The Merchants of Venice
The Voyage Home
Man of a Million Lies?
A Note on Religion
A Note on the Texts
Map of Marco's Journey
The Travels read more like a gazetteer than a personalised account of an epic journey. Rustichello shares little of Marco Polo's personality, his thoughts or his feelings on what he had seen. Many of the descriptions owe more to Rustichello's embellishments than to Polo's recollections. Several phrases and passages are lifted straight out of his earlier works. For example, an account of Marco's introduction to Kublai Khan is almost identical to an earlier work about the legendary King Arthur. Furthermore, the book gives little sense of the passage of time throughout the journey.
The book of Marco Polo was undoubtedly born of the mind of a travelling businessman. His observations betray his roots as a practical merchant with an eye open for possible markets. He makes notes on transport, economy, obstacles, sources of food and water, and is always quick to list the primary sources of trade in the regions through which he travelled. Such inside information would have been useful to enterprising tradesmen and Western merchants searching for new marketplaces and regions for export.
Polo takes a practical and uniform approach to his descriptions. He describes "fine" towns, "large" provinces, "principle" cities. He notes religious persausion in each area, encountering Christians, Mohammedans, Idolaters, Nestorian Christians, amongst others. Polo often details local laws and customs. He also discusses local people and notes who governs them. In some of the longer passages of the book, Marco Polo tells of legends, history and tales native to the area.
Travelling through a province called Tunocain, Polo describes a great plain, where, "according to the inhabitants, took place the battle between Alexander and Darius." Further on he describes a place where horses were said to have directly descended from Alexander's horse, Bucephalus; "they were all born with a horn on their head, like their descendant, Bucephalus." Bequeathed to a vengeful widow, the breed was destroyed "so that it is now extinct." Fact and fiction frequently intertwine in this way throughout the narrative.
Marco Polo's book is almost unique in its accurate reportage on the geography, topography and make-up of nations. He was an observant traveller. However, many of his descriptions contain inaccuracies. Some may be attributable to Rustichello's own, undoubted embellishments. Others, such as his stories of Prestor John may be more attributable to common belief of the day than to recorded history. When conisdering such inaccuracies within the narrative, it should always be remembered that some thirty years had passed between the journey starting out and the writing of the book. The accounts were drawn from memory.
There are several translations of Marco's book being published today. These are all based upon earlier translations that had been written into a variety of languages. Medieval books were often updated, added to and appended by later authors. Whole passages could be lifted or rewritten to suit contemporary tastes. Marco Polo's book may well have been altered to the point where it is now difficult to precisely ascertain what is original and what isn't. Unfortunately we do not have the original manuscript and so we have have to rely upon these later translations.
Despite these doubts, many of the details can be authenticated by historical evidence and by the written accounts of other, earlier travellers. By way of example, one person who figures strongly in the book is also well-documented in many other contemporary records. History has much to say about Kublai, khan of all the Mongols.