As a lover of history I have to confess that I often tend to dwell only on the "bullet points" of the Western world: Greek civilization, the Roman empire, the Dark Ages and the Inquisition, the Renaissance and the discovery of the New World, the Age of Enlightenment, the Victorian era and the British empire, World War I, the Third Reich, and then the rest of the 20th century. What results from only learning about these "bullet points" is that one tends to know a lot about periods and a lot about events, but not a lot about the people and their individual stories or their motives. In a lot of ways then, to my horror, my perception of history is much like a novel filled with actions but no characters committing them. I'm striving to change that, but I digress.
I bring up my flaw of focusing too much on Western history's highlights, because normally whilst spending time learning about the Dark Ages in particular (that ghastly period of human history between the fall of the Roman empire in 476 and the discovery of the Americas in 1492) I normally encounter the name Marco Polo at least once or twice. As you can probably predict, in the past I paid the name no mind as he was not a major figure in the history of the Dark Ages like Galileo or King Henry VIII.
It wasn't until early December of last year when the story of Marco Polo gained my attention upon the release of the Netflix series. Who was this Marco Polo? Where did he go? What did he do? And why? Obviously the show's focus was on drama rather than careful attention to historical accuracy (and that is absolutely okay), but I had wanted to learn more about the actual Marco Polo and his travels beyond the show. So I did some research and came to find that, actually, The Travels Of Marco Polo are just about as "historically accurate" as L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth.
First of all, besides the book The Travels Of Marco Polo, there is no record of the explorer Marco Polo. A 1366 inventory detailing all of the possessions of a Marco Polo living in Venice does exist, however, all the inventory says is that this Marco Polo had silk and rhubarb— Asian items. While this may seem to be evidence for the existence of the explorer Marco Polo, there are a few problems with concluding that the Marco Polo of the inventory is the Marco Polo of historical fame.
One, the inventory is dated 1366... 42 years after the explorer Marco Polo allegedly died. Two, Polo was a very common last name in Venice during the 13th and 14th centuries (according to a Smithsonian documentary on Marco Polo). In other words, the inventory (remember, 42 years late) could very well be fake. No doubt with the many Polo families in Venice, more than a few individuals from them would seek to capitalize on the Marco Polo legend. Even assuming no one in any Polo family would ever dream of trying capitalize on the legend of Marco Polo by forging an inventory of his belongings, there's still the possibility that a Polo named their child Marco because of the legend, and that that Marco Polo made an inventory of his stuff in 1366.
"But what about the silk and rhubarb? Those are items from the orient!" Again, you would be starting with the assumption that the 1366 inventory is a genuine document and not the work of a dishonest forger. But even if the document is legitimate, while silk and rhubarb are indeed items from the orient, Venetian traders using the silk route made it completely possible for citizens to buy these items without ever having to leave the city. Having these items in no way proves travel.
Given that Polo was a common last name at that time, and given that the silk route allowed for many items from the East to be sold by street vendors in Italy that this deceased-Marco Polo could have acquired from, this is not a sufficient record demonstrating the existence of the famed explorer Marco Polo, assuming the record is even an honest one at all. Thus, all we are left with as a witness to Marco Polo's existence is The Travels Of Marco Polo. This is a problem, because...
Secondly, The Travels Of Marco Polo contain not only wild and far-fetched accounts of magic (people with their heads in the middle of their chests, people with dog faces, half-men half-unicorns, etc.) but also, there are over 100 different versions of The Travels Of Marco Polo and as the centuries have continued the book has gotten longer. Early editions are normally about 2-300 pages, while later editions range from 5-700 pages.
What's more, there is no original manuscript. The very earliest manuscript of The Travels we have is from 1400, 76 years after Marco Polo allegedly died. But what makes the The Travels Of Marco Polo most certainly not reliable is not what it does mention, but what it fails to mention. Had Marco Polo truly traveled China in the late 1200s, he would have noticed the Great Wall, the use of chopsticks, footbinding, etc. The Travels make mention of none of these things. A European seeing China for the first time would certainly have noticed these distinct characteristics of the culture.
Then again, what The Travels Of Marco Polo does choose to mention (aside from its mythological accounts) doesn't redeem it either. For instance, "Marco Polo" says in The Travels that he ended the siege of Xiangyang in 1279, when in fact the siege of Xiangyang had been ended by Persians two years before he could have possibly reached China. This suggests a later writer of The Travels Of Marco Polo, who had knowledge of the siege, but did not know the dates and who simply sought to insert the main character into the event. Which leads us to our third point.
Third, there is no corroboration from Chinese sources. This is highly unusual for the Chinese, who were meticulous record keepers. Not only would it be strange for the Chinese not to make any mention of a European guy ending a major siege in their civilization, but not mentioning Marco Polo would also be strange, considering how in The Travels Of Marco Polo, "Marco" claims he was made the governor of Yangzhou, where he allegedly ruled for several years. There is no mention in ancient Chinese gazetteers of a Marco Polo ever being governor in the area of Yangzhou. Before you go saying "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", keep in mind that the ancient Chinese kept gazetteers of every governor, including throughout the Mongol period, which can still be accessed today (you can also see Dr. Frances Wood's Did Marco Polo Go To China?)
Fourth and finally, the claim in The Travels is that Marco Polo dictated his account to a writer named Rustichello da Pisa. But Rustichello was not a journalist. His goal as a writer was not to inform his readers about facts of the world at that time. He was a fantasy/romance writer who wrote to entertain his audience. This would explain some of the more mythological parts of The Travels, like the half-man half-unicorn, as well as also explain the omission of major features of ancient Chinese culture, such as tea and the Great Wall that any real traveler would have noted. The details Rustichello writes within The Travels, in addition to things about ancient China not found in The Travels, further suggests that Rustichello was alone in writing the account of "Marco Polo" and that no such real individual dictated anything to him.
In light of all that I found out when researching Marco Polo, I came to conclude that if I wanted to believe in a historical Marco Polo, based solely on The Travels Of Marco Polo, that I might as well believe in King Arthur because of the Compilation (which Rustichello also wrote by the way).
However, my skepticism toward The Travels Of Marco Polo should in no way be construed as being motivated by a belief that a European in those times could not have possibly traveled to China. In fact it's the opposite. Not only was the silk route already in existence 11 centuries before Marco Polo was allegedly born, and therefore European travel to the East certainly possible, but furthermore, it's confirmed that 20 years before Marco Polo's alleged journey began— in 1240— a Franciscan monk named Giovanni da Pian del Carpini reached China and became very well known by the elites within the Mongol empire; many other Catholic missionaries would make the same trip in the 1250s in attempts to convert the Mongols to Christianity.
So rather than my contention with The Travels being that a European reaching China was some impossible feat in those times, my contention instead is why The Travels makes a European explorer reaching China out to be such a big deal— like it was the first time that had ever happened— when it wasn't.