Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060

The story of Marco Polo’s Asiatic journey is one of the most astounding of all travel books of Western civilization. One reason for its popularity is that Marco did not mind mixing fiction and fact. Another is that he possessed in high degree a quality few travelers ever have: the...

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The story of Marco Polo’s Asiatic journey is one of the most astounding of all travel books of Western civilization. One reason for its popularity is that Marco did not mind mixing fiction and fact. Another is that he possessed in high degree a quality few travelers ever have: the ability to see new things objectively.

The Travels of Marco Polo was passed down in many manuscript versions, none of which is the original. Although it is nearly certain that the scribe Rustichello transcribed the original manuscript in French, manuscripts are extant in almost all of the Western European languages. None of the extant manuscripts is complete; hence, much scholarly attention was focused on speculation about what material was present in the original version and what material was interpolated by later scribes. At least an equal amount of attention is focused on trying to distinguish Marco Polo’s observations from the embellishments of Rustichello. To some extent, Chinese historical records are helpful in settling some of these questions. A lesser, although nevertheless vexing, problem arises in attempting to correlate Marco’s citation of personal names and place names with their modern-day equivalents and counterparts—a problem stemming from irregular orthography and compounded by transliteration from one alphabet to another as well as by other changes that have occurred, for example, Constantinople becoming Istanbul. The aggregate of these textual difficulties makes analysis and evaluation of Marco’s narrative tentative at best.

One matter, however, is considerably less debatable than others: the place of The Travels of Marco Polo in literature. Marco Polo’s account is, without doubt, soundly within the mainstream of medieval and Renaissance historical-travel literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136; Vulgate version; History of the Kings of Britain, 1718), Sir John Mandeville’s The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight (c. 1356), and Richard Hakluyt’s sixteenth century books on exploration, among others, join The Travels of Marco Polo to form the canon of this literary tradition. These and similar works share certain common features, most of which reflect the attitudes of the age: a mixture of fact and fantasy, a certain cultural ingenuousness, and a rather pervasive credulity about the supernatural. The modern reader is thus entitled to some legitimate skepticism about Marco’s report.

This report had the advantage of being designed for a Western readership largely ignorant about the East. Marco’s overriding interest was to present the East as something interesting about which the West should learn. His motives were primarily commercial. Marco’s access to information was limited by his having had contact exclusively with overlords; his judgments were based largely on mercantile and religious factors. He apparently was impervious to sociopolitical considerations, for his interest was in trade and merchandise, not in ideas. Consequently, the credibility of his eyewitness account was turned toward generating enthusiasm for finding a safe sea route to the East. Much of what Marco had to say, however, provides valuable insight into both Western medieval attitudes and contemporary conditions in the East.

Several significant issues are connected with these insights and attitudes, including the impact of Christianity on the East. Kublai Khan, for example, asked Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, on their earlier journey, to return with one hundred learned Christians (priests and scholars) to discuss Christianity with the wise men of the East. However, Marco records but two priests who come only part of the way with the Polos on their second, more important journey. Kublai Khan made other similar inquiries of Muslim scholars about Islam. One possible implication is that Kublai Khan—and thus the entire Chinese court—was not interested in evangelical Christianity and conversion to Christianity but was intellectually curious about foreign cultures and religions, Marco’s Christian biases notwithstanding.

Another issue revolves around Marco’s claim that he learned four of the languages of the Tartar nation. Probably he knew Mongol and Turkish—linguistically related languages. It is highly likely that he knew some Persian. The fourth language remains in doubt, but strong evidence suggests that he did not know Chinese. These language skills and limitations most certainly affected Marco’s access to information, his perspective on his sources of information, and, as a result, his presentation of information.

Still another issue involves the spurious matter in Marco’s account. He confused, for example, the locations of Alexander’s barricade and the Great Wall of China with uncharacteristic geographical naïvete. He also included the Prester John legend with no empirical evidence to support it. The narrative refers to several high administrative posts that Marco held under the appointment of Kublai Khan, although meticulously kept records of Chinese administrators and bureaucrats reveal no such appointments. Nevertheless, it is likely that Marco did execute some brief missions for the khan. In addition, while Marco noted the ubiquity of rice in the diet throughout the East, he did not refer to the equally important tea, nor did he mention the well-developed art of Chinese printing—both of which could hardly have escaped his notice. Despite these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, Marco’s narrative presented a generally correct picture of conditions in the East as corroborated by other historical records.

Finally, on the issue of cultural judgments Marco categorized people on the basis of religion rather than by ethnic origin or color. Marco distinguished among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and idolatrous heathens (Buddhists and Hindus, for the most part), but he had no patience for intrafaith disputes, even among Christians. As a consequence, he proved a remarkably tolerant person, a good quality for a traveler, for he made no evaluations along racial or cultural lines. Even his judgment that certain African peoples were ugly was an aesthetic pronouncement rather than a racial slur, because he did not consider them inferior. Grouping people according to their religious beliefs was a reasonably typical approach in Marco’s day, when religious affiliation was the crux of all matters. Cultural, racial, and ethnic considerations did not emerge as controversial questions until modern times. In this sense, Marco, like his contemporaries, may be considered, in a sense, tolerant.

These aspects of The Travels of Marco Polo barely scratch the surface of this remarkable literary document, an extraordinarily rewarding tale that has much to offer, not only for the historian and the student of literature but also for the thoughtful modern citizen.

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