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Thoughts on Marco Polo II

July 15, 2015

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a bit about Marco Polo and my experience reading his book. Or rather, a translation of his book, because my medieval Italian isn’t that great. I’m now finished with The Travels of Marco Polo and I have to say, while I enjoyed the read (but not the footnotes), I didn’t get as much out of it as I’d hoped.

For those interested, The Travels is basically a travelogue written in the very late 1200s or early 1300s by an Venetian merchant who’d reached the court of Kublai Khan and, due to that connection, got sent around the Mongol Empire on, presumably, merchanty-financial business. He basically traces the routes he took and describes the cultures and environments he sees—Persia, Mongolia, China, Sumatra, Thailand, India, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Yemen—as well as some of the places he didn’t see but had heard of, like the Land Of Darkness where they get around not on horses, but with sleds pulled by giant dogs.

He also throws in historical information where he thinks people might be interested, which mostly has to do with that one time this guy fought this other guy, or that time Kublai Khan sent people to lay siege to a city, or how the Chinese Empire was so afraid of the advancing Mongols he ran away and left the Empress in charge. That sort of thing. He’s clearly on the side of the Mongols here, and he’s clearly been reading medieval romances in his spare time.

It’s an interesting snapshot of the time and places, and if you’re at all interested in the medieval world, how different nationalities and religions interacted in Asia, or Asia in general, I recommend it. There’s a lot of formula though—”And then you come to [name] which is a great kingdom, and its people are all Idolators, and they are subject to the Great Khan. They live solely on handicraft and trade, and eat only rice and milk.” Also, I’m not sure if it’s the translation I read or Marco’s actual text, but he gets more racist or at least more judge-y in the second volume, which made me sad.

But like I said, I was reading it for research and I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since the connection to my novel was pretty thin to begin with, but I can’t help it. I was reminded about the Roc and the dog-headed people, and there’s a couple lovely bits of charm work that I’d like to find a way to incorporate, and a magical tree, so it wasn’t a total loss. However, what I was reading the book to find out about ended up being, well….

So there’s this country that Marco Polo describes called Ania, Anin, Anian, or some variation thereof, medieval spelling being a bit fluid. It’s populated by people who have so much gold they all wear golden armbands and sell it to outsiders at low cost. They also have lots and lots of animals. That’s about all that Marco has to say, besides the formula I’ve already mentioned. My translation puts it pretty firmly in China, near Tibet. But clearly this passage got taken out of context, because one of the major reasons Europeans had for charting a route through the Northwest Passage Strait of Anian was … the name says it all. They knew all about the riches Marco Polo had “discovered” and wanted a faster route to Anin than the more traditional land or water routes.

Given that my novel is concerned with gold, Canada, and exploration, you see why I had to read The Travels. That and Gavin Menzies, who I’ve talked about before, claims that Marco left a map of the B.C. coast and I wanted firsthand knowledge of whether or not that might be true. (It’s not. Not even close.)

On the upside, I now have two more medieval texts to read: the Journey of ibn Battuta, who covered even more of the world that Marco did, if half a century later; and anything I can find on or “by” Prester John, the at-least-semi-mythical Christian king of the East, because the legends built up around him sound fascinating. That reading won’t be for my book, though. It’s even more tangential than The Travels was. But it’s going to be darn fun.

If anyone has more good medieval fiction or non-fiction to recommend me, I’m all ears.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    July 15, 2015 10:34 am

    Cooool!

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