The story of Marco Polo’s travels is a very strange one, because it is widely debated among researchers, archaeologists, and historians whether or not he actually traveled to China and worked with Kublai Khan. The origins of the written text began while Marco was imprisoned in Genoa, after he had been captured during a war with the rival city. In this prison, he befriended a man named Rustichello, a well-known writer of his time, who wrote down what Marco orally told him of his travels along the silk road1. After learning more about Marco Polo’s travels, I became very interested in the people he felt the need to include the most in his writing, essentially a character analysis.
In order to do this, I needed to somehow extract the names from the text and count the occurrences. To do this, I first uploaded the written text to the Stanford Name Entity Program which highlighted all the names, places, and organizations, but the program didn’t put these highlighted words in an accessible format. To help with this, Brandon Locke made a program that extracted these highlighted names, and uploaded them to an Excel file that had the name and number of instances of that name throughout the text. On this Excel file, there were thousands of entities, so I deleted all of the places and organizations because I wasn’t using those, and this made it easier to read the data pertaining to my portion of the project. Now that I had all of the names their counts, I organized them based on their count, and I took four of the most commonly credited names and made tools on Voyant. The first tool was a frequency graph, which showed the frequency of each name throughout the text, which helps show when Marco mentioned these names. The other four tools were all context tools which has the name in the middle, and then the 5 words on either side surrounding it. This will help someone looking at our project understand how these names were mentioned, which would answer the question of whether he met these people, or if they were real or fictional.
Within Marco Polo’s translated travels, he speaks of a Kaan more often than any other name, which was often preceded by Great, Kublai, or Mangu (Mongke). Something interesting about this translation is why they spelled it Kaan within the actual text, but in the notes, they spelled it Khan, which seems to be the more popular spelling today. Mangu Khan was the brother of Kublai and both ruled the Mongol empire for a period of time. Kublai and Mangu Khan, were in fact the grandsons of Genghis Khan, who established the Mongol empire around 1206, which became one of the largest and most powerful empires this world has ever seen(“Ghengis Khan”). Mangu was the older brother of Kublai, and ruled from 1251-1259, but Kublai was the Khan they mostly brought up and talked about. Kublai was born in 1215 and took rule over the Mongol empire in 1260 until his death in 1294(“Kublai Khan”). Kublai’s connection to this story didn’t start with Marco Polo, but instead with his uncle and father. While on a trip to sell their goods, Marco’s father and uncle were persuaded by Mongolian ambassadors to meet with Kublai Khan he had never met any Latin people and was interested in what the Polos had to offer. After the Great Khan and Marco’s father and uncle met and became acquainted with each other Kublai sent them on a trip to see the pope and hopefully obtain 100 knowledgeable men to teach the Mongol people Christianity and about Western science, and to obtain holy oil from a church in Jeruselum. About 20 years after his father and uncle had started their original trip, Marco joined them for a follow up trip. After over three years of traveling, Marco and Kublai finally met. Marco had a wide skillset, which included mastering four different languages, and became well-liked by the Great Khan. Kublai then hired him into his court, and after years of service, he then sent the Polos on a mission to escort a young princess to meet her soon to be husband, a Persian Prince(Lee and Silk Road Foundation). This was the end of the relationship between Marco and the Khan’s, but if it wasn’t for this relationship, this story may have never been written.
Another commonly referenced name in The Travel’s was Nayan. Nayan was a prince of one of the royal families in the Mongol Empire, and the uncle of Kublai Khan. Nayan’s connection to Marco Polo’s travels began in 1287, when Nayan strung together an army of 300,000 men in hopes of taking power and overthrowing Kublai. Kublai got word of the threat, and he, along with Marco, and an army one and a half times larger than Nayan’s, marched north to defeat him(“Kublai Khan in Battle”). When Marco talks about this story, he actually alludes to Kublai’s army surprising Nayan; which seems impossible that almost 500,000 people could sneak up on 300,000 other people, but according to Marco, Nayan was too confident in his people to worry and notice Kublai. Once Nayan’s army did realize what had come upon them however, the battle began. After a hard-fought fight, Kublai’s army easily came out on top, and thus, Nayan’s hope of rebellion was shattered, and life was taken by an execution ordered by the Great Khan. The reason why the name Nayan only appeared in about the last quarter of the text was that he was only written about when Marco talked about the battle. This battle lasted about 10 chapters in the writing, so these 10 chapters were the only time that Marco was going to talk about him.
The next most common name that was referred to during the travels of Marco Polo was Prester John. To this day, no one knows if Prester John was a real person, or just a legendary figure of people’s imagination. Prester John’s origins date back to about the 11th-12th century and lasted for as long as until the 17th century. Stories depicting Prester John, described him as a powerful Priest-King(Tilson), a holy figure that ruled over a large group of people. Since the origins of Prester John began around the 11th-12th century, but Marco Polo wasn’t born until the 13th century, so why did he tell Rusticello about him? I don’t think Marco ever states that he met this so called Prester John, but instead, he tells stories about him, and obviously, Marco was a great story teller. The story he tells starts off with a King of the Tartars named Chinghis Kaan , who asked Prester John for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Prester John quickly refused this courting, which caused Chinghis to become very upset and with that, he decided to gather an army of great numbers to march upon Prester John. Prester John got word of this and got an army together of his own, and the two of them battled. Marco says that many militants on both sides died, but in the end, Chinghiz came out victorious, and Prester John was slain(Marco and Rustichello). So, if this Prester John was just a legend, was this story just a legend too? Were Marco Polo’s travels a legend, did he actually make it all the way to Asia?
The last name I decided to include in my research was Alexander. Once again, like Prester John, Marco Polo didn’t meet this Alexander, he instead told four legends that involved this person. The Alexander he speaks of is actually Alexander the Great, who was born in 356 BC and became King of Macedonia after his father, Phillip II, was assassinated(“Alexander the Great Alexander of Macedon Biography.”). The four legends he tells are as follows. The first legend was about a solitary tree that had grown by itself in the middle of the desert. It was here that people believed Alexander and King Darius battled each other. In the next legend, Marco says that Alexander married the daughter of King Darius in the ancient city of Balkh, which now lies in modern Afghanistan. He then writes that the rulers of the nearby kingdom called Badakshan, were direct descendants of Alexander and his wife(“Alexander and Marco Polo”). The third legend he speaks of involves Alexanders special horse named Bucephalus, that supposedly bore a horn on its head, making it a unicorn. Marco says in the same Badakshan kingdom, direct offspring of Bucephalus were bread, and “This breed was entirely in the hands of an uncleof the king’s; and in consequence of his refusing to let the king have any of them, the latter put him to death. The widow then, in despite, destroyed the whole breed, and it is now extinct”(Marco and Rustichello). I’m not sure who the ‘king’ was because a name was never stated in the translation, but this does help explain why there are no unicorns running around outside. The last legend was about the end of Alexander’s conquering which happened in the Caucasus mountains, in Georgia. Marco says that here the road became too narrow and dangerous, so Alexander decided to build a large barrier, basically a dam against his enemies(“Alexander and Marco Polo”), called the “Iron Gates”(Marco and Rustichello). So once again, Marco tells these fictional stories instead of actually talking about his travels. I wonder if he did this in the hopes of selling more copies of his book once he got out of prison, or maybe he just really liked to tell stories.