GOOD NEWS IS NO NEWS
MARCO POLO’S ACCOUNTS OF LIFE IN CHINA COULD HAVE MEANT RICHES TO FIFTEENTH-CENTURY EUROPE. SO WHY DID EUROPEAN BUSINESSMEN IGNORE HIM?
Most people who know anything about East-West trade before 1500 know one name above all others: Marco Polo, the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Venetian trader who spent 25 years in China and other parts of Asia.
Polo’s Travels remain the most famous account of international trade ever written. They’ve gone through hundreds of printings and have been the basis of movies; a recent list of scholarly studies runs an exhausting 354 pages. Most of what Polo told his readers about China, Persia, Sumatra, and elsewhere has since been substantiated. (He was less reliable about such places as Japan and Java, for which he relied on hearsay.)
But for a long time his accounts were treated less as a medieval Fodor’s than as fantasies. To his contemporaries, Polo seemed more crank than trailblazer. They could not deny that Polo, his father, and his uncle had done something right on their journey; the enormous profits with which they returned to Europe confirmed it. But too many of Polo’s travel stories clashed with European preconceptions for him to be believed.
Polo told his stories to his cellmates after he was captured by Genoa in one phase of its centuries-long war with Venice for commercial and maritime dominance. One of those prisoners, a professional writer of romances, wrote and published the Travels. For a good 200 years thereafter, Polo’s Travels were usually classified as romances, as well. Beginning shortly after Polo’s death, carnivals in Venice featured a clown named “Marco of the Millions” (a nickname for Polo himself) who amused the crowd by telling increasingly outrageous stories; “a Marco Polo” became an English expression for a fib.
How could this be? In part because of the “travel diaries” of John Mandeville, a fourteenth-century scholar who never left Europe. Mandeville’s works went through far more editions and were far more widely believed, even well beyond the days of Columbus and Magellan. Though Mandeville borrowed accurate accounts from numerous travelers (including Polo), he also stole much well-worn nonsense—including news that travel to the Orient had revealed 80-foot-tall cannibals and giant ants that mined gold for their human master.
Public acceptance of Mandeville’s bizarre tales—and subsequent repudiation of Polo’s stories—is puzzling. Earlier Europeans had known much of what Polo’s contemporaries dismissed as implausible. Part of the explanation is that, over time, Europeans had simply forgotten what they knew about the East. Though Europe had traded with East Asia for centuries, it had always done so through intermediaries; political changes made Europe increasingly marginal. After the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire and the rise of Arab and Persian power, the volume of silks and spices moving by land across Central Asia declined; instead, these goods moved by land and sea to Alexandria. From the tenth century on, Venice obtained a virtual monopoly on the transshipment of spices from Alexandria to Europe, and thus had no interest in seeing other Europeans develop alternatives to Alexandria. (This intimacy with Arab traders made the Venetians something of an exception in the age of the Crusades; when they went so far as to begin their contracts with the Egyptians with “In the name of God and Mohammed,” the Pope drew the line. Few Venetians stopped making such contracts, but many “made up for it” on their deathbed by willing their profits to the Church.) It was only with the consolidation of Mongol power in Central Asia that the northern trade routes reopened, bringing Polo and other Europeans back into Central Asia for the first time, and into direct contact with China for the first time ever.
Thus, many of the physical wonders Polo described—such as the Baku oil fields in present-day Armenia—was familiar to the Romans; however, the use of oil for heating had lapsed with the empire, and did not return to the Mediterranean until the 1700s. (Petroleum-based bombs had also been used in war, but were banned as inhumane in 1139; the ban was largely obeyed until napalm made its appearance in our own century.) But few people knew this in Polo’s day, and his accounts of such wonders as coal—black stones that could be burned for heat?—struck many as implausible.
But the greatest skepticism was reserved for Polo’s stories of life in China, which had become the heart of the Mongol Empire.
Europeans certainly knew of Mongol military power, since the armies of Genghis Khan had conquered as far west as Poland and Hungary before turning back in 1222, due to a succession crisis at home. European traders and missionaries had encountered dependents of the Great Khan ruling many parts of India, Persia, and Central Asia; and after the slaughter that accompanied the early Mongol conquests, most of Asia lived relatively peacefully under their rule, allowing the Polos and others to revive land-based commerce. But to most Europeans, the fabled Eastern land of wealth and wonders was India; they were simply unprepared for the wealth and sophistication that Polo reported in China. Tales of cities of perhaps two million people (Quinsay, or present-day Hangzhou); a canal over 1,000 miles long; and an economy that ran on paper money were simply too much for Polo’s fellow Venetians, who had just built their first mint in his absence.
Most confusing of all, though, were probably Polo’s claims that public safety and commercial honesty were far better maintained in China than in Europe, even without Christianity as a basis for morals. Europeans had long believed that a fabulously rich, quasi-utopia existed in the Far East, founded by an itinerant Christian named Prester John. But a non-Christian kingdom as excellent as Polo’s version of China was something else again. (The Prester John story died hard, even after Polo and other European travelers debunked it; before long, common belief had simply relocated this utopia to uncharted parts of Africa.)
Some merchants and missionaries did follow Polo to China, drawn to a field where (unlike India) they faced little Moslem competition. But the opportunities Polo described did not last long. Within a generation of Polo’s death, the Mongol Empire was breaking into separate warring states, the trade routes across Central Asia became treacherous again, and several of the great cities Polo had seen on his way across Eurasia all but disappeared. In China itself, the Ming dynasty re-established order, but on a far less cosmopolitan basis. As outsiders themselves, the Mongols had been perfectly happy to deal with other non-Chinese; Polo himself had served Kublai Khan during his stay in Asia. The Ming saw no need for foreign officials, and before long took steps to restrict all kinds of foreign contact.
Between European blindness and Asian tumult, Polo’s Travels seemed destined to remain more a curiosity than a business guide. His fellow Venetians even ignored his notes from a stop he made in Sumatra on the way home: the source of spices that Europeans coveted was there, in Sumatra, he observed, and could be bought for a fraction of the prices Venetians paid in Alexandria.
It was left for Venice’s rivals to act on that intelligence. The first map to use Polo’s information was laid out in Catalonia. Prince Henry (“The Navigator”) of Portugal read the Travels avidly. And a copy of the book is preserved today in Seville, with notes made in the margins by a Genoese named Christopher Columbus. n