An authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book does not and cannot exist, for the early manuscripts differ significantly. The published editions of his book either rely on single manuscripts, blend multiple versions together, or add notes to clarify, for example in the English translation by Henry Yule. The 1938 English translation by A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot is based on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50% longer than other versions. Approximately 150 manuscript copies in various languages are known to exist, and before availability of the printing press discrepancies were inevitably introduced during copying and translation. The popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 by R.E. Latham works several texts together to make a readable whole.

A page from Il Milione, from a manuscript believed to date between 1298–1299.

Polo related his memoirs orally to Rustichello da Pisa while both were prisoners of the Genova Republic. Rustichello wrote Devisement du Monde in Langues d’Oil, a lingua franca of crusaders and western merchants in the Orient. The idea probably was to create a handbook for merchants, essentially a text on weights, measures and distances.

Authenticity and veracity

Since the book publication, some have viewed the book with skepticism. Some in the Middle Ages viewed the book simply as a romance or fable, due largely to the sharp difference of its descriptions of a sophisticated civilisation in China to other early accounts by Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Rubruck who portrayed the Mongols as ‘barbarians’ who appeared to belong to ‘some other world’. Doubts have also been raised in later centuries about Marco Polo’s narrative of his travels in China, for example for his failure to mention the Great Wall of China, and in particular the difficulties in identifying many of the place names he used (the great majority however have since been identified). Many have questioned if he had visited the places he mentioned in his itinerary, if he had appropriated the accounts of his father and uncle or other travelers, and some doubted if he even reached China, or that if he did, perhaps never went beyond Khanbaliq (Beijing).

It has however been pointed out that Polo’s accounts of China are more accurate and detailed than other travelers’ accounts of the periods. Polo had at times refuted the ‘marvelous’ fables and legends given in other European accounts, and despite some exaggerations and errors, Polo’s accounts have relatively few of the descriptions of irrational marvels. In many cases where present (mostly given in the first part before he reached China, such as mentions of Christian miracles), he made a clear distinction that they are what he had heard rather than what he had seen. It is also largely free of the gross errors found in other accounts such as those given by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta who had confused the Yellow River with the Grand Canal and other waterways, and believed that porcelain was made from coal.

Modern studies have further shown that details given in Marco Polo’s book, such as the currencies used, salt productions and revenues, are accurate and unique. Such detailed descriptions are not found in other non-Chinese sources, and their accuracy is supported by archaeological evidence as well as Chinese records compiled after Polo had left China, his accounts are therefore unlikely to have been obtained second hand. Other accounts have also been verified; for example, when visiting Zhenjiang in Jiangsu, China, Marco Polo noted that a large number of Christian churches had been built there. His claim is confirmed by a Chinese text of the 14th century explaining how a Sogdian named Mar-Sargis from Samarkand founded six Nestorian Christian churches there in addition to one in Hangzhou during the second half of the 13th century. His story of the princess Kököchin sent from China to Persia to marry the Īl-khān is also confirmed by independent sources in both Persia and China.

Omissions

Skeptics have long wondered if Marco Polo wrote his book based on hearsay, with some pointing to omissions about noteworthy practices and structures of China as well as the lack of details on some places in his book. While Polo describes paper money and the burning of coal, he fails to mention the Great Wall of China, tea, Chinese characters, chopsticks, or footbinding.

Exaggerations

Many scholars believe that Marco Polo exaggerated his importance in China. The British historian David Morgan thought that Polo had likely exaggerated and lied about his status in China, while Ronald Latham believed that such exaggerations were embellishments by his ghost writer Rustichello da Pisa. In The Book of Marvels, Polo claimed that he was a close friend and advisor to Kublai Khan and that he was the governor of the city of Yangzhou for three years – yet no Chinese source mentions him as either a friend of the Emperor or as the governor of Yangzhou – indeed no Chinese source mentions Marco Polo at all.

Assessments

Morgan writes that since much of what The Book of Marvels has to say about China is “demonstrably correct” that to claim that Polo did not go to China “creates far more problems than it solves” and so that the “balance of probabilities” strongly suggests that Polo really did go to China, even if he exaggerated somewhat his importance in China. Haw dismisses the various anachronistic criticisms of Polo’s accounts that started in the 17th century, and highlights Polo’s accuracy in great part of his accounts, for example on the lay of the land such as the Grand Canal of China. “If Marco was a liar,” Haw writes, “then he must have been an implausibly meticulous one.”

Abstracts edited from Wikipedia

 

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