Genoese Fortress in Sudak (Photo: Qypchak)
Genoese Fortress in Sudak (Photo: Qypchak)

As Nigel Cliff writes in the introduction to his new translation of Marco Polo’s Travels, we know from his will that the Venetian’s uncle, also going by the name of Marco Polo, owned a house in Sudak, Crimea.

Sudak, at the time a city under the Republic of Venice called Soldaia, was where Marco Polo’s father Niccolò and his brother Maffeo sailed to on the first leg of their journey in around 1260. Their travels would then take them to modern day Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and China.

Marco Polo himself most probably never travelled extensively in Crimea or Russia, so what he wrote about Russia is most likely what he heard from his father and uncles, with some other stories he may have heard in his travels. This is Marco Polo’s colourful account of Russia:

“Russia is a very large province lying towards the north. The people are Christians and observe the Greek rite. They have a number of kings and their very own language. They are very simple people. But they are very handsome, both men and women, for they are all fair-skinned and blond. There are many strong defiles and passes. They pay tribute to no one, except that from time to time they give something to a king of the west who is a Tartar and is called Toqta. To him they pay tribute, though the amount is next to nothing.

It is not a trading land, though it is true that they have a great deal of precious and valuable fur; for they have plenty of sables as well as ermines, squirrels, ercolins, and large numbers of the finest and most beautiful foxes in the world. They have a great deal of wax. And I can also tell you that they have many silver mines that yield a good deal of silver..”

He proceeds to describe Russian stovehouses, their use and construction:

“But I also want to tell you something else about Russia that I had forgotten. Now you may be certain that in Russia the cold is more intense than anywhere else in the world, to the extent that men are hard pressed to survive it. In fact, if it were not for the many stovehouses they have, the inhabitants could not avoid dying from the extreme cold. Luckily there are plenty of these stovehouses, built out of piety by noblemen and magnates in the same way that hospitals are built in our parts. Everyone can take refuge in these stovehouses when the need arises. For sometimes such an intense chill sets in that men who are going about the country, either on their way home or from place to place on business, are virtually frozen between leaving one stovehouse and reaching the next, even though the stovehouses are so numerous and set so close together that they say there is one every sixty paces. So when a man comes out warm from one stovehouse and continues on his way, he is frozen before he reaches the next; then he goes straight in to get warm, and when he is warmed through he leaves and goes on to the next; where he is warmed again; and so on till he reaches his home or wherever he is headed. And they always go at a run, so as to move quickly from one stovehouse to the next without getting frozen solid. It frequently happens that a man who is not warmly dressed or is too old to hurry or has a weaker constitution and nature than the others will fall to the ground frozen by the extreme cold before he can make his way from one stovehouse to another. And there he would die; but other passers-by immediately pick him up and take him to a stovehouse and strip him, and as he warms up he recovers his senses and comes back to life. The stovehouses themselves are built in the following way. They are made of thick beams laid one on top of another in the form of a square and jointed so tightly together that there is not a chink of light between them. The joints are thoroughly caulked with lime and other substances, so that the wind and cold find no place to penetrate. Above, in the roof, there is a window from which the smoke issues when a fire is lit inside to warm it. Ample suppliers of logs are naturally kept there, and the people heap them on the fire to make a great blaze. While the logs are burning and giving off smoke, the upper window is kept open and the smoke escapes; but when the smoke has died down the window is blocked with a very thick piece of felt, and the great mass of glowing embers that remain keep the stovehouse very hot. Lower down – that is, in the side of the building – there is  a window blocked with a very fine, thick piece of felt; naturally they open this window if they want to let in the light and there is no wind. But if it is windy and they want to let in the light, they open the upper window. The door leading into the building is also made of felt. And this is how these stovehouses are constructed. Every man of rank or wealth, though, has a private stovehouse. All their houses are likewise very well sealed against the cold.”

Marco Polo goes on to describe the drinking habits of the Russians of his time:

“We will also tell you about a particular custom they observe. They make a most excellent wine called mead from honey and panic and hold tremendous drinking bouts with it in the following fashion. They gather together numerous clubs of men and women, particularly noblemen and magnates, ranging from thirty to forty to fifty people and including husbands, wives, and children. Each club elects a king or captain and establishes a set of rules: for instance, if anyone utters an unseemly remark or breaks the rules in some way, he is to be punished by the elected leader. Now they have men akin to tavern keepers who keep this mead for sale. The clubs go off to these taverns and spend the whole day drinking. And they call these drinking sessions stravitza. In the evening the tavern-keepers reckon up the quantity of mead they have drunk, and each man pays his share and that of his wife and children if they are present. And while they are engaged in these stravitza or drinking sessions, they borrow money on the security of their children from merchants who come from Khazaria, Sudak and other neighbouring countries.”

Which brings us back to Sudak, where this blog journey started.

Marco Polo does write a few more paragraphs describing the techniques used by Russian women to relieve themselves during the above drinking sessions, but the reader will have to look inside the book itself for this description as it is not quite appropriate to the subject of this blog, more descriptions of Marco Polo’s Travels can be found in Nigel Cliff’s new translation:The Travels (Clothbound Classics)

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