Friday, 6 November 2015

Marco Polo on Sago (Metroxylon sagu)

      There is no single authoritative edition or manuscript detailing Marco Polo's travels. The consensus is that the first editions of what became Le Devisement du Monde were composed by a man named Rustichello da Pisa, whom Polo met in prison after fighting the Genoese on his return to Venice at the very end of the thirteenth century. Rustichello was a writer of romances in Old French, and he carried a lot of tropes from the medieval romance over into his narrative of Polo's adventures, but as soon as the work was published it was augmented with commentary and additions that reflected western European understanding of Asia at the time. Polo continued to live for another twenty-five years or so after the initial publication, so he could certainly have influenced the way the story developed afterwards, but the manuscripts we have tell us that it soon took on a life of its own. Editions were eventually published in all of the languages of Europe, although the Old French and Latin versions were most widespread. Christopher Columbus took a Latin edition with him on his first voyage.
Columbus's handwritten notes on a Latin edition of Polo. This part seems to be describing the coast of India (I suppose), which couldn't have been more useless for a man travelling west from Europe.
       I can read modern French fairly well, so I thought I'd look for an original manuscript in Old French, the language in which the first versions of Le Devisement du Monde were written. This proved much harder than I thought it would. And I should say before I introduce the text and translation that this is not a great version of the tale, and I found a better one on the British Library website recently after having finished my copy. The manuscript I used is 'authentic', however, and contains nearly all of the important information, and the script - a kind of protogothic/Early Gothic, totally consistent with the time of publication - is of moderate quality. But the placenames vary even on the same page of text and are often wide of the mark - 'Java' in particular is poorly rendered ('iana').

       The trouble is, I've lost the URL for the manuscript I used. I started copying it about six months ago and didn't need to use the website after the very beginning. I've downloaded it, though, so I have the complete text, and the version that I copied accords fairly well with Yule's translation, at least for the sections I'm going to put on here. If any experts out there recognise the text, I'd appreciate it if they'd let me know about it.

        The section I want to look at now is Polo's account of the sago palm, or at least what is believed to be the sago palm. The palm is also described in Odoric of Pordenone's account (you can find a full Old French version of Odoric's book here, although it was originally published in apparently quite poor Latin), but Polo seems to have been the first European to describe it.

      The description appears during Polo/Rustichello's discussion of the kingdoms (royames) of Sumatra (la menour ille de iana, or the 'small island of Java'), specifically his account of Fansur ('Fausur' in the manuscript).
Metroxylon sagu, Bogor, Java, Indonesia. h/t W. A. Djatmiko.  See here for more pictures.

        Fansur is believed to be Barus on the west coast of Sumatra, a place famous at the time for its camphor; Polo says that the camphor from Fansur is ' moillour... du monde', 'the best in the world', so we can safely assume that it's Barus he's talking about (on the other hand, this particular manuscript mistakes saffron (saffren) for camphor, but that's almost certainly a scribal error). Barus had been known to traders on the Indian Ocean for hundreds of years before Polo; a Tamil inscription, dated to 1088 CE (1010 Saka), has been found at the site, composed by members of the Ayyāvoḷe-500, one of the most famous South Indian trade guilds. You can find the full inscription and exegesis (it's a tad esoteric) in chapter 3 of Subbarayalu's South India under the Cholas (2011).

       Anyway, here's what Rustichello da Pisa says:

    Il nont point de froment mais ris quil mainguent auuec lait et auuec char. Et si ont du vin des arbres que ie uos ai dit. Et si uos conterai une autre grant m'uoille. Sachiez quil ont une meniere darbres qui sont grant et gros et ont lescorce mlt delie et de danz lescorce est tout farine qui est mlt bone a maingier. Et uos di encore que li dit messires Marc Pol qui tout ce vit fut prestir de cele farine et fu li pains mlt bon a maingier.

       My semi-literal translation: 'They have no wheat but they eat rice with milk and meat. And they have the wine from the trees that I told you about earlier. And now I'll tell you about another great marvel. You should know that they have a kind of tree which is large and thick and has a loose/thin bark and inside the bark is all flour which is very good to eat. And I say further that Mr. Marc Pol, who saw all this, did try this flour and made bread [that was] very good to eat.'

      This is obviously a very short piece, and it tells us little about the tree in question, except that it's big, has thin bark, and you can use it for food. Odoric of Pordenone goes into much greater detail about its characteristics, and I'll post his account (in English - no translation) soon for comparison. I'm not sure I would call processed sago 'bread', but if we're going more by function than process then of course it could be. I would also absolutely disagree with Pol(o) about how good it tastes: sago is not mout bone a maingier in my view. It has a horrible mouth-drying effect, although the flavour is nutty and pleasant. Perhaps Polo had plenty of wine to wash it down.

      The wine he describes in an earlier section on Samara, which presumably means Sumatra/Samudera, the place de' Conti stayed nearly a century and a half later. Samara is on the same island as Fansur/Barus, and that island is clearly identified with Sumatra. Henry Yule thought the wine-tree here was Areng saccharifera, modern Arenga pinnata, a common tree in island Southeast Asia, and that seems accurate to me. The wood of the tree was also used to make bows throughout the archipelago if museum specimens are anything to go by.

       Sago (Metroxylon sagu) is an interesting plant - in fact there are several sago-type trees, but M. sagu is the most prominent, the true sago. It provides sustenance for a surprisingly large number of people, and as with the lontar palms I discussed a couple of days ago it can also be converted into protein. In many parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, the felled trees would sometimes be left where they had fallen so that they could be colonised by the larvae of the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus). This is often mistakenly referred to as a 'capricorn beetle'; Carl Hoffman made this error in his otherwise excellent Savage Harvest, and I've seen the same mistake made on television documentaries as well. The sago-fattened larvae are then roasted or eaten raw, and according to pretty much everyone they taste good; I've never tried them, although I certainly hope to.
The red palm weevil larva. It gnaws on the sago starch, grows to a large size, and before it becomes an adult is picked up and roasted. Nom. h/t Wikimedia Commons.
     It also seems that sago was once much more widespread. A recent post on Geocurrents by the geographer Martin Lewis, 'The Lost World of the Sago Eaters', discusses the archaeological and comparative ethnographic evidence for sago exploitation, and I'd recommend going there to better understand how sago was and is processed and by whom. He discusses Roger Blench's ideas on the prehistoric distribution of sago and its links to various language families.

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