Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Marco Polo in Manuscript: The Travels of the Devisement Du Monde

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Marco Polo in Manuscript: The Travels of the Devisement Du Monde

Article excerpt

Marco Polo's account of his journeys in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean is both a travel tale and a tale that traveled. Composed in 1298, Polo's account survives in 135 manuscripts produced before 1530 throughout Europe, and copied in over ten languages.1 Additional evidence of the work's broad distribution is found in early print editions from across western Europe.2 This geographical difffusion was complemented by dissemination among various social groups. Several fourteenth- and fijifteenth-century authors cited Polo, and early readers included encyclopedists, theologians, doctors, merchants, and kings.3 Polo's travel account was certainly one of the most widely circulated, if not influential, vernacular narratives in late medieval Europe.

The varied manuscript corpus of Polo's account reveals the extent to which this narrative defijied literary and epistemological categorization. It was the fijirst vernacular account of travel in the Far East, it was written by a layman, and it included information previously unknown to Europeans.4 Polo's account is in fact not a coherent story at all, but rather an assemblage of many kinds of facts, descriptions, and narratives. It is also a generic hybrid that fuses elements of folklore, myths, hagiographies, epics, and romances that one normally associates with the fund of Eurasian tales, yet departs radically from them.5 As a result, Polo's account did not have a stable textual identity. Not only was it translated into many languages, but also the text was given many diffferent forms and material contexts. There is no single authoritative version of the text, and the variations within and across linguistic corpora may be extensive. The text may be copied as a solo work, or compiled with any number of other works. Similarly, the facture of the manuscripts themselves ranges from the slapdash to the professional to the princely. Just as there is no defijinitive text, so is there no consistent mise en livre for Polo's text.

This essay examines one particular branch of the Polo manuscript tradition, that of the Old French text, commonly known as Le Devisement du monde (The Description of the World). It fijirst discusses how Polo's account made its way into France, where it was preserved in luxury manuscripts and became an heirloom of the French royal family. It then focuses on the ways in which diffferent manuscripts present, or frame, the Devisement through the use of written and visual paratexts. In the same way that the oral transmission of tales involved recontextualization from one telling to the next, so too did the presentation of texts in medieval manuscripts. The Devisement manuscripts are particularly striking because, although closely related textually, paratextually they are very diffferent. As Polo's account migrated from copy to copy, each manuscript became a narrative locus that invited a new framing and telling of the story. The varying titles assigned to the text and the diffferent depictions of Marco Polo reflect the multiple interpretive choices that the Devisement offfered to late medieval readers. Like other tales that traveled, Polo's account was both valuable and exceptionally adaptable. It meant diffferent things to diffferent readers, and as a result was endowed with a wide range of manuscript contexts.

Marco Polo in France

One of the oldest surviving Polo manuscripts (Paris, BnF, fr. 1116) is in a Franco-Italian dialect and was produced between 1310 and 1320, during Marco Polo's lifetime.6 This manuscript is a professional production, with a table of contents and decorated initials but no pictures. In it, Polo's text is copied alone and is titled the Divisiment dou monde in the opening rubric. Its patron, the circumstances of its production, its relationship to Marco Polo, and the date of its arrival in France are unknown. Nonetheless, the manuscript is signifijicant as an early witness of the text, and because it is related to the progenitor of the Old French versions of Polo's account. …

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