Marco Polo and Diversity

Marco Polo not only discovered Asia (for Europe), he discovered diversity. And he told us so:

Toutes gens que volés savoir les deverses jenerasions des homes et les deversités des deverse region dou monde, si prennés cestui livre et le feites lire. Et qui trovererés toutes les grandismes mervoilles et the grant diversités de la grande Harminie et de Persie et des Tartars et de Inde….

Marco Polo, Chapter One

(Everyone who wants to know the diverse nations of men and the diversities of the diverse regions of the world, take this book and read it. And here you will find all of the greatest marvels and the great diversities of Greater Armenia and of Persia and of the Tartars and of India…..)

This is from the Franco-Italian version of Marco Polo, written in a non-standard mixed dialect at a time when even Court French wasn’t really very standardized: “Old French doesn’t have rules, but only tendencies” (Kibler, Introduction to Old French).

There are about seven texts of Marco Polo which are regarded as in some way “original”; all are early versions of a series of texts which have been lost. The Franco-Italian text is thought to be closest to the original, and it’s noticeably badly written. This is unsurprising, since vernacular literature in French was only a little more than a century old, Marco Polo was not a writer at all and may have been illiterate in European languages, and his co-author Rustichello was an Italian trying to write French. The dialect used was a compromise language related to the lingua franca of the crusaders and Mediterranean sailors, adapted as much as possible to the language of the literary romances. (Besides translating, Marco Polo’s translators also cleaned up the writing a bit — the Tuscan version uses the word “diverse”, in some form), only three times instead of four, and the Court French translation uses it only twice.)

Serious literature during that period was written in Latin, whereas vernacular literature of that period was secular, profane, and often rather trashy. (Unfortunately, Polo’s contemporaries Dante and Cavalcanti were already working to change this by producing tiresome vernacular work.)  Marco Polo’s book fits loosely into the era’s “Wonders of the East” genre, and Rusticello folded in as much heroic romance as he could. While these genres may seem naive, folkish, and low class to us today, they were intended for the nobility and their hangers-on.

I can’t think of another book in world history where the form-content imbalance was as great as it is in this one.

Published in: on May 28, 2013 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment