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Week 5. Fact and Fabrication: Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta

Two of the most famous travellers in world history, Marco Polo (1254-1324) and Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), still excite unceasing scholarly and popular interest nearly 700 years since their lifetimes. As witnesses to a connected world, the Venetian and Moroccan offer windows onto intense trans-regional mobility, interaction, and exchange across the breadth of Afro-Eurasia. Yet questions regarding the evidentiary status of their accounts continue unabated: What was the relationship between fact and fiction? What was the role of editors, ghostwriters, copyists, and textual borrowing? How was knowledge constructed, and where is the line between construction and fabrication? And might a focus on veracity even be missing the point altogether?

Core Readings

Simon Gaunt, Marco Polo's Le Devisement du Monde: Narrative Voice, Language and Diversity (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013), pp. 1-14, 173-182. Link.

Roxanne L. Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 63-89. Link.

Primary sources (read one)

Marco Polo, R.E. Latham (trans.), The Travels of Marco Polo (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), pp. 74-112 (The Road to Cathay) Link. [The whole book is available online. For the historical background as told by Marco himself, see the Preface].

Ibn Battuta, H.A.R. Gibb (ed.), The travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354 (5 Vols. Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1958-2000), Vol I, pp. 1-7 (Ibn Juzayy's Introduction, Link), and a chapter of choice (e.g. Vol. IV, pp. 822-846: Maldives, Link).

Seminar questions

  1. How do Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta construct claims to authority and truthfullness?
  2. Gaunt notes scholars' "tendency to privilege content over form" (p. 10). Why does this matter?
  3. Which components constitute the lens through which Ibn Battuta sees and judges his surroundings? Which do you regard as the most prominent?
  4. Euben discusses Ibn Battuta's tendency “to transform women into an index of the virtue and value of an entire people”. (How) do you see this in the chapter you've read? How does this compare to the case of Marco Polo?

Further Reading

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, and Amilcare Iannucci (eds.), Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008). Link.

Allsen, Thomas T., 'The Cultural Worlds of Marco Polo', Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.3 (2001), pp. 375-383. Link.

Barsoum, Marlène, 'The traveller and his Scribe: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta and their rendering by Ibn Juzayy', Journal of North African Studies 11.2 (2006), pp. 193-203. Link.

Campbell, Mary Baine, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), Ch. 3. Link.

Carey, Daniel, 'Truth, Lies, and Travel Writing', in: Carl Thompson (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Travel Writing (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 3-14. Link.

Chism, Christine, 'Memory, Wonder, and Desire in the Travels of Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta', in Nicholas Paul and Suzanne Yeager (eds.), Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image, and Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), pp. 29-49. Link.

Cruse, Mark, 'Marco Polo in Manuscript: The Travels of the Devisement du monde', Narrative Culture 2.2 (2015), pp. 171-189. Link.

Dunn, Ross E., The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012). Link.

El Moudden, Abderrahmane, 'The Ambivalence of rihla: Community Integration and Self-Definition in Moroccan Travel Accounts, 1300-1800', in: Dale F. Eickelman, and James P. Piscatori (eds.), Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 69-84. Link.

Gordon, Stewart, When Asia was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors and Monks Who Created the "Riches of the East" (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008). Link.

Ibn Battuta, Tim Macintosh-Smith (ed.), The travels of Ibn Battutah (London: Picador, 2003).

Jacoby, David, 'Marco Polo, His Close Relatives, and His Travel Account: Some New Insights', Mediterranean Historical Review 21.2 (2006), pp. 193-218. Link.

Larner, John, Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Kinoshita, Sharon, 'Medieval Travel Writing (2): Beyond the Pilgrimage', in Nandini Das and Tim Youngs (eds.), The Cambridge History of Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 48-61. Link.

Netton, Ian Richard, 'Ibn Baţţūţa in wanderland: voyage as text. Was Ibn Baţţūţa an orientalist?', in Netton, Orientalism Revisited : Art, Land and Voyage (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 223-251. Link.

Psaki, F. Regina, 'The Book's Two Fathers: Marco Polo, Rustichello da Pisa, and Le Devisement du Monde', Mediaevalia 32 (2011), pp. 69-97. Link.

Romano, John (ed.), Medieval Travel and Travelers: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020). [Primary source excerpts] Link.

Rubiés, Joan-Pau, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Link.

Touati, Houari, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Vogel, Hans Ulrich, Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues (Leiden: Brill, 2013). - See this Review of the book by Huynhee Park (2014).

Von Martels, Zweder (ed.), Travel Fact and Travel Fiction: Studies on Fiction, Literary Tradition, Scholarly Discovery, and Observation in Travel Writing (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1994).

Wood, Frances, Did Marco Polo Go To China? (Boulder: Routledge, 1996). Link.

Marco Polo Bibliography, by Susan Whitfield (2019).

Imagining Medieval Narrative: The Travels of Marco Polo - Vanderbilt University

The Travels of Ibn Battuta - UC Berkeley

Ibn Battuta