Marco Polo’s account of his extensive travels through the lands, cultures, and people beyond what is considered medieval Europe serves as one of the most important works in the narrative of European exploration. The work was both an initial catalyst for many adventurous minds and a projection of already existing conceptions of the mysterious “East.” While Polo was by no means the first European to venture into the lands he writes of, his work serves as a particularly significant source due to its degree of reception by the rest of the European populace. Polo’s tales became a source of fascination for not just a select group of nobles, but a vast expanse of common people, becoming for the majority of people, the only source of information about the land of the unknown “East.” Beyond this role, Polo’s account as a whole exemplifies the process of novel culture encounter, his lived experience acting as embodiment of a great “east/west” conjunction.
Polo’s Work as a Conjuncture
Marshall Sahlins writes in his book, Islands of History, about what he terms the “structure of the conjuncture,” the process through which persons of a culture utilize their pre-existing categories to understand foreign territories, applying their own customs, language, and ideologies to novel concepts. In many ways, Polo’s account serves as a significant example of this epistemological clash. Regardless of the city visited, throughout his account, Polo appears to continually focus on the same type of observations, including religious practices, military capability, societal order or hierarchy, marriage, and resource productivity. Such a methodology of observation is inherently manipulative as he not only decides what is and is not important to acknowledge, but also applies his own eurocentric method of qualifying what he sees within those selected categories. For example, whenever discussing the religion of a certain city, Polo, before even specifically describing the religion, groups all non-Christian religions together as those who practice idolatry. Such a practice erases the individual significance of a society’s cultural expression and patronizes them as a whole, even referring to their practices as “blindness,” implying that the Christian tradition holds the only source of truth. However, the cultural manipulation did not end with religious misunderstanding. To ensure reception of his account by the typical European individual, Polo’s mystification of the Eastern people saw many peculiar manifestations, describing the people he met (as the picture below shows) as dog people or people with faces on their bodies. Such blatant manipulation of something as basic as a person’s appearance allows for even further otherization of the East, as a place where the people were simply just not people. These images essentially served as physical manifestations of the European feelings of shock and awe with the novel “East.” If they did not act the way Europeans considered civilized people acted, then they must not be humans in the first place.
Polo’s Work as an Inspiration
Marco Polo’s work was popular in Europe because it provided a fantastic form of entertainment for the literate people of Europe. Marco Polo definitely exaggerated the truth about his travels, and the writing and translation of the travels changed the nature and reality of the story. Polo’s Travels provided a base for the imaginations of the people. They expanded upon their current ideas and let their imaginations run with fantastic ideas of beasts and alien-alike people. His story serves as an early ancestor to the modern day novel and was a big contrast to the previous writing styles of medieval literature. This allowed individuals to take a break from the normal and read new and exciting material.
Specifically in regards to European exploration, Polo’s writings served as inspiration for many, fascinated by the East’s vast lands of exotic wonder. Polo’s work, though filled with a multitude of inaccurate, incomplete, or exaggerated tales, still set the foundation for a greater awareness of the world by stoking the interests of future explorers. The wild stories of wealth, resources, and strange people and traditions sparked a blaze of interest in discovery amongst the Western world. Without this interest, legendary expeditions such as those of Columbus may have never come to fruition. However, the outlandish nature of Polo’s writings was a blessing and a curse for future explorations. While Polo may have inspired explorers like Columbus, he was also the source of many unfortunate preconceptions that would drastically alter the outcomes of encounters between explorers and the inhabitants of foreign lands. For example, Columbus entered the Americas with the expectation that he would find the exotic people and places described in Polo’s Travels. Under the assumption that Columbus was, in fact, in the Indies and that Polo’s writings were true, Columbus convinced himself that he had witnessed mutant peoples. He was certain that cities of great wealth and power were just around the corner. Ultimately, Columbus’ findings were shaped by what he read in Marco Polo’s writing. In part, the discoveries of Columbus and his crew were determined before he left the shores of home.
Today, we remember Marco Polo for his records of travel to the East and his experience as one of the first explorers. His writing are, of course, valuable for the facts and information on Eastern history and culture, but also for understanding the concepts of foreign travel and discovery from this time and for the mindset and thoughts of a European encountering new and different cultures. As we know, later explorers such as Columbus used Polo’s writing as a reference, and in present times, we can see the various aspects of thirteenth century travel. Also, we have discussed the fact that Europeans had many misconceptions about and important interactions with those from other places which are shown through Polo. These would be displays of the other and metageography between cultures which we still find significant today. However, at the same time there is uncertainty as to whether Marco Polo was writing about the location and culture that he claims he is. It is hard to say, but there is some evidence, or lack thereof, which brings about the questioning of his accuracy. Nevertheless, even if we were to find out that Polo was not writing about a place as far east as he says, that would lead us to crucial realizations about another similar culture or about European culture of false records.