The Travels

Marco Polo

(with Rustichello of Pisa)


(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).

 Caravan_Marco_PoloMarco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France


We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards.  He dictated-- apparently from memory-- his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa.  No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious.  I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked.  I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch.  It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.

Marco-Polos-Travels14th-century.Copyright-Bodleian-LibrariesUniversity-of-OxfordThe descriptions of people are often confined to their peculiar customs and their religious beliefs, but occasionally we glimpse Polo’s opinions of their appearances. Almost all of the peoples that receive any such comments are said to be good-looking. This includes the Khan and his people, the Japanese, and the Russians, to name a few.  He sometimes expresses mixed feelings for a group, as when a people are “well-formed” but have something specifically “wrong” with them, as with the sickly pale folk of the “Land of Darkness” or some people of ghastly thinness in India.  The notable exception to his endorsement of physical appearance are the men and women off the coast of East Africa, whose visage he finds repulsive and demonic.

The most fascinating records in this book are the diverse array of cultural practices and religious or superstitious beliefs current during the journeys.  I was particularly captivated by the Khan's religious toleration and interest in Christianity; the antagonism between the Christians and Saracens; the existence of Christian magicians; the presence and nature of Christianity in various parts of the East; and the descriptions of battles, cannibalism, interesting sexual practices, and the Khan's social programs.  The chronicle is spiced with several legends, such as the inspiring story of the Buddha (here Sakyamuni Burkhan), and the amusing tale of a people who would refuse to do business while the shadows of their bodies on the ground were a certain length. 

Ok, how much of this is true?  Ack, tough question.  Let's be clear on two points, though.  First, there will always be one or two fame-grubbing, icon-drubbing historians who can only get their book published if they make us think (right from the title) that Marco Polo never existed, or that he just made up his travels while in prison to pass the time.  These writings (as with most similar works about everyone from Jesus to Shakespeare), are every bit as overblown and propagandized as they suppose their focal text or author to be.  Second, at the other extreme, you don't have to be a reviewer for an anthropological journal to notice all the junctures at which countless deviations from the truth could-- and likely did-- creep into the chronicle.  Working backwards, there are real (but forever obscured) possibilities for Rustichello's romantic embellishment; Marco Polo's own imaginative exaggeration in the telling; all the rolls, pitches and yaws that twenty years can exact on the explorer's memory; lapses in his interpretation or the accurate translation of Polo's guides and interviewees during the expedition; and, of course, motivations other than drily objective history among the narrators of the original stories-- how many stories are precisely accurate, how many are highly memorable but atypical events, how many are local legends, or even jokes?  We, and often Marco Polo himself, and even more Rustichello, will never know, although the modern reader can freely speculate based on the character of each record.  I must admit that, aside from granting him some license on numbers and exact directions, I have more or less assumed the truth of the rather unremarkable aspects of what Polo directly observed or experienced.  As for the tales or facts that are second-hand or probably so, even the most naive reader will disbelieve at more than a few points, as when he describes men with tails, or the giant rukh or gryphon of Zanzibar (which he admits he did not himself see).  On the large gray area short of such fantasies, we are left to speculate as I describe above.  My general tack is to interpret these adventures as one does after-dinner tales of any exuberant story-teller who is mainly trying to entertain, but keeping in mind that the stories are definitely intended as true accounts… and (as the teller will defend himself) if one or two second-hand bits turn out not to be true, well, the fault lies not with him but with so-and-so along the way who told it to him just like that.  But ugh, why did I spend the longest paragraph talking about such drudgery?!  The folk and landscapes of Polo's Travels are so captivating that most of us will be tempted to ignore the issue of their veracity.  Except for those few scholars interested in gathering historical data for academic purposes, a reader’s imagination will be too stirred by the Italian journeyman and his adventures to bother with such a dull perspective as skepticism.  Still, we are likely to learn as much or more about Marco Polo than about the medieval Tartars or Chinese from these enthusiastic tales.

The book reads like a medieval romance, and no doubt, since it was polished up and published by a troubador.  It is impossible to know how much of Polo and how much of Rustichello is in the book.  It was originally published in Old French as Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World), but was called in Italian Il Milione (The Million), probably because of its myriad tales.  English editions are generally called simply The Travels of Marco Polo.

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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE  (translations, based mostly on French and Latin texts, by Ronald Latham; there are no chapter divisions common to all versions, so just the relevant general geographical area is given for each quotation):


For I would have you know that from the time when our Lord God formed Adam our first parent with His hands down to this day there has been no man, Christian or Pagan, Tartar or Indian, or of any race whatsoever, who has known or explored so many of the various parts of the world and of its great wonders as this same Messer Marco Polo.



They freely confess in Tartary that Christ is a lord; but they say that he is a proud lord, because he will not keep company with other gods but wants to be over all others in the world.

-on a region in Tartary is a fact that all the Saracens in the world are agreed in wishing ill to all the Christians in the world.

-on a region in Tartary  [at the time of Marco Polo, the term "Saracen" was synonymous with "Muslim"].


And when the master of the shop, who was as virtuous a man as I have described him, saw this woman's leg and foot, he was forthwith tempted, because his eyes looked on them with pleasure... There and then he took a little awl and made it very sharp and thrust it into the midst of one of his eyes in such a way that he burst the eye inside his head, so that he never saw with it again. So he was certainly a very holy and virtuous man. And now to return to our story.

-on a region in the Middle East


The law which their prophet Mahomet has given them lays down that any harm they may do to one who does not accept their law, and any appropriation of his goods, is no sin at all.

-on a region in the Middle East


In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ.

-on a region on the road to Cathay. [This is indeed an Iranian tradition regarding the city of Saveh, still current today].


Among the people of these kingdoms there are many who are brutal and bloodthirsty. They are forever slaughtering one another.

-on a region on the road to Cathay


In this district there are a lot of porcupines. When hunters set their dogs on them in hopes of a kill, the porcupines curl up and then shoot out the quills with which their backs and flanks are armed and so wound the dogs in several places.

-on a region on the road to Cathay.  [Certainly a member of genus Hystrix, no porcupine actually shoots out its quills.  According to Uldis Roze, the foremost expert on porcupines, this is a widespread and constantly recurring misconception.]


When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions, by dropping asleep or for some other reason, and afterwards he wants to rejoin them, then he hears spirits talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes, indeed, they even hail him by name. Often these voices make him stray from the path, so that he never finds it again.

-on the Great Desert in China


I give you my word that if a stranger comes to a house here to seek hospitality he receives a very warm welcome. The host bids his wife do everything that the guest wishes. Then he leaves the house and goes about his own business and stays away two or three days. Meanwhile the guest stays with his wife in the house and does what he will with her, lying with her in one bed as if she were his own wife; and they lead a gay life together. All the men of this city and province are thus cuckolded by their wives; but they are not the least ashamed of it. And the women are beautiful and vivacious and always ready to oblige.

-on a region in China


Many things that we regard as grave sins are not sins at all in their eyes; for they live like beasts.

-on a region in China


It is a fact that, when Mongu Khan died, more than 20,000 men were put to death, having encountered his body on the way to burial.

-on a region in China


"There are four prophets who are worshipped and to whom all the world does reverence. The Christians say that their God was Jesus Christ, the Saracens Mahomet, the Jews Moses, and the idolaters Sakyamuni Burkhan, who was the first to be represented as God in the form of an idol. And I do honour and reverence to all four, so that I may be sure of doing it to him who is greatest in heaven and truest; and to him I pray for aid."

-Kublai Khan, ch.3


Every night there are guards riding about the city in troops of thirty to forty, to discover whether anyone is going about at an abnormal hour, that is after the third peal of the bell. If anyone is found, he is promptly arrested and clapped into prison.

-on Cathay


And you must understand, furthermore, that throughout his empire no king or baron or any other person dares to take or hunt hare or hart, buck or stag, or any other such beast between the months of March and October, so that they may increase and multiply. And anyone who contravenes this rule is made to repent it bitterly, because it is the Khan's own enactment.

-on Cathay


And she who has most tokens and can show that she has had most lovers and that most men have lain with her is the most highly esteemed and the most acceptable as a wife; for they say that she is the most favoured by the gods. And when they have taken a wife in this way they prize her highly; and they account it a grave offence for any man to touch another's wife, and they all strictly abstain from such an act. So much, then, for this marriage custom, which fully merits a description. Obviously the country is a fine one to visit for a lad from sixteen to twenty-four.

-on a region in China.  […and Marco was actually within this age range when he went there-- I'm just saying.]


When a woman has given birth to a child, she washes and swaddles him. Then her husband goes to bed and takes the baby with him and lies in bed for forty days without leaving it except for necessary purposes.

-on a region in China


They eat all sorts of flesh, including that of dogs and other brute beasts and animals of every kind which Christians would not touch for anything in the world.

-on a region in China


So the men of Manzi are more prone than any other race to fits of passion, and very often out of sheer anger and mortification they will put an end to their own lives.

-on a region in China


They even relish human flesh. They do not touch the flesh of those who have died a natural death; but they all eat the flesh of those who have died of a wound and consider it a delicacy.

-on a region of the East Indies


They worship many different things; for whatever they see first when they wake in the morning, that they worship.

-on a region of the East Indies


When a man is dead and his body is being cremated, his wife flings herself into the same fire and lets herself be burnt with her husband. The ladies who do this are highly praised by all. And I assure you that there are many who do as I have told you.

-on a region in India


For they say that God and all the saints are black and the devils are all white. That is why they portray them as I have described. And similarly they make the images of their idols all black.

-on a region in India


When other men ask them why they go naked and are not ashamed to show their sexual member, they say: "We go naked because we want nothing of this world. For we came into the world naked and unclothed. The reason why we are not ashamed to show our member is that we commit no sin with it, so we are not more ashamed to show it than you are when you show your hand or face or any other member which you do not employ in sinful lechery. It is because you employ this member in sin and lechery that you cover it and are ashamed of it. But we are no more ashamed of it than of our fingers, because we commit no sin with it."

-on a region in India


For I assure you that if you put an egg into one of the rivers you would not have long to wait before it boiled.

-on a region of India


The women of this island are very ugly to look at. They have huge mouths, huge eyes, and huge noses, and their breasts are four times as big as those of other women. Altogether, their appearance is quite repulsive.

-on an island off the coast of Africa


The king with a great throng of men and women was in the great hall of the palace. Then his daughter entered the hall, wearing a tunic of sendal richly adorned, and the youth entered also wearing a tunic of sendal. This was the bargain: if the youth could so far vanquish her as to force her to the ground, he should have her to wife; if she vanquished him, he must forfeit a hundred horses to her. In this way she had gained more than 10,000 horses. For never a squire nor a gallant could she find who was a match for her. And no wonder; for she was so well formed in every limb, so big-built, and so strapping, that she was little short of a giantess.

-on a region in Tartary


Let me tell you something that happened on one occasion. A man and his wife were going home in the evening after one of these bouts, when the wife paused to relieve herself. The cold was so fierce that the hairs of her thighs froze on to the grass, so that she could not move for the pain and cried aloud. Her husband, reeling drunk and distressed at her plight, stooped down and began to breathe over her, hoping to melt the ice by the warmth of his breath. But, while he breathed, the moisture of his breath congealed and so the hairs of his beard froze together with his wife's and he too was stuck there unable to move for pain. Before they could budge from the spot, other helpers had to come and break the ice.

-on a region in Tartary


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READ THIS WHEN... want to experience unique and surprising cultures for the first time with a medieval world explorer;


…you want insight into what a European thought of Asia and the Indies when they were first encountered.



(for the world explorer:)

  • Christopher Columbus, Writings (mostly JournalsLetters)  (1492-1503)
  • Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa  (1799)
  • Évariste Régis Huc, Recollections of a Journey through Tartary, Tibet, & China  (1850)
  • Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition  (1803-1806)

 (for the Italian medievalist:)

  • Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend (c.1260)
  • Dante, Divine Comedy (1310's)
  • Boccaccio, Decameron (c.1350)
  • Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Il Canzoniere (Song Book) (1327-1368)




This illustrated version is amazing:

The Everyman Edition is still in print and a classic:



I can't help recommending the Penguin edition as usual:

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