Marco Polo and the history with a hole

The world's most famous traveller never went to China, says a new book. Oh yes he did, says William Dalrymple
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The Independent Culture
Did Marco Polo go to China? by Frances Wood, Secker & Warburg, pounds 14.99

It has been a bad decade for Dead White Males. There was a time when death meant you could Rest In Peace, reasonably confident that the obituary writers would give a kindly gloss to your failures and achievements. No longer. Today, no sooner has a figure been laid to rest than the revisionists are exhuming the corpse and dancing on the cadaver. And the trend seems to be on the increase. The decade opened with Columbus receiving a full- scale assault from politically-correct American historians. (Discovered America? What about the Native Americans?). Now, so it seems, it's Marco Polo's turn.

This latest assault is the work of Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese Department of the British Library. Her claim that Marco Polo never went to China appears at first sight to be a particularly blatant example of the look-at-me school of revisionism. For what primary school student does not know about Polo? His book has been turned into a strip cartoon, a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival, even a television drama starring Leonard (Mr Spock) Nimoy as Kubla Khan. Short of claiming that William the Conqueror never invaded England in 1066, it is difficult to think of any wheeze more likely to propel a medievalist into the limelight.

Wood's argument is largely based on negative evidence: that there is no mention of Marco Polo in the surviving Chinese archives; that Polo fails to notice any evidence of foot-binding, there's not a squeak about tea and nothing about the Great Wall. He is even taken to task for failing to spot the cormorants of the Yangtze.

Yet this line of attack rests on an extremely dubious interpretation of the whole thrust of the Travels. Polo was not writing a 13th-century Lonely Planet Guidebook. There is no reason for him to mention foot-binding and cormorants, still less the Great Wall which, according to the most recent scholarship, did not exist at the time, the original wall having long decayed while the present structure (the work of the 16th-century Ming Dynasty) was yet to be erected.

Although the Travels has a reputation as a romantic book of adventures, Polo was in fact writing a dry factual guide to the commerce of the Silk Road, a book by a merchant for other merchants. It contained lists of goods available on the caravan routes, as well as advice on how to overcome the difficulties on the way: where to stock up with provisions, where to keep an eye out for robbers, how to cross a desert.

Despite the romantic topspin given to the book by Marco Polo's ghost writer, a Genoese troubadour named Rustichello (whose additions stand out as clearly as paragraphs of tabloid journalism inserted into a PhD), Polo's book seems to have been planned as an ordinary merchant's manual, not dissimilar to other manuals of the time such as the Pratica della Mercatura of the Florentine, Francesco Pegolotti. Indeed of its type it is a very fine example. The Travels contained more accurate and detailed information about the Silk Route than was available at the time from any other source, in either the Islamic or Christian worlds. Had the Travels really been cobbled together in Constantinople from travellers' gossip, it should be full of the dog-headed monsters and cabbage-like silk trees referred to by other medieval chroniclers.

As it is, while Polo may make what we would consider to be some odd omissions, he rarely gets anything wrong. In this respect, he stands in remarkable contrast to the great majority of medieval travellers' tales. Certainly Polo is a model of factual rigour compared to the best contemporary Eastern attempt to describe Europe, The History of the Franks by the Persian scholar Rashid-ud-Din, which claims, for example, that the Pope was in the habit of using the Holy Roman Emperor's neck as a step to mount his horse.

Moreover there is nothing at all surprising in the idea that Marco Polo did get to China. In the 13th century the Mongol Empire stretched from Poland to the Pacific. It had excellent communications - infinitely more sophisticated than those of medieval Europe - and Polo was simply one of the great number of Europeans who took advantage of the opportunities this presented.

In the 1240s, a generation before Polo's journey, the Pope's envoy, John of Piano Carpini, had safely reached the Great Khan's camp in Outer Mongolia. Ten years later William of Rubrick made the same journey and records meeting a host of Europeans at his destination: among others, William Buchier, a goldsmith from Paris, some impoverished Germans and Basil "the son of an Englishman''. By the early 14th century, the Vatican had established a Franciscan archbishop in Peking, while a whole colony of Venetians was operating on the Chinese coast of Hang-Chow and Zayton. When all this is taken into account, the conclusions of Dr Wood's book appear highly suspect, and raise far more questions than they answer.

That said, Did Marco Polo go to China? still makes fascinating reading. It is unusually well written, with a light and often waspishly witty tone; it is mercifully free of academic jargon; and it contains the most up- to-date discussion about Marco Polo's Travels available in English. Its wilder claims should be treated with extreme cautions but it is still one of the liveliest introductions to the history of the Silk Route.