The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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HIST3404 Historical Literature and Documents: The Medieval World of Marco Polo

Semester 2 (2020-2021)

Lecture TimeTuesday 10:30am-12:45pm

VenueOnline (via Zoom)

LanguageEnglish

Lecturer James MORTON ((852) 3943 1531 / james.morton@cuhk.edu.hk)

Teaching Assistant RONG Zongliu ((852) 9346 3924 / zrongaa@link.cuhk.edu.hk)

Course Description

Introduction

In the year 1296, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo was captured by enemies from the rival Italian city of Genoa. While in captivity, he befriended a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa to whom he told his amazing life story. Marco came from a family of merchants who traded in precious goods that were brought to Europe from China along the famous Silk Road. As a young man, he set out with his father and uncle in the year 1269 into Asia, which was then dominated by the powerful Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan. Marco would spend twenty-four years in China and become the first Western European to gain detailed knowledge of the country and its people.

We know his story thanks to Rustichello, who wrote the work that we know today as The Travels of Marco Polo. The work is as fascinating as it is controversial. Was Marco telling the truth? How reliable was Rustichello’s account? What does it say about medieval Europeans’ views of China? This course will give students the chance to explore these questions and more through a focused reading of The Travels of Marco Polo and a supplementary selection of documents and other historical evidence. Instead of a traditional lecture format, we will meet in seminars to discuss each week’s topic, emphasising active participation and lively debate.


Learning Goals

This course has three main goals:

  1. To introduce you to the story of Marco Polo and the controversies that surround the text.
  2. To explore how medieval Europeans viewed China and what it reveals about pre-modern concepts of cultural difference and similarity.
  3. To help you develop the fundamental skillset and sensibility of a historian: how to understand scholarly debates, how to think critically about historical narratives, and how to effectively communicate your analysis to others.


Need Help?

It’s ok to ask for it! I understand that you may not have studied this subject before. If you have any difficulties with the readings, assignments, discussions, or any other aspects of the course, let me know and I will be happy to help you – that is what I am here for. You should feel free to email me and I will answer any questions that you have. Also, if you have a question during a seminar or tutorial, go ahead and ask me there and then; other students in the class may have the same question and you might be helping them too!


Teaching Mode

On account of the recent resurgence of COVID-19 in Hong Kong, it is unfortunately only possible for us to hold this class online via Zoom. While this is not ideal, it will still allow us to engage in active, face-to-face discussions. Further information on log-in details, updates to contingency plans, etc. is available on the Blackboard course website.

Syllabus

 

12 Jan

1. Introduction: The 13th-Century Eurasian World

The Travels of Marco Polo, ‘Introduction’ (1–29).

Peter Jackson, ‘Marco Polo and His “Travels”,’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61.1 (1998): 82–101.

19 Jan

2. Prologue: The Travels of Marco Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo, 33–73.

Mark Cruse, ‘Marco Polo in Manuscript: The Travels of the Devisement du monde,’ Narrative Culture 2.2 (2015): 171–189.

26 Jan

3. Prester John and Genghis Khan

The Travels of Marco Polo, 74–101.

Denise Aigle, The Mongol Empire between Myth and Reality: Studies in Anthropological History (Leiden, 2014), ch. 2: ‘The Mongols and the Legend of Prester John.’

2 Feb

4. Kublai Khan

The Travels of Marco Polo, 101–128.

Na Chang, ‘Kublai Khan in the Eyes of Marco Polo,’ European Review 25.3 (2017): 502–517.

9 Feb

5. The Mongol Government in Beijing

The Travels of Marco Polo, 128–155.

Shane McCausland, The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China, 1271–1368 (London, 2014), ch. 1: ‘Dadu: Eurasia’s Metropolis.’

16 Feb

Lunar New Year Holiday – No Class!

23 Feb

6. Chinese Culture Through European Eyes

The Travels of Marco Polo, 155–181.

Nancy S. Steinhardt, Chinese Architecture: A History (Princeton, NJ, 2019), ch. 12: ‘The Mongol Century.’

2 Mar

7. Mongol Conquests in the South

The Travels of Marco Polo, 181–204.

Geoff Wade, ‘An Annotated Translation of the Yuan Shi Account of Mian (Burma),’ in The Scholar’s Mind: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Mote (Hong Kong, 2009), 17–50.

9 Mar

8. Megacities of Eastern China

The Travels of Marco Polo, 204–231.

Francis A. Rouleau, ‘The Yangchow Latin Tombstone as a Landmark of Medieval Christianity in China,’ Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 17.3/4 (1954): 346–365.

16 Mar

9. Merchants of the South China Seas

The Travels of Marco Polo, 231–259.

Masaki Mukai, ‘“Muslim Diaspora” in Yuan China: A Comparative Analysis of Islamic Tombstones from the Southeast Coast,’ Asian Review of World Histories 4.2 (2016): 231–256.

23 Mar

10. India the Greater

The Travels of Marco Polo, 260–294.

Paul Freedman, ‘Spices and Late-Medieval European Ideas of Scarcity and Value,’ Speculum 80.4 (2005): 1209–1227.

30 Mar

Reading Week – No Class!

6 Apr

Public Holiday – No Class!

13 Apr

11. Return to the West

The Travels of Marco Polo, 295–319.

Surekha Davies, ‘The Wondrous East in the Renaissance Geographical Imagination: Marco Polo, Fra Mauro and Giovanni Battista Ramusio,’ History and Anthropology 23.2 (2012): 215–234.

20 Apr

12. The Western Hordes

The Travels of Marco Polo, 319–345.

Pier Giorgio Borbone, ‘A 13th-Century Journey from China to Europe: The Story of Mar Yahballaha and Rabban Sauma,’ Egitto e Vicino Oriente 31 (2008): 221–242.

10 May

 Final Essay Due

Assessment & Assignments

Assessment Overview

Your performance in the course will be assessed on the cumulative basis of different types of assignment (described in more detail below) and your attendance. There will not be an exam or quiz component. The weighting of the different factors is as follows:

Final Essay                                   30%
Discussion Participation           20%
Reading Summaries                   20%
Topic Presentation                     20%
Attendance                                   10%

Your final letter grade will be determined by your overall course percentage. You will not be graded on a curve. Grades will be assigned according to the following set thresholds:

A      90%                     C+  65%
A-     85%                     C    60%      
B+    80%                     C-   55%
B      75%                     D    50%
B-     70%                     F     >50%


Grade Descriptions

A                     Exceptional: Exceeds expectations. Demonstrates impressive knowledge, clarity, analytical ability, and a firm grasp of course material.

A-                    Strong: Has most of the qualities of A-grade work but has some minor areas for improvement.

B (+/-)             Good: Shows a solid understanding of course material. Has some flaws in writing or argumentation and may contain minor errors or misunderstandings.

C (+/-)             Satisfactory: Demonstrates an acceptable level of knowledge but suffers from lack of clarity, misunderstandings, historical errors, or weak argumentation.

D                     Unsatisfactory: Achieves the minimum passing grade but fails to meet most expectations of knowledge and argumentation.

F                      Failed: Does not meet basic expectations of knowledge, understanding, and/or timeliness in submission.


Course Readings

You will be assigned approximately 50 pages of reading each week. The main text will be Ronald Latham’s 1972 edition of The Travels of Marco Polo. While there are other translations available online and in libraries, these often differ from one another on account of the work’s complicated manuscript history. To make sure that we are all on the same page, I will make each week’s reading available online on the Blackboard course site.

You will also read an article or book chapter every week that sheds light on the relevant section of Marco Polo using documents or other historical evidence from outside the text. These readings will be posted online on Blackboard.

If you would like a general introduction to the period and the topic, I can recommend the following (non-compulsory) readings, all of which are available online or in the CUHK library system:

Beckwith, C.I. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton, NJ, 2009.

Bergreen, L. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. New York, 2007.

Brook, T. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Cambridge, MA, 2010.

Ferraro, J.M. Venice: History of the Floating City. Cambridge, 2012.

Park, H. Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-Modern Asia. Cambridge, 2012.

Whitfield, S. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road. Berkeley, CA, 2018.

Wickham, C. Medieval Europe. New Haven, 2016.


Reading Summaries

Before each class, you will complete the readings assigned for that week and then write a short summary (max. 500 words) that you will submit by email by the beginning of the seminar. The summary should describe the content of what you have read (both the reading from Marco Polo and the secondary reading). This is a reading comprehension exercise that will help to develop your skills in analysing and explaining texts in a short space.

For the Marco Polo readings, you should focus on summarising the general content of what is described and anything that the text emphasises or describes at length. For the secondary reading, you should describe both its content (what it is about) and the author’s central argument, if there is one. Sample reading summaries will be available on the course Blackboard site to give you a clear idea of what to aim for.

I will only ask you to write reading summaries for ten out of the thirteen weeks. This means that you get to skip three reading summaries; you can choose which ones.


Topic Presentation

Each class will begin with a topic presentation by a student or students to get the discussion started. This will constitute 20% of your overall course grade and every student will be expected to present once (no more, no less). Depending on the size of the class, you may be presenting alongside other students, in which case you should work together on your topic presentation as a team.

Topic presentations should be about 10–20 minutes. In your presentation, you should explain what you found most interesting about the week’s readings and why. I would also like you to pose at least five questions to the class that will help to get the discussion moving. If you want, you can supplement your presentation with a short PowerPoint slideshow or use other kinds of visual/audio accompaniment as appropriate. Feel free to get creative – remember, the goal is to spark the most interesting discussion that you can!


Final Essay

I will ask you to write a final essay (2,000–2,500 words) at the end of the semester, due on 10th May. I will provide you with a selection of five topics at the end of the lecture in week 10. You will choose one of the five topics to write about. The essay will require you to reflect on the major themes of the course and to use examples from the readings to make an argument that relates to a significant debate within historical scholarship on Marco Polo and 13th-century Eurasia.

The essay should be written to academic standards with a central thesis, reference to primary sources and secondary literature, and appropriate citations in footnotes. You are free to follow any accepted academic citation style such as Chicago, Harvard, or MLA. If you are not sure about how to write citations, I recommend looking at the Chicago Manual of Style quick citation guide: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

If you have any questions about either of the essays, let me know and I will be happy to answer.


Assignment Submission, Extensions, and Lateness Penalties

You will be expected to submit your final essay by 11:59pm on the date specified in the course schedule below by uploading it to the relevant section of the Blackboard course website along with a signed declaration of academic honesty from VeriGuide.

Scheduling conflicts and unforeseen circumstances can sometimes make it difficult to meet deadlines. If you are unable to submit your work on time, please contact me as soon as possible and I will be happy to grant you an extension if you have a legitimate reason to require one.

If you fail to submit work on time and I have not granted you an extension, you will incur a daily lateness penalty of 1 percentage point. For example, if you submit your final essay (worth 30%) 3 days after the deadline, you will lose 3 of the 30% available for that assignment; if you submit it 5 days late, you will lose 5 of the 30%, etc. I will not accept any further submissions after 7 days have passed unless I have granted special permission.

Tutorials

Participation

Instead of holding separate tutorial sessions, the tutorials will be merged into the regular seminar meetings. This means that our seminar meetings will now be 2 hours and 15 minutes long, but you will not have to attend separate tutorials during the semester. Remember that active participation in seminars is expected and will be 20% of your overall course grade – so don’t be shy!


Attendance and Absences

You are expected to attend all seminars. This will comprise 10% of your overall course grade. If you have a valid reason for being absent from a seminar (such as a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or similar), please contact me as soon as possible to ask for permission.

Others

Plagiarism and Academic Ethics

Studying at the university level requires a high standard of professionalism and honesty in your academic work and personal conduct. This falls under the broad category of academic ethics, a matter that the History Department at CUHK takes very seriously. I expect you all to behave in an honest and respectful manner in class and in your assignments. Unethical behaviour, including plagiarism, will not be tolerated. You can find more information on university policy at http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/policy/academichonesty/.

If you are unsure about the definition of plagiarism or academic ethics, feel free to ask me and I will be happy to discuss it with you in more detail.


Open-Door Hours

I make myself available every week from 2 to 5pm on Friday by Zoom so that anyone can speak to me about anything they want. If you would like to chat with me about any aspect of the course, your university studies, career development, favourite historical books and movies, or anything else, feel free to drop in and I will be happy to see you. I will provide Zoom log-in details for my open-door hours on the Blackboard course website.

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/policy/academichonesty/.

With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed declaration that they are aware of these policies, regulations, guidelines and procedures.

  • In the case of group projects, all members of the group should be asked to sign the declaration, each of whom is responsible and liable to disciplinary actions, irrespective of whether he/she has signed the declaration and whether he/she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the problematic contents.
  • For assignments in the form of a computer-generated document that is principally text-based and submitted via VeriGuide, the statement, in the form of a receipt, will be issued by the system upon students’ uploading of the soft copy of the assignment.

Assignments without the properly signed declaration will not be graded by teachers.

Only the final version of the assignment should be submitted via VeriGuide.

The submission of a piece of work, or a part of a piece of work, for more than one purpose (e.g. to satisfy the requirements in two different courses) without declaration to this effect shall be regarded as having committed undeclared multiple submissions. It is common and acceptable to reuse a turn of phrase or a sentence or two from one’s own work; but wholesale reuse is problematic. In any case, agreement from the course teacher(s) concerned should be obtained prior to the submission of the piece of work.

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