Category Archives: Marco Polo

Marco Polo: Tabloid Writer?

Posted by Rob.

Polo’s novel, whether it may go by the title Il Milione, Divisament Dou Monde, or simply Travels, is primarily a factual travel narrative, right? Or is it a handbook for merchants? Or perhaps it is a nothing more than a forum for interesting gossip—foreign “tabloids” for 13th century Europeans? As famous and widespread Polo’s tale is, it is interpreted by different people and cultures as remarkably different things. Upon its publication, it was seen by medieval scholars as “mere romance and fable” (Zhou 3), for Christopher Columbus it was a collection of useful facts, and for Polo himself, it simply could have been a way for him to remember his experiences in the East. However, these are all interpretations stemming from Western culture. Studying how an Eastern scholar interprets Polo’s novel, on the other hand, provides an interesting perspective.

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There and Back Again

I hope you enjoyed yesterday’s library presentation and are making progress on your papers.

For this week’s supplementary blog post, I want to ask the inverse of the question I asked last time, and invite you to reflect on the process of homecoming.  Fall break is around the corner, and most of you will be going home for the first time since leaving for college.  What do you look forward the most?  How do you think you have changed as a result of just two months at Notre Dame?  Have you gained a new perception of how “home” fits into “the world” now that the portion of it that you know has gotten a little larger?

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?

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Marvelous Travels

I really enjoyed Thursday’s discussion and thought we made significant progress towards formulating an account of how Marco Polo describes, shapes and perhaps even reinvents “the known world.”

Something that we didn’t talk about at any great length, however, was the marvel of travel, something that was clearly important to all of you during Tuesday’s discussion.

So as a supplementary blog post for this week, I want to invite you to share personal reflections on how travel can cast the light of the marvelous onto the world, onto foreign cultures, and perhaps even our own everyday environment.  What experiences have you had that took your breath away and somehow made you see things in a different light?  How and when did you suddenly become estranged from your past life, in the way that Marco Polo did when he first set foot into the further reaches of Asia?  And how can we even describe something that, by definition, resists expression in a previously existing vocabulary?

Who Was Marco Polo?

Marco Polo’s Travels, as we all agreed in class today, is a fairly impersonal text.  Precisely this impersonality has given rise to all sorts of speculations about it, including most recently a heated scholarly argument about whether Marco Polo even visited China.  Some people hold that Polo (who was undoubtedly a real person; his last will and testament from the early fourteenth century survive) only got as far as Persia, and copied the rest of his book from preexisting sources.

We’ll discuss these theories a little later.  For the moment I simply want to ask whether you feel that it is, in fact, possible to derive any insights into Marco Polo’s personality from the narrative?  Are there any telling passages that provide insight into his character?  And what about Kubilai Khan?  He’s not a big player in this story, and at any rate we won’t get to China until next week, but what do we learn about him so far?

Your God or Mine?

Posted by Felicia

After reading chapter one of Marco Polo’s The Travels I want to discuss how the way in which Marco Polo chooses to describe the various religions mentioned in his text differ in contrast with the way Homer chooses to portray Greek religion in the Odyssey.  Homer basically uses The Odyssey as well as the stories within The Odyssey to illustrate the Greek religion for his audience.  Homer’s The Odyssey especially portrays how the Greek religion is not wholly centered on just one God, while Polo’s short anecdotes either are fixated on teaching a value for one unique culture, or explaining the evolution of a certain cultures faith.

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