21 February 2012

A Fine Country To Visit!

Back when I was doing my first degree I had the opportunity to do an enthralling course on European geographical awareness during the Middle Ages; aside from introducing me to the work of such wonderful scholars as Michael the Scot and Herman the German, it ensured that never again would I be so ignorant as to think that belief in a flat earth had ever been a part of mainstream Christian thinking and deepened my fascination with the Mongols and the Vikings.

Medieval travelogues played no small part in the course and it's been fun recently -- in connection with looking at Mongol warfare -- to pore afresh over the pages of William of Rubruck, John of Plano Carpine, Odoric of Pordenone, and that delightful old fraud Sir John Mandeville.

All of which has reminded me of some of the most scurrilously amusing passages from Marco Polo's Travels.

First up we have a passage upon which historians have been keen to cast aspersions; it refers to an area that Polo would have had to have detoured extravagantly to visit, and has a whiff of protesting too much about it:
'The province of Kamul, which used to be a kingdom, contains towns and villages in plenty, the chief town also being called Kamul. The province lies between two deserts, the Great Desert and a small on three days' journey in extent. The inhabitants are all idolaters and speak a language of their own. They live on the produce of the soil; for they have a superfluity of foodstuffs and beverages, which they sell to travellers who pass that way. They are a very gay folk, who give no thought to anything but making music, singing and dancing, and reading and writing according to their own usage, and taking great delight in the pleasures of the body.

I give you my word that if a stranger comes to a house here to seek hospitality he receives a very warm welcome. The host bids his wife do everything that the guest wishes. Then he leaves the house and goes about his own business and stays away two or three days. Meanwhile the guest stays with his wife in the house and does what he will with her, lying with her in one bed just as if he were his own wife; and they lead a gay life together. All the men of this city and province are thus cockolded by their wives; but they are not the least ashamed of it. And the women are beautiful and vivacious and always willing to oblige.'
Unlikely though it may sound, similar customs were recorded as having been practiced in nineteenth-century Afghanistan and Iran, so who knows...

Speaking of Tibet -- which then encompassed modern Sze-ch'wan and Yun-nan  to the east of the present Tibetan frontier -- the Venetian had this to say:
'This desolate country, infested by dangerous wild beasts, extends for twenty days; journey, without shelter or food except perhaps every third or fourth day, when the traveller may find some habitation where he can renew his stock of provisions.

Then he reaches a region with villages and hamlets in plenty and a few towns perched on precipitous crags. Here there prevails a marriage custom of which I will tell you.

It is such that no man would ever on any account take a virgin to wife. For they say that a woman is worthless unless she has had knowledge of many men. They argure that she must have displeased the gods, because if she enjoyed thed favour of their idols then men would desire her and consort with her. So they deal with their women-folk in this way.

When it happens that men from a foreign land are passing through this country and have pitched their tents and made a camp, the matrons from neighbouring villages and hamlets bring their daughters to these camps, to the number of twenty or forty, and beg the travellers to take them and lie with them.

So these choose the girls who please them best, and the others return home disconsolate. So long as they remain, the visitors are free to take their pleasure with the women and use them as they will, but they are not allowed to carry them off anywhere else.

When the men have worked their will and are ready to be gone, then it is the custom for every man to give to the woman with whom he has lain some trinket or token so that she can show, when she comes to marry, that she has had a lover.

In this way custom requires every girl to wear more than a score of such tokens hung round her neck to show that she has had lovers in plenty and plenty of men have lain with her. And she who has most tokens and can show that she has had most lovers and that most men have lain with her is the most highly esteemed and the most acceptable as a wife; for they say that she is the most favoured by the gods.

And when they have taken a wife in this way they prize her highly; and they account it a grave offence for any man to touch another's wife, and they all strictly abstain from such an act. So much, then, for this marriage custom. Obviously the country is a fine one to visit for a lad from sixteen to twenty-four.'
That's from the Penguin translation. It's worth it for the last line, I feel, which the translation used by Project Gutenburg renders with even more enthusiasm: 'Now I have related to you this marriage custom as a good story to tell, and to show what a fine country that is for young fellows to go to!'

Yes, as with Herodotus, it's the sexist quip at the end that really rounds the story off. Did this ever actually happen? 

We've no idea. That's the problem with Marco Polo. He was telling strange stories from far away places. He could have been making half of it up, or passing on tales he'd heard himself. It wasn't as if his audience was in a position to check, after all.

I'm looking forward to looking at some earlier writers again soon enough. Einhard, Bede, Gregory of Tours, and the supremely snide diplomat Liutprad of Cremona, just to start with. Not for a while, though. Other jobs need doing.

That said, if you're good I'll grace with some Mandeville before too long. You'll like him.

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