The textual tradition on Marco Polo’s Devisement du monde is rather complex, given the significant amount of manuscripts preserved in a number of languages: middle French, Latin, Italian in a Tuscan and in a Pisan versions, etc. In his introduction to volume 1 on the present edition, P. Ménard soundly stresses that the publication of such an important work is an undertaking far beyond the strength of a single scholar. So has he gathered around him a whole team of collaborators, whose objective was to publish in several volumes this text of considerable significance for our knowledge of different regions of the Orient: the Iranian and Indian worlds, Central Asia, China ― in particular during the reign of Yüan Emperor Qubilai, to whose entourage Marco Polo belonged.
There are numerous editions and translations of the Devisement du monde, but most of the time the editors have tempted to “reconstruct” a text out of the adjunction of several manuscripts (on this manuscript tradition and the varied existing translations, see Introduction, 1: 10-9). The present edition has been realised on the basis of a manuscript preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Ms. Fr. 116). The Editors have however taken into account the whole manuscript tradition and they offer a precise critical publication. As P. Ménard puts it (p. 12): “Nous ne croyons pas que l’on puisse procéder à une ‘reconstruction’ de l’archétype, encore moins de l’original. Les textes du Moyen Âge sont sans cesse en mouvement, les phases successives de leur vie ne permettent pas de remonter à leur première rédaction.” If the Editors have decided to select the French version, it is because the text’s original version has been written in French.
Another problem comes from the fact that Marco Polo did not write himself his travelogue, or rather his “Book of Marvels.” It is now admitted that during his captivity in Genoa in 1298 he had his work “redrawn” (retrait) by his companion in misfortune Rusticello, a compiler of courtly novels. This term of retraire is to be understood with the meaning of to tell, viz. to write. What kind of role could Rusticello play? Traces of orality can be detected in the work, but the mention of loads of details also suggests the existence of notes taken by the traveller (1: 19-24). Even if the two men did work together to writing the final text, it is possible that Rusticello’s role was limited to the redaction of the materials in a literary form. In 2004, a commented translation of the Devisement was published by R. Kappler, who tried to reconstruct the text, on the basis of only one manuscript tradition, and without identifiable mention of additions. He writes, about Rusticello’s role: “Ce Grand Œuvre est le fruit d’une alchimie où la fusion n’est pas complète [. . .]. Mais Rusticello sait qu’il compose un livre (Marco Polo, Le Devisement du monde, transl. R. Kappler, Paris: 20).”
For centuries the book has raised the interest of historians, geographers, ethnologists, and explorers thanks to the information that it offers in multiple domains. Marco Polo’s spirit of observation is precise. He observes that Alexander’s memory is still very vivid in Northern Afghanistan (2, chap. 44: 2). He describes the nomadic life of the Mongols, who with their droves travel the length and breadth of wide areas of land (2, chap. 68: 30-1). His evocations of the religion of the Mongols (2, chap. 69: 32-6), of their sacrifices and funerary rites (2, chap. 57: 16-8), his description of the offering of the spouse to the traveller (2, chap. 58: 18) are in correspondence with the Mongols’ system of representations. Contrary to Franciscan travellers, Marco Polo does not express value judgments and he often acts as a genuine ethnologist. Substantial part of his information is new. For instance, the narrative of the war of Priest John against Genghis Khan (2, chap. 65-66: 26-9) is also new if compared with previous versions: For the first time Marco Polo provides a positive vision of Genghis Khan against his enemy, who becomes as vile as a Saracen. The figure of Qubilai (vol. 3) is very idealised and deprived of Mongol features: an exotic ruler indeed, but perfectly alien to his race. In fact, a number of features noted by the Venetian traveller are close to reality: Qubilai was cultivated and open to all civilisations. He had exchanges of correspondences and embassies with Pope Nicholas IV and did even favour the installation of the Catholic Church in the imperial capital Khanbaliq, through the Franciscan Giovanni de Montecorvino.
This precise edition of the French text, with all the variants contained in the existing manuscripts, is of great interest for researchers, who now have at their disposal a version purified from the additions and admixtures of manuscripts of those previous publications which have so far been the basis for the majority of translations and adaptations.