08 June 2022

The Geography of the Imagination - How Marco Polo Inspired Christopher Columbus

Here are a few paragraphs from my book The Fourth Economy about Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, a meeting of east and west.

Marco Polo’s trips to the Orient overlapped with the final crusades (he returned to Italy from his final trip in 1295) and opened up trade routes with Cathay (a kingdom roughly coincident with China) and Cathay’s “Emperor of the Universe,” Kublai Khan. He traveled widely through Asia, India, and the Middle East and then, while sitting in jail back home in Italy, dictated his stories to a cellmate who wrote romance novels.

The book seduced Europeans, who were fascinated to learn of distant lands with exotic customs. They read of Pem, a place where a woman was legally entitled to take a new husband when ever hers was gone on a trip of twenty or more days. They learned of the funeral procession of the Mongol’s Great Khans in which “anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world." Mangu Khan’s funeral procession collected twenty thousand victims en route to the grave. Yet it might have been the reports of great wealth that most captivated their imagination. Marco Polo inspired generations of explorers.

Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506), for one, carried a copy of Marco Polo’s account with him on his journeys across the Atlantic. Marco Polo changed the geography of the imagination of younger explorers, changing what they thought was possible and desirable, and this transformation of the possible changed what was real.

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