from that which applied to the multiplication of the classics?'

Supposing Marco Polo's rough draft in Venetian Italian were already completed, the work which remained for Rusticello was to change Marco's language into his own romantic French much flavoured with Italian. On his own account he can only have added, as Benedetto says, 'formule di transizione, battute di dialogo, moduli descrittivi di battaglie, facilmente riconoscibili alla loro fissità convenzionale. La sua inerzia creativa di fronte alla stesura di Marco si rivela chiaramente là dove l'opera è rimasta un semplice abbozzo.' This last sentence, which I take to mean that Rusticello employed little creative energy when dealing with Marco's model, seems to bear out the theory that Marco had prepared a text of his own. We may therefore suppose either that Marco dictated his Book, or that he handed to Rusticello his own complete rough draft in the Venetian dialect. Everything seems to point to the latter alternative. We must always bear in mind that Marco was writing a description of Asia and not merely a book of travels.

Ramusio tells us that within a few months of the appearance of the original (which he believed to have been in Latin) 'all Italy was full of copies and translations into "our vernacular", so greatly was this history desired and longed for by all'. This was no doubt the case, but it is strange that within so incredibly short a space of time the original and any complete copies that might have been made of it had been supplanted by translated, distorted, and abridged versions. Surely it would be easier to account for the discrepancies among the manuscripts, the rareness of Rusticello's version, Ramusio's belief that the original was in Latin, and such-like matters, were it possible to suppose that several different versions came out of the prison in Genoa.

The famous manuscript of Rusticello's version, known as the Geographic Text, which is itself by no means complete, exists to-day only in one copy in Paris and in one fragment in the British Museum which, however, differs very much from the Paris MS.

The most popular version during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was Pipino's Latin translation made c. 1320 from an Italian version. Pipino, in another of his works, tells us that his translation was made from the Lombard dialect. Actually his version corresponds to a well-known Venetian recension. Pipino himself says that he made his translation for the Reverend Fathers of his Order 'since it pleases my masters to read it in Latin rather than in the vernacular'. Ramusio states that Pipino was unable to find a copy of the Latin version, but Pipino nowhere says so himself; and indeed speaks of the Italian version which he translated in such a manner as to have led some to suppose that it was Marco Polo's original. Pipino does not mention Rusticello, but some Venetian versions do so; so also does the Spanish, which is derived from Pipino's Latin.

Marco Polo died in 1323, and at the time of his death there must have existed many different recensions in Latin, French, and the Italian vernaculars. There seems, however, to be no evidence that Marco showed any interest in the fate of his Book, and yet one cannot help believing that he himself possessed a copy of the complete text, whether that of Rusticello or some other. The 'de Cepoy' legend (contained in some Grégoire MSS.) which says that Marco in 1307 gave a copy of his book to a French envoy in Venice does not bear close inspection.

Benedetto published his monumental work on Marco Polo in 1928. In its preparation he discovered in the libraries of Europe eighty hitherto unknown manuscripts, and thanks to his untiring labours those now known to us number no less than one hundred and thirty-eight. Almost all may be grouped in one or other of two main categories, namely, those resembling Rusticello's text, and those related to certain Italian versions utilized by Ramusio, including of course Pipino's Latin translation. But according to Benedetto they all descend from a prototype which was already far removed from the original.

Ramusio prefixed to the Book two proemios or forewords.… The first opens with the well-known address to the 'lords, princes, dukes, marquises, barons', with which so many texts begin. The second is a statement prefixed by Fra Pipino to his Latin translation, which is somewhat freely translated into Italian by Ramusio. In his preface, which is addressed to his friend Hieronimo Fracastoro and is dated 7 July 1553, Ramusio says:

And having found two proemios at the beginning of this book, which were originally composed in Latin, one of them written by that gentleman of Genoa, a great friend of the said Messer Marco, who helped him to write and compose in Latin the voyage while he was in prison; the other by a preaching friar Pipino of Bologna, who, not being able to lay his hands on a copy of the Latin version (for nowadays this 'voyage' is only read in the vernacular), turned it into Latin in 1320—I do not wish to fail to reproduce both for the greater satisfaction and contentment of my readers, so that they together may serve as a more complete preface to the said book.

Ramusio based his Italian edition (which was published in 1559, two years after his death) mainly on Pipino's Latin text, although he knew it to be only a translation. Ramusio states that he also made much use of another Latin version contained in a manuscript of 'marvellous antiquity' lent him by his friend Ghisi, which he obviously at one time believed to represent Marco Polo's original. [In a footnote, the author adds: "The passage in which this statement occurs was, however, omitted from all subsequent editions of Ramusio. It is hard to account for the omission of this striking passage; it is possible that Ghisi himself requested the printer (Giunti) to delete it from the second edition."]

This Ghisi manuscript which was consulted by Ramusio has never been traced, but it was no doubt closely related to a Latin version of which an eighteenth-century transcript of a manuscript once belonging to Cardinal Zelada was found in Milan by Professor Benedetto, and is now known as Z. This version was indeed known to Baldelli Boni, but Benedetto was the first to recognize its importance, although it is very much abridged in the earlier chapters. It obviously derives from a Franco-Italian version superior to the Geographic Text; on the other hand it contains no less than two hundred passages not met with there. Of these, three-fifths are also to be found in Ramusio, showing that Ramusio had before him a very similar transcript.

Z, although more complete than any other known text of the second half of the Book, is very much curtailed in the first part. On this account it is unlikely that it was identical with the Ghisi manuscript, for Ramusio could hardly have regarded a version so incomplete at the beginning as Marco Polo's original. It is important to know that the abridgements in the early part of Z are referred to specifically by the translator or transcriber as being intentional.

If we place side by side corresponding passages in the Geographic Text of Rusticello and Z, the latter certainly gives the impression of being a translation from the former.

My object in these pages has been to give the adventures of Marco Polo's Book rather than those of Marco himself. Nothing new is likely to be discovered about the man, but so strange is the history of the Book that any day a new document may be forthcoming to dissipate the cloud of mystery that has always surrounded it. With regard to the problems connected with Marco Polo's journey, fresh light is constantly being thrown on these matters by scholars and travellers, and it may be safely asserted that every new discovery goes to emphasize and confirm the amazing reliability of Marco Polo's narrative.

In unravelling the great mystery attaching to Marco's Book it is important to dispose of all possible theories, in order that the ground may be clear for discussion on the basis of firmly established data. I myself have considered carefully three such theories, none of which have, so far as I am aware, been suggested before, namely:

  1. Whether Marco Polo had prepared a complete draft of his own Book.
  2. How closely the Ghisi manuscript was related to Z.
  3. Whether more than one version of Marco Polo's notes issued from the prison in Genoa.

In spite of all the devoted labours of scholars like Yule and Benedetto no final solution of the problem has yet been attained, and it is this circumstance which has emboldened me to put forward the foregoing suggestions.


I feel that in connexion with Ramusio's famous version of Marco Polo an opportunity is offered me of giving a brief notice of this great Italian scholar, whose name is perhaps not so well known in this country as it deserves.

Giambattista Ramusio was born in Treviso in 1485, educated in Venice and Padua, and died in 1557. He spent forty-three years in the service of the State of Venice as Secretary to the Council of Ten or to various ambassadors. During his travels he took the opportunity of learning French and Spanish.

In 1523 he began to collect materials for his great book of Navigations and Voyages, of which three volumes eventually appeared, although four had been contemplated. The whole work contains seventy-seven voyages. During the sixteenth century four new editions appeared, and two more at the beginning of the seventeenth, but the work has never been reprinted since 1613.

Richard Hakluyt published his Principal Navigations in 1589, thirty years after the appearance of Ramusio's second volume. Hakluyt's volumes were mainly concerned with English travellers. Samuel Purchas, who continued Hakluyt's work, included many of Ramusio's travellers in his Hakluyt Posthumus, which was published in four volumes in 1625-6. Both collections have often been reprinted, and in 1846 the famous Hakluyt Society was founded. Ramusio has not fared so well in his native country, but I understand that there is a project on foot to issue an entirely new edition of his collections in Italy.

Ramusio prefixed introductions to all his travellers, and these, though not always accurate, are of great interest. In his introduction to Marco Polo he tells us many curious things, which bear witness to his wide reading. For example, with regard to the first part of Marco's Book, dealing with the voyage made by Marco's father and uncle to the court of the Khan of the Tartars and later to that of the Great Khan, he says: 'I would never have understood that voyage if good fortune had not recently placed in my hands a part of a Latin translation of an Arabic work composed over two hundred years ago by a great Prince of Syria called Abilfada Ismael.' This note is of considerable interest, as giving an indication of the earliest translation into Latin of a work of which no translation appeared in print until 1650.

The devotion which Ramusio inspired in his publisher Tommaso Giunti is attested by two beautiful tributes to Ramusio written by Giunti. One of these appeared in the first edition of vol. ii, and the other in subsequent editions.…

J. Homer Herriott (essay date 1937)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The 'Lost' Toledo Manuscript of Marco Polo," in Speculum, Vol. XII, No. 4, October, 1937, pp. 458-63.

[In the following essay, Herriott discusses the superiority of a fifteenth-century Polian manuscript believed to have been lost.]

In 1559 the first attempt at a critical edition of Marco Polo appeared in Venice in a volume entitled Secondo volume delle Navigation et Viaggi nel quale si contengono l'Historia delle cose de Tartari, et diuersi fatti de loro Imperatori, descritta da M. Marco Polo Gentilhuomo Venetiano, et da Haiton Armeno. The first volume of this collection of travels had been published in 1550, and the third volume in 1556. The editor of the series, Giouan Battista Ramusio, delayed publication of the second volume, since he was in search of additional materials to be incorporated in the work. Death overtook him in 1557, and, owing to a fire in the Giuntine presses, the volume was not issued until two years later.

In a long letter in the Introduction, dated July 17, 1553, Ramusio, dedicating the volume to Hieronimo Fracastoro, points out the importance of his edition of Marco Polo. He states that for many years, owing to numerous scribal errors, the work had been deemed a fairy tale, but that travelers in the East, especially the Portuguese, during the preceding hundred years had been discovering provinces, cities, and islands bearing the same names that Marco had attributed to them. [In a footnote, the author comments: "Ramusio exaggerates. It was of course due to the marvellous and unusual elements in Marco's narrative that little credence was given to his veracity."] He, for his part, wishes to purge the text of its many errors, and to offer to the public a critical edition based on several manuscripts.

In the opinion of Ramusio, some of the manuscripts which he utilized were copied in the first half of the fourteenth century. In a passage in which he deplores the unfaithfulness of the texts of contemporary editions of Marco Polo he goes so far as to declare that these manuscripts, more than two hundred years old, are 'perfettamente corretto' (sic). Then, on the next folio, when he cites the port of Soldadia mentioned by Marco in his Prologue, he says that several very old manuscripts, written more than a hundred and fifty years previously, had fallen into his hands.

For the third time he refers to his sources in a passage which offers us more details. He believes that Marco first wrote his work in Latin and that it was soon translated into Italian. However, copies of the former had not all been lost. A friend of his of the Ghisi family possessed a copy 'di marauigilosa antichità,' perhaps made directly from the original manuscript of Marco Polo. This friend permitted him to use the interesting old manuscript in the preparation of his edition.

Among the manuscripts that Ramusio utilized he found two prologues to Marco Polo. One of these was written by Marco and his friend in the prison at Genoa; the other one belonged to the Latin redaction of Pipino. Ramusio stated that the latter, unable to find a copy of the Latin original, had translated the Italian recension into Latin in 1320. Unwilling to omit either prologue, Ramusio places them both at the beginning of his critical edition.

Many editors of Marco Polo in the following centuries were convinced of the superiority of Ramusio's text.

Hardly fifty years had passed when Samuel Purchase, rejecting the Latin manuscript which was bequeathed to him among the papers of Hakluyt, turned to the more copious and lucid text of Ramusio. He explained his reasons for doing so in his usual euphuistic style studded with puns and plays upon words:

I found this Booke translated by Master Hakluyt out of the Latine. But where the blind leade the blind both fall: as here the corrupt Latine could not but yeeld a corruption of truth in English, Ramusio, Secretarie to the Decemviri in Venice, found a better Copie and published the same, whence you have the works in manner new: so renewed, that I have found the Proverbe true, that it is better to pull downe an old house and to build it anew, then to repaire it; as I also should have done, had I knowne that which in the event I found. The Latine is Latten, compared to Ramusio's Gold. And hee which hath the Latine hath but Marco Polo's carkasse or not so much, but a few bones, yea, sometimes stones rather then bones; things divers, averse, adverse, perverted in manner, disjoynted in manner, beyond beliefe. I have seene some Authors maymed, but never any so mangled and so mingled, so present and so absent, as this vulgar Latine of Marco Polo; not so like himselfe, as the Three Polo's were at their returne to Venice, where none knew them.… Much are wee beholden to Ramusio, for restoring this Pole, and Loadstarre of Asia, out of that mirie poole or puddle in which he lay drouned. [Samuel Purchase, His Pilgrimes, 1625].

In 1871 Sir Henry Yule brought out the first edition of his monumental work The Book of Ser Marco Polo. For his translation he chose two texts, Paris Bib. Nat. MS. fr. 1116, published by the Geographic Society of Paris in 1824, and the Pauthier redaction. He either interpolates within brackets in his text additions of Ramusio, or he gathers them together and forms a chapter apart. He expresses his confidence in Ramusio in the following words: 'The picture in Ramusio, taken as a whole, is so much more brilliant, interesting, and complete than in the older texts, that I thought of substituting it entirely for the other.'

He then points out circumstances peculiar to Ramusio's text which have been proved authentic in the nineteenth century and which must be ascribed to Marco. Among these are the prevalence of goitre at at Yarkand; the crossing of the yak with the common cow; the preying of wolves on the wild sheep on the Pamir plateau where piles of wild rams' horns are used as landmarks in the snow; the subterranean irrigation channels in Persia; the art of refining sugar in China introduced from Egypt; the water-tight compartments in the hulls of junks; the uprising of the Cathayans against Kublai's Mohammedan minister Ahmad; the vermilion seal of the Great Khan on paper currency. However, Yule is searching for the text nearest the original and he hesitates to include that of Ramusio, the language of which is too literary for Marco.

In 1928, under the patronage of the city of Venice, appeared the magnificent volume Marco Polo, Il Milione, edited by Professor L. F. Benedetto of the University of Florence. Benedetto realized that the root of the Polian problems in so far as the text is concerned lay in the troublesome passages of Ramusio. Therefore he searched throughout Europe, and succeeded in bringing to light sixty unknown manuscripts to be added to the list of some eighty recorded by Yule. He then examined Ramusio's text, collating it with all the newly discovered manuscripts. Many of the puzzling passages in Ramusio were found to have their counterpart in a Latin manuscript, unfortunately an eighteenth-century copy of a mediaeval Toledo manuscript. The copy was made in 1795 by order of Giuseppe Toaldo who was a collector of Polian manuscripts. At present it is in Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana MS. Y P S, paper, 32X22, and contains 211 folios.

In a note at the beginning of the copy, Toaldo expresses his appreciation of the kindness of Cardinal Zelada in lending him the Toledo codex, and he cites the names of the papal legates who brought it to Italy. He also explains that the Latin of the original was very corrupt and that the transcription was made with great difficulty due to the obscurity of the text.

Benedetto, carefully analyzing the methods employed by Ramusio in editing his work, is convinced that the Toaldo copy is a descendent of the manuscript 'da marauigliosa antichità' belonging to the Cà Ghisi. Not only does he find in the new manuscript the counterpart for almost all of the perplexing passages of Ramusio but also many additional passages not found elsewhere. Sir E. Denison Ross, editor of the English translation of Benedetto's text states that until the Toledo manuscript is forthcoming 'the Milan copy must be received with a certain amount of caution.'

The Toledo manuscript was described briefly in 1827 by Count Baldelli Boni, and for more than a century no further information concerning it has come to light. It is not listed among the manuscripts of the Biblioteca Capitolare of Toledo cited by D. José Octavio de Toledo in his incomplete catalogue of the manuscripts and books belonging to the Cathedral. Benedetto in his search for Polian manuscripts was unable to glean any information concerning its whereabouts.

However, the 'lost' manuscript is still there, now properly shelved N°8°-49-20. It is written on paper, octavo, and contains 135 folios varying in length from 24 to 30 lines. It dates from about the middle of the fifteenth century. The title page is found on fol. lr and was written at a period much later than the text, probably in the eighteenth century. It contains the following title: 'Marcus Paulus Venetus de diuersis hominum generibus et diuersitatibus Regionum Mundanarum. Vbi inuenies omnia magna, Mirabilia et diuersitates Armenie Maioris, Persarum, Tartarorum, et Indie, ac aliarum Prouinciarum circa Asiam, Mediam, et partem Europe. Compilat. in Carceribus Janue Anno MCCXCVIII' (cf. Plate I). Fol. 1v is blank but in the margin at the top of fol. 2r is the incipit also written in a later hand: 'Incipit liber domini Marci Pauli Veneti' (cf. Plate II).

Below these words the text proper begins: 'Domini imperatores reges duces marchiones comites milites et burgenses et omnes gentes qui vultis agnoscere diuersa hominum genera et diuersarum regionum mundanas diuersitates accipite hunc librum.' The text ends in the middle of fol. 135r: 'Et cum inceperamus de mari maiori nos penituit ponere in scriptis quare multi sciunt et ideo descedemus ab ipso etc. Finis. Explicit liber domini Marci Pauli.'

Although the copyists who transcribed the Toledo manuscript were little versed in paleography, the Toaldo manuscript is a fairly good reproduction. Benedetto found it necessary to make emendations in numerous passages where the scribes clearly showed unfamiliarity with certain symbols; at times he leaves passages unsolved. The Toledo manuscript clears up doubtful passages, and offers a correct reading for those which are incomprehensible. Benedetto, utilizing his basic text fr. 1116 and Ramusio, is usually right in his emendations. When the scribes have completely ignored the symbols he expands 'suba' to 'substantia,' 'altius' to 'alterius,' etc. At times the scribes have resolved incorrectly the symbols, and he corrects 'magron' to 'magistro,' 'de extranea' to 'dextraria,' etc. Among the passages that Benedetto does not understand is one on fol. 29r: 'quedam bestia parva que magnitudinis est gaxelle in unius campe.' The Toledo manuscript has on fol. 18r 'id est unius capre' instead of 'in unius campe,' and the meaning becomes clear.

The Toledo manuscript has some three hundred marginal notes which illustrate the special interests of the scribe. More than half of the notes refer to religions or religious subjects. Several notes indicate that he was interested in studies and learning:

fol. 5r: 'studia ipsorum sunt in lege Macometi in
   negromantia phisica astronomia geumentia et
fol. 16v: 'gentes sapientissime sunt et student in
   artibus lib[er] alibus'
fol. 42r: 'hic sunt magni philosophi et medici.'

Especially is he interested in medicine:

fol. 30r: 'stercus etiam humanum est utile et
   operatur contra venenum quod facit stercus
fol. 63v: 'vinum hoc liberat tropicos et tysicos.'

Unusual customs, strange facts, and marvellous accounts of men and beasts call for numerous notes:

fol. 4r: 'aqua quedam est que solummodo in
   quadragessima producit pisces'
fol. 42v: 'quedam ciuitas girat miliaria centum
   habet duodecim milia pontium pro maiori parte
   de lapidibus'
fol. 62r: 'non potest stella tramontana videri'
fol. 63r: 'isti faciunt simios apparere homines'
fol. 64v: 'homines habentes caudam'
fol. 81v: 'habent aliquos religiosos qui viuunt CL
   annos et CC.'

Finally the scribe is not without wordly interests. Descriptions of palaces covered with gold, rich merchandise, precious stones and woods, and oil wells stir his imagination and merit a note on the margin:

fol. 3v: 'nota quod nascitur hic oleum ex quodam
fol. 55v: 'coperiunt palatia de auro … perule
   rubee … quum sepelitur homo ponitur in ore
   vnam perulam'
fol. 65v: 'omnes silue de arboribus magni
fol. 66r: 'nascuntur garofalli et nuces Indie'
fol. 67r: 'hic nascuntur rubini, zafini, topatii,
   amantiste, granate … rubinus mirabilis'
fol. 124r: 'hic inueniuntur peles magni valoris.'

The eighteenth-century scribes who copied the Toledo manuscript erroneously interpreted the abbreviated form of 'nota' as 'uero' or as 'non.' Consequently many of the marginal notes are incomprehensible. Benedetto, at a loss to understand their meaning, does not touch upon them.

Aside from the fact that Toaldo states that he borrowed the Toledo manuscript from Cardinal Zelada, there is ample internal evidence to prove that our manuscript was the original. And, although the Toaldo manuscript is a rather good copy, especially as emended by Benedetto with the help of other manuscripts and editions, there is, I believe, a sufficient number of errors in the transcription to warrant that the Toledo manuscript should hereafter be referred to as Z and the Toaldo copy as Z.t

Manuscript Z of Toledo then contains many passages of Marco Polo not found in any other mediaeval manuscript. Some of these passages were translated by Ramusio who had at hand a more complete manuscript of the same family, Z1, probably the Ghisi manuscript 'di marauigliosa antichità' There is to our knowledge only one copy of Z, which was made by Toaldo in 1795. The latter manuscript was discovered by Professor Benedetto in 1927, but owing to its late date, has been looked upon with a certain amount of caution.Z in addition to solving the obscure and incomprehensible passages of Zt places a stamp of authority on most of the newly unearthed passages as edited by Benedetto. It brings us one step nearer to the original text and must be utilized by future editors of Marco Polo.

Eileen Power (essay date 1938)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Immortal Marco," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XVI, No. 400, October 22, 1938, pp. 606-07.

[In the following essay, Power discusses Polo's popular and literary reputation, arguing that his work is "a masterpiece of reporting."]

I once knew a master at a famous public school (which shall be nameless) who was under the impression that Marco Polo was a kind of game. I did not question his qualifications for imparting culture to the young, for he had in his day been a noted blue and, as the saying goes, first things come first. But I have been reminded of him by the almost simultaneous appearance of the first two volumes of a magnificent edition of Marco Polo edited by Professors Moule and Pelliot …, and of the travesty of the great traveller's "adventures" released by Hollywood. It seems an appropriate occasion on which to speculate upon the reason why of all medieval travellers (and the adjective might almost be omitted without detracting from the truth of the statement) Marco Polo enjoys the most widespread fame and is, indeed, a household word to may who would be hard put to it to describe what he did and when and why he did it.

The reasons for his popular reputation are less obvious than might be imagined. It would probably be true to say that of all the great travellers of history Marco Polo is the one who has put least of his personality into his book. As an individual he emerges far less clearly than the fat friar William of Rubruck, who preceded him across Central Asia, or than the inimitable Ibn Battutah, who travelled in the East a little later. Their vivid autobiographical touch is entirely missing from his impersonal pages, for (in spite of Hollywood) "the adventures of Marco Polo" are precisely what he did not write. It is not always remembered that the account of the Polos' journey appears as a mere preface to a long book, occupying no more than nineteen out of the 232 pages of Mr. Moule's new translation, and very rarely does a word of their history appear in the rest of the work. As Mr. Moule says, he succeeded only too well in his resolve not to describe their journeys after that first summary statement. Even his description of routes and means of locomotion is completely impersonal; he does not say whether he went on horseback, by carriage or by canal barge. "In Cathay and the South-West," Professor Moule points out, "One sometimes rides; but from Giogiu to Zaitun one always and only goes."

Such a tabula rasa has allowed modern invention to make what it will of Marco the man and the popular picture shifts between the lineaments of a superior commercial traveller and those of a hero of romance. There is more foundation for the former than for the latter; a merchant he was and, faced with all the marvels of the East, a merchant he remained. Consider the material objects which he chose to bring back with him after seventeen years spent in the most advanced civilisation in the world; a specimen of yak's hair, the dried head and feet of a musk deer and the seeds of a dye plant (samples which might interest some enterprising firm on the Rialto); a few presents from Margate in the shape of a three-bladed sword, a Tartar collar and the like; and for the rest jewels, portable wealth in its most universal and conventional form and the normal stock-in-trade of Messrs. Polo Brothers. Here is a man who could have filled his pockets with movable type and forestalled the printing press by nearly two hundred years, but he fills them with diamonds and rubies instead. No painted scrolls are lovingly unpacked in the Cà Polo, no paper money, not even a pound of tea; only things which everyone knows already and which can readily be exchanged for cash by experienced jewel merchants. It is the baggage of a business-man; and it may be added that all the additions to our knowledge of Marco Polo's character which the late Professor Orlandini's researches among legal documents have brought to light, go only to strengthen the impression of a hard-headed and somewhat grasping fellow, who quickly contrived, upon his return, to concentrate most of the family fortune in his own hands, pursued his nephews with the full rigour of the law for debt, and left nothing to his kinsmen in his will. The greatest of travellers is an object lesson for all who think that civilisations have only to be in contact to learn from each other, irrespective of the nature of the contact. Barons and military gentlemen fighting crusades in Palestine no doubt bring back some silk and a bottle of scent for their wives and Damascus steel for themselves and (if very intelligent) put up a windmill the better to grind their corn and their peasantry. But they do not install bathrooms in the castle and, as to the learning of the Arabs, it is not until professional scholars from Europe take to attending lectures in Toledo that the Greek inheritance once more finds its way to the West. Culture flows through human filters and some filters let through one thing, some another. As with the Near so with the Far East, during the brief period in which the West established direct contact with it. The merchants and missionaries who went there in the thirteenth century transmitted only what they were qualified to transmit.

Here, then, is a merchant whose personality, so far as it can be judged at all, is not particularly attractive, who is obviously without imagination and sometimes dull and who, even if he does not deserve the harsh judgment that "he looked at everything and saw nothing," at all events left out a great deal that we should dearly like to know. His reputation in his own day is easy enough to understand, but why, with so many hundreds of more exciting travel books between then and now, does the fame of Marco Polo still stand four square? Because when all is said and done, he deserves it. To begin with he deserves it for the sheer drama of his own adventure, which, bare of all personality and of almost all detail, and compressed into a brief preface, is nevertheless such a good story that it explodes like a firework in the mind of any reader. Three men from the West making their way to the vast and hidden empire at the other end of the world, travelling all over the fabulous East, remaining for seventeen years in the service of the Great Khan and then returning as escorts to a princess; this is a perfectly first-class plot. It hooks the imagination, and that the imagination of modern readers is still very ready to be hooked by adventure in the East any publishers' book list will show. Mr. Peter Fleming and Mlle. Maillart have only to make a much less spectacular journey across Central Asia to-day to have all the lending libraries stocking their books. The bare skeleton of Marco Polo's story is worth a dozen other tales with frills on them.

And not only is it a first-class story, but Ser Marco invested his description of the world with all the qualities of his defects. Happily he had no imagination. When the Venetians nicknamed him Marco Million it was rather a mark of their incapacity to believe in the teeming populations and wealth of the East than of his own exaggeration of them. He had travelled more widely than any traveller of his day among peoples who before his time had been entirely unknown to Europe. He was a chief among them taking notes, and it was from his notes (sent from Venice to his prison in Genoa) that he dictated his book. He gives a description of what he himself saw. What he knew from hearsay he repeats as hearsay, and it is notable that all the tall stories are in the passages of hearsay and not in the passages of description. He was the honest commercial traveller. What he had to sell, first to Kublai Khan, then to his contemporaries and finally to posterity was not his imagination, but his observation. He was a man of great intelligence within his limits, and his limits were not narrow. It is no use complaining that he left out all the higher aspects of civilisation, which would not pass through the filter of his practical mind. We have only to compare his book with the marvels of Mandeville to realism what a masterpiece of reporting he has left us. He is a godsend to economic historians, because he sets down just the things that interest them, the aspect of cities, the organisation of communications, the trade of each area and every sea, the life and work and customs of rich and poor. It is the air of sheer everyday reality which Marco Polo contrives to give to his picture of the thirteenth century East which, no less than the stark drama of his personal story, has given him his abiding fame.

Leonardo Olschki (essay date 1943)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Literary Precursors," in Marco Polo's Precursors, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1943, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Olschki explores the influence of the poetic history of Alexander the Great on Polo's book.]

Until about the middle of the thirteenth century, when the first missionaries set out "ad Tartaros," there prevailed in the Western world a profound and persistent ignorance of Central and Eastern Asia, an ignorance partially mitigated by a few vague and generic notions in which remote reminiscences of distant places and peoples were mingled with old poetic and mythical fables. The Tartar invasion of Eastern and Central Europe in 1241 did not alter or even correct the conventional image of Asia popularized by poems and legends. On the contrary, this bloody and destructive clash of the Mongolian and the Christian worlds left the latter just as ignorant of the physical and human aspects of Central and Eastern Asia as these Oriental peoples were of European civilisation. No actual experience of warriors, travellers and traders contributed to the clarification of geographical and ethnological details concerning those regions known only by persistent erudite and literary traditions. At that time even such bookish and superficial knowledge of the interior of Asia was confined to the limits of the world known to the ancients. The territories lying beyond the Caspian Sea, the Oxus, the Indus and the Ganges still appeared as the land of the Seres (the people referred to by Pliny), or as the Biblical kingdoms of the Magi and of Gog and Magog.

Commercial exchange contributed but little towards a practical knowledge of so many lands known only by more or less fantastic names. Recent studies and discoveries have proved, for example, that during the Middle Ages Chinese textiles found their way westwards where the technique of their manufacture and their ornamental designs spread throughout the Moslem and Christian worlds. Merchants journeyed over the same two routes used by the traders of Roman times: either across the China seas, India, the Persian Gulf, and Mesopotamia, or else by the continental routes to Persia through the desert of Gobi and Sinkiang, over the Pamir passes and through Western Turkestan. This commercial intercourse, however, was always indirect and was brought about by intermediaries of diverse origin who spoke many different languages. Hence it would be a mistake to suppose— what has indeed been widely accepted as a fact—that exchange of goods implied also an exchange of culture. In this respect, the only detailed information handed down by the ancient world regarding the far East and its inhabitants is most instructive. It passed unaltered from the books of Pliny and Ammianus Marcellinus into mediaeval texts in the vulgar tongue intended for the laity. These texts represent the geographical conceptions of traders, travellers and sailors or of the public at large much better than the contemporary Latin literature of an erudite character. A typical work of this kind is the famous Trésor written in France by the Florentine scholar and diplomat, Brunetto Latini.

In accord with the Latin authors mentioned above, he relates that "beyond the immense solitudes and uninhabited lands of the East … beyond all the dwellings of men, are a people called Scir or Seres, who, from leaves and the bark of trees which they subject to the action of water, make for themselves a woolen material with which they clothe their bodies. These people are peaceful and live amicably together among themselves, refusing the company of other peoples." "But our traders," continues the narrative, "pass over one of their rivers, where, on its further shores, they find all manner of merchandise. Without speaking, they examine the merchandise and decide by looking at it the price of each piece. And when they have seen it they take away what they wish, leaving in the place of each article its equivalent value. In this wise the natives sell their wares, neither do they desire little or much of ours."

This narrative is significant as it accounts, in a form more symbolic than actual, for the mystery which shrouded the origin of such precious merchandise, despite centuries of commercial intercourse and some political and religious contacts with the contemporary rulers of Central and Eastern Asia. It shows us through the story of mute exchanges how the acquisition of exotic goods did not at all imply an attainment of geographical knowledge or a broadening of cultural horizons. The Romans of the Imperial epoch imported silk at the price of its weight in gold but they had no exact idea of its origin or method of manufacture. Silk was considered to be a vegetable substance obtained, like linen or hemp, through a process of soaking in water or, as Vergil (Georgics, II, 121) and Pliny (Hist. Natur., VI, 54) affirmed, a species of finest vegetable wool found hanging on trees which the Seres combed and gathered.

In spite of the extensive silk production in the Middle East, in Italy and France, the ancient fables continued to be divulged through didactic treatises of this kind. Similarly, in the time of Marco Polo, the sea-ports and warehouses of Egypt, Syria, the Black and the Caspian Seas were peopled with Italian merchants, many of whom, like the Polo family, had established themselves permanently. But it seems that the extensive commercial activity of these traders was not equalled by a corresponding alertness and fruitful curiosity as to the nature of the countries and peoples who provided them with merchandise.

Certainly not one of them felt the need of relating to his contemporaries what he knew. We may even suppose that in their lively competition, not infrequently conducted by force of arms, the Eastern merchants of all creeds and races were more prone to tell idle stories about the queer peoples whom they had seen than to describe their lands with their customs and produce. It was easy to surround with legends of the marvelous and mysterious the farfetched origin of the strange goods in which they traded. Such were the pearls, spices and precious stones which were prized, not only for their rarity and price, but also for the secret virtues they were supposed to possess, that is, their therapeutic and magic qualities.

Thus we may believe that the mediaeval traders contributed rather to the tenacious persistence than to the suppression of these fabulous reports. Before Marco Polo, no one ever knew exactly whence these treasures came or how they were obtained. Notwithstanding the data furnished by him, and, nearly forty years later, by the Florentine trade agent Balducci Pegolotti, about the products of distant Asiatic countries, old illusions maintaining the secret of their origin continued to be evoked for a long time. This tendency was corroborated by a literary tradition which preserved unaltered the ideas and notions handed down by the ancients with regard, not only to the unexplored lands of Asia, but also to those regions more accessible to geographical and commercial experience. Merchants and mariners, for the most part illiterate men, shared these notions as they were related in popular treatises on science and history, intended, like the Trésor of Brunetto Latini, for the instruction of the people, and for reading aloud in churches and public squares.

These texts represent the stationary period of mediaeval general culture, in which late Hellenistic literary doctrines, inherited from classical antiquity, propagated and fixed in the minds of men their notions of the Far East and of the regions bordering on it. It was mainly through poetry and only accidentally through the authority of erudite tradition, that the general public of that age, as well as the merchants and sailors, became acquainted with the natural and human aspects of Asia. Such people knew nothing of the original geographical and ethnological conceptions of Ptolemy, Strabo, Pliny, Pomponius Mela, Isidor of Seville and other leading authors in these fields. No authentic or reliable information about China, India and the Turkish peoples of Central Asia filtered through to the Western world from the most meager, confused and indirect accounts of Arab geographers and of Jewish travellers. Thus, lasting fantasies of poetical imagination and old legends of obscure origin sought to satisfy the intense curiosity of mediaeval society about the distant countries from which it expected both the most coveted goods and the most destructive invasions. To the Occidentals of the Middle Ages the kingdom of darkness, of fables and of marvels lay beyond the last storehouses of Italian and Greek merchants, and hence to the North in the hinterlands of the Sea of Azov, to the East in Transcaucasia, and in Armenia—that last, heroic and unhappy bulwark of oriental Christianity.

Whatever was known of the Moslem and pagan territories lying beyond the limits of Western geographical experiences was drawn almost exclusively from the fabulous deeds of Alexander the Great, as related in the popular poems of the twelfth century and in the new versions of these that appeared in the thirteenth century and even later. The vogue for such romances was enormous and wide-spread, to such an extent that the popularity of the great Macedonian surpassed that of any other hero or sovereign of antiquity. It was sufficient that the boy Marco Polo raise his eyes to the figure of Alexander the Great, on the north façade of St. Mark's, and see there the hero carried up to heaven by griffins, to recall to his mind the well-known stories of the "Merveilles du Désert," the Fountain of Youth, the prophesies of the Sun-and-Moon trees placed at the limits of the earth; of the marvelous palaces of Persia and India; of Brahmans and Gymnosophists; of the fabulous, strange and monstrous peoples inhabiting the borders of the world; of magic forests and the fantastic beasts which peopled them. His memory would recall all the fascinating legends which Greek biographers of the first centuries of our era had grouped around the figure of Alexander the Great, the conqueror who was the pupil of Aristotle and the victim of his own "desmesure."

Associated with the pagan traditions of the marvels of the East was the Biblical imagery of the fabulous lands of gold; incense and myrrh. These were to be found near the terrestrial Paradise whence flowed rivers, such as the Oxus and the Ganges, and which marked the furthermost eastern limits of geographical knowledge. The name of the Biblical river Geon is referred to in Marco Polo's book as the Oxus of the feats of Alexander. Similarly, the recollection of his adventures serves to identify the topography of those parts of Central Asia visited and described by the Venetian traveller. When he reached the northern frontiers of Persia and was among the Badakshan mountains, the Moslems of these localities repeated to him the self-same tales of the exploits of the Macedonian which, together with the imaginary enchantments of Asia, had inspired the bards of France and Italy. In fact, in journeying from Venice to the extreme limits of Bactriana, Marco Polo found himself still within the limits of the ancient world. Within its boundaries the figure of the Macedonian was, for the Christians of the West and for the Moslems of Asia alike, the outstanding representative and the only universal exponent of ancient expansion and civilisation.

It is unnecessary here to study exhaustively the reason why the figure of Alexander the Great remained throughout vast territories inhabited by heterogeneous peoples the common symbol of human greatness for so long a time and through so many historical vicissitudes. We can only suppose that this singular good fortune depended upon the fact that this imaginary biography, written in Greek by the Pseudo-Callisthenes, between the second and the third centuries of our era, was translated not only into Latin whence it found its way into the popular romances, but also into Armenian, Persian, Syriac and Ethiopic, becoming thus the common possession of all mankind. The person of the Macedonian who was the central historical figure in narratives of varied adventures; the partly real and partly fanciful topographical background of his deeds; the numerous fables set forth in the romance; the tendency to stress his moral character, the quantity of notions which owed their inspiration to him— these were all contributing factors to the universal and lasting diffusion of his name. Furthermore, we should take into consideration the fact that the earlier Greek romance of the Pseudo-Callisthenes abounds in Oriental motifs, which, in a new literary form, were thus restored to the peoples among whom they had originated.

Nevertheless, all this would not be sufficient to explain the vitality which the Alexandrian tradition, literary in origin and character, had in both the Christian and the Islamic worlds. The continuity and persistence of this partly historical and partly fabulous tradition does not depend upon intrinsic circumstances alone, but upon its transfusion into new civilisations which were heirs of the old. Two facts have sealed and confirmed his extraordinary and age-long glory. The first is the enthusiastic mention of Alexander made at the beginning of the first book of Maccabees, as the sovereign who "went through to the ends of the earth, and took spoils of a multitude of nations," thus initiating his Christian myth in that biblical book which most resembles the mediaeval "chansons de geste." Furthermore, the Koran has exalted his glory equally in a sort of transfiguration which remained connected with the wonders and mysteries of the East.

The persistent and universal vitality of this historical figure, twice praised in sacred writings, served to perpetuate a mass of geographical fables which baffles every attempt at rational correction as the result of practical experience. It was impossible to dissociate even the empirical image of Asia, derived from travels and exploration, from the legendary figure of Alexander, sketched by poetic imagination. This, then, is the reason why, despite commercial intercourse, diplomatic relations and direct contacts between the West and the East in peace and in war, everything relating to that continent appeared and persisted in the form of fables, as of a Utopia surrounded by poetic mystery.

The literary image of Asia was so deeply rooted in the mediaeval culture that it determined the character and the structure of Marco Polo's book. Although he had in mind composing a description of Asia on an empirical basis, it is incorrect to interpret this attempt as a result of Marco's scientific intentions. He dictated the Milione not so much for the information of travellers, traders and cosmographers, as mainly for the enjoyment of his contemporaries who eagerly yearned for this kind of pleasant instruction in an epoch of prevailing didactic interests in culture and literature. In fact, the first part of the book contains a sequel of entertaining and edifying stories dealing with the wonders of Bagdad, the legend of the Magi, the Old Man of the Mountain and his artificial Paradise, the Arbre Sec and sundry anecdotal details more or less connected with the authentic and the poetic history of Alexander the Great. Thus, later on, the story of the Nestorian Unc Khan is fused with the legend of Prester John and narrated rather as a fairy-tale than as an historical event. The Tartar expedition against Japan is described in the characteristic style of contemporary romances of chivalry, while the entire description of insular and continental India bears the marks of the traditional accounts which transformed those regions into a land of wonders, marvels and teratology.

Thus all the positive and practical information offered by this book on the basis of personal experience and observation appears in a tidy and elaborated frame of tales of wonders of Hellenistic, biblical and Islamic origin. This circumstance determined the prevailing literary character of the book even independently of the collaboration of Rustician, a professional writer. From this point of view, the title sometimes given to the book in mediaeval manuscripts and old editions as a "livres des merveilles du monde" appears quite justified and in accordance with the intention of the author and the interpretation of the public.

In spite of its exceptional character and of the rich and varied details of an objective and reliable kind which it contains, Marco Polo's book is still connected in its essential scheme with the old tradition of Asiatic imagery created and propagated by the poetic history of Alexander the Great. Mandeville's forgery represents a further step and the literary conclusion of this development of a fantastic geography, supported, rather than destroyed, by the results of new discoveries and explorations. The same interrelations between authentic reports and literary motifs which contributed to the success of these standard geographical works of the Middle Ages determined the cosmographical conceptions of Columbus and his interpretation of reality in the New World.

Richard D. Mallery (essay date 1948)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to Masterworks of Travel and Exploration: Digests of 13 Great Classics, edited by Richard D. Mallery, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948, pp. 3-12.

[In the following excerpt, Mallery discusses the appeal of Polo's The Book of Marco Polo in the context of the travel narrative genre.]

Travel narratives, through the ages, reflect the character and predilections of the era in which they are composed. Very often they help to determine the special character of the age. They appeal, of course, primarily to that sense of wonder which is found, to a greater or less extent, in all periods. What we know of the fascination exerted upon young and old by the Arabian Nights helps us to recapture the mood in which our forefathers read or heard read The Book of Marco Polo or the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. In the long run, travel books have always had an important educational value, but before men could develop a serious study of geography or history, their sense of wonder had to be awakened.

Travel books of the early centuries, like the most popular poetry, were therefore essentially romantic in their fostering of an interest in the remote, the unusual, and the faraway. Much formal literature of the fourteenth century was didactic and moral, but our first great poet Chaucer shows in his work the close relation between the traveler's tale and literature. The Canterbury Tales are told by pilgrims, who were the characteristic travelers of the Middle Ages. The Knight had journeyed widely, not only in Christian lands but among the infidels. His son, the young Squire, told a romantic tale of Cambuskan, full of magic rings and mirrors and flying horses, and set in the land of Kublai Khan. Whether or not Chaucer was exclusively influenced in the writing of this tale by The Book of Marco Polo, it has now been definitely proved that the narrative of the Venetian merchant with which our collection opens was known to him. In his capacity as a customs official he came into frequent contact, of course, with travelers from remote places, and he himself had journeyed across Europe to Italy, where he met men who were experiencing the first stirrings of the great awakening that we have called the Renaissance. Chaucer's own conceptions of geography were, naturally, those held generally in the Middle Ages. Modern geography did not begin until the rediscovery of Ptolemy a generation or so after Chaucer's death, and we should not look to the English poet for ideas and conceptions too much in advance of his time. His eager curiosity, however, is probably symptomatic of the age that is opening, and the prominence given to romance in his poems shows his awareness of the taste of his day.

It is only natural that the narrator of a travel book should adapt his style to his audience. As we read [travel narratives], we become increasingly aware of the fact that more often than not the author is trying to provide something other than mere entertainment. Obviously, the man who has lived through exciting or unusual times will not be averse to presenting himself as the center of attraction in the narrative. He knows that the reader, young or old, will want to identify himself with the narrator and live through his experiences vicariously. Such awareness may lead the author to adopt a pose or it may lead him to attempt to influence the character of the reader through moral precepts. In any event, this power he feels will color his narrative. We shall probably never know how much of the glamour of Marco Polo's narrative was the result of his desire, conscious or unconscious, to vindicate himself in the eyes of those doubting countrymen of his who had nicknamed him Il Milione. The reports of Columbus show the Admiral constantly torn between his own desire to explore the new lands and his haunting sense that he must satisfy his employers. Like Ralegh later, Columbus has to flatter his readers with stories of vast wealth when his own inclinations are often bent toward more ultimately significant things than gold. Many of the early narratives of life in North America, such as those of Captain John Smith, for example, are attractively worded advertisements designed to spur colonization. Captain James Cook, in the eighteenth century, and Alfred Russel Wallace, in the nineteenth, make clear their sense of obligation to science, and Dr. Josiah Gregg often subordinates his own personal interests to the interests of trade and commerce. David Livingstone was a missionary even when he was an explorer, but he seemed aware that his readers must first be interested in colonizing Africa before anything could be done toward suppressing the iniquitous slave traffic. The reading public, in other words, had always to be taken into consideration.

We have observed that the "common reader" is the ultimate judge of literary honors. The fate of travel books is bound up, therefore, with the rise and development of the reading public. It is impossible to estimate the part played in earlier centuries by the oral transmission of tales of travel. The reading public was of course at first a "listening" public, but so limited was the sphere of activity of the average man in the Dark Ages, so restricted were his horizons, that even though stories of far-off places must have been eagerly heard, we can make no useful generalizations about travel literature until we reach the sixteenth century. Education spread slowly to the masses as urban centers developed. With all its disadvantages London in the lifetime of Shakespeare was a stimulating place, full of bustle and excitement. As the nerve center of commerce and trade it kept men alert, and the flood of pamphlets, with their elaborate and inviting title pages, was a constant inducement to education.

With the growing prosperity of the middle classes in England there came new opportunities for men, formerly provincial in their outlook, to come in contact with the other peoples of the world. The sailors and merchants who thronged London were ordinary men. No longer was it the "gentlemen" only who traveled abroad. These ordinary persons were impelled to tell of their experiences, and when they wrote their narratives they wrote for persons like themselves. Most of the accounts gathered by Richard Hakluyt are of this sort. By and large the authors are content to give a straightforward narrative, unembellished with poetic flourishes and marked by an almost complete absence of literary consciousness. The authors know instinctively that the plain recital of great deeds in remote parts of the earth is more fascinating than fiction and that the very bareness of the narrative will do much to waken the average Englishman to a sense of sharing in the achievement of his nation. The appeal of Hakluyt's Voyages is the appeal of a great national epic. The plays and poems of the vibrant Elizabethan age give further expression to the growing sense of exhilaration felt by the average man after the defeat of the Armada, and the works of Shakespeare and his fellow poets betray the immense debt of the authors to the travel books of the day.

By 1600 the average man in England was, however, more often than not a member of one of the many religious groups loosely classified as Puritan. By and large, the Puritan looked with disfavor upon the arts, including literature. Reading, he felt, must be, if not specially pious or moral, at least "useful." So it is that the didactic note assumes more prominence. Having to a great extent divorced religion from life, especially from business life, the Puritan turns his attention to foreign trade. The seventeenth century, consequently, is an age in which the first excitement over new lands is replaced by a more intelligent interest in settlement and colonial enterprise. Purchas, the successor of Hakluyt, is a journalist who knows his public. In his collection of voyages he stresses the double motive of converting the heathen and deriving profit from colonization. Such a combination was irresistible to the pious tradesmen of England, who invested large sums in the Virginia Company and other groups of "adventurers."

So absorbing was the business of settlement in America that there was little time for further exploration toward the west. The French, it is true, pushed west through Canada, but the great discoveries of the missionaries were buried in the annual reports known today as the Jesuit Relations. Until Anson, Dampier, and Cook returned from their first voyages to the Pacific, there is little to record in a volume such as ours beyond the fact that geography as an exact science was emerging as the foundations of empire were being laid.

Books dealing with travel and exploration are inevitably bound up with the progress of geographical discovery. As we have already noted, such books reflect the era in which they are composed and show the changes that gradually develop through the ages in the goals sought by explorers and travelers as well as the changes in motives and methods.

When Rome fell to the barbarians, the Dark Ages ensued. The geographical knowledge of the ancients passed to the Arabs and was thus effectually removed from Christian Europe until the Renaissance. Although the ancient conception of the sphericity of the earth was never wholly lost, popular conceptions often took strange forms in the Dark Ages. Such traveling as was done consisted of pilgrimages or commercial voyages. In the north of Europe, the Vikings inherited the old trade routes of the Frisians and greatly extended them, pushing their activities south to the Mediterranean and west to Iceland and Greenland. Some knowledge of the extensive activities in the Atlantic must have reached Europe, but the preoccupation of the Church with the Crusades, combined with an understandable fear of the unknown, relegated news of the first discovery of America to the realm of fanciful legend. One must also keep in mind the fact that much of this early navigating was kept secret for reasons of trade monopolies. Irish chronicles and Icelandic sagas provide us today with what little we know of the activity of the Vikings in the north Atlantic, but it is safe to say that these literary accounts were too detached from the main currents of Western medieval thought to exert much actual influence. Columbus may have known of the Viking colonies in America, but he was primarily interested, not in traffic in furs, walrus tusks, whale blubber, and fish, but in reaching the wealth of Marco Polo's Cathay.

Far to the south, the Vikings came into contact with the extensive and orderly empire of the Arabs, whose merchants traded by land from Spain to India and by sea with China. With the conquest of Central Asia by the Mongols, the path to China was opened to Europeans and soon the magic word Cathay was on the lips of layman and priest alike. Ordinary men and women marveled at the luxuries that reached them on the Venetian galleys, and missionaries began to dream of carrying the faith to the Orient. In part, they were inspired by the legend of Prester John, a great priest king, ruler of a vast and wealthy territory. It appears now that this great monarch was first thought of as ruling Ethiopia. By the thirteenth century, thanks to a forged letter purporting to have been written by Prester John himself, ruler of the Three Indias, his kingdom was thought to be somewhere in Asia. Whatever the incentives to exploration may have been, the result was a widening of the geographical horizons of the man of the Middle Ages. Even Lhasa was reached by Friar Odoric in the fourteenth century, and in the next hundred years notable journeys were made to the Malay Archipelago and to the west coast of Africa.

As every schoolboy knows, the rise of the Turks, with the incidental capture of Constantinople, made it imperative that a new route be found to the Indies. By this time the geographical work of Ptolemy, the second-century Egyptian astronomer, had been rediscovered, and a new problem was created. The discoveries of men since Ptolemy's time had to be fitted into the world picture drawn by the ancients, and through the period of the great voyages of the end of the fifteenth century cartographers tried valiantly to do this. With the work of Mercator and Ortelius, however, a new era in map-making begins, and the maps included in Hakluyt's Voyages look almost familiar to us today. Hakluyt himself was an ardent proponent of the study of geography and cartography, and he especially advocated the study of geography in terms of the modern achievements of actual navigators instead of in terms of ancient Latin and Greek classics.

In the pages of Hakluyt are recorded the attempts to find a northeast passage to China, which led to trade with Russia instead, and the efforts of Frobisher and others to find a northwest passage to China, which led to the rediscovery of Labrador (the Vinland of the Vikings). Search for a northern passage continued through the seventeenth century, and Captain Cook in the eighteenth century, after exploring the Pacific, attempted the northwest passage in reverse from Alaska.

But Cook was principally concerned with another of the great objectives of maritime activity: the search for Terra Australis, the great southern continent supposed to surround the South Pole and to extend north into the tropics. Search for this great continent had led the Dutchman Torres to touch at the northern end of Australia and his compatriots Van Diemen and Tasman to make notable discoveries. It remained for Cook, however, to prove that New Zealand is an island, to explore the east coast of Australia effectively, and, on his second voyage, to carry his search for the mythical southern continent south of the Antarctic Circle.

By the close of the eighteenth century the world was mapped with some exactness, at least so far as the continental outlines were concerned. There were many blank spaces, however, in the interior of Australia, Arabia, India, and Africa, and although China had been mapped, Lhasa was not reliably known to have been reached since the journey of Friar Odoric in the fourteenth century. Much remained to be done in the nineteenth century, the great period of geographical exploration.

Ronald Latham (essay date 1958)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo, translated by Ronald Latham, Penguin Books, 1958, pp. vii-xxix.

[In the following excerpt, Latham examines Rusticello's contribution to Polo's book and asserts that, while Polo's observations in other fields tend to be conservative, his remarks on the "human geography" of the places he visited are outstanding.]

The book most familiar to English readers as The Travels of Marco Polo was called in the prologue that introduced it to the reading public at the end of the thirteenth century a Description of the World (Divisament dou Monde). It was in fact a description of a surprisingly large part of the world—from the Polar Sea to Java, from Zanzibar to Japan—and a surprisingly large part of it from first-hand observation. The claim put forward in the Prologue, that its author had travelled more extensively than any man since the Creation, is a plain statement of fact, so far at least as it relates to anyone who has left a record of his travels. Even among the Arab globe-trotters he had no serious competitor till Ibn Batuta, two generations later. And to western Christendom the world he revealed was almost wholly unknown. Some stretches of the trail he blazed were trodden by no other European foot for over 600 years—not, perhaps, till the opening of the Burma Road during the last war. And the task of putting it on the map, in the most literal sense, is not yet complete.

The book can be enjoyed by the modern reader, as it was by the contemporary, for its own sake, as a vivid description of a fantastic world so remote from his own experience that it scarcely matters whether he thinks of it as fact or fiction. The enquirer who wishes to explore this world more thoroughly, in order to read the book with a just appraisal of its place in the development of human intercourse and knowledge, will find himself embarked on a journey potentially as long and varied as Polo's own.…

In 1298, according to the Prologue, Marco was a prisoner of war at Genoa. Ramusio says that he had been captured at the battle of Curzola (6 September 1298), when serving as 'gentleman commander' of a Venetian galley. But this again appears to be hearsay, if not mere conjecture. He was probably released under the terms of a peace treaty signed on 25 May 1299. At any rate, the captivity involved a period of enforced leisure, during which the restless wanderer had little to do but talk, and it is not surprising that his traveller's tales aroused the interest of his fellow prisoners. Among these was one Rusticello of Pisa, a romance-writer of some repute, who was interested in a more professional way. He had at one time enjoyed the patronage of Prince Edward of England, afterwards Edward I, and it is believed that, like the legate Tedaldo, he had travelled in his suite to Palestine. He may even have met the Polos there twenty-five years before, and must at least have known of their romantic mission. Now he was quick to perceive in Marco's narratives a new theme for his art, as picturesque as 'the matter of Britain' or 'the matter of Troy' or the legendary exploits of Alexander the Great—a theme that made up in novelty what it unfortunately lacked in love interest. Marco in his turn evidently cooperated by sending to Venice for his notes. And from this partnership of the merchant adventurer with the observant eye and retentive memory and the professional romancer with the all-too-fluent pen emerged one of the world's most remarkable books. We may regret that, with such incomparable material to work on, neither of the men was a literary genius—that Marco failed to impart, or Rustichello to elicit, a living drama of events and personalities, an image of the impact on a mind moulded by medieval Catholicism of a highly developed alien civilization. But genius of this order is rare. And the book the two collaborators actually produced, for which the literature of their day afforded no model, is sufficiently remarkable as it stands.

Rusticello's share in the joint venture has probably been underrated. Professor L. F. Benedetto, who produced the first critical edition of the Polo manuscripts in 1928, has clearly demonstrated, by comparison with his other writings, that Rustichello was responsible for the leisurely, conversational style of the oldest French manuscript, with its continual recapitulations and personal adjurations to the reader (Que vos en diroie? Si vos die; Sachiez por voire, etc.)—a seeming-artless style that reveals in fact the art of the story-teller in an age when stories were few and time was plentiful. He has also shown not only that the opening invocation to 'emperors and kings, dukes and marquises', etc. occurs verbatim in an Arthurian romance by Rusticello but that whole passages of narrative have been lifted with the minimum of adaptation from the same source. Thus the dramatic account of the welcome accorded to the Polos on their second visit to Kubilai and the commendation of the young Marco is closely modelled on Rusticello's previous description of the arrival of Tristan at King Arthur's court at Camelot—a description which already owed much to earlier writers and was of course in the central stream of romantic tradition. At the very outset a stock formula of knight errantry (il ne trevent aventure que a mentovoir face) is introduced into the report of a trade mission. With this clue to guide us we can safely see the hand of Rustichello in the conventional battle-pieces that largely fill the last chapter of the present work, with their monotonous harangues and their insistence on all the punctilio of 'Frankish' chivalry. It is tempting to go further. The sequence of the topographical survey is rather awkwardly broken by a series of digressions in which well-known legends of the Middle East— the miracle of the mountain, the tale of the Magi, the pretended paradise of Alamut—are related in the conventional romantic manner. Is it not possible that these stories, which could probably have been picked up by any visitor to the Holy Land, were inserted by Rustichello as a sop to his public, and that their attribution to Marco is a mere literary device? When we have travelled further east, outside the romancer's ken, such digressions become fewer and usually take the stock form of a battle-scene which may not owe more to Marco than a few names. There are other features of the book that are as likely to be due to Rustichello as to Marco, such as the tendency to glamorize the status of the Polos at the Tartar court, particularly their relation to the princesses entrusted to their care, the vein of facetiousness that often accompanies references to sexual customs, and the eagerness to acclaim every exotic novelty as a 'marvel' It is likely that without the aid of Rustichello Marco would never have written a best-seller. Conceivably he might have produced something not much more readable than Pegolotti's Handbook. More probably he would never have written a book at all.

As to Marco's own personality, apart from this book there are perhaps only two bits of evidence that throw any light on it at all. One is his will, dated 9 January 1323/4—a businesslike, unsentimental document by which he left the bulk of his possessions to be divided equally among his three daughters. The one human touch is the manumission of his Tartar slave Peter. The bequests of specified sums suggest a substantial but by no means colossal fortune. The second fact is his nickname of 'Million' (Il Milione), which appears in an official document of 1305; if this is really a tribute to his gift of 'talking big', it may well have been inspired by his book rather than by his conversation. He remains in fact a somewhat colourless personality, especially if we admit the possibility that such gleams of colour as appear in his book may be due to the refractive medium of the chronicler.

His travels are proof in themselves of enterprise, resource, and dogged endurance, and there can be no doubt that he travelled with his wits about him and his eyes open. Primarily they were the eyes of a practical traveller and a merchant, quick to notice the available sources of food and water along the route, the means of transport, and the obstacles interposed by nature or by man, and no less quick to observe the marketable products of every district, whether natural or manufactured, and the channels through which flowed the interlacing streams of export and import. Despite the ever-present risks of shipwreck, piracy, brigandage, extortion, and wild beasts, this was a world of highly organized commerce. And to Western merchants, who had hitherto known little more of it than its terminal points on the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, this inside information promised to be as useful as it was fascinating. The trade-routes followed by the Polos were mainly such as would quickly swallow the profits except on goods of very high value in proportion to their bulk. Hence in part that emphasis, to which the book owes much of its appeal, on precious gems and spices and gorgeous fabrics of silk and cloth of gold, as against the more humdrum commodities that formed the staple of medieval, as of modern, commerce. But we need not doubt that the cataloguing of these costly rarities gave pleasure to the author, as it has done to generations of readers.

From this practical standpoint, Marco judged town and countryside alike in terms of productivity: a 'fine' town is a thriving one, a 'fine' province a fertile one, and little use is made of more discriminating epithets. The descriptions of architecture and artefacts suggest a taste for efficiency, sound workmanship, costly materials, and bright colours rather than artistic sensibility. But there are hints of a feeling for natural scenery unusual in that age: the descriptions of the Pamirs and the Gobi reveal rather more than a recognition of the healthiness of the hill air and the desolation of the desert. The judgements passed on men and states show something of the same mercantile approach. The languages of medieval Europe had no word to express the concept civilization'; but Marco comes near to conveying the notion by his use of the word domesce; and he has a clear enough appreciation of its blessings. His 'good' men are hard-working, law-abiding folk who live by trade and industry si come bone jens doient faire; his 'bad' men are the indolent or unruly, the stuff that brigands and corsairs are made of. It is by a more chivalric standard, however, that he (or Rustichello) praises the prowess of the Tartar warriors or blames the climate of Lesser Armenia for the degeneracy of its inhabitants. His reference to the stinginess of the Kashgaris strikes a note of personal experience.

He is true to his age in classifying the people he encounters primarily on the basis of religion rather than of culture or colour. He does not, however, go much beyond the rudimentary classification into Christians, Jews, Saracens, and idolaters. While well aware that Nestorians, Jacobites, and Armenians are 'imperfect' Christians, he betrays no interest in doctrinal differences. Of the Jews, considering the part they played in international trade, he has surprisingly little to say. For Moslems, whom he persists in describing as 'worshippers of Mahomet', he has the traditional Christian hostility, embittered perhaps by commercial rivalry. It is in his attitude to 'idolaters', primarily Buddhists and Hindus, that he displays most clearly that tolerant attitude that we might expect from one who was in such a literal sense a man of the world. He admires the austerity of their holy men, even comparing the Buddha to a Christian saint, and acknowledges the efficacy of their humanitarian doctrines, though it cannot be said that he shows any insight into their philosophy of life. It has been suggested that he was deterred from speaking too openly on matters of religion by fear of ecclesiastical censure. It is even possible that the surviving manuscripts of his work have already undergone a certain process of censorship. Certainly, among those passages that are omitted by most of the manuscripts, there are several that might well have given offence to the church. Some of these betray just such an accommodating temper as we might expect to find in Marco himself; but others look more like the comments of some zealous churchman disgusted in a thoroughly orthodox manner by the lukewarmness of his fellow Christians.

In the field of natural history Marco's curiosity and powers of observation served him well. His descriptions of exotic plants, beasts, and especially birds are usually far more accurate and recognizable than those to be found in contemporary herbals and bestiaries. He was evidently a keen sportsman and shared that enthusiasm for falconry which was prevalent in his day among the aristocracies of Christendom, Islam, and the Far East alike. His curiosity, however, scarcely extended into the field of human history. Apart from echoes of Christian tradition and allusions to the Alexander legend, both of which may well be due to Rustichello, the horizon of his book barely extends beyond the rise of his Mongol patrons less than a century before. His accounts of the dynastic succession of the Khans and their mutual relationships are full of inaccuracies.… Even his narratives of contemporary campaigns are a disconcerting blend of fact and fable; and he gives little indication of the use of documentary sources. His distorted picture of earlier events is partly due to the role he assigns to 'Prester John'. It is possible that the original of this legendary priest-king was one of the Christian rulers of Abyssinia, whose successors were certainly identified with him in the fifteenth century. But in Polo's time his realm was generally believed to be somewhere in the Far East. As early as 1148 a disastrous defeat suffered by the Saracens in Turkestan was attributed to this mysterious champion of Christendom, though the actual victor was not in fact a Christian at all. Not long after this an unknown genius, possibly a Greek, had concocted a 'Letter of Prester John', purporting to be addressed to the two Christian Emperors and the Pope, which dwelt encouragingly on his power and benevolence towards the West and alluringly on the oriental splendour of his court. Thanks to this Letter, which soon became a best-seller, every European traveller in the East was on the look-out for Prester John, 'of whose great empire all the world speaks'. Some place clearly had to be found for him in Marco's narrative. He was actually identified (as he had been already by Roubrouck) with a Nestorian ruler of the Turkish Kerait clan named Togrul, known to the Chinese as Wang Khan, who played a prominent part in the early career of Chinghiz, at first as an ally, later as an enemy. His story is here romanticized in the Rustichello manner, and he is said to have passed on the title to a certain George, who is known from other sources as a Christian prince subject to Kubilai. Marco seems further to have confused the title Ung Khan, his version of Wang Khan, with Ung, which apparently denoted a tribe living near the Great Wall of China. This wall, which he never actually mentions, was called by Arab writers 'the Wall of Gog and Magog' and linked up with the legend that Alexander had cut off these barbarous tribes from the civilized world by a gigantic barrier. Marco's narrative had already located this barrier in a more traditional setting in the Caucasus; but the coincidence of the names Ung and Mungul (or Mongol) was too tempting; so Gog and Magog are perforce dragged in here. The whole passage exemplifies the sort of scholarly speculation from which the unscholarly Marco is on the whole singularly free.

The same freedom from speculation is a still more conspicuous quality of Marco Polo as a geographer. Apart from some confusion about the four rivers of Paradise he is scarcely ever influenced by those preconceptions about the shape and features of the earth that bedevil most medieval geographers, Christian, Moslem, and Chinese. A more learned writer might have avoided Polo's gaffe about travelling farther north than the Pole Star; but he would probably have been misled into more damaging errors. As a rule, Polo is content to plot the position and extent of countries, towns, and natural features according to a rough-and-ready framework of directions and distances that makes no exaggerated claims to precision. His favourite unit of distance, the 'day's journey', is obviously a highly elastic quantity, but no doubt sufficiently precise in its context for the traveller on a recognized caravan route. When he is reproducing hearsay evidence, as to the size of Java for instance or the trend of the Arabian coast, he is naturally liable to serious error. But his own observations, with due allowance for copyists' slips, are mostly pretty accurate. It would not be easy to translate them into a map, though they were certainly used by some cartographers in the fourteenth century; but they contained the essential data for a fairly reliable itinerary. We know that he fired the imagination of Columbus, who treasured a well-thumbed manuscript of his work and scribbled notes in the margin; but the Venetian cannot be held responsible for that fortunate underestimate of the size of the earth which encouraged the aspiring Genoese to seek for Cathay across the Atlantic.

It is when we turn to the wider field of 'geography' as the term is commonly used today, with an emphasis on 'human geography', that Polo's outstanding excellence is mostly clearly perceived. Instead of the picturesque fables that liven the pages of Sir John Mandeville and of many more authentic travellers, he gives us no less picturesque facts, and facts in great abundance. In no previous Western writer since Strabo, thirteen centuries before, and in none again for at least another two centuries, do we find anything remotely comparable with Polo's panorama of the nations. Persians, Turks, Tartars, Chinese, Tibetans, Indians, and a score of others defile before us, not indeed revealed in their inner thoughts and feelings, but faithfully portrayed in all such particulars as might meet the eye of an observant traveller, from the oddities of their physical features or dress to the multiplicity of strange customs by which they regulated their lives from the cradle to the grave. Faced with this superb tableau vivant, the most captious critic cannot but agree with Marco's own view, as modestly expressed in the Prologue: 'It would be a great pity if he did not have a written record made of all the things that he had seen and heard by true report, so that those who have not seen them and do not know them may learn them from this book.'

Leonardo Olschki (essay date 1960)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Politics and Religion in Marco Polo's Asia," in Marco Polo's Asia: An Introduction to His "Description of the World" Called "Il milione, " University of California Press, 1960, pp. 178-210.

[In the following essay, Olschki analyzes the accuracy of Polo's observations regarding Asian religion and politics in the thirteenth century.]

Marco Polo's intention of conferring upon his journey the character of a religious mission is immediately evident in the first part of his book. Ecclesiastical and pious motives abound, from the moment when the three Venetians procured some oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and departed with the Pope's blessing (benedictio finalis); then in the description of the Christian sects in western Asia; in the narration of the miracles worked by the Faith in the struggle against the infidels; and in the account of the homage paid by the Magi to the Christ Child, which opens his description of Persia.

At the same time, our traveler notes the most striking manifestations of the Mohammedan faith, notably in his description of the end of the Abbasid caliphate, and in his still more dramatic account of the sect of the Assassins in Persia, which, in Marco's times, caused a stir throughout the Old World from China to Spain. Nor does he fail to mention the "fire-worshipers," the last followers of Zoroaster. Further on, in his description of the peoples of Asia, Marco's attention is everywhere directed toward what may be called a denominational topography of the Orient; and his is the most extensive and most nearly complete portrayal of it that is to be found anywhere in the geographical and ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages.

To a faithful, devout Catholic unconcerned with theological inquiry or metaphysical conflict the coexistence of so many religions and their sects in an empire ruled by a single and still secure dynasty must have appeared at first sight a disconcerting and incomprehensible spectacle. Addressing a Europe in which Catholic orthodoxy had been restored with patience and wisdom, and with violence too, and dictating his book at the end of a century agitated by bitter religious struggles, Marco begins one of his best versions by explaining to his readers a phenomenon that distinguishes the Asiatic world in its essence from the Christian community of the West. "These Tartars," he says, "do not care what god is worshiped in their lands. If only all are faithful to the lord Kaan and quite obedient and give therefore the appointed tribute, and justice is well kept, thou mayest do what pleaseth thee with thy soul. They will not that thou speak evil of their souls; nor fail thou to assist at their doings. But do thou what thou wilt with God and thy soul, whether thou art Jew or pagan or Saracen or Christian who dwellest among the Tartars. They confess indeed in Tartary that Christ is Lord, but say that he is a proud Lord because he will not be with other gods but will be God above all the others in the world. And so in some places they have a Christ of gold and silver and keep him hidden in some chest, and say that he is the great and supreme Lord of the Christians."

This adequate description of the religious situation in the Chinghizide empire at the time of Marco's stay in Asia could not have been composed by anyone but him. It sums up all his long and varied experience of this facet of Oriental civilization. This frank, unruffled judgment was undoubtedly suppressed in the current versions of the Milione because of its disturbing novelty; for, among other things, it clearly indicated the insurmountable barrier that divided both the Roman and Greek Orthodox churches, with their equally rigid, dogmatic pretensions, from the civilization of Asia, which was apparently indifferent to denominational and ecclesiastical questions.

When the three Polos left Venice for China in 1271, the fervor of the mendicant orders and enlightened Papal policy had certainly restored religious unity to Europe. Nevertheless, the struggle against the heretics was not yet at an end. As late as 1276, in near-by Verona, one hundred and fifty "Patarins" were imprisoned and many of them were burned alive, and new sects continued to spring up here and there until the death of Fra Dolcino, the tough rebel mentioned by Dante. All this kept the thought of contemporary heresies present in Marco's mind as he made note of the various religions of Asia.

To the weak, unsuccessful crusades of the Emperor Frederick II and King Louis IX of France, and the conquest of the Levant by force of arms, there had now succeeded the conquest of souls by means of missions and public religious disputations. The latter, indeed, represent one of the most characteristic manifestations of the civilization of that age, from Morocco to China. Eloquent symptoms of it are to be found even in a book like this, inspired by its author's lay sentiments and interests. Hence, it is to the "holy strife of disputatious men" that we must look for the expression of the passions and tendencies that then dominated the religious field, and that are reflected in Marco Polo's activity and feelings.

Two noteworthy examples help to illustrate the different attitudes assumed in religious controversy by those who best represent his age, respectively in the West and the East, and reveal the contrast between the two worlds, as well as Marco's ability to adapt himself without conflict to either. Joinville relates in his biography of King Louis that, on the occasion of a theological dispute between the monks of the abbey at Cluny and the learned "grand master" of the Jews in France, a knight who was present, on hearing Christ's divinity and Mary's virginity brought into question, put an end to the discussion by cracking the unbeliever's head. The abbot protested, whereupon King Louis replied that the best way for a Christian layman to defend his faith against those people was "to thrust his sword into their entrails, as far as it would go." Such sentiments were then permissible to a king, a saint, famous down the ages for his piety and justice.

Later on—precisely, on May 31, 1254,—when Friar William of Rubruck, who had been sent to Mongolia by this same king, St. Louis of France, allowed his feelings to get the better of him in a celebrated theological dispute with the representatives of the religions of Asia who had gathered for the occasion in Karakorum, he was called into the presence of the Great Kaan of the Tartars, who had already decreed his expulsion. This all-powerful sovereign, who was already making preparations for the conquest of southern China and the Mongol advance to the shores of the Mediterranean, expressed his displeasure to the kneeling friar at this attempt to disturb the religious peace of his empire, and gave him a lecture: "We Mongols," he said, "believe that there is only one God, by whom we live and by whom we die, and for whom we have an upright heart.… But as God gives us the different fingers of the hand, so he gives to men divers ways.… God gave you the Scriptures, and you do not abide by them; he gave us diviners, we do what they tell us, and we live in peace."

The sovereign's profession of faith is famous in Asiatic history and literature, and corresponds exactly to the attitude manifested by this brother of Kublai in all his religious policy. For the Chinghizide rulers from China to the Crimea, the Christian faith was only one religion among the many professed in their immense empire; as Marco justly observed in the passage quoted, even those who recognized Christ's divinity denied Him supremacy over the other divinities of Asia and the claims of His church to spiritual sovereignty over the whole world.

These sentiments were also expressed by Kublai when he discussed religious questions with the Polo brothers. "There are four prophets," he said, "that are adored and revered by the whole world. The Christians declare their God to have been Jesus Christ, the Saracens Mohammed, the Jews Moses, the idolaters [i.e., the Buddhists] Sagamoni Borcan [i.e., Sakyamuni, the Buddha], who was the first god among the idols; and I honor and revere all four; that is to say, the one who is greatest in heaven and most true, and I pray that he may help me."

The contrast between the attitude of the Christian rulers and that of the pagan emperors sets off the rigid intransigence of the former and the considerate tolerance of the latter. The toleration of various cults in the Chinghizide dominion follows from this idea of their metaphysical equivalence and their political value, which Marco clearly expressed in his simple style; as did also both of the Tartar emperors in their serenely figurative speech, which in a way foreshadows the parable of the three rings, inspired by Oriental tales and immortalized by Boccaccio.

Which of the four prophets of one and the same god was preferred by him, Kublai, wise and calculating, never revealed either to Marco or to anyone else, thereby leaving to the faithful of each sect the illusion of his secret inclination toward their preference and the certainty of his equable protection. Our Venetians were indeed under the impression that he considered "the Christian faith to be the most true"; whereas, in fact, at that moment his Buddhist subjects had even more valid grounds for thinking that Kublai was one of them. And the Mongol shamans must have been equally sure of this same imperial privilege; for in all the Chinghizide courts they still represented the pagan traditions of the Tartar tribes, which were never given up by the sovereigns and ruling classes of the empire.

It was to these traditions that there belonged the god "who is greatest in heaven and most true"—namely, that supreme impersonal divinity of whom, according to Kublai, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, and Sakyamuni are emanations, incarnations, and prophets, and equally worthy of worship and respect. This paramount divinity, whom the Tartars designated with the Turkish and Mongol name Möngke Tängri, or "Eternal Heaven," corresponding to the T'ien of the Chinese, of whom the emperor was supposed to be the son, was always invoked in imperial seals and proclamations, in order to signify that the sovereign was his representative on earth and the executor of his will.

If the demotion of Jesus Christ to the rank of prophet, the equal of Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed, must have sounded blasphemous to Marco, a good Catholic, the idea of an impersonal supreme divinity, so characteristic of the peoples of the Far East, must certainly have remained quite incomprehensible to him, as indeed to all who had and have grown up in the atmosphere of Biblical revelation. This is, indeed, the insurmountable barrier between the Orient and the West, which was already recognized by Mohammed when, in a famous passage in the Koran, he made the distinction between the Biblical peoples (Ahl al-Kit b), who were more or less tolerated in Mohammedan communities, and the idolaters, who were to be either converted or exterminated.

This intransigence on the part of the Biblical peoples, which is in contrast with the tolerance of the Oriental pagans, is above all to be explained by the fact that only monotheistic religions can be, and always have been, exclusive and irreconcilable to the point of fanaticism, whereas the pagan Pantheon readily opens its doors to all concordant divinities, generally fusing them in a pantheism that is simultaneously tribal, national, eclectic, and universal, such as developed in the Roman Empire and, conformably to Chinese traditions, in Chinghizide Asia. In both these empires the sovereign was in constant communion with the universal, impersonal divinity, together with its other emanations and incarnations, which he himself could create and multiply through the exercise of his own will and inspiration.

The Chinghizide dynasty only made use of this privilege in order to deify itself when Kublai, for reasons of state, formally took up again the traditional imperial ceremonies in the ancient national temples of China, assuming with these the dynastic cult of his ancestors. At the same time, he associated all the other cults of the subject peoples, of which hitherto the various Turkish and Mongol tribes of Upper Asia had known nothing, with his traditional shamanistic animism of Turko-Mongol origin, which was characteristic of the nomads of the steppes. With his Mongols, who dominated the whole continent, he remained faithful to the practices of their shamans; for the Chinese, he revived the cult of their rural divinities; from the Tibetans, subjects or tributaries of his empire, he took over the Lamaist worship of the Buddha. And, while he exploited the ability and experience of the Mohammedans, who were both powerful and numerous in his dominions, either directly, or by means of his vassals in the West, he entered into friendly relations with the Papacy and other Christian powers, with a view to a common assault against Islam, which was an obstacle to further Mongol expansion in the Mediterranean.

Thus, religion in the Chinghizide empire took on a markedly political function that was completely foreign to the Chinese tradition and even opposed to it. With the suppression of the Confucian caste the new dynastic cult ceased to be what it had always been in China, namely, national and exclusive. Instead, it now became a manifestation of that universal sovereignty for which it considered itself to be destined from the times of its founder. Thus, Kublai added the elements of imperial Chinese worship to the Mongol ceremonial, fusing the two traditions in the spectacular "epiphanies" described by Marco Polo as gigantic bacchanalia.

By accepting the worship of one's ancestors and that of the native agrarian deities, Kublai intended to create in his Chinese subjects the same illusion as that of which Marco Polo was for a time a victim; for Marco, as a result of certain of the sovereign's apparent tributes of devotion to Christian symbols when the great ceremonies were held, nourished the hope that the emperor might one day be baptized, if not by him, at least by one of the many Nestorian priests attached to the court—the same who may have suggested the idea of obtaining the oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher, which the Polos did, in fact, convey to Peking by order of the Kaan himself. This also left the three Venetians with the illusion that they would later be able to carry out the Papal mandate entrusted to them by inducing him to become an apostolic Roman Catholic.

The condition placed on his conversion by Kublai had been expressed by him in person to Maffeo and Niccolò Polo at the time of their first visit to his court, in 1265, little more than ten years after the last Franciscan mission to Tartary had, by order of King Louis, explored the probability of converting the Chinghizide rulers. As is well known to readers of the Milione, after the two Venetians had begun to say "a few words about the Christian faith" and asked the sovereign why, since he considered it the best, he did not "become a Christian," they received the reply that "the Christians who are in these parts are so ignorant that they do nothing and can do nothing," whereas "these idolaters do whatever they wish" and might kill him with their secret, superhuman powers if he should turn toward the faith of the inept. The emperor concluded that if the hundred men he had requested from the Pope, "in the presence of these idolaters, reprove them for their actions, and tell them that they, too, are able to do such things, but do not wish to because they are done by the help of diabolic art and evil spirits, and so constrain them [the idolaters] that they have not the power to do such things in their presence; then, when we see this, we shall reprove them and their law; and so, I shall be baptized, and, when I am baptized, all my barons and nobles will be baptized, and then their subjects will receive baptism, and so there will be more Christians here than there are in your parts."

This conclusion, which sounds like the epic finale of a chanson de geste or a joke played by the wily emperor, bears a touch of authenticity, and becomes a characteristic expression of the Asiatic civilization of that age, when considered within the framework of the continent's religious and political history and in relation to the expansion of the Chinghizide regime. The whole of Kublai's speech to the Venetians already reveals a preference, which is more practical than doctrinal, for Lamaist Buddhism; and this, in fact, was to prevail over every other religion during his reign and in the further development and decline of the dynasty. Moreover, he openly declares his conception of religion as the mere instrument of his political power, which evaluates its merits according to the practical results and occult forces mastered by the respective clergy.

The powerful emperor, as Marco relates, had the three Venetians sit in his hall with ten thousand other persons while the bacsi with their art made the goblets full of wine, fermented milk, and other beverages, rise from the floor, where they had been lined up in the Mongol fashion, and come to Kublai without anyone's touching them, and then return empty to their point of departure. Similarly, Marco was able to watch the feats of the representatives of Buddhistic Tantrism from Tibet and Kashmir. When the Great Kaan was at his summer residence, "by will power and by means of their spells, they would keep all clouds and bad weather away from the palace."

Marco and his older companions, who undoubtedly saw these tricks and were ingenuously amazed by them, could not imagine that behind them lay hidden not only a religious faith but also a farsighted cultural policy, formulated by a sovereign who had only just emerged from the barbaric practices of the steppes and the forests. This policy was served not only by the representatives of all the great religions of Asia but also by the Christians of the Oriental Nestorian sect. These latter, as opposed to the orthodox of the various Eastern churches and the few Roman Catholics residing in the empire, had for centuries past adapted themselves to the native religious practices and claims, renouncing, as Marco himself tells us, an effective supremacy of Christ over the other divinities revered by the Asiatic peoples. The supremacy to which the Nestorians at the imperial court truly aspired was that of their sect over every other Christian church, while they contented themselves with being treated as the equals of the other religious groups represented and recognized at the court of the Great Kaan.

Kublai's promise to receive baptism, though aleatory, was not so misleading as it may seem at first sight. Nor was it altogether absurd for him to suppose that, once he should be baptized, the whole hierarchy of his vassals, and perhaps even the peoples of his dominion, would be converted to the Christian faith. Indeed, a large part of the evangelization of central and eastern Asia, and at the same time the expansion of other foreign cults throughout the continent, had been accomplished for almost a thousand years by peaceful conquest of the courts and of the nomadic or sedentary aristocracy, though these but rarely showed any determined interest in imposing the new faith on those among their subjects who preferred to remain faithful to the superstitious practices of the religion they already had.

Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the VIth century as a result of the conversion of King Srong Tsan Gampo, who was influenced by one of his Chinese consorts and by another from Nepal. The court followed his example, and from that time Tibet became, as is known, the center of a Buddhist sect which in the XIIIth century extended itself to the Mongol aristocracy and then gained preponderance in Kublai's religious and cultural policy at the time of Marco Polo. Moreover, already in the first centuries of the Christian era, the impetus to the diffusion of Buddhism in China had come from the rulers and their courts. Since the age of Chinghiz Khan, the infiltration of Lamaist Buddhism in the Mongol court and aristocracy had been a phenomenon essentially political in character and consequences, which, on the one hand, led to the submission of the Tibetan monastic theocracy to the Chinghizide power, and, on the other, determined the esoteric, temporal tendencies of their great Lamaist convents and the political power of their spiritual and administrative head. In the same way, and unmotivated by any practical reason, in the VIIIth century the Khakhan, or king, of the Khazars, a powerful Altaic tribe that had settled between the Volga and the Crimea (a region called Gazaria by Marco Polo and his contemporaries), embraced Hebraism as the state religion. Together with the governing classes of that people, he thus came to represent the last ethnic conquest registered by the Law of Moses in its millenary existence.

All these conversions were the work of missionaries of the respective faiths and, it would appear, the fruit of theological discussions, which, as we know, were more than ever active in Marco's age. Kublai's request to the Pope is in harmony with this long Asiatic tradition; hence our lay missionary was not completely wrong in charging against the Christians the failure to convert Kublai. Like Christopher Columbus some two centuries later, Marco certainly believed that Kublai's conversion, and that of all his vassals, would have been accomplished if the hundred clerics requested from the Supreme Pontiff had duly arrived at his court.

This claim does, indeed, appear less absurd if it is remembered that, at the beginning of the XIth century, Syrian merchants and Nestorian priests respectively instructed and baptized the king of the Keraits, a Mongol tribe which became, and remained, Christian, as well as a number of neighboring Naiman nobles, of the Turkestan Uigurs and the Öngüt, who had settled in the region of the upper reaches of the Yellow River, in Chinese territory, having infiltrated by marriage and their contacts with the nomadic life the aristocracy of the Mongol steppes, the Turkish and Tartar tribes, and then the Chinghizide dynasty itself. Mangu Kaan, the grandson of Chinghiz Khan and his third successor to the imperial throne, his brother Hulagu, the conqueror of Persia and first of the Ilkhans, and Kublai himself, all had a Christian mother and Christian wives.

Moreover, it was then asserted that Chagatai, the son of Chinghiz Khan, lord of Central Asia and one of the greatest figures of this powerful dynasty, had more or less openly adhered to the Nestorian Church, without, however, conferring any lasting prestige on this sect in his prevalently Mohammedan dominion. The Catholic Church registered only one success in those times which would make it possible in retrospect to confirm the hopes and forecasts of the three Venetians, who were then already homeward bound on their return journey. Two years after their departure from Khanbaliq, the Taidu of the Tartars with its Turkish name, this capital received its first Catholic bishop, Friar John of Montecorvino. In a short space of time he was successful in bringing into the bosom of the Roman Church King George, lord of the Öngüt, of ancient Nestorian stock, and, according to Marco, a descendant of "Prester John." This son-in-law and vassal of Kublai was evidently known to our Venetian prior to his Catholic baptism as a result of more than one stay in his country.

In accordance with ancient Asiatic usage, King George's immediate entourage and part of his people followed his example, arousing the wrath of the Nestorian clergy. A palace conspiracy inspired by the latter put an end to the life of this first and last Catholic sovereign of eastern Asia, and brought about the destruction of the splendid church built by him in the capital, while it restored to the Nestorian sect the dynasty, the court, and all the converts in the land. All this took place in Chinese territory in the year 1298, when Marco was dictating the Milione in the prison at Genoa.

The foregoing examples make it possible to connect the Polos' mission and Marco's activity with these traditions in the religious and political history of Asia—a history which, though it appeared relatively tranquil at the time of their stay in the Far East, nevertheless was not devoid of ferment and conflict, as the Milione itself indicates. Indeed, behind the apparent tolerance so well described by its author a vast religious drama was stirring, in which Marco's mission was only a minor though significant episode.

Contrary to what may appear at first sight, the relationship between politics and religion in the Chinghizide empire was a close and continuous one, jealously guarded by church and state, and dependent on events and tendencies which, though information on the subject is scant, may nevertheless be clearly made out. The Mongol conquests of that age were never inspired by religious aims or pretexts as the Mohammedan advance in Persia and India had been, from the VIIth century on, or the Crusades that extended far beyond the Holy Land with the French territorial conquests and the commercial ventures of the Genoese and Venetians. The abolition of the Caliphate, the destruction of the Ishmaelitic sect of the Assassins, and the degradation of the cult of Confucius by the Mongols were, from one end of Asia to the other, exclusively political acts, inspired by the peril that these spiritual organizations, whether aggressive or not, represented for the conquerors. On the other hand, the rulers were well aware of the political value that the religious groups could acquire, once they had been made a part of, and were controlled by, the dynastic and administrative system of the empire.

Moreover, this political centralization offered new scope to the missionary activities of the organized cults of Asia, which had never ceased to expand and develop in the age-old, relentless competition between the various churches and sects: Christian, Buddhist, Mohammedan, Hebraic, Manichaean, and Zoroastrian. To these must be added, within the vast confines of the Chinese empire, its most ancient national religions: Taoism and Confucianism. The last to participate in this sectarian contest was the Catholic Church, with its Franciscan and Dominican missions, from 1247 to 1368, and, in the interval between 1265 and 1292, its no less active lay missionaries: Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo from Venice.

Whereas the Chinghizide sovereigns sought to advantage themselves through each of these ecclesiastical and cultural groups, considering them on all occasions to be the instruments of their policy and upholders of their dynasty, so, too, the respective churches tended to avail themselves of both policy and rule as instruments for their own propaganda and support for their clerical, doctrinal, and monastic organizations. In other words, the churches attempted to secure privileges for themselves, especially those of a fiscal, protective, or apologetic sort; and the rulers, on the other hand, endeavored to absorb and exploit the churches, as the circumstances and the political and practical value of the various doctrines and communities might warrant. The administrative vigilance to which the faiths were subjected enabled their more important representatives to exert an influence, in turn, on the emperor and his government—not unlike that attempted by the Polos, as a reward for their services, in favor of Christianity.

This characteristic aspect of Marco Polo's Asia—an effect, as we have seen, of the dynastic if not always the administrative centralization of the continent—was originated by Chinghiz Khan, the founder of the empire and its first lawgiver, and was maintained with the participation of the clergy and laymen of all faiths until the end of the medieval Catholic missions in the Far East. From the very beginning the Mongols entrusted the more important civic offices to representatives of foreign religions. Thus, the first chancellor of the new empire and civilizer of the nomadic barbarians called to govern the world was a Turkish Uigur, probably a Christian, who was followed by the "prothonotary" Chingai, who died in 1251, a Nestorian like his successor, Bulgai, the prime minister and head of the political police at the time of Mangu Kaan, Kublai's brother and predecessor on the imperial throne.

It was from two Mohammedan dignitaries from Central Asia that Chinghiz Khan received instruction in the art of governing towns and cities, after he had destroyed forever, with unparalleled cruelty, the flourishing centers of Islamic culture in Khorasan, the inheritors of Hellenic civilization in those historic regions and the diffusers of scientific knowledge throughout the Mohammedan and Christian worlds. One of these luminaries, the great Nasiruddin, then appears at the court of Mangu Kaan, as his counselor, toward the middle of the century, at the time when the lamas of Tibet were beginning their successful task of Buddhistic penetration in the same circles at the capital, which led to the triumph of their practices and doctrines in the whole of Mongolia and, thence, in Kublai's China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese religious organizations had also entered the lists, after a thousand years of alternating vicissitudes in their own land. An episode famous both in the history of China and in the life story of Chinghiz Khan deals with the meeting between the great conqueror and the spiritual head of the Taoists, who, leaving his Chinese hermitage in 1221, joined Chinghiz in the Hindu Kush, in Afghan territory, to administer to him, not the drug of immortality, in which neither seriously believed, but the grave and subtle teachings of his sect. On this occasion he was able to insure for his followers not only a dominant position in Cathay but also fiscal and moral privileges never attained by his successors, down to our own times. As a result, the tuini, as they are called by William of Rubruck, and the sensin described in the Milione as the faithful of this religion, abounded at the court at Karakorum and Peking, until this sect was suppressed and its sacred books destroyed by order of Kublai, at the suggestion of Buddhists. Moreover, in the reign of Chinghiz Khan a host of Confucian scholars collaborated with their country's conqueror and rose high in the ranks of the Mongol administration and of the court hierarchy, where they finally prevailed, at least numerically, and made the court and native nobility familiar with the fundamental doctrines of their powerful, historic caste, which at last was dissolved by Kublai himself.

The Nestorian churches, the mosques, the Taoist, Lamaist, and Confucian temples, all rose up as near as possible to the imperial residences, both in the capitals and in the vast encampments of pavilions, tents, and chariots where the court spent a part of each year, as Marco describes at length. In this way the various sects, all committed to praying for the sovereign's health and longevity, continually reminded him of their presence, knowing that the prosperity of their institutions and the prestige of their doctrines depended on his good-will. Hence, when Friar John of Montecorvino, who arrived at Peking a short while after the Polos' departure, built there the first Catholic bishop's church in the empire, which was financed by the rich Italian merchant Pietro da Lucalongo, he desired it to be erected so near to the emperor's residence that the latter, as the Friar himself tells us, could hear not only its bells but also the divine office chanted by its parishioners. "Et hoc mirabile factum longe lateque divulgatum est inter gentes."

The result of all this was that at Karakorum, and then in the other residences, there beat upon the imperial ears, in a contest of sonority and propaganda, the chimes of the Catholics, the reverberation of the Nestorian tablets, the intonation of the muezzin, and the raucous sound of the powerful Lamaistic trumpets, not to mention the drums of the shamans, the gongs of the tuins, and, at Peking, perhaps even the shofar of the Jews. And each of these sects offered to the sovereign and his government the wealth of culture and experience accumulated in the course of their millenary traditions.

These were the circles in which the Polos moved when they found themselves at Kublai's court as representatives of the Pope and of Western civilization. They were present at the solemn ceremonies at which the emperor and "all his barons and nobles who attended" devoutly kissed "the book in which the four Gospels are." Year after year these ceremonies were followed, as the principal feast days came round, by acts of homage to the cults of "Saracens, Jews, and Idolaters," apparently in an evenhanded manner, confirming the theoretical equivalence of all religions in the public life of the empire.

It will be noted that Marco lists only foreign cults, revealing, among other things, the existence in the capital of an organized Jewish community, which was granted official recognition. It is also certain that his "Idolaters" were not Chinese Buddhists of ancient tradition, in large part monks and scholars, but rather the representatives of the Tibetan Lamaist sect, which was already influential in Mongolia at the time of Mangu, and was now elevated by Kublai to the highest pinnacles of court and state. This preference is to be explained by the prestige enjoyed during the decisive years of his reign by the Tibetan Phags-pa, inventor of the official script of the empire and spiritual guide of its ruler, who, with his help, succeeded in extending Chinghizide sovereignty to Tibet, making it thenceforward a state subject to China.

This was the moment when Lamaist Buddhism contrived after age-long struggles to bring about suppression of the national Taoist religion of China, the sacred books of which were destroyed and the privileges annulled that had been granted by Chinghiz Khan. Hence the ancient and once popular sect, now in abject decline, is not expressly named by Marco as among those honored by Kublai and his court, from which the Confucian men of letters were excluded both as a sect and as a caste. While it is true that they were individually admitted to government office, they were nevertheless relegated as a group to the lowest classes of the social order of the empire.

As we see, the tregua Dei described by Marco was not so complete and secure as he would have us believe. The suppression of the Taoists and the humiliation of the Confucians were acts of government that were intended to deprive of their spiritual support the Chinese who were subject to the Mongol dynasty. Kublai himself, probably at the instigation of Buddhists and Christians at his court, forbade the Mohammedans of the empire their ritual practices for more than seven years and placed the whole sect in danger, after having learned of the Koran's precept to kill all polytheists who would not be converted to the Mohammedan faith. He only yielded to practical considerations—political, commercial, or fiscal—when the imperial coffers began to register the deleterious effects of these measures on the transcontinental trade by land and sea, which for centuries had been carried on exclusively by Mohammedan merchants and shipowners from Persia and China.

The most propitious occasion for giving his peoples a spectacular proof of his denominational policy presented itself to Kublai in the year 1288, when the most precious relics of the Buddha arrived in the capital. These were his miraculous bowl, two of his teeth, and a tuft of his hair, which hitherto had been preserved in a sanctuary on the island of Ceylon, an ancient center of his cult. Marco was present and gave a full description of this event, on which the emperor conferred a special solemnity by requiring the entire population of Peking and the representatives of all the religions to turn out for the processional entry of the relics into his capital.

This would seem to represent the triumph of Buddhism over the other religions of the empire. And such indeed it was, especially since the acquisition of the treasures, at a high price, as Marco points out, was undoubtedly inspired by the powerful lamas of the court after the suppression of Taoism. However, the Saracens, together with the Christians of the East, who were no less active in their propaganda, looked on them as relics of Adam, who was unknown to the Buddhists, and venerated them as of that origin not only in Ceylon and the rest of India, but—as Marco insinuates—also at Peking, although he entertained some doubts of their authenticity. However this may be, on this unique occasion the Biblical religionists agreed to associate with the "Idolaters" of the Chinese or Tibetan sect in worshiping these objects, which, taken with the oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher, made manifest the religious unity of the empire while leaving to each worshiper the right, as noted by Marco, to interpret and venerate them in his own way.

The fact is all the more characteristic inasmuch as the transference of these relics is merely an episode in the Chinghizide policy of expansion, then aimed at the conquest of Indochina and Burma, and of Ceylon and other islands of the Indian Ocean, which in some degree were already tributaries of the Tartar empire. These universally revered relics became a vehicle for, and a symbol of, that centralization of spiritual and political power which Kublai claimed for himself and his dynasty in the sense of Chinghizide universalism rather than in accordance with the national traditions of ancient China.

In the years of Marco's stay in the Far East all the recognized religions passed under state control. A special commission was set up for each one, which supervised its activities and finances, and watched its leanings, without interfering in questions of doctrine. Freedom of worship was therefore limited, and even if, as Marco asserts, everyone could dispose of his soul in the manner he willed, the religious congregations not approved by the police ran grave risks and had to meet in the greatest secrecy.

Of the existence of these secret communities the Milione offers us a few examples, which are all the more valuable since the official Chinese sources of the period do not deal with religious questions except to record fiscal and administrative affairs. The first reference to the secret cults concludes Marco's observations on religious liberty in the Tartar empire, and concerns those Christians, probably of the Greek rite, who kept hidden in their places of worship crucifixes of gold and silver representing, as the text has it, "the supreme lord of Christianity." These precautions were due, not to the worth of the sacred objects, but rather to the well-known fact that the Nestorians, who were still influential in the empire, did not permit the use of crucifixes, either because the doctrines of the sect forbade it, or because they feared lest the horror and divine and human degradation of the Agony should appear repugnant and inauspicious to the pagans and therefore harmful to the prestige of their faith. Indeed, none of the numberless Christian crosses found in central and eastern Asia bears the figure of Christ, who, according to the Nestorian interpretation of the Passion, was crucified as man and not as God. And so great was the distaste of the pagans for this instrument of torture and death that the Emperor Kublai, although he respected and favored the Christian faith of every rite, nevertheless—as Marco tells us—"would in no wise suffer the Christians to carry the cross before them; this was because so great a man as Christ had been scourged and had died on it," words that clearly reveal the Nestorian conception of the Crucifixion and the authenticity of the text in which they are found.

The Nestorian clergy's jealousy of Catholic influence in Asia is confirmed by an event, related by Friar William of Rubruck, which is characteristic of the cold war waged by the various churches aspiring to supremacy, or at least to special privileges, in the circles of the Chinghizide court. When the French sculptor Guillaume Boucher made a crucifix for a high official of the imperial government, a Nestorian who was courted by different groups of Christians in the capital, the sacred object was stolen by the Nestorian clergy of the court and was never returned to the person for whom it was intended—who, by a stroke of irony, was also the head of the political police of the empire. Moreover, we may suppose that in the open struggle between Nestorians and Catholics at the court of Peking, during the reign of Kublai's successors to the Chinese throne, the crucifix played an important part as a symbol unworthy of Christ's divinity and an object detested by the ruling classes of the empire.

Marco Polo participated in this secret struggle between the religions and sects of Asia so far as he could do so both as a good Christian and as his sovereign's zealous servant. Thus, he once happened to discover a secret religious community in the city of Foochow, a populous commercial center of southern China, which with obvious joy he recognized to be a Christian congregation. It was, however, a Manichaean community, the residue of an ancient secret cult that according to tradition had been kept alive since the time when this dualistic religion, which in its various ramifications extended from China to Spain, had been dissolved and prohibited throughout China by the edict of Wu Tsung in the year 843 A.D.

Marco's mistake is to be explained not only by his zeal, but also by the fact that this sect, persecuted since its origins in every part of the world, associated its heretical cult of an impersonal and mythical Christ with doctrines and rites derived from Buddhism and various Zoroastrian sects connected with gnosis and with the Gospels and other sacred books of the East. According as their environment in the respective countries demanded, the Manichaeans concealed their practices beneath the more or less authentic appearances of the religions tolerated, now emphasizing the Christian element, and now, especially in their liturgical and symbolical iconography, bringing to the forefront the pagan aspects of their religion. Thus, in their isolated community at Foochow, they had managed to elude the vigilance both of the other denominations in this great city and of the political authorities, who were unaware of its existence until the arrival of Marco and his uncle Maffeo in the course of one of their journeys through those distant regions of the empire.

Once their attention had been drawn by a learned Saracen to this indeterminate religious group, the two Venetians began insistently to interrogate its members, who were terrified by this inquest, which, they felt, might deprive them of the practice of their faith and bring down upon them the sovereign's wrath. Their terror shows that they belonged to a prohibited sect, evidently Manichaean, which already on several occasions had been denounced to the authorities of the past régime of the Sung without the latter's having been able to suppress it entirely.

However, since they found a psalter among the books of this community, and had observed three images in one of its temples, which, according to Marco, represented three of the Apostles, the two Venetians thought they had discovered a Christian fellowship and advised its members to send two messengers to the Great Kaan in order to obtain his recognition and protection for their practices and beliefs. Marco's circumstantial account almost permits us to hear the debates between the head of the Christians and the leader of the Buddhists at court, who upheld in turn their arguments in favor of their respective confessions and jurisdictions.

These arguments can easily be reconstructed because the psalter, included in the sacred texts of the Manichaeans, belonged also to the traditional cult of Jesus (though this may have degenerated into a form blasphemously heretical), and so could testify in favor of the Christians. On the other hand, the fundamentally Buddhistic substance of their homiletic literature and the three images in their temple, interpreted as representing the three hypostases of the Buddha, which were common in his Chinese cult, argued for that faith. Driven to extremities by the emperor, who had intervened in these inconclusive discussions, the emissaries of the secret community at Foochow preferred, as Marco tells us, to make an official declaration that they belonged to the Christian faith, most probably in order to escape the vigilance of the powerful Buddhistic church, which had persecuted them for a long time past, and—as the Manichaeans had always done, at all times and in all places—in order to continue under false appearances the actual practices of their community and its ancient cult. This, indeed, maintained its secret existence until the XVIIth century in the same center, the last outpost of a universal faith that had reached its zenith in Europe in Marco Polo's age, in Central Asia at the time of the ephemeral Uiguric empire (IXth century), and in China in the golden age of the T'ang dynasty.

The authenticity of this account is beyond doubt. No one in those times, or for many centuries to come, could have possessed or invented such definite information of this congregation lost among the various religious communities of the populous Chinese city. Odoric of Pordenone, who visited Foochow in 1324, or thereabouts, admired its "cocks, the biggest in the world," and the "chickens white as snow," but found no trace of Christians or Manichees. Nor could anyone but Marco have been so well acquainted with the procedure of the imperial ministry of cults at the time of Kublai, who had set it up as part of the political organization of his empire.

Undoubtedly a pious exaggeration, however, is the Milione's total of Christian families—700,000—who were supposed to have settled in southern China. Even if we admit that the statistics of the Milione are nearly always inexact, and often differ in its various versions, we cannot possibly attribute this reckoning to Marco. If it is not due to the slip of a scribe's pen, it is perhaps a pious invention on the part of the compiler of this authoritative version, who, greatly interested in the religions of Asia, probably wished to rekindle the diminished fervor for the missions to the Orient.

Marco, indeed, was perfectly well aware of how small, among the general population, was the scattering of Christians in Chinghizide Asia. According to an approximate calculation, at the height of its power the whole Chinese empire did not number more than 100,000 Christians among its inhabitants. These included Nestorians or Christians of the Greek rite, and the Armenians, who were then a part of the Chinghizide empire, the numerous Alans of the imperial guard, the Catholics of the Franciscan missions, and the merchants with their families, who, it would seem, were for the most part Italians. The imperial ministry whose task it was to supervise their groups and cults was organized only in 1289, undoubtedly as a result of the influx of Christians into China and the increasing importance of the empire's relations with Byzantium and the Mediterranean world.

In fact, no trace remained of the ancient Nestorian colony founded at Hsinanfu in 635 by Christians from Syria and Persia, who had fled from the Arab invasion of their lands after their suppression in China, which occurred in September, 845. The first Christians to return were those who followed the Mongolian conquerors of the northern provinces of China, from the year 1215 onward. They were Turks of varied stock, who mainly came from the regions on the borders of northwestern China which were affiliated to the new Chinghizide empire. The Christian infiltration from western Asia was accomplished for the most part by individuals, if we except the Alans, who from the time of Chinghiz Khan represented, as we know, the élite of the imperial army.

In the same year in which he arrived at Peking (1275), two Nestorian monks, nativeborn residents of the capital and important figures in the history of Oriental Christianity of those times, moved in the opposite direction—toward the western regions of the Chinghizide empire bordering on the Christian lands of the Levant—on a politico-religious mission inspired by Kublai. The shrewd emperor wished to make his authority felt as head of the dynasty and protector of the Christians of Asia, since the great Baibars, the Mameluke sultan of Egypt, was harassing Kublai's vassals in Asia Minor, with the result that Abaqa, the Chinghizide sovereign of Persia, had determined to solicit an alliance with the Pope and the kings of France and England against the common Mohammedan enemy.

The imperial mission met with success. One of the two Turko-Chinese monks, Marc by name, arrived at Baghdad and, in 1281, was elected patriarch of the Nestorians there, with the name of Jaballaha III. His companion, Rabban Sauma, who wrote a fascinating account of his embassy, continued in 1287 his historic mission to the West, which led him to Rome, Genoa, and France, where he met Philip the Fair and Edward I of England—the two sovereigns who, on account of their avarice and pride, aroused the noble wrath of Dante Alighieri.

The age was that of the greatest expansion of Christianity in the Ancient World, when the contacts between the Asiatic sovereigns and the Papacy were most frequent, and the mendicant orders most active in creating new episcopal and suffragan seats in Central Asia and China, where they attracted to their churches and monasteries the heterodox elements of the Asian continent rather than individual followers of other doctrines. In Marco's times, that which united all Christians from the Yellow Sea to the Atlantic was more than anything else their common front against Islam, which likewise extended from one end to the other of the Ancient World; but as a practical measure it was a political solidarity, and therefore contingent and of short duration.

In the Levant the Mohammedans finally prevailed, when, upon Ghazan's conversion, the Mongol dynasty in Persia embraced the religion of Mohammed. In the Orient, Lamaist Buddhism gradually consolidated its strong position at the court of Kublai's successors. However, these dominant religious groups were less violent against the Christians than the Nestorians were against their Catholic and Greek brethren in the empire. Hopes of securing political, courtly, fiscal, and social privileges were always more decisive than doctrinal or denominational ambitions.

All the Catholics admitted at court or protected by the Chinghizide sovereigns had to suffer the resentment, jealousy, and persecution of the native Christians who were opposed to the propaganda of the Franciscan missionaries in China. As a layman, Marco was not directly affected, although even before his arrival in those faroff lands he represented with obvious pride not only his faith, but also that Christian civilization which, even when surrounded by the wonders of the Orient, he considered superior in its doctrines, moral worth, and practical realizations.

When, however, the official collaboration of the various faiths and laws came to an end in 1368 with the collapse of the dynasty and its rule, however nominal, over the whole of Asia, the weak Christian diaspora of Central Asia and the Far East was forced to yield to the pressure exerted by the native religions and national tendencies. Hence, when at the end of the XVIth century the first Jesuit missionaries visited these lands, the Christianity of the medieval Orient was but a vague memory.

Henry H. Hart (essay date 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Epilogue," in Marco Polo, Venetian Adventurer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1967, pp. 233-64.

[In the following excerpt, Hart examines the impact of Polo's book on the sciences of geography and cartography.]

Messer Marco Polo's reputation for veracity as an author suffered greatly during his lifetime, for his contemporaries (with very few exceptions) could not and did not accept his book seriously. Their ignorance and bigotry, their belief in and dependence on the ecclesiastical pseudogeography of the day, their preconceived ideas of the unvisited parts of the earth, as well as the inherited legends and utter nonsense to which the medieval mind clung with a blind persistence that is incomprehensible to modern man—all these factors combined to make it impossible to perceive or accept the truths contained in Marco's writings.

Jacopo d'Acqui, a contemporary of the traveler, records an anecdote which may be true. Marco's friends were evidently much concerned over the unfavorable reputation which he had gained by telling what were considered incredible exaggerations or downright lies. "And," noted Jacopo, "because [in Marco's book] there were to be found great things, things of mighty import, and, indeed almost unbelievable things, he was entreated by his friends when he was at the point of death to correct his book and to retract those things that he had written over and above the truth. To which he replied 'I have not written down the half of those things which I saw.'" Whether the incident as reported occurred or not, every page of his volume attests to the truth of his statement concerning what he had himself seen.

This attitude of unbelief persisted for a number of years. The Description of the World was viewed as a creation of the author's vivid imagination by most of its readers— and, indeed, the manuscript was often bound in with manuscripts of romances and was usually classified as one. The compilation or fictional book of Travels of Sir John Maundeville, a spurious work, was very evidently more popular than Polo's truths, for five times as many editions of Maundeville were published in the fifteenth century as of Marco Polo's volume.

Even as late as the end of the fourteenth century the veracity of the Description was often denied, doubted, or challenged. A Florentine manuscript of the work transcribed in 1392 is still preserved in the National Library of that city. Appended to it is the following curious note:

Here ends the book of Messer Marco Polo of Venice, which I, Amelio Bonaguisi wrote with my own hand while Podestà of Cierreto Guidi to pass the time and [drive away] melancholy. The contents appear to me to be incredible things and his statements appear to me not lies but more likely miracles. And it may well be true that about which he tells; but I do not believe it, though none the less there are found throughout the world many very different things in one country and another. But this [book] seems to me, as I copied it for my pleasure to be [composed of] matters not to be believed or credited. At least, so I aver for myself. And I finished copying [it] in the aforementioned Cierreto Guidi on the 12th day of November in the year of the Lord 1392. And, the book being finished, we give thanks to Christ our Lord, Amen.

Bonaguisi's aspersions on Marco's veracity are not half so significant as is the revelation of the attitude of mind and lack of belief in his book by those living in his own century.

Marco Polo's ill fortune pursued him even after men had begun to accept his book as a real contribution to geography and the other sciences. All knowledge of the man himself was lost, neglected, or ignored to such an extent that one historical writer of sixteenth-century Spain (Mariana) referred to him as "one Marco Polo, a Florentine physician," and an English author of the early nineteenth century spoke of him as "a Venetian priest."

The demand of navigators for better maps finally resulted in the production of more accurate charts for the use of seafaring men. The first of these were the justly famous portolani made for practical navigation rather than for the general student. The portolani reached their highest point of excellence in the products of a family of Catalonian Jews who did their work on the island of Majorca at the end of the fourteenth century. The greatest of their atlases was that of 1375. It "differs from the ordinary Portolans in that it has been expanded into a sort of world map. Following the text of Marco Polo, it depicts eastern Asia, the Deccan Peninsula and the Indian Ocean far better than any of the earlier maps" [Erwin Raisz, General Cartography, 1938]. These charts were first made in the thirteenth century and were used through the sixteenth century by seamen. Before the compass came into general use, the names of the winds were used to designate directions. "Legends were often inserted referring to the products of the region bearing the legend, or to the character of the inhabitants of the same. Much of this information appears to have been derived from Pliny, Solinus, Isador (of Seville, in no way a reliable authority) or from travelers such as Marco Polo" [Edward L. Stevenson, Portolan Charts, 1911]. There is an unsubstantiated tradition that the world map of Marino Sanudo, made about 1320, was a copy of one brought from China by Marco Polo.

Gradually the map makers of Europe recognized the validity of the geographical findings of Messer Marco, and a hundred years after his death the results of his book began to appear in their work. The influence of the Venetian's contribution became ever greater, in spite of many manifest errors in his location of various regions. Errera, the Italian historian, speaks of the writings of Polo as "a reliable fountain of truth" accepted by the end of the fourteenth century. The leaders of the European advances in science and discovery in that century and during the age of the great discoveries were often close students of Marco Polo's book. Fra Mauro's wall map of 1459, now in the Marcian Library at Venice, though it employs the fallacious theory of the disklike shape of the earth, appears to have taken place names and features from the book of Marco.

In 1426 (or 1428) Prince Pedro, the elder brother of Prince Henry the Navigator, visited Venice. While he was there, he was presented by the Signoria a copy of Marco's book and, according to tradition, a map copied from one made by Polo of his travels in the East. Thus Marco Polo in all likelihood made a substantial contribution of valuable knowledge to the group of Portuguese geographers and navigators on the very eve of the discovery and exploration of a New World.

Contarini's map, published probably in Venice in 1506 (the earliest map known showing any part of America) contains names of places first mentioned by Marco Polo. Likewise the 1508 map of Johann Ruysch, published in Rome, contains for the first time the delineation of internal parts of East Asia, "no longer based on … Marinus of Tyre and Ptolemy … but on more modern reports, especially those of Marco Polo." The very important influence of Polo's book upon cartography need not be pursued further here, as later material is easily found in all histories of discovery, exploration, geography, or map making.

Marco Polo's contribution to his fellow men is not limited to his influence on the writings and maps of geographers. His prodigious memory, aided by the notes sent to him in his Genoese prison from his home in Venice, preserved aspects of the history, ethnology, sociology, physical geography, zoology, botany, economics, products, and politics of Asia such as have never been gathered into a single book by one man before or since. Even a short dissertation on each of the subjects discussed or mentioned by him would fill a small library. A list of the plants and animals named by him, excluding those which can no longer be identified from his descriptions, would fill pages. Yet carping critics complain that he has omitted much, instead of marveling that he has included so much precious information about the Asia of the thirteenth century which would otherwise have been irretrievably lost to the world.

Mary B. Campbell (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Merchant and Missionary Travels," in The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600, Cornell, 1988, pp. 87-121.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell discusses methods of description and narration employed by Polo, suggesting that "the being'' that Polo has given to the East in his book "is the body of the West's desire."]

In the works of Marco Polo and the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, the experiencing narrator born and bred in the pilgrimage accounts meets the fabulous and relatively unprescribed East of Wonders [of the East] and the Alexander romances. One might expect this encounter between the eyewitness and the factitious to be a meeting of matter and antimatter, in which explosion a host of images will perforce be smashed. But images are hardier than that:

They have many wild elephants and they also have unicorns enough which are not at all by any means less than an elephant in size. And they are made like this, for they have the hair of the buffalo; it has the feet made like the feet of an elephant. It has one horn in the middle of the forehead very thick and large and black.… It has the top of the head made like a wild boar and always carriers its head bent towards the ground and stays very willingly amongst lakes and forests in the mud and in the mire like swine. It is a very ugly beast to see and unclean. And they are not so as we here say and describe, who say that it lets itself be caught in the lap by a virgin girl; but I tell you that it is quite the contrary of that which we believe that it was. [A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot eds., Marco Polo: The Description of the World, 1938].

Marco Polo has brought the West its first authentic rhinoceros, under cover of the same old unicorn, and very much in the style of Wonders.

Of course his book is radically different from Wonders, but it is not exactly a corrective. Amazon, unicorn, and doghead live on, witnessed and verified. The trees are full of flour, the desert is full of ghouls, the mountain streams flow with diamonds. The strangeness of his East is a familiar strangeness, nearly as familiar to his readers as the Holy Land was to the readers of Egeria and Arculf. Marco Polo travels across a landscape half created in advance of him, and at the appropriate moments his scribe, Rusticello the romancer, speaks in the voice that has been largely responsible for that creation.

But whatever familiar features the landscape offers in isolated perspective, its position relative to Europe and Home has changed. To Marco Polo and Friar William it is neither central nor marginal, and its emphasized quality is neither sacred nor grotesque. The Tartar conquests are a serious political reality, and the East is becoming dangerously palpable. In this East, according to Matthew Paris, Alexander's famous wall has been broken down and the "unclean peoples" have spread all over Asia, even to the Danube: "Swarming like locusts over the face of the earth [the Tartari] have brought terrible devastation to the eastern parts [of Europe], laying it waste with fire and carnage … it seemed that God did not wish them to come out; nevertheless it is written in sacred history that they shall come out toward the end of the world, and shall make a great slaughter of men."

Although western Europe's initial terror of the Mongols dissipated rapidly, to be replaced by a desperate hope that a European-Mongol alliance might eliminate the Saracen menace, the Mongols' territory was no longer politically neutral, no longer a conveniently blank screen for imaginative projection. Friar William's journey to Karakorum was intended to open up at least a religious communication between the two civilizations, and the Polos hoped to open commercial relations. The two narratives belong then to a stupendous historical moment: in the second half of the thirteenth century the Eastern and Western limits of the orbis terrarum finally confronted each other in the flesh. The contact was not destined to last, but of course no one knew that.

Coming into European political history, the East was to some extent divested of its purely emblematic and psychological function: since the thirteenth century it has become both more and less than an eidolon. The images that comprised the merely legendary East survived, but the nature of the "lattice" in which they found their places altered significantly. For one thing, the actual population of the East became a matter of interest and commentary. Uninhabited territory was seen as exactly that: the absence of man and his products was a notable absence, and when encountered, neither marvel nor miracle was produced from the magician's empty hat. "When one leaves this province of Ghinghin talas of which I have told you above he goes riding continually ten days marches between sunrising and the Greek wind [i.e., east and northeast]. And in all this way there are no dwellings, or very few; and so there is nothing else which does to mention in our book". That "nothing" is precisely what Egeria, Arculf, and the author of Wonders filled their texts with, and those "dwellings" precisely what the early writers ignored.

At last the emphatic quality of the East has become its actualness, and the object to which its narrator would like to render himself transparent exists in the same way, along the same latitudes of the physical universe, as does the object Home. Many of the categories under which Home is describable are sensed as applicable to the East as well, and the objects and customs of Home enter the picture explicitly, not only in a fragmentation of similes but in analogies and comparisons:

For you may know quite truly that all idols have their proper days dedicated to them, on which days they make solemnities and reverence & great feasts in their names every year, as our saints have on the special days [Marco Polo: The Description of the World]

Wherever [these lugar priests] go they are always in saffron coats, quite closefitting and with a belt on top, just like Frenchmen, and they have a cloak on their left shoulder, hanging down in folds over the breast and back to their right side as the deacon wears a chausuble in Lent. [William of Rubruck's Itinerarium, translated in Mission to Asia, edited by Christopher Dawson].

Such analogies demonstrate a sense, novel for medieval Europe, that the two worlds are both different and susceptible of relation to one another. From this point on we will be particularly concerned with charting the progress of that relation as it is both controlled and expressed in the literary "relations" of European travelers.

In the real world of a merchant it is the quotidian that matters. Marco Polo describes political and military structures, imports, exports, and mediums of exchange, religious customs, the protocols of marriage and burial, birds, beasts and countryside, the layout and architecture of cities. The phenomenal world is the only one we see here. Even when dealing with topics that might lead into metaphysical realms, Marco's eye is focused on the outward, public surface of things: on religious rites, not religious ideas, the outcome of battles, not the war of ideologies, the behavior of a nation, not its mythology.

Despite its reduction to more or less "hard" facts, the East has not escaped the network of symbolic geography. The conceptual division of the world into West and East is too useful a category of thought to disappear. But as a vehicle for metaphor it is used more consciously now. We know and feel the difference between the "East" of Hesse's Journey to the East and the East to which we are about to export nuclear technology or from which we buy cheap clothing. The reading audiences of Marco Polo and Friar William were only just beginning to conceive of a bare and practical, mundane and geographical East—an East from which real soldiers could come and besiege their cities. That East, with all its implications for theology and natural philosophy, was mainly accessible through the manuscripts of these travelers. They had an important task in hand: the transformation of an imaginative entity, previously more useful as figure or fantasy, into a topic for geography and history. The plethora of facts contained in the accounts of Eastern travel in the thirteenth century is random enough to elude their authors' capacities to characterize and rich enough to offer a compelling opportunity to later writers as well as to European culture at large. What literary organization does appear in their works, however, will have a confining and shaping effect on imaginations to come. What did Marco Polo and William of Rubruck make of their burden of new knowledge in carrying it back to Europe? How did they adapt the available powers of the written word to the task of turning fable into geography and history?

Marco Polo's book was by far the more widely read and influential, although it is neither earlier nor indeed better than William's (and was preceded in Europe by three other firsthand accounts of the Tartar East). According to A. C. Moule, in the introduction to the Moule and Pelliot edition,

The question of the true text of the book is a very curious and intricate one.… The book may have become popular, although Ramusio probably exaggerates when he says that "all Italy in few months was full of it." But this popularity resulted not in the preservation of it but in the destruction of the book in the form in which it left the author's hands, till there has survived no single known copy which can claim at all to be either complete or correct.… It was very long and not a little dull, the work of one who had, as has been said, "looked at everything and seen nothing"; it was written in an uncouth French much mingled with Italian which sometimes puzzled even contemporary interpreters; and so from the first each copyer omitted, abridged, paraphrased, made mistakes and mistranslations, as he saw fit, influenced naturally by his own point of view and immediate interests or purpose; and the result with which we have to deal is nearly 120 manuscripts of which, it is little exaggeration to say, no two are exactly alike.

In line with the variorum spirit of Moule and Pelliot's edition, we will consider as part of Marco's book anything that has been believed to be so by medieval and Renaissance translators and readers. The book was in a sense the collaborative effort of a whole culture, enacting by its means its discovery of the Orient, and it is particularly as such an effort that it interests me here.

Even the urtext, whatever and wherever it may be, was not the work of a single individual. The essential originality of Marco's book is amazing when one considers that, of all the possible conduits for his memory, he chose as his ghostwriter Rusticello of Pisa, a man who had been a professional writer of Arthurian romances for the court of Prince Edward of England. But Rusticello's immediate impact on the work appears to have been relatively superficial. He is responsible for the language of romance that suffuses the narratives of the Tartar wars at the end of the work and perhaps for the more thoroughly fictional of the stories that replace data in chapters on cities Marco did not visit. The structure of the work, the selection of its material, and most of all the conception of the act of telling it displays are all Marco's—or, as that name renders a rather problematic voice, are at any rate not the contributions of Rusticello's genre. Would a professional romancer have said this: "And after we had begun about the Greater Sea then we repented of it …, because many people know it clearly. And therefore we will leave it then, and will begin about other things"?

What is significant about the collaboration is not so much the degree to which the fiction writer adulterated the words of the documentarist, but the fact of the collaboration itself. To the extent that this autobiographical opportunity has not in the least been seen as such, we are still in the literary world of Egeria, whose "I" is only an "I," providing its text with little more than the brute context of eyewitnessing. In Marco's case, as in Egeria's, the only differentiating factor in the narrator's persona lies in the author's public identity. Marco is a merchant, and therefore he witnesses with the eye of a merchant, as Egeria had with the eye of a nun.

The similarities do not extend much further. For Marco's material is as openended and his topography as unlandscaped as Egeria's had been finite and prefabricated. Egeria had only to finger verbally the rosary beads of the already imaginatively tangible Holy Land. Marco had to turn into words a world that, for Europeans, was without a true history, a being. He had to do for the reality of Asia roughly what the Scriptures had done for Palestine.

No matter how undaunted his tone then, he must be aware that it is through him and the transcription of his experience that the East will receive its imprimatur. Unauthorized by God, unaided by a muse, politically and ecclesiastically uninvested, he must render the rest of the world in his own person, simply on the basis of his experience. Although William of Rubruck had come before him, the friar's account had been a letter to a king, and Marco's enterprise was a letter to Europe.

"There are two Armenies, one is called Armenie the Great and one Armenie the little". The void behind this bald statement is hard to realize. A voice that can substantively predicate the mere existence of something as vast as a country is a voice with primal responsibilities and which sees itself as such. ("In the beginning God created heaven, and earth"; "All Gaul is divided into three parts.") This of course is also the voice of the textbook, but what textbook for adults begins by announcing the existence of anything the size of Armenia? And in the heyday of scholasticism, what private secular man would undertake to so essentially declare the truth of things?

Yet that is the mode of Messer Marco's "narrative." It is in fact not a narrative. It is a descript io of unprecedented scope, confident enough to present itself as the equivalent of knowledge. It is even less reportage than is Egeria's Peregrinatio. It is as declarative and impersonal in the majority of its sentences as Wonders of the East, although in its ostentatious basis in experience it places the ultimate source of authority firmly in the eyewitness.

The eyewitness cannot be just anyone, as Montaigne's speaker could have been—that would throw the emphasis of the work onto the nature and quality of the personal experience of travel (where in modern travel literature, and to some extent in Friar William's account, it mostly does lie). But this book is about "the different generations of men and the diversities of the different regions and lands of the world". So while the eyewitness is the absolute prerequisite for a book about that which can only be known to others by hearsay, the personal aspect of Marco's experience is of negligible importance and he must obtain the authority to speak from someplace beyond his private self. The voice of Rusticello resolves this problem in the opening of the prologue:

And each one who shall read or hear this book must believe it fully, because all are most truthful things. For I make you know that since our Lord God fashioned Adam our first father & Eve with his hands until this moment never was Christian, Saracen, nor pagan nor Tartar nor Indian nor any man of any kind who saw & knew or inquired so much of the different parts of the world & of the great wonders so much as this said Master Marc Pol searched out and knows, nor had travelled through them.… And therefore he says to himself that it would be too great evil if he did not cause all the great wonders which he saw & which he heard for truth to be put in writing so that the other people who did not see them nor know may know them by this book.

Thus, while Marco's authority is indeed founded in his personal experience, that experience is in a way transpersonal as well. As the first man to see the whole world, he exists in the mythicheroic sphere of first and founding gestures, in illo tempore. He is literally a living legend, and it is from that order of existence that he speaks, and because of that the reader can "believe it fully." We are reminded of the traveler's mythic nature at several other points in the book as well: at the end of the section on Cathay, before we turn to India, Rusticello says:

Master Marc Pol stays there in Indie so long and went and came there so often and inquired and asked so much, that both by hearing and by sight he was able fully to learn and to see and knows so much of them, of their affairs and of their customs and of their trade, that there was scarcely a man who ever knew or saw so much of them, as he did, who would know better how to tell the truth about them.

And again, in the epilogue of a fourteenth-century manuscript, the opening formula is repeated:

But I believe that our return was the pleasure of God, that the things which are in the world might be known. For, according as we have told at the beginning of the book in the first heading, there never was any man, neither Christian nor Saracen nor Tartar nor pagan, who has ever explored so much of the world as did Master Marc son of Master Nicolau Pol noble and great citizen of the city of Venice.

Thank God Amen.

Like Wonders of the East, and for some of the same reasons, this work is, as I have said before, a group effort. The "I" (variously rendered throughout any one manuscript as "I," "he," "one," "we," and "you") is not the authentic "I" of a private and personal self but an image created by Marco Polo, Rusticello, and a host of translators, redactors, and editors over a period of centuries. The image is that of First Traveler, and the position it takes in relation to the World is the result of a consensus among literate men as to what that position must be. There is a real variety among the texts, not in structure but in what fills the space between the setting out and the final account of the Tartar wars. The book came to be seen as a sort of encyclopedia, to which later knowledge (or ignorance) and fuller detail from other sources could be added at will, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. What information the original manuscripts contained was frequently distorted and altered by translators and editors whose scant knowledge of the East did not equip them for their task. But Polo's authority is stamped on every version, and when a mapmaker drew from him, he did not worry about how close his manuscript was to an "original"—or to the truth. (This is of course a characteristic medieval approach to authorship: Moses, Aristotle, Albertus Magnus, any number of writers became posthumous fathers to work not their own, in an inversion of the equally characteristic practice of plagiarism. But it is interesting in light of Marco's unique claim to authority. Neither "ancient" nor ecclesiastic, he has become an umbrella figure on the basis merely of living in and moving around the physical world.)

The information contained in the manuscripts varies, but it is always handled in the same way, by a series of formulas and according to a system of priorities that give the book its ultimate integrity. The strict itinerary structure of the pilgrimage narrative is not so important here. The route is relatively arbitrary, as there are no stations of the cross to be followed across Asia. Nor is there any reason for us to follow so closely in this traveler's footsteps: it is not vicarious experience he means to offer, but knowledge in more or less raw form.

But while we do not follow Marco's exact itinerary, there is a route here (as opposed to the "concatenation" of Wonders) and it is based on Marco's experience—or on the rough map into which that experience has crystallized in his memory. We are explicitly kept in the dark about India in the earlier portion of the book, even though our route passes as close as Kashmir:

We shall not go forward, because if we were to go forward twelve days marches further we should enter into Indie … and I do not wish to go in there at this point because on our return journey we shall tell you all the things of Indie in order in the third book. And so we will go back to our province towards Badascian, because by other road or in other directions we shall not be able to go.

There is no geographically logical reason not to talk about India after discussing Kashmir. The obstacle is that Marco himself did not discover the two places in that order. In his later discussion of the kingdom of Mangi, which "the Great Kaan has divided into nine parts", he tells us only about three of those parts (though we fully expected to hear about all nine):

Of these three however we have told thus in order because Master Marc made his passage through them, for his way was directed hither. But of the other six also he heard and learned many things, and we should know well how to tell you of them; but because … he did not travel over them he would not have been able to tell so fully as about the others.

On the arrangement of his discussion of Cathay:

Now you may know that … Master Marc Pol himself, the great lord sends him as a messenger towards sunsetting. And he set out from Cambulac and went quite four months of days journeys toward sunsetting, and therefore we shall tell you all that he saw on that road, going and coming.

This seems an odd sort of fidelity to an arbitrary order. Marco's experience was a temporal and contingent one, and the material of his book is laid out on a fixed and spatial grid. Why transfer the temporal order to what seems primarily a rendering of space, a verbal mappa mundi? The answer lies in the fact that Marco and Rusticello are consciously creating a book, not a map, a reading experience that exploits the linear and sequential path of the person who turns the pages, one after another, or of the person who listens to a story being told. Despite its encyclopedic breadth of topics, their book seems intended to be read straight through like a novel, rather than dipped into like a reference book (and the recent introduction of paper into Italy had made such private reading more common). More explicitly than Egeria, the authorial "I" is taking us on a journey (in which he frequently becomes "we"), a journey that has its own present and future tenses in addition to Egeria's simple and ultimately uninviting past.

"We shall now leave this district with out going any further … " "On our return journey we shall tell you all about India … " "If the traveler leaves Karakorum and Altai … " "Let us now continue our journey towards the East." "For this purpose the Great Khan leaves this palace and goes elsewhere. But before we follow him … " "So let us return to Zaiton and recommence our book from that point." "We told you earlier in the book about Hormuz and Kais and Kerman. Since we went out by another route, it is fitting that we should return to this point. But … we will not loiter here now." "But, now that we have embarked on this topic, we have had second thoughts about setting it down in writing …" Not only do we share with the authorial "I" a present-tense mental journey, complete with future possibilities and roads not chosen, but the author even allows us into the present tense of his dictation: the book itself, as well as the journey it creates, exists in time. "Now I will tell you" and "I have told you" occur on almost every page. "We have already told you," "we told you earlier about," and "now you have heard" are frequent. Particularly intimate are the spots where Marco changes direction in midparagraph. He begins to tell us about the Black Sea:

On the mouth of the entry of the Greater Sea on the side of the sunsetting there is a mountain which is called the Far. And after we had begun about the Greater Sea then we repented of it …, because many people know it clearly. And therefore we will leave it.

Now since we have told you of these Tartars of the Sunrising then we will leave them for you and will turn again to tell about the great Turquie so as you will be able to hear clearly. But it is truth that we have told you in the book above all the facts of the great Turquie … and so we have nothing more to tell of it. And so we will leave it.

Of course these passages sound like the sort of thing one might expect from a slavishly transcribed dictation. But, as noted earlier, Rusticello did not simply write down what Marco said. The work is thoroughly embellished with refining rhetorical touches and set pieces from chivalric romance. The opening and closing fanfares, already quoted, the fine speeches put in the mouths of Tartar "barons" during the account of their wars, Rusticello's occasional remarks of praise or wonder at the extent of Marco's travel or the breadth of his observation: all this betrays the scribe's editorial confidence and autonomy. That he did not choose to refine away these particular moments of hesitation suggests that they seemed appropriate to the work's intentions. Certainly they are not isolated from the effect of the whole.

There is something intricately artificial in all this. Despite the loud claims the text makes for the authenticity of its data and the plain veracity of its author, and despite Europe's serious need for information about the East and the Tartars, the experience it gives us is predominantly one of pleasure, and the pleasure is rooted in the work's overt manipulation of our imaginative faculties. We are to pretend we are on a journey. We are to pretend that we share in the identity of the narrator. We are finally and most exquisitely to pretend that our reading is a journey, that in some sense we are moving, embarking, loitering, passing on, as we sit still in our rooms turning the pages of a book.

Many refused to believe Marco Polo, and legend has it (according to Ramusio, his sixteenth-century Venetian editor and biographer) that at his deathbed friends begged him to retract his book. No doubt this was partly the effect of his subject matter, much of which is hard to credit even now (though most of it has been verified by later travelers). But the work bears about it as well the smell of fiction, for the first time in this previously documentary literature. It will not be long now before Mandeville erupts onto the scene, in a fictional work that ironically enough inherited much of its credibility from its likeness to the slightly suspicious book of Marco Polo.

It is not hard to see in this kind of transmission the rudiments of what Bakhtin calls, idiosyncratically, the novel—in contradistinction to the epic. Egeria's transmission of the Holy Land was the product of what Bakhtin would term "epic consciousness," in which

both the singer and the listener, immanent in the epic as a genre, are located in the same time and on the same evaluative (hierarchical) plane, but the represented world of the heroes stands on an utterly different and inaccessible time-and-value plane, separated by epic distance. To portray an event on the same time-and-value plane as oneself and one's contemporaries (and an event that is therefore based on personal experience and thought) is to undertake a radical revolution, and to step out of the world of epic into the world of the novel [Dialogic imagination].

Of course Bakhtin is tracing the lineage of this genre at a level deeper than that of textural formalities. He is interested in the whole project of consciousness into which the novel as we usually think of it fits, and he thinks in terms of the longue durée. But when speaking of literary origins, one is always speaking of shift and expansion in a culture's imaginative relations with the world of which literature speaks. Both the novel and the modern travel book express a concern with personal, individual experience once almost entirely absent in Western literature. The story of its growing status in our literature brings the histories of the two genres closer together than critical tradition might indicate.

Bakhtin would place the roots of this "radical revolution" far earlier than Marco Polo. Because for him the novelistic consciousness is the product of "polyglossia," the "cultural interanimation, interaction of ideologies and [especially] languages," he traces it as far back as Xenophon's Cyropaedia, in which the hero (Cyrus the Great) is "foreign and barbaric." "The world has opened up; one's own monolithic and closed world (the world of the epic) has been replaced by the great world of one's own plus 'the others'".

Marco is certainly a latecomer to this consciousness produced by the interanimation of languages; most European countries have been bilingual (at least) for well over a millennium by his time, as well as in contact, however tentatively, with other cultures—Slavic and Islamic. But one might imagine that each new step toward the alien would be accompanied by a new flurry of novelistic activity, a sharper, deeper engagement with the contemporary world and the project of rendering it. Who could be more likely than such a traveler as Marco to reproduce, on a smaller scale, that great plunge into reverence for the present which first took place during the Hellenic confrontation with the otherness of Persia? Ctesias, often considered the first Western travel writer, fought in the same war that "opened up the world" to Xenophon, and Marco is his direct heir, another avatar of the First Traveler.

One of Bakhtin's criteria for the novel is the coexistence within a text of several metalanguages, the parodic or quasi-parodic use of voices from many genres to produce a single voice identified with none of them. In Marco's text we find at least three: the present tenses of the letter writer reflecting the time of writing ("we have already told you"); the narrative present tense that enacts the time of reading ("when the traveler leaves"); and the biblical, or textbook, present tense which, in Todorov's phrase, "institutes reality" and which has received its justification from Rusticello's valorizing of the traveler. The content of the East is transmitted in this last voice, in sentences that, like those of Wonders, declare the static and permanent existence of things.

This last and most purely discursive voice is what seems to separate Marco definitively from the genres of memoir, autobiography, and the novel. It functions to secure his claims to truth and operates by erasing the individual Marco of the "letter writer" (as well as the individual reader-"traveler" who "leaves," "embarks," "loiters," and so on). Marco remains admirably dense to the connotations of the things he chooses to transmit. He evaluates rarely and does not speak (as Friar William had, or as Odoric of Pordenone would a few years later) as a propagandist for the Western norm. He is interested in neither shattering nor protecting familiar visions of the East, as his depiction of the unicorn, quoted earlier, makes clear. Where the evidence of his senses confirms "our stories," he shows no disrespect for them, and where it does not he is scandalized at having been misinformed.

But for the most part Marco is not revising or replacing old images but filling in blanks where even blanks have not been previously imagined. The frequent baldness of the style, despite occasional rhapsodie passages (to which we will return later), further emphasizes the annunciative quality already noted in his sentence structure, where little beyond existence is predicted. Detail is repeatedly eschewed as tedious: "And I would well tell you how [the ships] were made, but because it would be too long a matter I will not mention it to you at this point." "and you may know that we do not tell you of all the cities of the kingdoms [of Mangi] because it would be too long a matter to mention".

Often satisfied with describing the parts of large territories by repeating a formula in which only the proper nouns change, his apparently fuller passages are really only finer articulations of the major pattern ("x exists"). Marco has divided the East into countries and territories that do or do not owe allegiance to the Great Kaan. These countries are usually further divided into cities and stretches of countryside through which "the traveler" passes. The cities are divided into buildings and markets, people, and products, while the countryside is divided into fauna, wild flora, agriculture, and mineral deposits. Countryside is characterized as "fine" or "desolate," depending on its productivity, and cities as beautiful or splendid. If the city is big or the countryside "fine" he will go on to subdivide it, filling in more blanks:

Cobinan is a very great city. And the people of that country worship the abominable Mahomet. There is iron and steel and andanique enough, and many mirrors of the finest steel are made there very beautiful and large. And tutty is made there, which is not made elsewhere, which is very good for disease of the eyes. And with it spodium is made there also; which I saw made, and I will tell you how they are made.

And again there is a beautiful plain in which there are cranes enough and pheasants and partridges enough and many other kinds of birds. … And there are found five kinds and manner of cranes in these regions, which I will describe to you. The one kind is all black like a raven with great wings and they are very large. The second kind is all white … [etc.].

The practical result of this tendency in the work has already been noted—the variations and distortions from manuscript to manuscript are limited almost entirely to the content of Marco's blanks and formulas, as if that content were somehow less sacrosanct than the syntax and the formulas that contain it. And why not? The differences between Boeach and Locac, southeast and southwest, one hundred li and one hundred miles, are of interest only to another merchant or to a prospective conqueror. Marco's book is formally addressed to "all people who wish to know"—not to specialists, not necessarily to those whose self-interest could be served by an exact knowledge of the East. Olschki calls its presentation of geographical data vague, conventional ("the various data … are nearly always generic, not specific, and are often blurred or arid"), and points out that even the commercial data it contains are nothing so systematic as the lists and instructions in Pegolotti's Pratica della mercatura (published fifty years after Marco's book; Olschki, Marco Polo's Asia).

The book is neither geography nor a merely mercantile itinerary. Neither is William of Rubruck's book, which is far more autobiographical and more finely detailed, and which suffered almost no textual distortions in the history of its dissemination. But William's book is specifically addressed to the missionary and military interests of the crusader king Louis IX. William is reporting, while Marco is excitedly establishing a matrix for existences.

The particular kind of entertainment the book offers is based on the reader's ability to believe that what he is hearing about and imagining is actual, but it does not matter too much what he is imagining. "Boeach" and "Locac" offer an identical pleasure, the pleasure of the exotic name. Real exotica are more titillating than the fabulous variety, and thus the book was more pleasurable to those who could believe it. Marco made it as believable as he could, in particular by means of its comprehensive scope and formulaic description, and as a result Europe altered its maps and its ideas of the orbis terrarum according to the book's new lattice. Later accounts of travel to the East would not be able to claim as their raison d'être the establishment of a palpable image of the East and would function as correctives, addenda, analyses, or memoirs. From Marco's time on, Europe had an East in its real geography—an East that it had yet to evaluate and respond to, but one through which it had ridden with eyes open, and soul asleep and dreaming.

So far we have been paying particular attention to the structural devices through which II milione makes its claims to authority and historicity. Its successful and novel achievement of both qualities assured that its informing vision would become canonical as well as its data. The exuberant, even joyous, nature of that vision is separable from the scientific or journalistic truth value of the data that embody it, but was destined to control even scientific attempts to represent the East for centuries to come. It is time then to turn our attention to the purely imaginative and psychological satisfactions of Marco Polo's Elsewhere.

Marco's book is a tissue of compromises and cross-purposes in which the voices sometimes subvert each other's aims and strategies. His literary situation is a confusing one: he is producing a new kind of book about an old topic, based on an old mode of experience in a completely new world. Despite the originality of his practical orientation and attempted transparency, his book maintains the quality of wonder that had characterized the Western attitude toward the Orient, in one form or another, since before Ctesias. The definition of wonder has shifted a little, and its relative importance has dimmed, but the word appears twice in the first few sentences of Marco's prologue and frequently introduces a description. More than that, it is a quality of Marco's perception implicit throughout the work in the relation of certain types of phenomena.

A wonder is more than simply something we do not have at home. The travel memoirs of the twentieth century are full of exotica, but the climate of the times discourages the perception of wonders except in the stubbornly naïve. (Erik von Daneken and John Lilly pander to what is left of our capacity in this area.) A wonder partakes of another Nature—it cannot be crossbred with our fauna or wholly imported to our shores. And there is something essentially positive about it. No matter how ugly this crocodile is, one is expected to enjoy the fact of its existence:

And the very great adders are bred in this province, and those great serpents which are so much beyond measure that all men who see them have great fear of them and must wonder at them. … And I will tell you how large and thick they are. For you may know for truth that there are some of them ten large paces long and some more and some less, which are quite as thick as a large butt, for they measure ten palms round; and these of this size are the largest. And they have two short legs in front near the head, which have no feet except that they have three claws, namely two small and one larger claw made sharp like a falcon's or a lion's. It has the head very large and the eyes such that they are larger than a large loaf of ours worth four dinars, all shining; the mouth is so large that it would well swallow a man or an ox at one time. It has very large and sharp teeth. And it is so very exceedingly hideous and great and fierce that there is no man nor woman nor beast in the world that does not fear to go near them, and has not dread of them.

(Characteristically, this ferocious monster's flesh "is very good to eat and they eat it very gladly," and his gall "is much prized because great medicine is made of it" which cures cancer, rabies, and the pangs of childbirth—an extension into the purely phenomenal sphere of the bonus and malus significances of the old allegorical monstra.)

Although the physical description of the crocodile is almost pedantically accurate and true to life, we have not so much been given an addition to our zoological knowledge as a tangible expression of the Other World. Unlike the fire-breathing serpents of Wonders, this monster has been verified by an eyewitness and its properties and powers do not exceed the bounds of easy belief. But like so many of the less practical tidbits in Marco's book, and contributing to a total effect that subverts the work's overtly familiarizing approach, it proclaims the fundamental difference of the world in which we are traveling.

This difference is presented at a much higher pitch of intensity in Wonders and founded on a much more obvious distinction in the sacramentalizing pilgrimage itineraries. And in fact Marco subdues his own sense of it in his book with his attention to what is or could be close kin to the normal and by the empiricism that continually pits the evidence of his senses against traditional fabulous lore. Strangeness is by no means a crucial criterion in his selection of data, as it had been for Arculf: towns that manufacture steel and plains full of pheasants are perfectly possible in Europe, and their presence in the East titillates more by their familiarity than by any alien qualities they may manifest.

But the undertone of otherness is there, and in its freedom from the cruder qualities of the supernatural emphasized by Wonders and the Alexander romances, the book renders more clearly the fundamental components of the East's imaginative appeal. Supernature is only one of the Natures from which we can feel alienated and to which we can be drawn for relief from our own. What Marco cannot quite refrain from dwelling on, despite his urgent objectivity (and despite the paganism and "barbarism" that so appalled Friar William, John of Plano Carpini, and Odoric of Pordenone), is the splendor, the power, the fecundity of the East. It will be remembered that even Egeria, the zealously idealist pilgrim, was stirred into an occupatio by the physical splendor of the churches of Jerusalem on Easter—the most enthusiastic plunge into physical description in her whole letter. Marco too is prodded into a more emotive discourse when opportunities arise for him to treat of the Khan's splendor and the splendor of his chief cities and palaces.

In some ways the Khan is the East—certainly all of it but India and Japan is in his power and pays him tribute, and thus its wealth and productivity reflect directly on him:

Now I have told you the way and the reason why the great lord must have and has more treasure than any man of this world. … Moreover I will tell you a greater thing, that all the lords of the earth have not so great riches, treasures, and expenses as the great lord has alone.

After a description of the Khan's winter hunting parties:

He stays there this term in the greatest enjoyment and in the greatest delight in the world, so that it is a wonder to tell, for there is not a man in the world who did not see it who could believe it, because it is much more, his grandeur and his business and his delight, than I should be able to tell you.

After a description of the Khan's feasts:

And again I will tell you a thing which I had forgotten to relate, which seems a great wonder which is somewhat fit to relate in our book. For you may know that when the great Kaan makes feast and ceremony as I have said above, a great lion is brought before the great lord. And as soon as he sees him the lion throws himself down lying before him and makes signs [of] great humility, and seems to know him for lord. He is so tame that he stays thus before him with no chain and not tied at all, lying quietly at the king's feet like a dog; and it is indeed a thing which makes one wonder.

The long section of the book which treats explicitly and almost exclusively of the Khan's magnificence is introduced in these words:

Kaan means to say in our language the great lord of lords, emperor, and this lord who now reigns indeed he really has this name … by right because everyone knows truly that this great Kaan is the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world or that is now from the time of Adam our first father till this moment. … And this I shall show you quite clearly in the course of this our second book … so that each will be sure that he is … the greatest lord that ever was born in the world or that now is, and in the following chapters I shall show you the reason how.

The Khan has hereby been removed (with the same formula that transformed Marco himself in the prologue) from the sphere of the mundane. Not that he is made fabulous—the whole weight of Marco's account supports the notion of the actuality and palpability of his power, its present-tense and provable truth. But his valorization separates him from all the rest of "the lords of the earth" and reestablishes the old gulf between the Natures of the West and the East. It is not so much that the East is in all ways better than Europe ("Nevertheless," Marco remarks after one particular burst of enthusiasm, "there does exist I know not what uneasiness about the people of Cathay"), but that its possibilities are separate and alien from our own. It cannot ultimately be better because it is spiritually benighted, but in Marco's book it is confirmed as the location of all that an oppressively spiritualized culture dreams of most deeply and inchoately.

They do not grow on "berries 150 feet long," but gems are peculiarly plentiful:

And do not believe that the good diamonds come into our Christian countries but the greater part … the most noble diamonds they go and are carried only to the great Kaan and to the kings and barons of these different regions and realms, for they have the great treasures of the world and buy all the dear stones for themselves. For those which come to our countries, nothing comes but their leavings.

Costliness is everywhere; even the peasants dress in embroidered silks and satins. It is a shiny world: it is not wealth simply as wealth that Marco so admires, but wealth as manifested in radiance and color.

Organic nature is hardly less splendid:

There are in this kingdom many strange beasts different from all the others in the world. For I tell you that there are black lions without any other colour or mark. And there are also parrots of several kinds more beautiful than those which are brought to us this side of the sea, for there are some parrots all white as snow and they have the feet and the beak red, and again there are some parrots red and some white and green which are the most beautiful thing in the world to see, and green ones also. There are some again very small which are likewise very beautiful. There are also peacocks much more beautiful and larger and of another sort and size than ours. And also they have hens very different from ours and better than ours. And what shall I tell you about it? They have all things different from ours, and they are more beautiful and better. For … they have no fruits like ours, nor any beasts nor any birds; and this comes to pass, they say, through the great heat which is the rule there.

The climatic theory of cultural differences referred to in the last sentence had usually in the past been called on to explain the inferior natural and human forms of alien places. Here it seems to explain the opposite. Not only is this paradise full of more beautiful birds and flowers than we have at home, but it is emphatically full of them. The lists of which Marco is so fond have the effect of stuffing our visual field, so that the beauties of the East appear to us only in the form of abundances. His method of description lends itself so naturally to the production of this effect that although he is rarely drawn to the description of savage or unpleasant places, he renders them with an equal sense of abundance:

And the men make fires like this to protect themselves and their animals from the fierce wild beasts of which there are so many throughout that country and throughout that land that it is a wonder. And it is because no people live there [Tibet, which "Mongu Kaan has destroyed by war"] that these wild beasts have so multiplied. … And with all this some lions come sometimes or some bears and some of the other wild beasts which do them harm; for there is very great plenty of them in the land.

Inside the town dare live no sinful woman …, these are the women who do service to men for money, but I tell you they all live outside in the suburbs. And you may know that there are so great a multitude of them for the foreigners that no man could believe it, for I dare tell you in truth that there are quite twenty thousand, … and they all find a living. … Then you can see if there is great abundance of people in Cambulac since the worldly women there are as many as I have told.

This is no country for old men. Marco gives us several accounts of tribes that practice willing cuckoldry to entertain foreign travelers and freely countenance adultery ("if the woman be willing") and polygamy. The Oriental potentates with their hundreds of wives seem to spawn sons like mackerel, and Marco relishes the statistics. After describing a tribe that values most highly as brides women who have been promiscuous before marriage, he says: "Now I have told you of this marriage [custom], which it does well to say the manner of it. And into that country the young gentlemen from sixteen years to 24 will do well to go".

The wonder of this East then does not lie in the isolated monstrosities of the fabulous literature, nor in that propensity for miracles characteristic of the Holy Land of pilgrimage accounts. In Marco's book it is an atmosphere, compounded of brightness, license, and plenitude, which is not supernatural but otherworldly in its manifestations. Crocodiles, parrots, ruby mines, artificial hills of lapus lazuli, golden birds that sing, trained leopards, postal systems, polygamy: none of this is in the least impossible. It is unlikely, unheimlich, but credible. What makes it so poignantly unlikely, and wondrous, is that while it is not characteristic of Marco's Europe, it is characteristic of European dreams. Marco's factual celebration of the East is the bright shadow of the West's own poverty and political factionalism, its famines and depopulation, its spiceless cookery and rigid sexual morality. The qualities he discovers in the East characterize as well the imagined other worlds of "dream visions," chivalric romances, troubador love poetry, the backgrounds of medieval religious paintings, the mineral splendor of altar decorations, the growing (and controversial) sensuality of church music.

But the undertone of envy and desire in Marco's account is curiously resigned. Roger Bacon's remark on the importance of geography does not suggest that places have changeable natures: "If [the longitude and latitude of every place] were known, man would be able to know the characteristics of all things in the world and their natures and qualities which they contract from the force of this location" (Opus majus). Europe is what it is; its latitude and climate are its destiny, and though we can bring home cinnamon and galingale, the Land of Spices will remain a synonym for desire.

Creation ex nihilo is humanly impossible. Despite Marco's valiantly clear-eyed effort to photograph the memory of his journey without prejudice or fabulation, to let us know, simply, "the things which are in the world," he has added another link to the long chain of visions which constitutes our Elsewhere. It is a new link, in its empirical basis and its novelistic awareness of the reader's experience, but it is a vision, not a photograph. The East as complement to the West will necessarily change as the West's self-image changes, but in Marco's hands it remains largely a complement, dependent for its significance and its conceivability on the nature of the West. The being Marco has given it, by means of his bald declarations and copious lists, is the body of the West's desire. Friar John's Historia Mongolorum is a more complete and accurate account of the Mongols; Friar William is a much better writer; and Odoric's account (twenty years later than Marco's) reflects more faithfully the conscious European attitude toward the politically and spiritually "barbarous" Oriental states. But Marco's is the book that lived and entered into history, because in him the real and reachable Orient and the country of the heart's desire were inseparably, if unevenly, joined.


Principal English Translations


Further Reading