Is Marco Polo Lying?

Posted by Claire.

Does Kubilai Khan live for over-the-top affluence, or does Marco Polo have a knack for hyperbole? Take your pick, because something about the figures in this week’s reading seems skewed. Perhaps Khan does feast with 6,000 every night and then have his pick of over 20,000 prostitutes, but I’m more inclined to believe that Polo might be stretching the facts. And, if Polo fibs the numbers in this instance, what is to say that the whole recount isn’t doused in exaggeration? With one of Polo’s main tools throughout book being embellishment, the document can’t possibly be credible as a travel resource or trade manuel and must, in fact, have another primary purpose.

Take for example the description of the Khan’s city, and the fact that “every gateway must be guarded by 1,000 men.” (131) All right, go grab 999 of your closest friends and stand by a door. Feeling important yet? Probably not, after all that is 12 percent of the undergraduate population of Notre Dame.* How big is this gate, anyway? You tell me, overkill or exaggeration?  Or how about “[Polo assuring us] for a fact that… the Great Khan receives gifts of more than 100,000 white horses… [and] elephants, fully 5,000 in number”? (139) That’s quite a herd. About the population of South Bend, actually.** Where is he keeping all those? One more example, the “two brothers [bound] by covenant to provide the Great Khan’s court every day beginning in October and continuing to the end of March, with a thousand heads of game.” (143) That’s 182,000 heads of game. One angus cow has 450 pounds of meat.*** One Big Mac is eight ounces. You do the math. Overkill or exaggeration?

I lean toward exaggeration on Polo’s part. Yes, Kubilai Khan does have an empire at his disposal, but these numbers are almost unfeasible. Why wouldn’t Polo stretch the truth? Really, who could call him a liar? But, if he dramatizes here, can we take any of his descriptions as truth? In class we agreed with the original title, but perhaps the French gave a more apt one with The Book of the Wonders of the World. If we admit that mountains don’t actually move, or that pillars can’t stand without a base, how do we trust the other facts within the book? With so many instances of tall tales and exaggeration, how does Polo retain credibility?

But, look at the writing style. The author seems certain; Polo recounts with sureness. He says, “You must know” and  “Now let me tell you something.” (149,155) So, is Polo convinced? Does he believe we will believe him? Does he believe himself? Let’s ask this, why does he include such tales amid what seem to be legitimate facts about travel, crops, and commerce?

My answer? Marco Polo is a traveler, not a researcher, not an economist. He marvels at the marvelous, dives into local lore and superstition, and remembers the most captivating of both. Now and then, some of these stories, which have left an obvious impression on him, seem necessary to relate his travels. These stories literally became part of the place for Polo. If you asked him, he might say they became descriptors themselves. And, to hear these stories is to know a facet of a place in the same way that relating what crops they trade there relays importance.

Polo, in the Prologue, invites “emperors and kings, dukes and marquises, counts, knights, and townsfolk, and all people who wish to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world” to read his book. (33) Peculiarities? Not information? Yes, stories about an assassin’s garden are peculiar. Therefore, this isn’t a guidebook. It’s a recount, a picture of the world. You might say that this wouldn’t be profitable for Polo. You don’t usually plan on selling the pictures you take, but you still take them, don’t you? The Epilogue explains it this way, “we have not spoken to you of the Black Sea or the provinces that lie around it… because it seems .. it would be tedious to recount… what is daily recounted by others.” (344)

So, overkill or exaggeration? Fact or hyperbole? Does it even matter? Polo shows us a picture. If filled with exaggeration, we wouldn’t know. All we see is a new and strange place.

*according to

**according to

***according to

5 responses to “Is Marco Polo Lying?

  1. I think Polo’s figures are completely legitimate for a number of reasons. First being that these reported figures, having only 1 or 2 significant figures, cover a large range of actual numbers. Second, many of these could be the number reported to him, even by the Khan himself, so that any inaccuracies come from a different source. Taking this option further, these numbers could be a false representation in three different ways: they could be a lie by the source, they could represent an initial value that may have degraded over time (I guarantee you that if you try to bring 100,000 horses across Asia you’re going to lose some), or the inaccuracy could have come from a simply inaccurate count (those abacuses were good, but not that good) due to lack of skill, available tools, or attentiveness. My final reason for believing Polo: everybody underestimates how much and how many when it comes to the past, especially the medieval period that everyone has supposedly seen in countless media. According to one source (which also explains a lot of additional details about this topic), “Moscow in the 15th century had a population in excess of 200,000!” That’s a reported population. It also only includes those in close proximity to the city proper. Actual numbers are usually larger because not everyone is counted. Polo even describes how the suburbs stretch out from the main city walls; it can be assumed that more rural communities exist even farther away. And since Cathay is Kubilai’s capitol city, it serves one purpose: to serve him. So of course the majority of the population will be made up of concubines and soldiers; if that’s what the Khan wants, that’s what the Khan gets.
    And yes, those gates and walls were huge (have you seen LotR?):
    “It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls.”
    – Aristophanes

  2. Almost forgot my sources: for the statistic
    Sid Meier’s Civilization IV for the quote

  3. The heart of the question posed here seems to be: why exaggerate? Throughout his travels, Marco Polo bore witness to more fantastic places and scenes than most people of his generation could have ever dreamed of. The stories he brought back with him already possessed a foreign, mysterious quality to them that would have captured the imagination of any audience. So, why exaggerate?
    A few years ago, The New York Times published an interesting article on the psychology of lying and deception. Here’s the link:
    The article comments on the nature of “touching up scenes” from the past, and suggests that deception and truth-twisting “are [often] aimed more at the deceiver than at the audience, and they may help in distinguishing braggarts” from those who are simply working to “live up to the enhanced self-images they project”.
    If we adopt the assumption that Marco Polo did, in fact, fictionalize or exaggerate aspects of his travel accounts, the question is then raised: for whom did he do so, and why? For his audience, to capture their attention, awe them, and drive home just how amazing the people and places he encountered were? Or did he do so for himself—whether for pompous reasons (i.e. to make himself appear more important) or personal ones (to self-affirm his travels and their significance in his own mind)?
    I’m leaning towards all of the above.

  4. One of the main arguments or questions that Claire brings up is the question who the work was written for. The key contenders seem to be: a merchant’s guide, an economist’s work, or a simple “travel” novel. The fact that Messer Marco describes the actual traveling between the cities and countries in such detail leads one to believe that the manuscript was meant for merchants, but the “miracles” that Polo describes contradicts this belief. One such miracle that we spoke of in class is the assassin’s garden (70). In the eye of a merchant, this story would be only that, a story. For an economist, all the information about what the people of various cities manufacture is helpful, but again the “miracles” counter this point. In the end, I believe that the most fitting description of Marco Polo’s work is Travels, for it simply tells a story about man who went farther than any man before.

  5. I would have to agree that Marco Polo’s purpose in writing was to recount his travels, rather than provide a manual. Yes, the numbers may be made up, and even seem outlandish, but they do get their point across; there were exceedingly many. If we assume that Polo was not trying to write a manual, then the book makes much more sense. The stats were a tool to help the reader’s imagination, and the amazing stories were included to give a sense of how grand these places were. In many ways, Polo can be related to a fisherman who sees a large fish. When they get back home and tell the story of the day on the water, they’re bound to exaggerate. On the trip back home, the fish seems to have miraculously grown to twice its size, just as I wouldn’t doubt that in the many years between Polo’s experiences and the writing of the book, numbers grew and buildings expanded.

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