94. The Polos’ Visit to China. The voyages of the merchants of Genoa to the Black Sea, and of those of Venice to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, were even more important in making men acquainted with the marvels of the hidden regions of the Far East, China and Japan, than were the wonderful tales of the pilgrims. The caravan, making its slow way across desert and over mountain, (See Map) brought back something besides the products of that land of romance and wonder: the tales told probably lost nothing in being repeated from mouth to mouth. But more truthful and more real were the stories brought by those few merchants and travelers who had braved the dangers themselves and gone to the Far East.

Two brothers named Polo who lived in Venice sought these strange lands. So charmed were they with their first visit, that after a few years at home they took with them, on asecond journey, young Marco, son of one of the brothers. Over three years were spent in reaching the king of that far-distant country. His name was Kulai Khan, and his country was called Cathay or China.

Young Marco became a favorite of the great king, and was sent to the most distant parts of China and to other countries in his service, while his father and uncle were busy gathering rich treasures of precious stones.

Twenty years passed, and the time came when the brothers longed to return home. The king did not wish to part with Marco, but finally gave his consent. It took nearly three years to reach Venice. The two brothers had gray hair and wrinkled faces, and Marco, only a boy when they set out, had long since grown to be a man. Not even their kinsfolk knew them when they reached home, and all refused to believe in them and their travels.

To prove the truth of their stories the travelers decided to give a feast, to which they invited many old-time friends and neighbors. At it they tore open the seams of their travel-stained clothes, and out rolled stores of diamonds and emeralds and rubies and sapphires. The people were convinced that these men were really the Polos come back from a far-off land.

From being rivals for the trade with the East the people of Venice and the people of Genoa became deadly enemies. They fought mainly on the Mediterranean Sea. Marco

Polo was given command of the ships of Venice, and in a great sea fight seven thousand Venetians were captured. Among them was Marco Polo. The Genoese threw him into prison, where he spent most of his time in preparing an interesting story of his travels in the Far East.

This famous old book was written in the very town in which later Columbus was born. If Columbus did not read the wonderful tales of Marco Polo, he certainly beard them told, and saw the result of those journeys in the making of better maps and. in the desire o the people for the products of far-off lands.


95. Early Inventions. There were many things known to the people of the fifteenth century, but they had many more to learn. They had not uncovered the great secrets of nature, and did not know about several of the most wonderful inventions and discoveries of our day.

But by the fifteenth century interesting inventions had been made. We have already seen that centuries and centuries ago man probably lived in caves and holes in the ground as a means of protection. Finally he learned to build some sort of a house or fort for safety. He early learned the art of making rude rafts and boats to carry his family and goods from place to place, on the water.

In those old days people invented the bow—the longbow and the crossbow—and also the great battle ax or hatchet to get their food or to drive off their enemies. Later they added to their stock of food and clothing by inventing the plow and the spinning wheel.

Early in this book (p. 13), you read the story of how the Egyptians and Assyrians learned the art of writing, and how they left records of the mighty deeds of their kings. The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, so that men could more easily write the records of their lives. This was a great step forward, for the people of one age could thus learn about the success or failure of the people of past ages.

96. Invention of Printing. Before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century men made books very slowly and very laboriously by copying page after page by hand. This was the sort of book that Marco Polo made. But in this century, in both Holland and Germany, men laid claim to the discovery of printing. So simple was this invention, that men wondered it had not been discovered long before. It consisted in cutting the different letters out of separate pieces of wood, and in so placing the letters as to spell words on a printed page. In this way whole books could be printed if enough letters were made. Finally Gutenberg, one of the inventors, made a printing press that turned out pamphlets and books, especially the Bible, in large numbers for that age.

The invention came at a happy time in the world’s history. The new learning was beginning to brighten the dark places of Europe. Stories of the wonders seen by great travelers like Marco Polo were eagerly sought. The Turks were breaking down the old trade routes to the distant East, and even now the bold sailors of Western Europe were beginning to brave unknown seas in search of a water route to India.

97. The Compass. Among the inventions that encouraged seamen to venture into the unknown was the mariner’s compass. With its faithful “finger” always pointing toward the north pole, the sailor need not fear to venture forth. The compass was known to man centuries before the hardy sailors of Western Europe began to use it. In fact, it is said that Marco Polo brought with him from China a knowledge of this faithful little instrument. It is doubtful whether Columbus and the explorers after him would have ventured to cross the mighty ocean to America without its help. But While we know and trust the compass without question, the sailors of the fifteenth century many times doubted this “faithful friend” of the seamen.

98. Discovery of Gunpowder and Invention of Cannon. No one knows when gunpowder was first discovered. It is really a mixture of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter. Some have declared that it came from the Far East, while others assert it was brought to Europe by the Mohammedans. Cannon, too, were an important invention, which of course would be of no value without gunpowder. These two inventions have produced wonderful changes among men.

After they came into use the walled town and the great castle were doomed, since they afforded poor protection. The knight with his great load of armor could not stand against cannon, and the common man had a chance to win in battle. When the knights and the castles were gone, a hard blow had been struck at feudalism.

But how different Were the cannon then from the mighty guns belching forth death now! At first they shot only. stone balls, and not much farther than a good bowman sent his arrow. Now the terrible sixteen-inch gun sends its ball plunging for a distance of several miles, spreading destruction in its path.


The Leading Facts. 1. Merchants and travelers brought news of the Far East. 2. For twenty years Marco Polo visited far eastern countries. 3. How the Polos convinced the people of Venice that they were telling the truth. 4. Marco wrote his great book while in prison. 5. What great inventions the people of the fifteenth century did not know about, and what they did know about. 6. The great inventions that helped toward the discovery of America.

Study Questions. 1. Which were the travelers that people loved most to hear? 2. Prove that Marco Polo was one of this kind. 3. Tell, in your own language, what the Polos did in Asia. 4. Why did they hold a great feast on their return home? 5. Explain how Marco wrote his book. 6. How did it probably help Columbus? 7. In what sort of “houses” did men probably live at first? 8. What things do you imagine they had in their holes in the ground? 9. What sort of clothes did they wear? 10. What difference is there between the way men make books now and the way they were made in Marco Polo’s time? 11. What makes the compass always point to the north star? 12. How have gunpowder and cannon influenced war? 13. How did fighting with guns help to make a knight no better than a common soldier?

Suggested Readings. Brooks, Story of Marco Polo, chaps. 1. 2, 13, 20, and 21; Knox, The Travels of Marco Polo for Boys and Girls; Old South Leaflets, Vol. II, No. 32, Marco Polo’s Account of Japan and China; Forman, Stories of Useful Inventions.

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© 2001 by Lynn Waterman