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


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: 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