The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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HIST3404JM Historical Literature and Documents:
The Medieval World of Marco Polo

Semester 1 (2022-2023)

Lecture TimeTuesday, 14:30 - 16:15

VenueRoom 306, Lee Shau Kee Building (LSK 306)
Room 201, T.C. Cheng Building, UCC (UCC 201)


Lecturer James MORTON (

Teaching Assistant CHEN Mengjia (

Course Description


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 Chinese goods that were brought to Europe along the famous Silk Road. As a young man, he set out with his father and uncle in the year 1269 for Asia, then dominated by the powerful Mongol Yuan Dynasty of Kublai Khan. Marco would spend twenty-four years in China and become the first Westerner 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 text is as controversial as it is interesting. 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 selection of related academic scholarship. Instead of a traditional lecture format, we will meet in seminars to discuss each week’s topic, emphasising active participation and lively discussion.

Learning Goals

This course has three main goals:

  1. To introduce you to the story of Marco Polo and historical debates around 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 academic arguments, 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 know that you have probably not 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 can always email me or come to my open-door hours and I will do my best to answer your questions. 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!


Course Schedule

6 Sep

1. Introduction: The Medieval World of Marco Polo

Marco Polo, The Travels, trans. Nigel Cliff (London, 2015), xi–xxxix.

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

13 Sep

2. Prologue: The Journey Begins

The Travels, 3–31.

Mark Cruse, ‘Marco Polo in Manuscript: The Travels of the Devisement du monde,’ Narrative Culture 2.2 (2015): 171–89.

20 Sep

3. Persia and the Silk Road

The Travels, 31–66.

Étienne de la Vaissière, ‘Trans-Asian Trade, or the Silk Road Deconstructed (Antiquity, Middle Ages),’ in The Cambridge History of Capitalism I. The Rise of Capitalism from Ancient Origins to 1848 (Cambridge, 2014), 101–24.

27 Sep

4. Prester John and Mongol Christianity

The Travels, 66–96.

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’.

4 Oct

Public Holiday – No Class!

11 Oct

5. The Khan’s Court

The Travels, 96–128.

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

18 Oct

6. From Cathay to Tibet

The Travels, 128–57.

Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245 – 1510 (Pittsburgh, 2014), ch. 7: ‘Civility’.



25 Oct

 7. Mongol Conquests in the South

The Travels, 157–91.

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), 17–42.

1 Nov

8. Metropolises of Eastern China

The Travels, 191–224.

James D. Frankel, Islam in China (London, 2021), ch. 3: ‘Muslim Entrenchment in Medieval China’.

Johannes van Oort, Review of ‘Medieval Christian and Manichaean Remains from Quanzhou (Zayton)’ by Samuel N.C. Lieu et al., Vigiliae Christianae 68.3 (2014): 334–7.

8 Nov

9. Merchants of the China Seas

The Travels, 225–56.

Paul Freedman, ‘Spices and Late-Medieval European Ideas of Scarcity and Value,’ Speculum 80.4 (2005): 1209–27.

15 Nov

10. Indian Culture and Religion

The Travels, 256–82.

Nathan J. Ristuccia, ‘Eastern Religions and the West: The Making of an Image’, History of Religions 53.2 (2013): 170–204.

22 Nov

11. Return to the West

The Travels, 283–309.

Surekha Davies, ‘The Wondrous East in the Renaissance Geographical Imagination: Marco Polo, Fra Mauro and Giovanni Battista Ramusio,’ History and Anthropology 23.2 (2012): 215–34.

29 Nov

12. The Western Hordes

The Travels, 309–41.

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): 221–42.

14 Dec

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 assignments is as follows:

Final Essay                         40%
Discussion Participation            30%
Reading Summaries (x10)         20%
Topic Presentation                     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 Nigel Cliff’s 2015 translation of The Travels of Marco Polo. While there are other editions 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 also 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:

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.

Haw, S.G. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. London, 2006.

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 (approx. 250–500 words) that you will submit in hard copy at the end of each 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. It will also help you remember the readings during class discussion.

For the Marco Polo readings, you should focus on summarising the general content of what is described and anything that seems particularly important. For the secondary readings, you should describe both their content (what they are about) and the authors’ central arguments. You can find sample reading summaries and a short how-to guide on Blackboard to give you a better idea of how to write them. I will only ask you to write reading summaries for ten out of the twelve weeks. This means that you can skip two reading summaries of your choice.

Topic Presentation

Each class will begin with a topic presentation by a student or students to get the discussion started. This will constitute 10% of your overall course grade and every student will 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 14th December. I will provide you with a selection of five topics at the end of the seminar 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 scholarly debate 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:

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

Discussion Participation

This course is focused on reading and discussion. Instead of lectures, we will meet each week for a seminar in which we will discuss that week’s assigned readings. We will then take a 15-minute break and reconvene for a short interactive tutorial (note the classroom change!). Active participation in class discussions is an important part of the course and your learning experience. Discussion participation will therefore comprise 30% of your overall course grade.

To be clear, participating in class discussions means that you will actually have to speak. Sitting in silence is not participation and will not count towards your participation score. But don’t worry! You don’t have to be an expert (or even knowledgeable) about a topic to join in the discussion. Any kind of contribution, even if it is just a simple comment or a question, will count as participation and will thus add to your course grade. So don’t be shy!

New Approaches to World History Seminar

This term, the History department will be holding the second series of its ‘New Approaches to World History’ seminar. This take place on Zoom every Thursday from 8th September to 1st December for a lecture by a leading world historian. At the end of the lecture, members of the audience will have the chance to engage in a Q&A with the speaker. A complete schedule of events, with topics, dates, and times, will be released soon.

Since this seminar has a clear relevance to our course, I would like you to attend no fewer than two meetings of the New Approaches to World History Seminar. You should also ask at least one question during one of the Q&A sessions. Your attendance and participation in this seminar will form part of your overall participation grade for this course.

Attendance and Absences

You are expected to attend all seminars and tutorials. For every class that you miss without my approval, 1% will be deducted from your final 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.

Assignment Submission, Extensions, and Lateness Penalties

You will be expected to submit your final essay by 11:59pm on 14th December 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 40%) 3 days after the deadline, you will lose 3 of the 40% available for that assignment; if you submit it 5 days late, you will lose 5 of the 40%, etc. I will not accept any further submissions after 7 days have passed unless I have granted special permission.


Open-Door Hours

I make myself available in my office (KHB 123) every week from 2 to 5pm on Friday 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. In the event that we are forced to move back to online teaching, I will hold my open-door hours on Zoom.

Plagiarism and Academic Ethics

Plagiarism and Academic Ethics

Studying at university requires a high standard of professionalism and honesty in your academic work and personal conduct. This falls under the broad category of academic ethics, which I take very seriously (and so should you). 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

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.

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

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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