An update on the Marco Polo problem

I said when I introduced the History Carnival that I’d been doing a lot of private blogging in the form of online course materials, and I really should share some of that. It turns out that I just wrote a piece that might well be interesting to our readers:

In the first edition of Open Empire, published in 2000, Valerie Hansen expressed a frustration common among Asian history scholars, with European Marco Polo scholars who insisted on the truthfulness and reliability of his Travels:

Anyone reading Polo’s account has to question the reliability of what he says about China. Sources external to his memoir do not record his presence in China, much less his service in the positions he professes to have held. He claims to have built the Mongols the catapults that made it possible for them to take Xiangyang in 1268 — two years before his arrival in China. Further casting doubt  on his account, Chinese sources  record the fall of the city in 1273 with the help of Arab — not European — engineers. Polo says he served as governor of Yangzhou, but the ists of governors are complete and do not give his name.

As is well known, Marco Polo wrote his account in prison during 1298 and 1299, assisted by Rusticello de Pisa, who specialized in romances, and who, like many modern ghostwriters, felt no compunction about embellishing the truth to enhance the readability of his account. One scholar has shown that Khubilai’s welcome to Marco was simply lifted from Rusticello’s rewrite of the passage from the Arthurian legend when Tristan first goes to court.

As his account meanders from place to place, he sometimes records the number of days necessary for the journey, sometimes not. At times large chunks of the itinerary are left out, and he writes as if he flew to the Mongol capital. The reader never learns the grittydetails of the trip. With whom does Polo travel? What does he eat? Where does he stay? What language did he speak? Who were his interpreters? Further undercutting his credibility, his account suffers from a mind-numbing repetitiveness. In almost every city in China he records, ‘The inhabitants are idolators and burn their dead. They are subject to the Great Khan and use paper money,’ or some variation of this formula. The typical passage about a given place will mention its major products, such as silk, jujubes, foodstuffs, or armaments, comment on the numbers of ships there, and then lurch to the next site.
Despite its formulaic narrative and outright inventions, one cannot reject Polo’s account totally because it occasionally includes kernels of important information. One has to wonder when Polo reports that women test brides for their virginity by scratching thier hymens with a clean cloth, ‘so that the linen may be slightly stained with the virginal blood,’ which cannot be washed out. But when Polo records ‘ to ensure this strict preservation of virginity, the maidens always walk so daintily that they never advance one fvoot more than a finger’s breadth beyond the other,’ it seems as if he is actually describing the effects of footbinding. Marco seems to know about practices with which people in Europe could not have been familiar: he meets a spirit medium who specializes in finding lost or stolen goods, and he describes the Chinese custom of equipping the dead with ‘horses and slaves, male and female, and camels and cloth of gold in abundance — all made of paper!’

What we have in Polo’s Travels, then, is the strung-together accumulated hearsay of travellers who went to China. Some Europeans did make the trip, as the tombstone of the daughter of an Italian merchant shows. Some of the expressions Polo uses are Persian, suggesting his informants could have been from Iran. Failure ot visit China would not have prevented Polo from writing. His contemporary Pegolotti wrote a dry book that gave price data from China, yet its author had never journeyed there. In an age when so few Europeans had been to China, one could easily write about it on the basis of others’ reports.” (344-347, emphasis added)

Hansen’s view, supplemented by critical work by Frances Wood, informed my own. I wrote in 2004: “Let me say this clearly and plainly: Marco Polo did not go to China, Marco Polo did not work for the Mongol Yuan Dynasty” (, emphasis in the original). I moderated my view slightly in 2012 after reading a very ambitious attempt to match Polo’s biological and financial data to medieval Chinese equivalents, arguing that Polo partisans were too biased to effectively evaluate the flaws in his work, but that skeptics had only a circumstantial case against it, and that there was no way to adjudicate the dispute without ‘smoking gun’ sources that probably don’t exist, if they ever did:

Polan loyalists are already convinced that Polo’s claims are valid and useful, except where directly contradicted by evidence. But they are not going to convince Polan skeptics of the truth of Polo’s claims except by verification. And the amount of work necessary to make a good case of Polo is the best evidence that Marco Polo’s Travels is a bad historical source that should not be relied upon for anything which cannot be independently verified. (

I remain more or less in the same place at this point. I still think it’s more likely that Marco Polo was a secondary source, not a primary source, a fiction based on facts.

Hansen, though, has moved even futher, and so the current edition of The Open Empire (2015) is more even-handed, weaving substantial new claims in among the skeptical material of the earlier edition:

While some scholars argue furiously that Travels offers better information about the places Polo visited than any other book, orhers, equally certain, counter that the book contains many factual errors. In fact, both scholarly camps can find evidence to support their differeing views: some parts of Polo’s account are accurate, others are not.
Travels does make some false claims. …
Still, other indications support Polo’s claim to have visited China. … Polo’s description of their jouney tallies with Chinese accounts, which do not, however, explicitly mention the Polos by name. Moreover, when Polo died, his will listed his possessions, one of which was a paiza tablet of authority, a travel pass that allowed the bearer to travel throughout the Mongol empire as the khan’s representative. Polo must have recieved the pass from the Mongol ruler.
We must remember that the historical record is far from complete…
The scholars who argue for the reliability of Polo’s book also have persuasive evidence. Polo occasionally relates kernels of important information. One scholar has recently shown that Polo’s description of Chinese paper money is the most detailed account in any language: it explains how the Chinese made, employed, and replaced the notes. … (318-322, emphasis added)

Hansen presents the paiza travel tablet described in Polo’s will as decisive evidence (also on 326), but I’m not convinced, any more than I was. We don’t have the tablet itself, or a physical description of it in any detail, and given the intelligence Polo did have about the Mongols, he could have known enough about them to purchase something or fabricate something suitably impressive to otherwise ignorant European audiences.

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