Marco Polo, Il Milione


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1983


China – the land of your dreams if you were a merchant in the Middle Ages. Travelling east on the Silk Road was gold, silver, jewels, and glass; travelling west, from China, was precious silk, porcelain, jade, and especially expensive spices. Even the smallest merchant dreamed of once visiting this country so he could directly buy goods there and make a fortune of them in Europe.


But China was large and made up of many different provinces, all of which had their own trading locations. Each individual market could single-handedly ruin an ignorant merchant. You needed to know how to buy goods cheaply, sell them for a much higher price, and which goods were wanted at a certain time in a certain place. You needed to have the right means of payment with you and know the local conditions. The success of a medieval merchant relied above all on being experienced and more knowledgeable than others. Knowledge was money, and people paid good money to get that knowledge. Expensive books transmitted knowledge, especially if they had been written by a merchant as experienced as Marco Polo.


After all, Polo’s book is not, as many would have it, a neat little collection of myths, anecdotes, and fairy tales. It is the report of a merchant who documents anything that might be of use for future travellers. And what could be more important for a merchant than the currencies of the individual cities? Marco Polo describes them in detail. In 2012 a Sinologist used this exactitude to prove Marco Polo’s presence in China.


This fact has not always been uncontested. Already in the Middle Ages individual authors doubted the authenticity of Polo’s tales. The wonders seemed too wondrous, the numbers too big, and the accounts incredible. Perhaps some of these doubts are related to the transmission history of Il Milione. It is said that an Italian romancer, who was incarcerated with Marco Polo in a Genoese prison around 1298, wrote the book after Polo’s accounts. If that is true? We don’t know. It is not difficult to imagine that Polo collaborated with a writer to make the dry subject matter he’d collected in China more accessible for a broader public. Be that as it may, the original manuscript went missing. The oldest preserved copy we have of it today is written in Old French and kept at the Bibliothèque National in Paris.


Already during his lifetime, Marco Polo’s manuscript was translated into many different languages. He was uniquely successful, and that at a time when the printing press hadn’t been invented yet. Round about 150 manuscripts in a great number of different languages have survived!


Why people were reading it? Well, we can only guess. Certainly not only because of the miracle stories. For anyone thinking about trading with China Il Milione was an indispensable guide. And when Christopher Columbus planned his sea way to India, he consulted Polo’s book. His copy has been preserved, including countless handwritten notes of what is probably its most famous reader.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation