Marco Polo The Book of Wonders

Marco Polos The Book of Wonders is a particularly interesting example of 14th-century illuminated manuscript. First, it was a unique case in the age of dominant religious literature that a secular topic aroused such interest. Second, unlike most manuscripts performed in Latin, it was written in Old French. Third, the book was illuminated by famous Boucicaut Master in collaboration with other prominent artists and reflects the European idea of the Orient as a mysterious and wonderful land. Without ever visiting eastern countries, medieval illuminators could imagine them on the basis of the travelers stories. However, their flight of imagination was restricted by existing knowledge Turks and Saracens that were the closest oriental neighbors of Europe well known. For this reason, fantastic creatures appear on the pages along with people of European appearance and with European accessories, camels remind of horses, and fortresses of any European city walls. Therefore, the illuminators of the The Book of Wonders were guided by imagination as well as popular and often erroneous – ideas of Asia in their work.

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Brenk speaks of the ideological, material, and former integration of art objects. He insists that simultaneous analysis of these aspects allows deeper insights and a more comprehensive understanding of the meaning of the particular object. While Brenk applied this principle to architecture, medieval illuminated manuscripts present a rich material for simultaneous analysis. Therefore, to reach the fullest clarity, it is necessary to regard The Book of Marvels within its historical, artistic, and ideological paradigms.

The manuscript under review is known as French 2810 from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It is one of the most famous and lavishly decorated copies of The Book of Wonders. Apart from the fascinating content, the book contains beautiful miniatures and ornaments, which are more than just illustrations. Moreover, the creation of The Book and its subsequent destiny deserves a closer look for it belonged to a range of powerful people of France.

History of the Book

Marco Polo, a merchant from Venice, set off for his Eastern journey together with his father and uncle in 1271, at the age of 17. 24 years later, in 1295, he returned to Venice claiming that he had spent 17 years in service of Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongol Empire. He travelled across the vast territory of the Mongols, visited Near East, Persia, India, and other lands, about which his contemporaries had very scarce information. Although Marco Polo was not the first European traveler to the East, he was the first one to arrange his account in a popular form. When Polo was captured as a captain of Venetian galley and spent three years in a Genoan prison, he shared his cell with the romance writer Rusticello da Pisa, who put down Polos memoirs. Perhaps, the account of Polos travels gained such a popularity due to Rusticellos literary talent.

The book was written in Old French in 1298, but as its popularity grew, translated into several vernacular languages. The Manuscript spread throughout Europe under different titles, such as Le Divisament du monde, The Book of Wonders or Book of the Marvels of the World. Currently, 150 copies of the text are known, and only four of them were extensively illustrated. Such a popularity of a secular subject means that Polos story was more than just the next fairy-tale. It was like a window into the unknown, a description of the known world. Despite several fantastic or incorrect details, the book revealed the variety of religions and nations, customs and traditions, as well as fauna and flora of the East. Polo provided the most detailed description of the Great Mongol Empire that submerged almost the whole East and reached Europe. Being observant and curious, he explored not only the court life and intrigues, but also the state administration, systems of communication, military tactics, and the culture of peoples populating the Empire. At the same time, Polo spoke of definitely fantastic creatures, such as cynocephali and unicorns, and stressed his own importance as a diplomat and advisor at the court of Kublai Kahn, which called into question the credibility of the whole story. Far from adopting the longestablished template of a wild, barbaric East teeming with strange fauna and monstrous men, the Divisament authors challenged the conventional, European view of a monolithic Orient and a monolithic West by exposing diversity among Eastern cultures. Marco Polos story opened a vast new world that was real, versatile, and existed parallel to the Christian universe.

Historical Context

In the time of Marco Polos account, Europes contacts with the Orient were scarce, irregular, and unstable. Merchants established new trade contacts to deliver rare goods, crusaders waded wars with the Saracens for Jerusalem, Catholic missionaries searched to increase the number of adepts in the East. However, few of them reached farther than Anatolia, Palestine, and Persia. At the same time, the emergence and rapid and aggressive expansion of the Mongol Empire evoked curiosity and anxiety, for the hordes of the Mongol Khans had reached European territories. The Pope of Rome sent Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini with a diplomatic mission to the Mongol ruler in 1244; a decade later, Guillaume de Rubroek became Louis IX envoy. Both of them made reports of their journeys. Since the Mongol Empire posed a real threat to Europe, Polos story was more than mere entertainment. Although Polos narrative expanded the knowledge of the East, the accounts of the pagan religious practices and military conflicts with Christians provided justification for crusading activities of his contemporaries. However, European knowledge of the Orient remained scarce. The popular image of the East that prevailed even in the 18th century was that of ethereal beauty, decadence, humans and landscapes in primitive state. While Europeans settled the Orient with all kinds of fantastic creatures, they did not know about the rich civilizations of Asia. Moreover, they perceived the East as always hostile to the West, to Christian religion and people.

Significance of the Manuscript in the Context of Medieval Gift-Giving

Contemplation about the history of the manuscript provides insights into the power relations in the Valois dynasty. The original manuscript of The Book of Wonders circulated as a gift from one noble family to another. John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, who was famous for patronizing art, ordered an illuminated copy of The Book of Wonders in 1412. One of its miniatures depicts presentation of the book to its first owner. Atelier of the Boucicaut Master, one of the most prominent illuminators of the period, illuminated the manuscript in cooperation with another atelier working in the style of the Master of Bedford. For instance, the content of the French 2810, in particular, battle scenes between pagans and Christians could have a specific meaning for John the Fearless, for he took part in a crusade and even was taken captive at Nicopolis in 1396. In January 1413, John the Fearless presented it to his uncle Jean de Berry, an ardent collector of illuminated manuscripts, who exerted a considerable influence on Johns bibliophilic passion. After the death of Jean de Berry in 1416, the manuscript went over to the Armagnak family. After a certain period when its traces were lost, The Book of Wonders re-appeared in the library of King Francis I of France. It would be naive to assume that presenting of such a precious gift could be a simple sign of affection. For medieval nobility, manuscripts were more that a source of knowledge but the objects of added value confirming the status of the owner. Taking into consideration that, the Valois court was ritual settings for the enactment of authority through gift giving, tracing the journey of the manuscript through the hands of the powerful allows understanding social, genealogical and power implications. Historians speak of medieval gift-giving in terms of prestation, that reflects the relationship of obligation and authority. Whatever were the intentions of the giver, each time it was not a disinterested present, and it is not surprising that such a precious manuscript finally landed n the royal collection.

Imagery of French 2810

Illustrations in The Book of Marvels deserve special attention. They are masterpieces from the viewpoint of the artistic performance. Meanwhile, Brenk considers that a medieval work of art does not operate on a single level, and can comprehend at the same time personal, eschatological, historical, political, and religions issues. At the same time, they are interesting in historical context because of their belonging to East-West paradigm and to the epoch, in which they were created. The Boucicaut Master of and his colleagues were driven by their imagination but at the same time constrained by the existing binocular ideas of the Orient.

As Polos text was not a coherent narrative but rather a collection of episodes and biographies, the scope of the texts, their arrangement, and accents differed from copy to copy, thus creating a metacommunication between the author, the conceptualizer, and the audience. In each individual case, the designers of the book framed Polos account according to their own interpretations and the needs of their patrons. Strickland argues that the ideological objectives of the illustrations to French 2810 sample were threefold: to make Eastern court culture coherent to a Western audience; to reinforce traditional, often complex, attitudes towards the East; and to elicit wonder Though the degree to which the illuminators worked for those objectives consciously and where they followed is disputable, the miniatures successfully make that impression.

The two miniatures under analysis are folios 34 right and 59 right. They illustrate the two aspects of the imagery characteristic of The Book of Wonders. One is a hunting scene with a realistic elephant and a fantastic Unicorn. Another is a military scene with portrayal of royalty. The analysis of these miniatures reveals the scope of European ideas about Asia.

The miniature on Folio 34r depicts the beginning of the battle of Kublai Khan with his uncle Nayan. Pretender to the throne Nayan is sleeping with his wife in a tent while a group of armed horsemen is approaching, The first striking feature in the image is absolutely European appearance of the characters. Nayan with a groomed patriarchal beard and his blonde wife with a hairstyle typical for the 14thcentury French ladies are both wearing crowns of a distinct European design. It could be a deliberate attempt of drawing parallels between the French court and the court of the Mongol Emperor. Most likely, the illuminators had not seen Mongols in their life. However, Polos story portrayed them as intelligent people capable of the highest military, engineering, and cultural achievements. Despite the described events and practices that could be explained by a different mentality, Polos description contradicted the popular idea of the Asians as uncultured and savage pagans. Thus, European appearance of the portrayed Mongols can speak about deliberate approximation of the western and eastern realties.

Several concessions to the eastern setting can be noticed in the armor and the headgear of the warriors. The attacking group, except their leader, wears turbans and caps similar to Turkish and carry curved sabres with wide blades used by the Saracens. Only one of them fights with a double-edged European sword. However, their leader looks like a European knight. Saracens were a long-time enemy of the Christian Europe, and Europeans had an extensive information about their looks, dress, and weaponry. For the rest, the attackers, the sentinels, the bed in the tent, and the royal couple look very much like contemporary Europeans.

As a precursor of the Nederlandisch School of Painting, the Boucicaut Master extensively entwined symbols in the realistic imagery, for example to accentuate the royal status of the characters. First, the sleeping couple is covered with a red counterpane, which is a royal color. Second, their figures are slightly larger than those of the soldiers. Third, they wear crowns, which facilitate recognizing them as monarchs. The leader of the horsemen wears a crown, too, as well as a gold-color gown that also unmistakably stresses his belonging to the royal bloodline.

The second miniature is a tribute to the wonders of the Orient, and it is more exotic than the previous one. In spite of that it could probably grasp the imagination of the readers and bring them closer to the subject. Folio 59r shows a scene of a royal hunt. Hunting was a frequent entertainment of European nobility, so the French court could vividly imagine and empathize with their oriental counterparts. The horsemen on this miniature wear eastern clothes. Though Kubiski considers that the Boucicaut Master and the Bedford Master tries to depict the contemporary fashion of Turks, Saracen, and Mongols as exactly as possible, he agrees that Asian clothing in The Book of Wonders is eclectic and has many European details. However, they are not Mongolian but rather Turkish or Persian, which is still more familiar to the western world than the remote and unseen Mongols. The Great Khan, as the monarch in the previous case, resembles of a European King in a red gown and a crown around his cap. Moreover, he has spurs attached to his feet, which is a peculiar European detail. Neither the landscape is distinctly oriental. These signs show that the illuminators relied upon the existing scope of knowledge about the East.

However, the objects of the hunt had to fascinate the imagination of European hunters. Two elephants and a unicorn are running away from the chasers. The elephants are painted in a realistic manner, apart for the fact that they look big compared with the trees but small compares with the hunters. Moreover, they are hunting elephants with bows and arrows, which is impossible in realty. While unicorns do not exist in reality, the medieval people believed in their existence, and the mysterious Asia was the most suitable location for those fantastic animals. Marco Polo does tell about unicorns; however, many researchers consider that he meant rhinoceros that is found in India.

It is obvious that the Boucicaut Master and his colleagues and apprentices had some primary knowledge about the eastern people and lands. However, like most Europeans, they did not distinguish the nuances in the Orientalism. For this reason, on the miniatures, Mongols adopt the appearance of the Saracens. The binary concept of monolithic inverse worlds of the East and the West was deeply rooted in the medieval mentality. This binary perception associated with the dichotomies of white and black, good and evil, or native and strange may have yielded the effect of fair-faced Mongols. On the other hand, the European appearance of the Great Khan and Mongol nobility can be explained according to Weiss in the terms of spiritual kinship between the French and Mongolian royal dynasties. Therefore, The Book of Wonders while attempting to reconstruct the exciting land of Marco Polos travels is not a guide to the Orient. For the modern explorer of medieval manuscripts, it is rather an anthology of Medieval ideas, perceptions, and imagination about the East embedded in the framework of the French court life and culture.


It is obvious that the Boucicaut Master and his colleagues and apprentices had some primary knowledge about the eastern people and lands. However, like most Europeans, they did not distinguish the nuances in the Orientalism. The binary concept of monolithic inverse worlds of the East and the West was deeply rooted in the medieval mentality. This binary perception associated with the dichotomies of white and black, good and evil, or native and strange may have yielded the effect of fair-faced Mongols. Therefore, The Book of Wonders while attempting to reconstruct the exciting land of Marco Polos travels is not a guide to the Orient. For the modern explorer of medieval manuscripts, it is rather an anthology of medieval ideas, perceptions, and imagination about the East embedded in the framework of the French court life and culture.

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