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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.3 (2001) 375-383

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The Cultural Worlds of Marco Polo

Thomas T. Allsen

Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. By John Larner (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999) 250 pp. $29.95

Polo is one of the few historical figures of medieval Europe to achieve worldwide fame. His status and visibility are such that he still "gets press." Whenever his veracity is challenged, or claims are made that other Europeans reached China before him, newspaper articles and letters to the editor soon follow. Even scholarly books on the Venetian occasionally do well.

Popular and scholarly interest in Polo has a long history, one that can be traced back to the fourteenth century. Although this intense fascination with his sojourn in the East assuredly began in the West, it spread in later centuries to other parts of the globe, particularly Japan and China, where there are many Polo specialists. Larner's volume is the most recent in a long line of scholarly works trying to come to grips with Polo and his depiction of Eurasia in the age of the Mongols.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Larner is not a student of Asian history but of European literature. His perspective is fresh, informative, and should be welcomed by all in the field, however diverse the pathways of their engagement with Polo. He begins properly with the basics about Polo and the texts associated with his name. Larner, I think it is fair to say, subscribes, for the most part, to the current consensus that Polo related his experiences to Rustichello, a Pisan writer of romances, while the two shared a cell in a Genoese prison in 1298/99. The original text was in French or in Franco-Italian, the language of the earliest known manuscript. Larner's major contribution is his discussion of the nature of this text and its early readership. For him, this work of collaboration, now generally called The Description of the World, is [End Page 375] basically a geography or, better yet, an ethnographical geography, not a merchants' handbook or, as is most commonly assumed, a book of travels. 1 In light of this conclusion, attempts to reconstruct Polo's itineraries from data in the Description are bound to be difficult, if not futile. 2

Judging from the number of early manuscripts, translations, and printed editions, the Description had a wide readership that included nobles, patricians, merchants, missionaries, humanists and, of course, Christopher Columbus. Columbus, Larner argues, was in all likelihood inspired indirectly by Polo's travels, but only read and annotated his copy of the Venetian's work after the first voyage. Thus, Columbus, who persisted in his belief that he had reached Asia, used Polo's account to make sense of his data. This tendency to view New World geography, ethnography, and history through the filter of Polo's perceptions of Asia was by no means limited to Columbus and is a phenomenon worthy of further study. 3

While Larner stresses the important issue of how Polo's information was used and understood by his readers, he also addresses the perennial questions concerning the sources and reliability of his information about the East and whether the Venetian was ever really in China. Indeed, Polo studies have long thrived on the tension created by recurrent doubts about his honesty and determined efforts at vindication. For his supporters, the first line of defense was a search for his name in the sources produced under the Mongol dynasty in China, the Yuan (1271-1368). Starting in the nineteenth century, several scholars convinced themselves that they had done so. The name in question, transcribed into Chinese characters as Bo-lo, was borne by an individual who served Qubilai in the 1270s and early 1280s--the very time that Polo claimed to be at the Yuan court. Pelliot, however, repeatedly demonstrated that Bo-lo was not Polo but a Mongolian official [End Page 376] named Bolad. Despite the efforts of the noted French scholar, this false identification persisted well into the twentieth century and...


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