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Activity: World Travelers

Purpose

Imagine living in fourteenth-century Europe and reading The Travels of Marco Polo. Use your critical thinking skills to try to figure out what Marco Polo was describing in each of the excerpts from his book. This will allow you to imagine what it must have been like for Europeans who were reading about Polo’s “discoveries” in Asia for the first time.
"Marco Polo, Il Milione, Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV Cropped" by - - [1]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Process

Read each of the four passages from the writings of Marco Polo. In each passage, Polo describes a food, object, or habit that he observed in China but that was unknown to Europeans. After each reading, think about the following questions:
1. What’s Polo describing in each passage?
2. What made you come to that conclusion?
Passage One
It is a fact that all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stone existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply the fire with them at night, and see that they are well kindled, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. It is true that they have plenty of wood also, but they do not burn it, because those stones burn better and cost less.
Passage Two
When these sheets have been prepared they are cut up into pieces of different sizes....All these pieces of paper are issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is prepared duly, the chief officer deputed by the Khan smears the Seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the Seal remains printed upon it in red; [it] is then authentic....and he makes them to pass current universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and whithersoever his power and sovereignty extends. And nobody, however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain of death. And indeed everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Khan’s dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them.
Passage Three
Now you must know that from this city of Cambaluc proceed many roads and highways leading to a variety of provinces, one to one province, another to another.... [and] every twenty-five miles of the journey [there is] a station which they call Yamb, or, as we should say, the ‘Horse-Post-House.’ And at each of those stations... there is a large and handsome building... in which they find all the rooms furnished with fine beds and all other necessary articles.... At some of these stations, moreover, there shall be posted some four hundred horses standing ready.... at others there shall be two hundred, according to the requirements, and to what the Emperor has established in each case.... Even...through a roadless tract where neither house nor hostel exists, still there the station-houses have been established just the same....But they are provided with horses and all the other necessaries just like those we have described, so that the Emperor’s messengers, come they from what region they may, find everything ready for them.... And in this way the Emperor, who has an immense number of these runners, receives dispatches with news from places ten days’ journey off in one day and night; or, if need be, news from a hundred days off in ten days and nights; and that is no small matter!
Passage Four
There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles and when savage with anyone they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud.

For Further Discussion

Pick one passage and share your answers to the two questions (What’s Polo describing in each passage? What made you come to that conclusion?) in the Questions Area below. Then, pick someone else’s posting, one that answers the questions based on a different passage, and comment on his or her answers. Do you agree or disagree with their conclusions? Why or why not?

Source

Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, The Travels of Marco Polo, Volumes 1 and 2. Trans. Henry Yule. Ed. Henri Cordier. A Project Gutenberg EBook. Release Date 1 January 2004. EBook-No. 10636. Accessed 3 July 2013.
  • Passage 1: Volume 1, Book II, Part I, Chapter XXX
  • Passage 2: Volume 1, Book II, Part I, Chapter XXIV
  • Passage 3: Volume 1, Book II, Part I, Chapters XXVI-XXVII
  • Passage 4: Volume II, Book III, Chapter IX

Want to join the conversation?

  • mr pink red style avatar for user WallAvi
    1. Coal -- pretty straight forward on this one. Black stone that burns and is cheaper than wood.

    2. Paper money -- treated like silver or gold, vermilion seal, transact all sales.

    3. Pony express or Royal courier/dispatch service. Tele-rider.

    4. Rhinoceros -- one horn, head ever bent toward the ground.
    (11 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gabriella lopez
    Passage 4: This required a little more thinking because without knowing exactly what kind of animals they have in China and the part about a unicorn was thrown in there maybe to confuse us, I don’t know.

    With further thought, I realized it was a Rhino, he spoke of. He probably hadn’t seen one before and that’s why he called it a unicorn because a unicorn is a mythological animal that has never been seen.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user alton west
    Passage one is clearly describing coal as a use of burning throughout the country for fuel as opposed to wood. What led me to come to this conclusion was the authors use of word s like "black stone" which he described as something they burned for fuel throughout the night instead of wood. I do not know of any other material besides coal that accurately fits the authors description.

    Passage two is describing a form of paper currency or paper money. I came to the conclusion that this was the case when i read the authors description detailing that the item in question was used with such authority as if they were silver and gold. He also stated that printed on the paper were various officials. He went into further detail stating that they were given a seal of authenticity by a certifying official and was spread throughout the land to be used by the people as a way to transact all sales.

    Passage three is describing what I would imagine some sort of courier service or dispatch service and the places in which the couriers were to come to bring messages. similar to that of a couriers place or what we would now have as a mail mans place like a post office but with sleeping quarters supplies and a change of horse. I figured that this is what the author was describing because he stated that various messengers for the emperor would use this place as a hub for supplies and as a way to transmit very important messages.

    Passage four is describing some sort of rhinoceros. What tipped me off was the authors use of the word unicorn and his description of them as fat unicorns. everything else like the head being similar to a wild boar, having feet like an elephant and hair like a buffalo just lead me to further believe that this was the animal he was describing.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user leonard.tj15
    1. Coal - its obviously coal becuase it describes black stone that burns better then wood and comes from the moutains.
    2. Paper money - describes different important figures on the faces and treated like gold or silver and used for all transactions and talks about ways of authenticating
    3. Pony express or a courier of some sort -
    4. Rhinocerous - it is the only animal i can think of with only one horn and feet off an elephant and living in the same area as elephants
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Pip
    Passage 1- He is describing coal. I came to this conclusion based on this line:
    "...there is a kind of black stone existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood..."

    Passage 2- He is describing paper currency. I came to this conclusion based on these lines:
    "...All these pieces of paper are issued with as much solemnity and authority as if they were of pure gold or silver..."
    "...throughout the Great Khan’s dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them..."

    Passage 3- I am not quite sure what this one is. Possibly an early postal system (similar to the Pony Express). I came to this conclusion based on this line:
    "...the Emperor’s messengers, come they from what region they may, find everything ready for them.... And in this way the Emperor, who has an immense number of these runners, receives dispatches with news from places ten days’ journey off in one day and night..."

    Passage 4- He is most definitely describing a rhinoceros! I came to this conclusion based on my own knowledge and these lines:
    "...They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick..."
    "... The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud..."
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user matthewmccarthy0331
    Coal is black and is used to feed fire.

    Money because it says it's treated like gold and silver.

    A Postal Inn because it states that there are fine rooms with fine beds and it also says so that the Emperor’s messengers, come they from what region they may, find everything ready for them.... And in this way the Emperor, who has an immense number of these runners, receives dispatches with news from places ten days’ journey off in one day and night; or, if need be, news from a hundred days off in ten days and nights; and that is no small matter!

    Rhino this was easy because it said it had a horn like a unicorn and unicorns don't exist.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Meghan Mansfield
    In the first passage Marco Polo is describing coal. How I came to that conclusion is because of his word usage. By calling them stones that burn longer and referring to their abundance of wood as if they don't use it for fire definitely let me, the reader, know exactly what he was talking about even though he had no idea what the strange stones were.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mrsblue2017
    Passage two he is talking about money. At first i thought he was talking about some kind of seal but when he refered to it being treated like silver and gold and its vermilion seal that completes transactions thats when i figured out he was talking about money.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Monique Dean
    Passage 1: Polo is describing coal. When I read that he was talking about stones burning for a long time, yet they had firewood and you didn't need fuel, I put two and two together and came up with coal.

    The one I was most confused at was passage 3, what was that about?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user matthewmccarthy0331
      as you can see by this piece of text so that the Emperor’s messengers, come they from what region they may, find everything ready for them.... And in this way the Emperor, who has an immense number of these runners, receives dispatches with news from places ten days’ journey off in one day and night; or, if need be, news from a hundred days off in ten days and nights; and that is no small matter! He is describing that he has messengers/runners who carry the emperors news to different parts and they use horses and the emperor awaits the news that they will bring back to him.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user cchan10
    On passage four, Marco Polo is describing the numerous unicorns which are as big as wild elephants. They have hair like a buffalo, a black and very thick horn in their forehead.
    (1 vote)
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