Sunday, 24 June 2012

In our time: Marco Polo

On BBC Radio 4 Friday, 25 May 2012 Melvyn Bragg discussed the topic " Marco Polo"
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the celebrated Venetian explorer Marco Polo. In 1271 Polo set off on an epic journey through Asia and he was away for more than twenty years. When he returned, he told extraordinary tales of his adventures. The Travels of Marco Polo was one of the most popular books produced in the age before printing. For centuries it was seen as the first and best account of life in the mysterious East, but today the accuracy and even truth of Marco Polo's work is often disputed. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Frances Wood, Lead Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library; Joan Pau Rubies, Reader in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Debra Higgs Strickland, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Glasgow.
To listen to the Podcast, click HERE
Download 20MB (right click & "save target as / link as")

In Our Time: Marco Polo
Post categories:
Melvyn BraggMelvyn Bragg14:27, Friday, 25 May 2012
Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Marco Polo. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD
Marco Polo

Ingrid told me that I was writing too much again. She must be obeyed. She works both for Start The Week and In Our Time and works with ultimate efficiency and patience. (I bet that was hard for you to type out, Ingrid.)
After the programme there was a lot of talk about Kublai Khan. He was thought of as being the greatest Khan. He was compared with Alexander the Great who, of course, had gone into the East but not with goods, with an army, and dropped only when he had no more worlds to conquer. We're told that there is a Muslim Alexander, a Persian Alexander, an Alexander for all seasons, just as there was a Great Khan for all seasons.
Frances Wood is beguiled by Matthew Paris, who seems to have lived in St Albans all his life and yet reached out right across to the edge of Asia with his information. He knew all the stuff about the Khan and he marvels at how knowledge travelled in those early, so-called rather primitive, medieval days.
The most sensational discovery for me was that the reason why the Mongols stopped at the gates of Vienna was not to do with any superior force, but was because the Great Khan died, and they all turned to go back across the plains and the steppes to be there at his funeral and to help choose his successor. So, we are not Mongol because of the death of the Great Khan.
The Bodleian text of Marco Polo is highly recommended by everyone, especially the illustrations.
London has hit a heat wave and, Murphy's Law, I was so hedged in by work on the imminent renaissance of The South Bank Show and a serious argument with - well, let's leave it at that. Not an individual but ...
So it's been pounding pavements, hitting phones, texting, emailing, and trying to get numbers and addresses and so on. But no bad life at all. Cathy Haslam, with whom I set up a small company to continue to make the television programmes I wanted to make, and I celebrated an anniversary with a quick lunch. But now an evening of relief: off to Michael Frayn's publication party in a garden.
Best wishes
Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number1.

    The programme interestingly threw up the truth or fiction of The Travels of Marco Polo or whether he even existed,also the several different versions of the book.I thought of another comparable book,The Travels of
    Sir John Mandeville written about 1556,known to the great explorers and
    navigators of the period.'Sir John Mandeville' claimed to be an English Knight,who travelled between 1322-1356 and served with the Sultan of Egypt and the Great Khan.

    Much of Mandeville's matter, particularly in Asiatic geography and history, is taken from the Historiae Orientis of Hetoum, an Armenian of princely family, who became a monk of the Praemonstrant order, and in 1307 dictated this work on the East, in the French tongue at Poitiers, out of his own extraordinary acquaintance with Asia and its history in his own time.

    No passage in Mandeville can be plausibly traced to Marco Polo, with one exception. This is where he states that at Hormuz the people during the great heat lie in water – a circumstance mentioned by Polo, though not by Odoric. We should suppose it most likely that this fact had been interpolated in the copy of Odoric used by Mandeville, for if he had borrowed it directly from Polo he would have borrowed more.
  • Comment number2.

    In his preface the compiler calls himself a knight, and states that he was born and bred in England, of the town of St Albans.Although the book is real, it is widely believed that 'Sir John Mandeville' himself was not. Common theories point to a Frenchman by the name of Jehan a la Barbe (or other possibilities). At least part of the personal history of Mandeville is mere invention. Nor is any contemporary corroboration of the existence of such a Jehan de Mandeville known. It is in fact beyond reasonable doubt that the travels were in large part compiled by a Liège physician, known as Johains a le Barbe or Jehan a la Barbe, otherwise Jehan de Bourgogne. At a very early date the coincidence of Mandeville's stories with those of Odoric,a friar, was recognized, insomuch that a manuscript of Odoric which is or was in the chapter library at Mainz begins with the words: Incipit Itinerarius fidelis fratris Odorici socii Militis Mendavil per Indian; licet hic ille prius et alter posterius peregrinationem suam descripsit. Sir Thomas Herbert calls Odoric "travelling companion of our Sir John"; and Samuel Purchas, most unfairly, whilst calling Mandeville, next to Polo, "if next ... the greatest Asian traveller that ever the world had", insinuates that Odoric's story was stolen from Mandeville's. Mandeville himself is crafty enough, at least in one passage, to anticipate criticism by suggesting the probability of his having travelled with Odoric. Much of Mandeville's matter, particularly in Asiatic geography and history, is taken from the Historiae Orientis of Hetoum, an Armenian of princely family, who became a monk of the Praemonstrant order, and in 1307 dictated this work on the East, in the French tongue at Poitiers, out of his own extraordinary acquaintance with Asia and its history in his own time.
  • Comment number3.

    There is the fact that Polos writings were mercentile in origin,whereas Mandeville’s sources are usually from religious travel writers,which he seemingly uses to augment his own experiences. Mandeville’s assertion that Jerusalem was at the centre of the world is an old belief. What is often consistently presented as truth is in fact fiction.One notes how different Polo,Odoric and Mandeville are:Odoric plods worthily on his way,Polo is a keen and accurate observer,and Mandeville is the creator of a memorable and fanciful trope.Despite this these books opened up the West to other belief systems,opened up the known world to investigation
    made up as they are from fiction,experience and quotation and embellishment from other sources.For this they remain valuable.
  • Comment number4.

    Good programme, I thought.
    The Great Khan whose death stopped the Mongols storming Vienna was, of course, Ögödei - son of Genghis, or Chinggis.
    Polo does write about Xanadu - Shangdu - the stately pleasure dome of Coleridge's verse. It is a vivid description.
    As for the 'golden table' that saw Polo travel across the region with impunity - that is, of course, a 'golden tablet'.
    It was a passport, not a piece of furniture.
    He not only carried one, he wrote about them. They were known as 'p’ai-tse' in Chinese, and 'paiza' to Persian chroniclers.
    Good wishes,
  • Comment number5.

    Dear Melvin Bragg,

    You are doing a terrific job educating us. I am more interested in the scientific side of your efforts. You have a magical way of making them talk sense. In this respect could you get someone to explain how the periodic table works?
    Douglas Finney
  • Comment number6.

    Marco Polo and his daughters left important maps regarding his travels to the Far East and ancient America. The doctrinaire historians want to bury this guy, because he is a threat to the fantasy that Columbus discovered America. The Library of Congress even has one of the Marco Polo Maps that was recopied in about 1560 AD. I know about the date, because I requested a radiocarbon test on the Marco Polo letters. Check out "Rossi Collection" or www.marcopolovoyages. There is also a new book about the Marco Polo maps available from Amazon called "Marco Polo's Daughters" (by Gunnar Thompson, 2011). We know from the "letters" that Marco Polo was in ancient America, because he mentions little-known facts, such as the "wooden swords" of the Aztecs. Marco was required by the Venetian authorities to surrender all of his maps and journals about China when he returned to Venice in 1295. Much of what he saw in the Far East, including Chinese firearms (the harquebus), were regarded as vital commercial or military secrets. On the Marco Polo Maps, he placed Japan in the exact location; whereas in his Travelogue, he said it was 500 miles east of China--which is in the wrong place. Thus, odd entries or ommissions in the Book were due partly to the censoring of material he was allowed to dictate in Genoa.
  • Comment number7.

    Why is anyone still raising the question of whether Marco Polo went to China or not? The issue was settled long ago. Igor de Rachewiltz published an article entitled 'Marco Polo went to China' in 1997! Morris Rossabi has also slated Frances Wood's poorly-researched book about Marco Polo. Contrary to what Gunnar Thompson has written in his absurd comment, the great majority of scholars have no doubt that Marco Polo did indeed go to China (though certainly NOT to America!). Why does the list of further reading for this programme omit the most important book written about Marco Polo during the last fifty years - Stephen G. Haw's 'Marco Polo's China' (published by Routledge)? According to Peter Jackson, who reviewed this book for the 'Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies', it surely settles the controversy, in Marco Polo's favour. He went to China, and he did more or less everything that he claimed to have done. There are only a few errors and a few exaggerations in his account, which is overwhelming truthful and accurate.
  • Comment number8.

    A couple of expert views on Frances Wood’s ‘Did Marco Polo go to China?’ -

    Morris Rossabi (author of ‘Khubilai Khan: his life and times’):

    “Dr. Wood's lack of expertise on the Yuan dynasty in particular and the Mongol empire in general results in misinterpretations and mistakes. Because she is dependent on secondary works and has scarcely consulted primary Chinese, Persian, etc., sources, she is not as well informed as she ought to be on Yuan and Mongol history.”

    Igor de Rachewiltz (translator and annotator of ‘The Secret History of the Mongols’, etc.):

    “I regret to say that F.W's [Frances Wood] book falls short of the standard of scholarship that one would expect in a work of this kind. Her book can only be described as deceptive, both in relation to the author and to the public at large. Questions are posted that, in the majority of cases, have already been answered satisfactorily...her attempt is unprofessional; she is poorly equipped in the basic tools of the trade, i.e., adequate linguistic competence and research methodology...and her major arguments cannot withstand close scrutiny. Her conclusion fails to consider all the evidence supporting Marco Polo's credibility.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find it offensive to read commentary by one pretended scholar, insulting another on a public fotum. This method of perpetuating the easy, archair history writers loath to raise the ire of clergy has been common since the Spanish Inquisitoon. Factually, Chinese records of trading voyages to North America has been confirmed by the molecular genetic testing of the living herd of royal horses, directly descended from the Great Khan's horses obtained on voyages to the Americas. A new study of Appaloosa genetics is shed more light on this subject. So, the insult to Dr. Thompson, it would seem, should be apologized. Dr. Thompson seems to have left other supposed Polo scholars in the dust with his precocious but brilliant work. He may now be the lesding authority on Marco Polo worldwide, but like Alwyn Ruddock, he must venture into the popular realm in order to get a fair hearing. Thankfully, he has punlished his work. No danger of him shredding his notes in vengance against the arrogant, ignorant, and unapreciative colleagues who never cease to try to minimize his hard work while vaunting their own lazy, comfortable acceptance of speculative, unsupported assertions made by men too comfortable to pour over dusty old documents.