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Peasants, not princes: the potato finds a home in Europe April 18th, 2021 by

The French philosopher Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introduced the potato into his country by having it planted with great fanfare in the king’s gardens. Guards were posted to protect the new crop, ostensibly to prevent thefts, but really to draw attention to it. When the guards were withdrawn overnight from the now mature crop, curious farmers snuck in and dug up the potatoes to plant in their own fields, just as the clever Parmentier had intended.

Some years ago I told this story from the podium of the National Potato Congress in Bolivia. My audience of Andean potato experts loved the tale, which is one reason why I must retract it now, for it is simply a bit of fake history, penned by Parmentier’s friend and biographer, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Perhaps I should have known better, but in the potato story I learned in grad school, European peasants resisted the tuber brought back by Spanish sailors fresh from the conquest of Peru in the 1530s. Europeans were used to eating cereals, and the potato lived underground, like the devil, or so went the story.

In a recent book, British historian Rebecca Earle sets the potato record straight. She points out that European peasants did eat root crops, like carrots and turnips.

Earle also shows that European peasants embraced the potato from the start, often growing it discretely in a home garden, for once a new crop was widely grown and sold, it acquired a market value and could be taxed and tithed.

According to court records from Cornwall in 1768, a clergyman sued one of his flock because she was growing potatoes without paying him a tithe. Witnesses testified that the potato had already been grown for many generations in Cornwall. The potato was also mentioned in Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook published in Frankfurt in 1681. During the Nine Years War (1688-1697) so many potatoes were grown in Flanders that soldiers were able to survive by pilfering potatoes from peasants’ fields.

The potato was widely grown all over Europe (in France, too) before Parmentier was born. Then as now, smallholder farmers were eager to experiment with new crops. Peasants spread the potato across Europe long before the nobles paid it much attention. Earle also writes that potatoes were being grown commercially in the Canary Islands by the 1570s, and shipped to France and the Netherlands.

In Earle’s analysis, after widespread hunger in the mid-1700s fueled popular revolts, kings began to realize that a well-fed, healthy population would be more productive. Rulers finally saw that it was in their own self-interest for the state to assume some responsibility to ensure that their subjects’ had enough food to eat.

Potatoes yielded as much as three times more food per hectare than rye and other grain crops. Monarchs, like King Louis XIV (patron of Parmentier) belatedly began to understand the advantages of potatoes and entered the history books as a promotor of the new crop. Other historical inaccuracies arose. Frederick the Great is erroneously portrayed as introducing Germans to the potato.

The myth that the conservative peasants were afraid to grow and eat potatoes, or that the potato was spread across Europe by emperors and philosophers has proven a pervasive piece of fake history. These stories burnished the reputations of the elites at the expense of the peasants and home gardeners. Many of the true potato promotors were women, who tended the home gardens, ideal spaces for the experiments that helped the potato become the world’s fourth most widely grown crop, now produced in nearly every country of the world. Yet further proof that smallholder farmers have always been eager to try new crops and other innovations.

Further reading

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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CAMPESINOS, NO PRĂŤNCIPES: ACOGIENDO LA PAPA EN EUROPA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de abril del 2021

El filósofo francés Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introdujo la papa en su país haciéndola sembrar a bombo y platillo en los jardines del rey. Se colocaron guardias para proteger el nuevo cultivo, aparentemente para evitar robos, pero en realidad para llamar la atención. Cuando los guardias se retiraron de la noche a la mañana del cultivo ya maduro, los campesinos curiosos se colaron y desenterraron las papas para sembrarlas en sus propios huertos, tal y como pretendía el astuto Parmentier.

Hace algunos años conté esta historia desde el podio del Congreso Nacional de la Papa en Bolivia. A mi público de expertos andinos en la papa le encantó el relato, lo cual es una de las razones por las que debo retractarme ahora, ya que es nada más que una historia falsa, escrita por el amigo y biógrafo de Parmentier, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Tal vez debería haberlo sabido, pero en la historia de la papa que aprendí en la universidad, los campesinos europeos se resistieron al tubérculo traído por los marineros españoles recién llegados de la conquista de Perú en la década de 1530. Los europeos estaban acostumbrados a comer cereales, y la papa vivía bajo tierra, como el diablo, o al menos así me contaban.

En un libro reciente, la historiadora británica Rebecca Earle aclara la historia de la papa. Señala que los campesinos europeos sí comían cultivos de raíces, como zanahorias y nabos.

Earle también demuestra que los campesinos europeos adoptaron la papa desde el principio, a menudo cultivándola discretamente en el jardín de su casa, ya que una vez que un nuevo cultivo se extendía y se vendía, adquiría un valor de mercado y podía ser gravado y diezmado.

Según las actas judiciales de Cornualles de 1768, un clérigo demandó a un miembro de su congregación, porque ella cultivaba papas sin pagarle el diezmo. Los testigos declararon que la papa ya se había cultivado durante muchas generaciones en Cornualles. La papa también se menciona en el libro de cocina de Marx Rumpolt, publicado en Frankfurt en 1681. Durante la Guerra de los Nueve Años (1688-1697) se cultivaron tantas papas en Flandes que los soldados pudieron sobrevivir robando papas de los campos de los campesinos.

La papa se cultivaba ampliamente en toda Europa (también en Francia) antes de que naciera Parmentier. En aquel entonces, igual que hoy en día, a los pequeños agricultores les gusta experimentar con nuevos cultivos. Los campesinos difundieron la papa por toda Europa mucho antes de que los nobles le prestaran mucha atención. Earle también escribe que en la década de 1570 ya se cultivaban papas comercialmente en las Islas Canarias y se enviaban a Francia y los Países Bajos.

Según el análisis de Earle, después de que el hambre generalizada a mediados del siglo XVII alimentara las revueltas populares, los reyes empezaron a darse cuenta de que una población bien alimentada y sana sería más productiva. Los gobernantes finalmente vieron que les interesaba que el Estado asumiera alguna responsabilidad para garantizar que sus súbditos tuvieran suficientes alimentos para comer.

Las papas producían hasta tres veces más alimentos por hectárea que el centeno y otros cultivos de cereales. Los monarcas, como el rey Luis XIV (mecenas de Parmentier), empezaron a comprender tardíamente las ventajas de la papa y entraron en los libros de historia como promotores del nuevo cultivo. Surgieron otras inexactitudes históricas. Federico el Grande es presentado erróneamente como el introductor de la patata para los alemanes.

El mito de que los campesinos conservadores tenían miedo de cultivar y comer papas, o que la papa fue difundida por toda Europa por emperadores y filósofos, ha resultado ser una pieza omnipresente de la historia falsa. Estos relatos han servido para engrosar la reputación de las élites a costa de los campesinos y los jardineros. Muchos de los verdaderos promotores de la papa fueron mujeres, que cuidaban los huertos caseros, espacios ideales para los experimentos que ayudaron a que la papa se convirtiera en el cuarto cultivo más extendido del mundo, que ahora se produce en casi todos los países del globo. Una prueba más de que los pequeños agricultores siempre han estado dispuestos a probar nuevos cultivos y otras innovaciones.

Lectura adicional

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

Historias relacionadas del blog de Agro-Insight

Papas nativas, deliciosas y vulnerables

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Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism April 11th, 2021 by

For 150 years, much of the public has become alienated from our food, often not knowing how it was produced, or where. Single-nutrient research papers (Vitamin C cures the common cold! Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease!) have eroded our perception of food and provided the basis for food companies to get us to eat more highly processed foods touted as healthier than the real food. The work of a few reductionist chemists has had an outsized influence on industrial food production, with devastating effects on soil health and human health.

In 1840, the German scientist Justus von Liebig observed that nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) were responsible for crop growth. Later in life, Liebig realized that these macronutrients were far from adequate. He even argued vehemently against the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers for many years, but his progressive insights were largely ignored by the fertilizer industry, which quickly understood that more money can be made by keeping things simple. Occasionally, some micronutrients such as Zinc (Zn), Magnesium (Mg) or Sulphur (S) have been added to blends of fertilizer, but the overreliance of these chemicals has had a devastating effect on soil ecology, air and water pollution.

Healthy soils are complicated systems, with a host of micro- and macro-organisms, from earthworms to beneficial fungi and bacteria, interacting with each other to create a living soil. Many universities have shied away from this complex ecology, creating departments of soil physics and soil chemistry, but not ones for soil biology or ecology. Marketing people also favour simplicity. Telling farmers how to apply 120 kg of NPK to grow a crop is easier than educating them on soil ecosystems with all their complex interactions. And these simple recommendations sell more fertilizer.

The nascent food industry was also quick to latch onto simplistic, chemical reductionism. The same Liebig, who promoted nitrogen as plant food, proposed that animal protein (which contains nitrogen) was the fertilizer that makes humans grow.

By 1847 Liebig had invented a beef-based extract, and he went into business with an entrepreneur who bought cheap land in the pampas of Uruguay. From the new port town of Fray Bentos, about 100 miles up the Uruguay River from Buenos Aires, Liebig’s extract, as thick as molasses, was shipped across the world.

Liebig claimed that his extract contained fats and proteins and could cure typhus and all sorts of digestive disorders. Liebig enlisted physicians and apothecaries to sell his goo. As criticism mounted that there was little nutritional value in his concoctions, the Liebig company changed tack, marketing the product not as a medicine, but as a delicious palliative that could ease a troubled stomach and mind. This change in marketing proved shrewd. By the early 1870s the extract was a staple in middle-class pantries across Europe. Lest you think we are too smart to be fooled by such chicanery today, the original gooey extract is still sold by the Liebig Benelux company, and meat tea lives on as the bouillon cube. The next time you open a flavour packet that comes with a brick of ramen noodles, you have Liebig to thank.

Liebig and other chemists were influential in reducing food  ̶  and the focus of the agri-food industry  ̶  to a few, large, simple ingredients. But food is more than a mere combination of nutrients that can be easily measured and prescribed.

While the meat industry has continued to grow, in the early 20th century dieticians like John Harvey Kellogg strongly opposed eating meat, claiming that animal protein had a devastating effect on the colon. As he laid the foundation for the breakfast cereal industry, Kellogg in turn marketed his products in terms of simple food ingredients: carbohydrates and fibres. While the first packaged breakfast cereals were all whole grain, over the years they have evolved numerous additions, such as dried fruits, lots of refined sugar, and most are now made with white flour. However, they are still marketed as part of a nutritious breakfast.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan provides ample examples of how over the past 150 years consumers have been made to believe that food can be reduced to calories and simple nutrients. As highly processed foods are filling the shopping baskets of billions of people across the globe, cancers, diabetes and vascular diseases become ever more common.

But the food industry is a powerful one.

Although soya bean recipes like tofu have been part of a balanced diet for centuries in Asia and whole maize can be made into healthy food like tortillas, both crops are now being subjected to a new reductionism, as they are refined into fat and carbohydrates: 75% of the vegetal oil we use is from soya beans, while more than half of the sweeteners added to our processed food and drinks is high-fructose corn syrup, from maize. Crops that could be part of a healthy diet for people are now either fed to animals in factory farms, or turned into fats and sugar, contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Since the 1970s, the increased focus on maize and soya beans, with their patented varieties, has served three strongly interwoven industries of seed, fertilizer and food manufacturing. Just four companies now dominate seed and agro-chemicals globally (Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont/Corteva, ChemChina-Syngenta and BASF). While large corporations reap immediate profits, we the tax payers are left to solve the problems they cause in the form of soil erosion, air and water pollution, a drastic decline in biological and food diversity, and public health risks.

Fortunately, consumers across the globe are starting to awaken to the risks posed by industrial food production and eating chemically-processed food with refined ingredients and artificial substances.

The over-reliance of chemical fertilizer in agriculture and chemically-processed food are more than an analogy. They are part of an effort to simplify food systems to a few constituent parts, dominated by a few large players. It has taken society nearly two centuries to get into this trap, and it will take an effort to get out of it. Agroecology with its focus on short food supply chains is pointing the way forward for food that is healthy for the body, mind and society at large.

In March 2021, the European Commission approved an action plan that 30% of the public funds for agricultural research and innovation has to be in support of organic agriculture. The backlog is huge, so it is timely to see that research shall cover among other things, changing farmers’ and consumers’ attitudes and behaviours.

Further reading

Clay Cansler. 2013. Where’s the Beef? https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/wheres-the-beef

European Commission. 2021. Communication from the commission to the European Parliament, the council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the committee of the regions on an action plan for the development of organic production. https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-action-plan_en

Michael Pollan. 2009. In Defense of Food. An Eater’s Manifesto. Large Print Press.

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Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

A Life of Learning from Nature March 14th, 2021 by

When knowledge is blocked from being freely shared, humankind can lose a lot of precious time to make the world a better place. This dawned on me once more after I stumbled upon The Secrets of Water, a video documentary about the life of Viktor Schauberger.

Born in 1885 as the son of an Austrian forest superintendent, Viktor spent many hours in nature observing and reflecting upon what he saw, always trying to keep an open mind. Later, he went on to study forestry and got inspired by poets like Goethe who instilled in him the importance of making full use of our senses to better understand the Ur-phenomenon or the essential quality of what one observes.

Wikipedia describes Schauberger as a naturalist, pseudoscientist, philosopher, inventor and biomimicry experimenter. While pseudoscientist sounds like a dishonest version of a scientist or someone who stands for “fake science”, Schauberger’s insights from nearly a century ago have proven far more influential than what most modern-day scientists could aspire to achieve in a life-time, even with the help of advanced technologies and nanosecond computing devices.

Science  ̶  and technological innovations  ̶  have often ignored local knowledge and even obstructed its dissemination. In 1930, the Austrian Academy of Sciences confirmed the receipt of a sealed envelope entitled “Turbulence”. In it, Schauberger described his theory of interdependency of water temperature and movement. The Academy kept it concealed for 50 years, probably partly because Schauberger continued to criticise their water resource management strategies. His work became the basis for many eco-technological innovations.

For instance, instead of protecting river banks with boulders, Schauberger explained that it makes more sense to control the flow of the river from the inner part of the river, not from the sides. Some unconventional engineers have taken this to heart and have meticulously placed lines of boulders like a funnel inside the river to convert the energy of the river from the sides to the middle. When water accelerates in the middle rather than on the sides, it is a far more cost-effective way to control river bank erosion. Besides controlling floods, it also improves the quality of the water and creates perfect habitats for different fish species.

Schauberger’s writings carefully explained the underlying principle of his theory on turbulence, namely that it is influenced by differences in temperature. The warmer layers of river water flow faster than the colder ones, creating friction, which is the source of turbulence. According to Schauberger: “a river doesn’t just flow, but winds itself forward. It rotates in its bed, or put simply, it swirls.” This principle applies to any moving water, even to a raindrop running down a window.

By understanding that the swirl or turbulence of water is the most natural way in which water flows with least resistance, Schauberger applied this to many prototype technologies for which he registered patents. He developed a machine to replicate spring water, which later formed the basis for water vitalising equipment. Among the many benefits, some are more unexpected than the others. For instance, when vitalised water is used in bakeries it retards the development of moulds.

Instead of letting water simply enter a pond through a pipe, Schauberger made it pass through a specially designed funnel to let the water whirl and gain energy. The water quality in the pond improved and algae growth reduced.

Schauberger reflected on many things. He claimed that crop productivity was declining because of the use of iron tools, saying that the rust destroys soil life. Instead, tools made from copper and copper alloys do not disturb soil magnetism and contain useful trace elements which are brought into the soil through abrasion. This improves soil micro-organisms and apparently also reduces problems with snails.

In 1948, Schauberger developed a copper bio plough, known as the Golden Plough, to loosen the soil without disturbing soil layers and micro-organisms. By copying the mole, he designed a plough that pulls the soil inward rather than pushing it outward. While this technology currently attracts quite some attention on social media, it is still not available on the market.

Jane Cobbald’s book Viktor Schauberger. A Life of Learning from Nature gives some interesting insights as to why the bio plough never made it. Apparently Schauberger wanted to go into commercial production, but he had poor negotiation skills. Fertilizer companies realized that the new plough would diminish the need for chemical fertilizers, so they approached Schauberger, asking him if he was willing to share profits if they would promote the plough. Being a convinced environmentalist his answer was a definite “no”, saying he did not want to make deals with criminals. According to his son, shortly after that Schauberger faced problems obtaining copper, so he had to abandon the project.

Using the whirl or vortex principle Schauberger also suggested that electricity could be generated without losing energy, making use of just air and water. These and many other ideas tested by a careful observer of nature, and documented in detailed writings, drawings and photographs, have continued to inspire later generations of scientists and engineers. Until today, for instance, innovators continue to deposit patents for energy-efficient desalination systems, including Schauberger’s vortex principle.

Schauberger’s guiding principle for experimentation was his intuition, which was based on his own observations of nature, his reading of old philosophers and poets, as well as on the deep knowledge of the mountain men who had spent their lives in the forests. As the story of Schauberger has shown, technological breakthroughs are often the result of holistic thinking that incorporates ideas from different disciplines and people, including artists, philosophers, farmers, foresters and engineers.

While research is needed to develop new technologies that will make our planet a better place to live for us and future generations, we also need an enabling environment that supports experimentation with novel ideas, both technical and social.

Further information

Cobbald, Jane. 2009. Viktor Schauberger. A Life of Learning from Nature, Floris Books, pp. 176.

Schauberger, Viktor – The Fertile Earth – Nature’s Energies in Agriculture, Soil Fertilisation and Forestry: Volume 3. Translated and edited by Callum Coats, 2004. pp. 212.

The Secrets of Water, The Documentary of Viktor Schauberger “Comprehend and Copy Nature”: https://www.ecoagtube.org/content/secrets-water-documentary-viktor-schauberger-comprehend-and-copy-nature

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to ecological farming and circular economy.

Honey Bee Network: this platform gives a voice to traditional knowledge holders and grassroots innovators. Primarily based in India, it has sparked products, inventions and innovations in many countries.

Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

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Writing tips from Marco Polo February 21st, 2021 by

If Covid has idled you, this might be the time to take a tip from Marco Polo, and write a book or an article.

In 1271, a 17-year-old Marco set out for China and Mongolia with his father, Niccolò and his uncle, Maffeo Polo. At the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, Niccolò presented Marco as the great Khan’s servant. The Khan liked Marco right away, and sent him to various cities in China, perhaps as a tax collector, or as an official in the royal salt monopoly, or maybe just to report back.

Even then, Marco had a gift for storytelling, and he reported back to the Khan in detail of the people and things he had seen. Marco kept notes to remind him of what to tell the Khan.

Twenty-four years after leaving Venice, the three Polos arrived back home again, but they were soon dragged into a pointless war with Genoa. As a noble, Marco was obliged to outfit a galley. But when he and his sailors ventured into the Adriatic Sea they were captured by the Genoese, who took him to prison. For centuries, Genoa had been competing with Venice for the trade in salt and other goods in the Mediterranean, so the city states were arch rivals.

The Genoese recognized Marco as a noble (in no small part because he would tell anyone who would listen that he was a Venetian nobleman). So, Marco was placed into a reasonable comfortable captivity, for at least a year, and perhaps as long as three, waiting for his family to ransom him.

Marco beguiled his fellow jail mates with tales of exotic lands, and soon came to the attention of another prisoner of war, Rustichello da Pisa, a notary and a romance writer.

Rustichello realized the power of Marco’s story and the two became collaborators. Marco sent for, and received the notes he had written to report back to the Khan, and he dictated his story to Rustichello, who wrote it up (in French, oddly enough). In the words of historian Laurence Bergreen, in prison, Marco Polo found the freedom to write his story.

Hand-written copies of the book slowly appeared all over Europe, in English, Spanish, Italian and other languages. Marco himself, who had returned from Asia with a fortune in pearls and jewels sewed into the hems of his clothing, also hired scribes to copy his book. Each one was a bit different; Marco may have kept adding to his book each time he had it copied. At a time before the printing press, when a book could cost as much as a house, and a library might have only 100 volumes, a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels was a valuable gift. Marco would give copies to important people he wanted to impress.

Marco died in 1324, but his book lived on, and it was one of the first books (after the bible) to come off the printing press, almost two centuries after it had been written. The Travels appeared in print first in German, in 1477 and Christopher Columbus owned a Latin version, in which he wrote detailed notes in the margins.

China had thrown off Mongol rule not long after Kublai Khan died in 1294, and then closed itself off from the west for centuries. But Marco’s book inspired voyagers like Columbus and Magellan to seek a sea route to China.

Marco Polo was not the only European to visit Asia. His own father and uncle went not once, but twice, yet they appear as minor characters in Marco’s story.

Traveling and writing have both changed a lot since Marco stepped onto the Silk Road to China, but some principles remain the same: keep good notes and be observant; report back in a narrative style and write it up. It may be helpful to have a collaborator. Take advantage of any time or space you get, to write.

If Marco had merely travelled to China and not met Rustichello, the Polos would have been largely forgotten. Marco Polo is famous not because of his trip, but because of his book about his trip, in spite of all the technical limitations of publishing in the 13th and 14th century.

Further reading

Bergreen, Laurence 2009 Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. London: Quercus. 415 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

A history worth its salt

Illustrations

Caravana de Marco Polo, from the Atlas Catalán of Carlos V, 1375.

Map, The Route of Marco Polo’s Journey, by SY.

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