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Marco Polo: Famous Medieval Traveler

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Marco Polo, who traveled extensively in the 13th Century, remains one of history's most famous explorers. A book describing his travels was, for a time, one of the most well-known works in all of Europe.

As is the case for many things in the early Middle Ages, some details about Polo's life and travels are sketchy. For example, historians don't agree on where he was born. He is known to have grown up in Venice, but some historians think that he was born not in Venice but in the town of Curzula, on an island that is now part of Croatia. He is often said to have been born in 1254, but not all historians agree on that date, either.

What is known with relatively certainty is that Marco's father, Niccolo, was away for all of Marco's childhood. In fact, Niccolo, a successful merchant, wasn't around when Marco was born: Niccolo and his brother Maffeo had set out on a trade journey to Asia. They were gone for many years, returning when Marco was 15. Marco's mother had died, and Marco grew up living with another uncle and his wife. Young Marco was a good learner; and by the time his father returned, Marco had learned many of the same merchant skills that his father had possessed in abundance.

In 1271, when was Marco was 17 and his father had been home for two years, Niccolo and Maffeo set off from Venice on another journey to Asia, this time taking Marco with them. The travels that followed, along with a few that happened just before, make up the large part of Marco Polo's famous book, The Travels of Marco Polo. When it was published, early in the 14th Century, the book was extremely widely read, and many people refused to believe Polo's claims of having seen and done so much. Foremost among the charges was that Polo didn't go all the way to China, as he claimed in the book. Other descriptions of seemingly fantastical things and events turned other people into skeptics about the veracity of Polo's claims as well. Subsequent historical research over the years, however, has confirmed the truth of many things that Polo described. Whether or not he went himself to China, he certainly proved that he knew a lot about China, the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan, and much more.

It is also worth noting that many scholars cannot agree on what is a definitive version of Marco Polo's story. Some historians report that as many as 150 different versions in several languages (with slight variations due to errors during copying or translation) have existed in the centuries since the book was first printed. 

Marco and his father and uncle were away for 24 years; when they returned, Venice was at war with nearby Genoa. Marco went to war and was captured, ending up in prison. It was during his imprisonment that he told his story to his fellow cellmate Rustichello da Pisa, who, after being released himself, published Marco's story for the world.

The book begins with an account of the previous travels of Niccolo and Maffeo, who had met the ruler of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan. In an effort to learn more about the West, Khan had sent Niccolo and Maffeo back to the West, on two errands: They were to bring back 100 Christian priests, who would exchange knowledge with the Khan's wise men; and they were to bring back some sacred oil from Jerusalem, one of Christianity's most sacred places. Niccolo and Maffeo stopped off in Venice on this journey, and that's where they met Marco, now aged 15.

Equipped with the sacred oil but only two priests (and Marco, of course), Niccolo and Maffeo set back out on the return journey to the Khan. They rode on camels to the port of Hormuz. They traveled through dangerous lands and savage deserts, most notably the huge Gobi. They went to famous places like Singapore and Sumatra and, so the book tells us, eventually to Xanadu, the summer palace of Kublai Khan, where they stayed for many years. The book says that Marco became one of the Khan's trusted advisers, representing him in journeys to other lands and, at one point, even gaining the post of tax collector in one of the larger cities.

Much of the doubt on the veracity of Marco Polo's claims of having lived at the court of Kublai Khan for so long is based on what was not in the book. For example, Marco doesn't once mention the Great Wall of China, one of the modern Wonders of the World. Also, nowhere in the book does he mention chopsticks, with which most Chinese would have been eating. Claims in support of his visiting China (which include explanations for the aforementioned omissions) are as numerous as those doubting his visit, so it is difficult to know where the truth lies. The book is certainly filled with enough detail to prove that if Marco Polo himself didn't travel to China, he had had long conversations with someone who did and was willing to share the information that made it into the book.

At any rate, all three Polos had returned safely to Venice, and Niccolo and Maffeo had managed to avoid being captured during the conflict that saw Marco taken prisoner. When Marco was released, his joined his father and uncle in the merchant business; although none of them set foot on another journey, they managed to make lots of money and Marco was well off. 

It didn't hurt that he was well-known for the book that bore his name. His book included a wealth of details about the life and culture of people in the East. His descriptions of life in China include details about paper currency (which would have been a novelty in medieval Europe), a vast canal-based transportation system, a very efficient communication system, and fine silk garments that showed off the wearers' enormous wealth. Through his book and its enormous popularity, Marco Polo is quite possibly the most famous traveler on the famous Silk Road.

In 1300, Marco got married. He and his wife, Donata Badoer, had three daughters together.

In 1323, nearly 70, Marco Polo was taken ill. He died early in 1324. In the period in between, several people tried to get him to confess that he had invented many details in his famous book, which some had taken to calling Il Milione ("The Million Lies"). He refused to make any such confession; on the contrary, his famous deathbed quote was this: "I have not told half of what I saw."

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