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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 220-223

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Did Marco Polo Go to China? By Frances Wood. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Pp. xiv + 188. $20 (cloth); $12 (paper).

Few books are as well known to world historians as Marco Polo's Description of the World, popularly known as The Travels. Prominently featured on world history reading lists, Polo's book is often used as a primary source in understanding thirteenth-century world history. Now [End Page 220] Frances Wood, head of the China Department at the British Library, calls into question the validity of the Polo book's authorship and, more astoundingly, asks whether Polo even traveled to China.

Drawing upon work undertaken by German Mongolist scholars in the mid-1960s, Wood goes far beyond their research in her painstaking analysis. Did Marco Polo Go to China? is divided into fifteen short chapters. The first four place Polo's alleged travels into historical context. After giving an overview of Polo's journeys in Asia, Wood examines why Maffeo and Niccolo Polo would have trekked across Central Asia and taken the seventeen-year-old Marco in tow. She discusses not only the familiar importance of spices and other exotic items in the growing Eurasian trade, but also the secondary role of the Polos as religious missionaries in a time when medieval Europe had little direct knowledge of the state of religion in the East. She ends her analysis of Polo's times by examining the legend of Prester John, believed by many in the thirteenth century to be a Christian ruler in either south or east Asia. (Marco Polo contributed to the legend by stating that Prester John ruled over a kingdom on the rim of Inner Mongolia.)

The remaining eleven chapters of Wood's work deal with the problems and inconsistencies found in the Description. Chapter 5 examines the nature of Polo's route to Asia, arguing that no one today could retrace the supposed route beyond Persia, as it jumps not only from place to place within China itself, but also elsewhere in Asia, without logical connections between places. Wood argues that because Marco Polo does not describe the Polos' city-to-city travel, the book is more akin "to a general geography than a travel record" (p. 29). Moreover, she believes that an almost total lack of personal references and of first-person accounts suggests that the Description was actually ghost-written. The ghostwriter, a Pisan romance writer named Rustichello, shared a Genoese prison cell in 1298 with Marco Polo; it was to him that Polo ostensibly dictated his tale. Another significant difficulty related to the authorship of Polo's work is that the original manuscript does not survive and that the extant copies (about 150) may contain egregious additions by subsequent copyists. According to Wood, one such copyist, Giovanni Battista Ramusio (d. 1557), whom she calls Polo's "first fan," may have added many passages to his version of Polo's book in order to make it "fuller and more interesting" and to make Polo appear more heroic (p. 46).

Next, Wood focuses on the language of the text. She points out that most scholars believe the original work was written in some form of medieval French. Wood argues that Rustichello may have "Italianized" the French he used, and that subsequent translations have complicated [End Page 221] matters even more. One of the most interesting points she makes in this chapter is that Marco Polo made extensive use of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish proper names to describe Mongol and Chinese people and places, rather than using equivalent Chinese or Mongol terms. One explanation for this curiosity may be that the southwest Asian languages may have served as a kind of medieval lingua franca for Eurasian travelers and that Polo may have used them accordingly. Wood, however, offers a more convincing explanation. After an extensive analysis of Polo's use of personal and place names as well as place locations, she concludes that Polo may have borrowed his terms and locations from Persian and other sources...