The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention by Alexander Monro. PART 2 OF 2.

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Photo: Niccolò and Maffeo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.)

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The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention by Alexander Monro. PART 2 OF 2.

“…For several pages, Marco’s travelogue professes his amazement at the scale and splendour of Khanbaliq. He wrote that the four innermost walls of the palace complex were each a mile long, and the four outer walls each ran to eight miles. Eight palaces placed around the inner walls served as arsenals, while a further eight sat between the inner and middle walls. Among them was the khan’s own palace, fenced in by a marble wall. The rooms of the palace were covered with gold and silver, and decorated with gilt images of dragons and birds. Six thousand men could sit for dinner in its main hall.

“Marco, as a merchant and a Venetian, was well acquainted with desirable objects, and yet even he was astonished by the luxury and grandeur of Khanbaliq. Numbers pepper his description of the Mongol capital, from the twenty-four-mile circumference of the city wall to its sixteen palaces and twelve gates, each gate manned by a thousand guards. Khanbaliq, he recorded, buzzed with commerce and was ‘laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterful precision that words cannot do it justice’. Marco wrote that the city had 20,000 prostitutes and that more than 1,000 cartloads of silk entered it each day. On New Year’s Day, the khan received gifts of more than 100,000 white horses and held a procession of 5,000 elephants. Polo’s numbers are the stuff of travellers’ tales, but the mark Khanbaliq made on him is unmistakable.

“Yet something far less magnificent than the city’s palaces also caught his attention: the Royal Mint. His diary records what he discovered:

. . . you might say he [the emperor] has mastered the art of alchemy . . .

You must know that he has money made for him by the following process, out of the bark of trees – to be precise, from mulberry trees (the same whose leaves furnish food for silk-worms). The fine bast between the bark and the wood of the tree is stripped off. Then it is crumbled and pounded and flattened out with the aid of glue into sheets like sheets of cotton paper, which are all black. When made, they are cut up into rectangles of various sizes, longer than they are broad . . . all these papers are sealed with the seal of the Great Khan. The procedure of issues is as formal and as authoritative as if they were made of pure gold or silver . . .

“Of this money the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world . . . with these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything.

“It is an imperfect and inexact description of Chinese papermaking and Chinese printing on paper, but it quickly became the best-known account across pre-Renaissance Europe. Within the first twenty years of the book’s publication, fresh editions appeared in at least five different languages. All this took place within Polo’s lifetime, a remarkable success in a Europe not yet familiar with printed books; each fresh edition of The Travels was copied out by hand…”

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10 months ago
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