Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’
By Peter Jackson
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 61, No. 1, (1998)
Introduction: The year 1998 marks the seven-hundredth anniversary of the initial composition of the book associated with Marco Polo, Le devisament dou monde. As the first European to claim that he had been to China and back (not to mention that he had travelled extensively elsewhere in Asia), Polo has become a household name. He has been credited with the introduction of noodles into Italy and of spaghetti into China. With perhaps greater warrant, he has been cited as an authority on – inter alia – the capital of the Mongol Great Khan Qubilai, on the Mongol postal relay system, on the trade in horses across the Arabian Sea, and on political conditions on the north-west frontier of India in the mid thirteenth century. The Marco Polo bibliography published in 1986 contained over 2,300 items in European languages alone.
But Marco Polo’s reliability has been a matter of dispute from the beginning. It has recently been proposed that the incredulity he met with on his return to Venice sprang from an unwillingness to accept his depiction of a highly organized and hospitable Mongol empire that ran counter to the traditional Western Christian view of the ‘barbarian’ and especially the view of the barbarian Mongols that had obtained since the 1240s. Polo has also met with scepticism from modem commentators. A few years ago, the approach of the rather fine book by Dr John Critchley was that the Polo account is a more valuable source for the minds of late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Western Europeans than for contemporary conditions in Asia. For Critchley, therefore, the question of the authenticity of the Polo material is very much a secondary consideration. More recently, Dr Frances Wood has queried whether Polo was ever in China. She concludes that the famous Venetian probably never got much further than Constantinople or the Black Sea. The argument tends to be based (1) on omissions which would supposedly not have been made by anyone who had genuinely visited the country: Polo’s failure to mention foot-binding, tea-drinking or the Great Wall, for instance; (2) on the fact that Polo’s name has so far not come to light in any Chinese source; and (3) on what can only be regarded as deliberate falsehood, such as the alleged participation of the Polos in the siege and capture of a Chinese city which is known to have been over one year prior to their arrival. Of these objections, the failure to mention the Great Wall carries little weight, given that we can be fairly certain it had not yet been built: walls there certainly were, but not the continuous and impressive structure we see today, which apparently dates from the sixteenth century, the era of the Ming dynasty.
In fact, the authenticity of Polo’s stay in ‘Cathay’ was first challenged years ago, partly for such reasons as these but also on the grounds that the Chinese section contains remarkably little in the way of personal reminiscence and that the accounts of Chinese cities are frequently vague (not to say bland) and hardly compare with the vivid descriptions of life in the Mongolian steppe. Indeed, one could find further grounds for challenging Polo’s firsthand familiarity with the Middle Kingdom: that the book neglects, for instance, to mention finger-printing, a technique with a long history in China. It seems to me, however, that to consider the visit to China in isolation is to set about it the wrong way: we need, rather, to take the work as a whole. In this paper I want to address the following questions. What is the book we associate with Polo’s name? With what purpose was it written? What claims does it make for itself? To what extent does it purport to represent Polo’s own experiences? Just where did Polo go? This last question is particularly central to my paper.