‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature

Marco Polo in Tartar dress, France, 18th century. Wikimedia Commons

Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant and explorer who wrote of his travels through the largely-unknown East. His narrative, originally given the bold title of Divisament dou Monde (‘Description of the World’) but better known as The Travels of Marco Polo, was dictated to his cellmate in Genoa, Rustichello da Pisa, a professional writer, and completed in about 1300. Neither Polo nor Rustichello is a literary genius, and the narrative plods along at a slow pace, with little regard for metaphor or dramatising people or events, but was a truly revolutionary piece of work without peers in 1300.

Marco was born to a mercantile family in the seafaring city of Venice. His father, Niccolo Polo, was a wealthy merchant who made his fortune trading with the Near East. Along with his brother Maffeo, Niccolo spent time at the court of Kublai Khan (1215-94), who having ‘never seen any Latin [people]… [was] exceedingly desirous to meet one’ (Prologue). The Polos left Kublai Khan when news of Niccolo’s wife’s death reached them, but after 2 years in Venice they travelled east again with Marco. The remaining narrative relates Marco’s knowledge of the world from his 26 years in the East.

To give you a flavour of the narrative, it simply begins ‘let me begin with Armenia’ (I), before giving as much detail as Polo can remember about the topography and locals. Typically, Polo describes the landscape, animals for hunting, curious facts about the people, and the climate of each place he mentions (and there are many). Most interesting is the account of his time with Kubilai Khan, which recounts Kublai’s manner of living, great achievements, and the inconceivable luxuries he possessed. For centuries, Polo was the main source for knowledge about the history and very-appearance of the Far East.

As well as strange people, Marco Polo also encountered many strange animals through his decades of travel, which had previously been known only by repute. His famous description of the unicorns he saw in Sumatra is well-worth quoting:

They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single, large, black horn in the middle of the forehead… They are very ugly beasts to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by Virgins. (VI)

He is, of course, describing a rhinoceros.

Marco Polo finally returned to Venice in 1295, and had his fortune turned into gemstones, before joining the city’s war against Genoa with his own vessel. He was eventually captured after a skirmish at sea in 1296, and imprisoned for 3 years in Genoa. He died of sickness in Venice in 1323. Although there has long-been debate over the veracity of Polo’s travels and how much was the result of tales he and Rustichello had heard elsewhere, much of Polo’s narrative has been substantiated by modern scholars. Whatever the truth, The Travels represent a good use of 3 years’ imprisonment.