The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter lv.

Concerning the Administering of Justice Among the Tartars.

The way they administer justice is this. When any one has committed a petty theft, they give him, under the orders of authority, seven blows of a stick, or seventeen, or twenty-seven, or thirty-seven, or forty-seven, and so forth, always increasing by tens in proportion to the injury done, and running up to one hundred and seven. Of these beatings sometimes they die.1 But if the offence be horse-stealing, or some other great matter, they cut the thief in two with a sword. Howbeit, if he be able to ransom himself by paying nine times the value of the thing stolen, he is let off. Every Lord or other person who possesses beasts has them marked with his peculiar brand, be they horses, mares, camels, oxen, cows, or other great cattle, and then they are sent abroad to graze over the plains without any keeper. They get all mixt together, but eventually every beast is recovered by means of its owner’s brand, which is known. For their sheep and goats they have shepherds. All their cattle are remarkably fine, big, and in good condition.2

They have another notable custom, which is this. If any man have a daughter who dies before marriage, and another man have had a son also die before marriage, the parents of the two arrange a grand wedding between the dead lad and lass. And marry them they do, making a regular contract! And when the contract papers are made out they put them in the fire, in order (as they will have it) that the parties in the other world may know the fact, and so look on each other as man and wife. And the parents thenceforward consider themselves sib to each other, just as if their children had lived and married. Whatever may be agreed on between the parties as dowry, those who have to pay it cause to be painted on pieces of paper and then put these in the fire, saying that in that way the dead person will get all the real articles in the other world.3

Now I have told you all about the manners and customs of the Tartars; but you have heard nothing yet of the great state of the Grand Kaan, who is the Lord of all the Tartars and of the Supreme Imperial Court. All that I will tell you in this book in proper time and place, but meanwhile I must return to my story which I left off in that great plain when we began to speak of the Tartars.4

NOTE 1. — The cudgel among the Mongols was not confined to thieves and such like. It was the punishment also of military and state offences, and even princes were liable to it without fatal disgrace. “If they give any offence,” says Carpini, “or omit to obey the slightest beck, the Tartars themselves are beaten like donkeys.” The number of blows administered was, according to Wassáf, always odd, 3, 5, and so forth, up to 77. (Carp. 712; Ilchan. I. 37.)

[“They also punish with death grand larceny, but as for petty thefts, such as that of a sheep, so long has one has not repeatedly been taken in the act, they beat him cruelly, and if they administer an hundred blows they must use an hundred sticks.” (Rockhill, Rubruck, p. 80.)— H. C.]

NOTE 2. —“They have no herdsmen or others to watch their cattle, because the laws of the Turks (i.e. Tartars) against theft are so severe. . . . A man in whose possession a stolen horse is found is obliged to restore it to its owner, and to give nine of the same value; if he cannot, his children are seized in compensation; if he have no children, he is slaughtered like a mutton.” (Ibn Batuta, II. 364.)

NOTE 3. — This is a Chinese custom, though no doubt we may trust Marco for its being a Tartar one also. “In the province of Shansi they have a ridiculous custom, which is to marry dead folks to each other. F. Michael Trigault, a Jesuit, who lived several years in that province, told it us whilst we were in confinement. It falls out that one man’s son and another man’s daughter die. Whilst the coffins are in the house (and they used to keep them two or three years, or longer) the parents agree to marry them; they send the usual presents, as if the pair were alive, with much ceremony and music. After this they put the two coffins together, hold the wedding dinner in their presence, and, lastly, lay them together in one tomb. The parents, from this time forth, are looked on not merely as friends but as relatives — just as they would have been had their children been married when in life.” (Navarrete, quoted by Marsden.) Kidd likewise, speaking of the Chinese custom of worshipping at the tombs of progenitors, says: “So strongly does veneration for this tribute after death prevail that parents, in order to secure the memorial of the sepulchre for a daughter who has died during her betrothal, give her in marriage after her decease to her intended husband, who receives with nuptial ceremonies at his own house a paper effigy made by her parents, and after he has burnt it, erects a tablet to her memory — an honour which usage forbids to be rendered to the memory of unmarried persons. The law seeks without effect to abolish this absurd custom.” (China, etc., pp. 179–180.)

[Professor J. J. M. de Groot (Religious System of China) gives several instances of marriages after death; the following example (II. 804–805) will illustrate the custom: “An interesting account of the manner in which such post-mortem marriages were concluded at the period when the Sung Dynasty governed the Empire, is given by a contemporary work in the following words: ‘In the northern parts of the Realm it is customary, when an unmarried youth and an unmarried girl breathe their last, that the two families each charge a match-maker to demand the other party in marriage. Such go-betweens are called match-makers for disembodied souls. They acquaint the two families with each other’s circumstances, and then cast lots for the marriage by order of the parents on both sides. If they augur that the union will be a happy one, (wedding) garments for the next world are cut out, and the match-makers repair to the grave of the lad, there to set out wine and fruit for the consummation of the marriage. Two seats are placed side by side, and a small streamer is set up near each seat. If these streamers move a little after the libation has been performed, the souls are believed to approach each other; but if one of them does not move, the party represented thereby is considered to disapprove of the marriage. Each family has to reward its match-maker with a present of woven stuffs. Such go-betweens make a regular livelihood out of these proceedings.’"— H. C.]

The Ingushes of the Caucasus, according to Klaproth, have the same custom: “If a man’s son dies, another who has lost his daughter goes to the father and says, ‘Thy son will want a wife in the other world; I will give him my daughter; pay me the price of the bride.’ Such a demand is never refused, even though the purchase of the bride amount to thirty cows.” (Travels, Eng. Trans. 345.)

NOTE 4. — There is a little doubt about the reading of this last paragraph. The G. T. has —“Mès desormès volun retorner à nostre conte en la grant plaingne où nos estion quant nos comechames des fais des Tartars,” whilst Pauthier’s text has “Mais desormais vueil retourner à mon conte que Je lessai d’or plain quant nous commençames des faiz des Tatars.“ The former reading looks very like a misunderstanding of one similar to the latter, where d’or plain seems to be an adverbial expression, with some such meaning as “just now,” “a while ago.” I have not, however, been able to trace the expression elsewhere. Cotgrave has or primes, “but even now,” etc.; and has also de plain, “presently, immediately, out of hand.” It seems quite possible that d’or plain should have had the meaning suggested.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24