Marco Polo is regarded as one of the most famous travelers of all times and the account of his travels was a “best-seller” of the late Middle Ages that fascinated such famous travelers as Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Polo claims that he travelled to the Mongol empire and occupied important positions at the khan’s court, however, his reports have often been claimed as unreliable and fantastic, and Polo himself declared a liar. In fact, the only proof of his adventures are Polo’s own words. Yet this does not mean that it is impossible to find out whether Polo did travel to Asia or not. His story should be examined in the historical and cultural context and compared to the facts known of Mongolia and China of the 13th century. In this paper I will attempt to place Polo’s descriptions to such historical context in order to determine whether his book can be used as reliable historical source, or it should be considered as one of the medieval fantastic adventure stories.
Marco Polo includes much obviously fantastic evidence into his book. He writes that tartars were able to control weather and of glasses of wine that came spontaneously into his hands during celebration in the Khan’s palace. For sure, the latter can be attributed to Polo’s own alcohol intoxication. As regards the other unbelievable evidence like the stories of huge birds hunting sheep, they have to be explained in context of medieval philosophy. After all, Polo writes of that what he has “seen and heard”, and thus many parts of the book should be viewed as fables and myths which he could have heard during the travel. Mediaeval consciousness could admit the existence of flying glasses and flying beasts, and thus Polo could simply believe in some oriental legend and describe it as an actual fact. In turn, European readers could believe in this legend, since their own idea of the world also admitted the credibility of the legend.
On the other hand, Europeans could not believe in some of the Polo’s evidence that is quite explainable from our point of view. Venetians did not believe in “black stones cut from the mountains in veins, which burn like logs”. However, this stone is known now simply as coal. Considering this, it would be expedient to assert that analysis of Polo’s travels in context means first and foremost, analysis in the context of Polo’s understanding of this or that phenomena that he came across. He does not write of the Great Wall of China. Several conclusions can be made from the fact. First is that the Great Wall did not exist when Polo travelled to China. Second is that Polo never travelled to China and did not know of the Wall. However, there exists a third possible theory. Polo did travel to China and the Wall did exist at the time. Yet it was not remarkable for Polo and he did not include it’s description to his book. For the Chinese the Wall was a matter of fact, for tourists attractions have not been yet invented, and they did not attempt to draw the attention of their guest to this fortification. And for Polo the Wall was simply a defensive structure which he has often seen during his voyage, and thus he did not include the description of yet another wall to the book. He has not travelled along the Wall and simply could not properly evaluate it. From this point of view, many gaps in Polo’s narrative are explainable. He wrote of that what fascinated and shocked personally him, Marko Polo, but never attempted to make complete and accurate descriptions of the lands he visited.
The analysis of the text demonstrates that Polo is rather boastful. He writes of magnificent receptions he received from rulers and even that he himself was appointed a governor of a city that he ruled for three years. At that he writes nothing of his experience as governor, although this would make a perfect chapter in the book. Most obviously, Polo never governed a city, at least because the Mongol empire has not lacked skillful administrators of Chinese origin, and there was no need in a travelling European to occupy this important position. Polo writes that the Khan often asked for his advice and charged him with important missions, although no other proof except for Polo’s own memories has ever been found. It can be assumed that Polo simply attempted to present himself as a successful person, perhaps hoping to occupy higher position at his homeland. But this does not mean that his book should be viewed as a gathering of boastful lies.
Throughout the book he mentions numerous people, places and events that can easily be placed in the historical context. Kublai-khan did rule the Mongol empire at that period and did receive embassies from Europe. The Mongols did conquer China and used local craftsmen, scholars and administrators to strengthen their empire. Kublai-khan did order to construct channels. Princes who ruled provinces of the Mongol empire did raise against central authority to become independent rulers. The Mongols were really able to raise armies of hundreds thousands horsemen, that was absolutely unimaginable for Europe, and Polo has to assure his readers that he is writing “without lie”.
Considering the aforementioned reasoning, one can discover two “layers” in Polo’s book. The first layer is Polo’s life and travels, which should be discussed very carefully, since he obviously boasts and lies much of himself and his adventures in order to present himself not as unfortunate wanderer, but as an important person at the Khan’s court. The second layer are facts of actual background that Polo does not relate to himself. For example: when Polo writes of his participation in a great battle, his heroism at the battlefield should be doubted, however, this does not mean that we should doubt the fact that the battle actually took place. It did happen, although Messier Polo was not a hero of this battle as he claimed. We do not in fact know whether Polo visited the Khan’s court. He could have just heard the sounds of the feast from the outside and ask the people of that what was happening and thereafter present himself as Khan’s guest. This is how a story of the flying glasses could appear. However, there is no doubt that celebrations were in fact arranged at the Khan’s court. This approach should be attributed to every portion of Polo’s book in order to distinguish true historical evidence. By doing so one can turn the stories of a medieval boaster into a more or less reliable source of information.
M. Polo, G.B.B. Battista, H. Murray. (1852) The travels of Marko Polo. Harper & Bros. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?q=related:0x-zF97Xbiv_i0XL0hu&id=MCQNAAAAYAAJ&hl=ru&source=gbs_similarbooks_s&cad=1
M. Polo, G.B.B. Battista, H. Murray. (1852) The travels of Marko Polo. Harper & Bros. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?q=related:0x-zF97Xbiv_i0XL0hu&id=MCQNAAAAYAAJ&hl=ru&source=gbs_similarbooks_s&cad=1 p. 100
M. Polo, G.B.B. Battista, H. Murray. (1852) p. 258
M. Polo, G.B.B. Battista, H. Murray. (1852) p. 127
M. Polo, G.B.B. Battista, H. Murray. (1852) p. 162
M. Polo, G.B.B. Battista, H. Murray. (1852) p. 310