Sharon Kinoshita, the Interim Faculty Director of The Humanities Institute, is Professor of Literature and the co-director of The Mediterranean Seminar. Her research focuses on the literatures and cultures of the high Middle Ages. Her books include Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature and the co-edited volumes The Blackwell Companion to Mediterranean History and Can We Talk Mediterranean? Conversations on an Emerging Discipline in Medieval and Early Modern Studies. In 2016, she published a new translation of Marco Polo’s Description of the World and is currently completing a book on Marco Polo and the Global Middle Ages.
On the Road with Marco Polo
Perhaps no name in history is as synonymous with travel as Marco Polo. Born into a family of Venetian merchants, Marco left home at the age of 17 in the company of his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, themselves recently returned from a decade in Asia. The trio made it back to Venice twenty-four years later, with Marco now a man in his early 40s. Then in 1298, only four years later, Marco found himself imprisoned in Genoa—undoubtedly taken captive in one of those battles that punctuated the ongoing rivalry between these two Italian maritime republics throughout the high Middle Ages. Also in captivity was a Pisan, Rustichello, who had made his name writing one of those sprawling Arthurian romances so popular across the thirteenth century. Brought together by chance, the two collaborated on the book called The Description of the World, most commonly known today under the title “Marco Polo’s Travels.”
Whatever its name—and later manuscripts bore titles like The Book of the Great Khan and The Book of Marvels—Marco’s work easily explodes the myth that medieval people lived and died within a few miles of where they were born. While this was undoubtedly true for many, a significant number undertook travels impressive even today. The most common occasions were pilgrimages: spiritual journeys to holy places as near as the shrine of a local saint or as far as Rome, Santiago de Compostela (in the far northwestern corner of Spain), or even Jerusalem. And for Muslims, there was the hajj to Mecca—one of the five pillars of Islam for all those who could manage it. Scholars traveled for intellectual enrichment. After all, the “Latin quarter” of Paris is named for the common language in which students coming from all parts of Western Christian Europe could learn and converse. In the twelfth century, scholars from England and Italy traveled to Toledo to gain first-hand access to the philosophical and scientific works then being translated from Arabic into Latin. Muslim scholars traveled from city to city, enhancing their intellectual resumés by studying with one famous luminary after the other. And then there were the Crusades: inaugurated by the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the resulting Crusader states drew waves and trickles of Western Christian knights, nobles, and settlers before being definitively reconquered by the sultan of Egypt in 1291, just before the Polos’ return to Venice.
Even amidst all this movement, Marco Polo’s travels came at a unique moment in medieval history when the Mongol conquests of Chinggis Khan and his successors had created an empire reaching from the Pacific to the Mediterranean and eastern Europe. By Marco’s time, this empire had been divided into four separate khanates, often at odds with one another. Still, the possibilities of traversing all of Asia were unprecedented. Thus, when the elder Polos ventured east from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) into the heart of the khanate of the Golden Horde (now in present-day Ukraine), only to find their return route blocked by war, they simply continued farther east to Bukhara (in modern-day Uzbekistan), where they stayed for three years before joining a diplomatic party journeying from Persia to the court of the great Qubilai Khan. When they later returned with Marco in tow, the young man, impressing everyone with his quick study of languages, was welcomed into the Great Khan’s service, opening the way for him to ply the administrative routes criss-crossing Qubilai’s empire.
These experiences were the basis for Marco and Rustichello’s accounts in the Description of the World. If they did not call their work “The Travels,” it is because only the first 19 of the book’s 233 short chapters describe the journeys, first of Niccolò and Maffeo, then of the elder Polos together with Marco. We need to wait for “the Book of India”—the chapter devoted to the maritime shores of East Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the east coast of Africa—for hints of their first-hand experiences. Describing a kingdom on the island of Sumatra, for example, our author writes, “I, Marco Polo, stayed there for 5 months on account of the weather, which didn’t allow us to continue on our way” (that is, their journey homeward to Venice). The most extraordinary thing he has to relate about this kingdom is that “the North Star does not appear there”—taking precedence over his mention of its “savage people” ruled by a rich and powerful king, who have “the best fish in the world” and who make a kind of palm wine that is “very good to drink”!
The Polos, after all, were merchants, and, alongside the pilgrims, scholars, and crusaders who left home to roam the world, merchants often proved to be the most intrepid.
But if Marco says tantalizingly little about his travels per se, he has much to tell us about the exotic goods that had drawn him east in the first place. The Polos, after all, were merchants, and, alongside the pilgrims, scholars, and crusaders who left home to roam the world, merchants often proved to be the most intrepid. In the Description of the World, they often seem to form a community of their own, superseding differences of language, ethnicity, or religion. Marco’s casual mention of the merchants who “come and go” on the great river running through Baghdad to the “Indian Sea” (or Persian Gulf) refers not to Venetians or other westerners but to the Arabs, Persians, and likely Jews and eastern Christians engaged in the centuries-old “maritime silk road” across the Indian Ocean.
At a distance of more than 700 years, it can be difficult to recover the vividness of Marco Polo’s world. Yet in a sense, we need only take a bottle of Pumpkin Pie Spice off our kitchen shelves. Of its most common ingredients, only allspice (so named because it is thought to combine tastes of the others) comes from the New World; the rest —cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg—all originate in South or Southeast Asia. In Marco Polo’s day, they would have come to Europe via the overland or (more likely) maritime trade routes from Asia. Western Europeans like the Venetians and the Genoese acquired these and other goods coming from the east from markets in the Mediterranean ports of Acre (modern-day Akko, in Israel) and, especially, Alexandria, in Egypt. In this light, Marco Polo’s accounts of the “great abundance” of pepper, ginger, cinnamon and other spices grown in the kingdom of Malabar (the southwest coast of India) or the “pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubeb, cloves, and all the expensive spices you can find in the world” to be had on the great island of Java would have struck his contemporaries as a real revelation. And we can only imagine their awe when he reports emphatically that “for each shipload of pepper going to Alexandria or other places to be carried to Christian lands, a hundred come to th[e] port of Zaytun [Quanzhou, on the South China Sea]”—exemplifying the astonishing magnitude of the Mongol empire that led later manuscripts of Marco’s work to be retitled “The Book of the Great Khan.”
Alongside the humble bottle of Pumpkin Pie Spice, a more extravagant survival from Marco Polo’s world may be found in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington DC. In an underground corridor connecting the Freer and Sackler Galleries is a tall and colorful glass, enamel, and gilt vessel, which an accompanying plaque assigns to “Syria, Damascus / Mamluk period, mid-14th century.”
Marco Polo’s Description of the World offers us the double delight of a journey in time that opens onto a journey across oceans and continents, revealing an interconnected world that is still with us.
But reflecting recent interest in the “Global Middle Ages,” accompanying panels place this fourteenth-century Damascene bottle at the heart of an interconnected world. The first, “Journeys and Connections,” proclaims: “In this one object, we can see a network of exchange and trade routes over land and sea across the Near East, Africa, and Asia.” Its blue pigment, we learn, comes from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that was mined in Afghanistan. The panel “Chinese Connections” calls our attention to decorative motifs such as lotus flowers and dragons, showing “the artistic and cultural connections between the Islamic world and China.” And “What Does the Writing on the Bottle Say?” describes a blessing on the fifth Rasulid sultan of Yemen, who ruled from 1321 to 1363. That is, in the decades just following the lifetime of Marco Polo (who died in 1324), this artifact, combining techniques, designs, and materials spanning the length of Asia, was dedicated to the sultan who ruled the strategic port of Aden, where goods coming from across the Indian Ocean were transferred onto ships that completed the journey up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.
If the past is a foreign country, as the title of David Lowenthal’s 1985 book proclaims, then Marco Polo’s Description of the World offers us the double delight of a journey in time that opens onto a journey across oceans and continents, revealing an interconnected world that is still with us.
Banner Image: close up of The Catalan Atlas, created in 1375 by Abraham Cresques. Image from Coureur des mers by Olivier Poivre d’Arvor.
“On the Road with Marco Polo” is part of The Humanities Institute’s 2023 Travel Series. This series features contributions from a range of faculty and emeriti in the Humanities community at UC Santa Cruz – each of whom highlight connections between travel and their work or consider the role of travel in their fields. Throughout Spring quarter, be sure to look for these amazing essays in our weekly newsletter!